The book of Revelation ends with one of the best scenes in all of Scripture: the New Jerusalem. The Great City appears in Revelation 21 and 22. Christians for two thousand years have been captivated by it, and debates have erupted concerning its exact nature. What is the meaning of the New Jerusalem? How does it connect with the rest of Scripture? Is the city a literal city where Christians will live forever, or is it a symbol for something else? In this article, we will take a look at the Holy City, the reward that Christians will receive after the return of our Lord, connect it with the rest of Scripture, and discuss whether or not it is a literal or symbolic place.
The Characteristics of the New Jerusalem
First, let us begin with a summary of the details provided for us concerning the New Jerusalem:
- It comes down out of heaven from God (21:2, 10). 21:3 tells us that after it descends from heaven “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” There was also no temple in the city because God and the lamb (Christ) are its temple (21:22). God’s throne is in the city and his people will see his face (22:3-4). The Greek word for “people” is plural “Peoples.” God’s people in the New Jerusalem are multi-ethnic.
- In the New Jerusalem, God will wipe away every tear. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). The curse that was introduced in Genesis 3 is removed from the world (22:3).
- The city “shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal” (21:11).
- The city had a huge wall with twelve gates, three on each side, with twelve foundations. The foundations had the names of the apostles on them, and there were twelve angels at each of the gates. The gates also had the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on them (21:12-14). The names of the apostles and tribes of Israel show that believers from the periods before and after Christ will share in the New Jerusalem.
- “The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide.” The city was 12,000 stadia; that is about 1,400 miles, long, wide, and high. The wall was 144 stadia (about 200 feet) thick (21:16-17).
- “The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone” (21:19). 21:19-20 then go on to describe twelve different stones. Verse 21 tells us that each gate was made of a single pearl, and that the main street of the city was made of pure gold, which was like transparent glass.
- Since the glory of God gives the city light, there is no need for the sun or moon (21:23).
- The kings and nations of the world will bring their splendor to the city (21:24, 26).
- The gates will never be shut because there will never be any night there. Nothing sinful will ever be brought into the city, but only those who have believed in Christ (21:25, 27).
- Flowing from the throne of God is the river of life, which is clear of crystal. The river flowed down the middle of the golden street. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, which bared twelve crops of fruit, one for each month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (22:1-2).
- We will reign forever and ever with God (22:5).
- Those who have washed their robes (Christians) will have the right to eat of the tree of life and enter through the gates into the city and partake in paradise. However, those who have rejected Christ are outside of the city (22:14-15).
The New Jerusalem also appears in other parts of Scripture. For example, Paul speaks of the “Jerusalem that is above” (Galatians 4:26), and the author of Hebrews tells us about a city whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16; 13:14). Revelation 3:12 also mentions the New Jerusalem as a reward for Christians.
The details in Revelation 21 and 22 are an amazing description of an absolutely beautiful city. Streets of gold! Angels at the gates! God living among the people! Drinking from the river of life and eating from the tree of life! The New Jerusalem is a perfect way to close the Bible – God living with his people in a perfect paradise. However, it is not until we take a closer look at the Great City and its connections to other parts of Scripture that we will see the full meaning of the New Jerusalem and God’s plan.
Parallels between Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the New Jerusalem
The details of the New Jerusalem come from three other places mentioned in Scripture – the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, and the Jewish temple. (The Tabernacle was the portable sanctuary that was built by the Israelites under the direction of Moses during the forty years of wandering after the Exodus. It was the center of Israelite religion from its inception to the building of Solomon’s temple more than four hundred years later – see the books of Exodus through 2 Samuel). Learning about these parallels allows us to better understand and appreciate the New Jerusalem:
A. The tabernacle and the temple in Jerusalem were entered from the east (Exodus 26:22). Why is that? It is because the entrance of the Garden of Eden was on the east side (Genesis 3:24). However, this changes in the New Jerusalem. The Great City can be entered from any direction – north, south, east, and west (Rev. 21:12-13). According to Bible scholar Robert Mounce the fact that there are twelve gates (on each side, not just the east) “symbolizes abundant entrance.”
B. The tree of life makes its appearance in the Garden of Eden. Scholars believe that the golden lampstand (known as the menorah) that sat in the tabernacle and temple possibly symbolizes the tree of life (Genesis 2:9; 3:22; Exodus 25:31-35). The tree of life returns in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2).
C. The temple in Jerusalem is decorated to resemble a garden paradise. 1 Kings 6:29 tells us that King Solomon had angels, palm trees, and open flowers carved on the walls of the temple. Even the doors in the temple had angels and plant life (like a garden) carved on them (1 Kings 6:31-35). The plant life and the angels all appear in the Garden of Eden. This garden atmosphere reappears in the New Jerusalem with angels standing at the gates and the tree of life on the sides of the great golden street.
D. The curse that is introduced in Eden (Genesis 3:14-19) is removed in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:3).
E. The New Jerusalem is filled with gold and twelve precious jewels. These parallel a number of details in the Old Testament. 1) The tabernacle and temple were covered with gold. For example, the walls and doors that I described in point C above, were overlaid with the finest gold (even the floors were covered with gold!). 2) Gold is one of the details provided about the beauty of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:11). 3) Onyx is mentioned alongside the gold in Genesis 2:11-12, and is used, with gold, extensively to decorate the tabernacle (Exodus 25:7, 11, 17, 31). 4) The twelve stones that decorate the New Jerusalem go back to the ephod that the high priest wore in the tabernacle and temple. The ephod (see picture below) was a piece of clothing that was decorated with two onyx stones and had twelve precious stones on it (representing the twelve tribes of Israel). The twelve stones reappear in the New Jerusalem because all believers will be able to commune with God face to face (like the priest was in Old Testament times). One scholar summarizes, “The extensive use of gold in the manufacture of these objects [the tabernacle, temple, and everything in them] reflects the importance of the one for whom they were fashioned.”
F. There is a river that flows from the throne of God in Revelation 22:1-2. This goes back to the Garden of Eden where there is one great river that breaks up into four main branches (Genesis 2:10-14).
G. The temple and tabernacle were the places where the Israelite priest experienced God’s unique presence. The inside of both structures were arranged like someone was living there. Scholar T. Desmond Alexander says: “The term used most frequently to denote the tabernacle is miskan, ‘dwelling’ (e.g. Exod. 25:9; 26:1; 27:9; 38:21; 40:9; Lev. 8:10; Num. 1:50-51; 3:7-8; 4:16; 5:17; 7:1; 9:15), and the furniture within it consisted of a chest, a table for food and an lampstand, items that point to its use as a home.” The tabernacle, and temple, was God’s dwelling place (home) among the Israelites. Back in Genesis, Adam and Eve experienced God’s presence in Eden (God’s home), and mankind will live with God in the New Jerusalem (God’s new home).
H. Adam is commanded to work and take care of the garden. The same Hebrew words (abad, “to serve, till,” and samar, “to keep, observe, guard”) appear together in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) outside Genesis 2 only in association with the Levities in the sanctuary (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). This, along with other details, point us to the conclusion that the Garden of Eden was considered a sanctuary where man communed with God.
I. The measurements of the New Jerusalem show that the city is a perfect cube. The only other cube in the Bible is the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary. Alexander notes, “[T]he entire New Jerusalem is an expanded Holy of Holies.” As already mentioned above, both are made of gold.
J. The Ark of the Covenant was God’s throne while in the tabernacle and temple. Now, in the New Jerusalem, God’s throne is among the people (Rev. 22:1).
K. Angels guard the entrance to Eden (Genesis 3:24), and angels are used extensively to decorate and guard the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 25:18-22; 26:31; 36:35; 1 Kings 6:23-29; 2 Chronicles 3:14). Now, in the New Jerusalem, angels stand at the gates of the Great City, not to keep people out, but to allow them back into paradise (21:12).
All of these parallels between Eden, the tabernacle, the temple, and the New Jerusalem show us that the tabernacle and temple were considered “little Edens.” In all of these places God was present. Finally, in the New Jerusalem, God will once again dwell and make his home among his people.
Another detail to consider is that between the destruction of the temple and the New Jerusalem, the church is considered God’s temple. The New Testament makes this clear in numerous places (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16). In Ephesians 3:19 and 5:18, Paul speaks about believers being filled with the fullness of God and being filled with the Spirit, and Acts 2 records the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These descriptions parallel God coming to fill the tabernacle and temple. Also, Jesus refers to his body as a temple in John 2:19-21. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Greek word for “dwelling” is eskenosen, that is, “tabernacled.”
God and the Meaning of History
These parallels give us a look at God’s plan for mankind. Immediately after humanity fell into sin God began a lengthy process to reverse the setback and redeem the world. In the beginning, all was perfect and mankind experienced God’s presence in a unique way. However, Adam and Eve rebelled against their creator and they were kicked out of God’s presence. However, Genesis 3:15 tells us that God already had a plan to fix the situation (Christ).
Later in history, God led the Israelites out of Egypt and lived among them in the tabernacle. This was a major step in salvation history. God was now living among a nation. This situation continued with the building of a temple in Jerusalem. With the coming of Christ and the church, God now pours his Spirit out on all peoples who believe in him. In the tabernacle and temple, God lived among his people. Now he lives within his people. The New Jerusalem brings all of this to a conclusion. All of history can share the title of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – There and Back Again. Just like the story of Bilbo Baggins is about his adventure from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, and back to the Shire; the Bible and world history are about going from Eden to a sinful world, and back to Eden.
Is the city literal or symbolic?
This is the big question for most Christians. Is the New Jerusalem a literal city or a symbol? Most Christians view it as a literal city that will come down from heaven. I have even heard some people say that it will look like a UFO when it comes down. Others look at it as a symbol for the church and/or the new heavens and new earth. However, there are two details in Revelation 21 and 22 that may suggest that the New Jerusalem may in fact be a symbol.
The first detail is that Revelation 21:2 tells us that the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” 21:9 calls the city “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” This clearly tells us that Christ is the husband, not the church. This picture of a bride and husband are based on other Scripture passages. 1) Isaiah 61:10 personifies Jerusalem as a bride adorned with jewels; 2) Isaiah 62:5 speaks about God rejoicing over Jerusalem as a bridegroom does over his bride; 3) Jesus speaks of himself as a bridegroom in a parable about a wedding in Matthew 25:1-13 (it concerns his second coming); 4) Revelation 19:7-8 alludes to Christ as a bridegroom ready for his bride; and 5) Ephesians 5:5:22-23 compares the marriage of a husband and wife with that of Christ and the church. Considering these passages and that the book of Revelation uses a lot of symbolism, it is probable that the New Jerusalem here symbolizes the church, the people of God dressed up beautifully for her husband, the Lamb.
The second detail concerns Revelation 22:15, which tells us that outside the city walls are those who rejected Christ. If we take the New Jerusalem as literally as we can then we run into a problem. The problem being that those who go to hell will live on the new Earth with Christians. Yet, Revelation 20:11-15 (and other Scriptures) tells us that those who rejected Christ are thrown into hell. How can those bound for hell receive a larger part of the earth than those who are saved?
The Ideal City and the New Heavens and New Earth
Both of these details show us that the New Jerusalem is a symbol for the church. However, there is also evidence that the Great City represents not only the people of God, but the new heavens and new earth as well. Isaiah 65:17-18 says, “Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.”
Revelation 21:1-2 speaks about the new heavens and new earth and immediately describes the New Jerusalem. It is probable that the New Earth is equated with the New Jerusalem. Alexander notes that the creation of new heavens and new earth parallels the creation of Jerusalem. Scripture is using two different descriptions for the same thing.
The Great City symbolizes the church and heaven by presenting them as an ideal, perfect city. The high walls symbolize that there will never be danger in heaven. Revelation includes a wall because a secure city in the ancient world always had walls for protection. The gates of pearls would have sounded amazing to the poor living during the first century (which included most of the people). Why? Only the rich and powerful could afford pearls. Roman senators wore them on their sandals. In heaven, however, the Christian will enter a city that has gates built of a giant, single pearl. They will live in a spacious city (the large size), be secure (the walls), and will live in luxury and abundance.
The New Jerusalem is perfect way to conclude God’s revelation of himself. The Bible begins with a perfect world, falls into chaos, and ends with the restoration of what it was meant to be. Throughout Scripture we see God slowly re-establishing his presence, from Eden to the tabernacle, to the temple, within the church, and finally the New Jerusalem. As we saw, there is good evidence to suggest that the Great City is not a literal city, but a symbol for God’s people living with him in a restored paradise where they will no longer suffer from the effects of sin.
What do you think about the New Jerusalem as the fulfillment of God’s plan? Do you think that the city is literal or symbolic? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.
 Robert H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation. In “The New International Commentary on the New Testament” Revised Edition. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997). 390-391.
 Monce, 390. See also T. Desmond Alexander. From Eden to the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2008). 21-22. G. K. Beale. The Book of Revelation. In “The New International Greek Testament Commentary.” (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999). 1111.
 Alexander, 22. Beale, 1111.
 Alexander 44-45; Mounce 399; Beale 1111
 Alexander 35.
 Ibid. 23.
 Alexander 23, 34-35, 44; Beale 1110.
 Alexander 22-23; Beale 1110-1111.
 Alexander 20.
 Ibid. 33.
 Alexander, 21-22; Beale, 1111.
 Alexander, 63, 68.
 Ibid. 31.
 Beale, 1045.
 Alexander, 53-54; Beale, 1109.
 Alexander 53-54; Mounce, 388; Beale, 1045.