“Pearly Gates” and “Streets of Gold”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #2

“Pearly Gates” and “Streets of Gold”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #2

*If new to this series, please see the introduction.*

Revelation 21:21: καὶ οἱ δώδεκα πυλῶνες δώδεκα μαργαρῖται, ἀνὰ εἷς ἕκαστος τῶν πυλώνων ἦν ἐξ ἑνὸς μαργαρίτου. καὶ ἡ πλατεῖα τῆς πόλεως χρυσίον καθαρὸν ὡς ὕαλος διαυγής.

“And the twelve gates of the city were twelve pearls; each single gate was made from one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”

Popular Interpretation

This verse and the surrounding passage describing the New Jerusalem at the end of Revelation is generally taken as a description of “heaven,” the place where the saints will spend eternity. Heaven is understood to have jeweled walls, “pearly gates,” and streets of gold. Surely I don’t need to explain much further, because everyone out there has encountered this interpretation in some form or another.

Correction: It’s not describing heaven

The main flaw in this interpretation is (as is often the case with misinterpreted Scripture) that it ignores the context, which explains what is being described. Here is how the passage begins:

“Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven final plagues came and spoke with me, saying, ‘Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, like a stone of crystal-clear jasper ….” (Rev 21:9–11)

It is hard to imagine the passage being clearer in terms of what it intends to describe: “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” This is not a description of heaven, nor of any specific tangible (or intangible) “place.” Rather, the passage is clear that it is a metaphorical description of the “bride of Christ”—that is, of the church, the assembly of God’s people.

She has a high wall (v. 12) because she must be entered by proper means and is protected from outside attack. She has twelve gates (v. 12), because this is the number of the tribes and the original number of the apostles, through whom one must enter. Those gates are on all four sides, since the Church is to come from the whole earth. The passage even explicitly says that the twelve foundation stones represent the twelve apostles (v. 14)!

And the gold streets and many precious stones? This is all well within the traditional portrayal of the virtues and virtuous people:

“The tongue of the righteous is like choice silver. (Prov 10:20)
“Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word rightly spoken.” (Prov 25:11)
“There is gold, and many jewels, and an abundance of utensils—the lips of knowledge.” (Prov 20:15)
“An earring of gold and an ornament of gold is a wise judge to a listening ear.” (Prov 25:12)
“Who can find an excellent wife? Far better than jewels!” (Prov 31:10)

“His head is like gold, pure gold;
His locks are like clusters of dates
And black as a raven.
“His hands are rods of gold
Set with beryl;
His abdomen is carved ivory
Inlaid with sapphires.
“His legs are pillars of alabaster
Set on pedestals of pure gold;
His appearance is like Lebanon
Choice as the cedars.” (Song of Songs 5:13–15)

According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise architect I laid a foundation; another is building on it. But let each pay attention to how he builds on it. For no person can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if someone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each person’s work will be exposed; for the day will show it, since it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each one’s work. … Do you not realize that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:10–13, 16)

Perhaps even more significant is the promise in Isaiah that God has not forgotten Zion, that her enemies will become a part of her, that she will put them on “like jewels and bind them on like a bride” (one of many prophecies of Gentile incorporation in Isaiah)

“But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me,
And the Lord has forgotten me.’
“Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
“See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
Your walls are continually before me.
“Your builders hurry;
Your destroyers and devastators
Will depart from you.
“Lift up your eyes and look around;
All of them gather together, they come to you.
As I live,” declares the LORD,
“You will surely put on all of [your destroyers and devastators] as jewels and bind them on as a bride. (Is 49:14–18)

So it is evident that the description of the “New Jerusalem” in Revelation is intended to be a description of the people of God, not of some vision of the future abode of the saints (for that matter, recall that a new—or renewed—earth is portrayed as the future home of the saints).

Why Does It Matter?

This is admittedly not the most important issue in Christianity, but it does affect a few things. For one, it portrays a vision of eternity that focuses on money, etc.; is it really supposed to be a selling point for Christianity that there will be a lot of valuable stuff sitting around? What good would it be in that environment, anyway? Secondly, it misses the point of this part of Revelation, which intends to illustrate the true righteous qualities of God’s people—God’s people have become the very jewels of righteousness, their very essence is righteous. Thirdly, attention is taken away from the real prize of eternity as portrayed in Revelation: the presence of God is entirely in the midst of his people. Fourthly, it misses some of the intertextual connections with passages like Isaiah 49, where it connects the restoration of Israel with the incorporation of Gentile “enemies,” leading to potential misunderstandings of the eschatological message of Christianity. And finally, it’s extraordinarily irritating for those who do understand what the passage is talking about to hear discussion of the opulence of heaven.

23 Comments
  • Stephen C. Carlson
    Posted at 18:05h, 23 August Reply

    Well, discussing misinterpreted bible verses in Revelation is like shooting fish in a barrel.

  • Jason A. Staples
    Posted at 18:30h, 23 August Reply

    Have to confess that drew not a small laugh from me. Unfortunately, a very true observation …

  • Coleman Glenn
    Posted at 08:18h, 08 April Reply

    Jason,

    Have you read Swedenborg on Revelation? He claimed that the entire book was misunderstood because people tried to understand it literally rather than spiritually. His book “Apocalypse Revealed” is about the “spiritual sense” of Revelation, and he – like you – says that the Holy City describes the people of God, not a physical place.

    I imagine you’d disagree with a lot of Swedenborg – a lot of people think of his hermeneutics as latter-day gnosticism – but as a Swedenborgian, I like to hear other people’s thoughts – especially scholars – on what he’s written. (And I realize that the idea of interpreting the Bible spiritually is an older tradition than Swedenborg – and an older tradition than the relatively recent emphasis on strict literalism – but his interpretations really ring true to me, which is why I’m a Swedenborgian).

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 10:18h, 08 April Reply

      I haven’t read Swedenborg (as a late-Reformation-era theologian, he’s pretty far outside my field), but it sounds like I agree with him on at least this point.

  • Pamela
    Posted at 14:02h, 09 April Reply

    Every christian does not interpret that as money or wealth or all these material things I will really speak for myself, I really see it as beauty and the splendor of GOD and His awesomeness, the bible describes it that way because our natural eyes have never seen anything so awesome. I believe it will be even greater than that, It gives us something to look forward to, just like the Israelites was promised a land flowing with milk and honey they had something to look forward to, the same as those who don’t receive Christ the place that they go to is fire and brimstone, so if it is misinterpreted it is to those who have not allowed the Holy Spirit to reveal it to them, and there also can be those babes in Christ that we as brothers and sisters have to allow them time to come into the knowledge of truth, so our prayer should be Holy Spirit reveal this to them and open up there eyes that they may see. Be blessed and I love you

  • Alex Pyun
    Posted at 15:19h, 26 August Reply

    It is the presence of God in the midst of His people! The church, the body of Christ, marries the bride, Christ! I thought this was great!!!

  • John
    Posted at 08:25h, 05 April Reply

    I like to think of it with a little more literal way. While Revelation is certainly full of sympolism, I come back to the old concept that if it makes sense to interpret a passage literally, then that is most likely the correct interpretation of the passage in question. If I apply that principle here, I think of the description of Heaven with streets made of gold as literal. If so, what is God trying to communicate to us? To me, it speaks to values. It is not that the streets of gold make heaven more valuable. It doesn’t. Rather, it is intended to convey to us the true value of gold and the pursuit of wealth in this world. We should not spend our lives pursuing something which God uses to pave streets with in heaven. Thanks.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 08:34h, 05 April Reply

      If we want to read Revelation literally, it is important that we start with what it tells us at the beginning: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which he made known by symbolism to his servant John.” Reading the images in Revelation as though they were “literal” images is not a literal reading of Revelation.

      Secondly, the passage never says this is a “description of Heaven.” In fact, it says that we are seeing “the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.” So it is simply wrong to read this description as though it were talking about heaven. It is talking about “the New Jerusalem,” which is different from heaven, from which it comes down. The New Jerusalem is also called, “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” which in earliest Christianity is imagery for the church.

      So if you want to read Revelation literally, your only choice is to understand this image as a symbolic depiction of the church in its final glory at the coming of Christ.

      • Peter
        Posted at 16:13h, 22 October Reply

        Can New Jerusalem be BOTH a symbolic meaning and a physical city for the church to dwell in?
        Just as the Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Testament were real objects which had deep spiritual meanings. Both had symbolic meanings and both were physical in appearance.

      • Brent
        Posted at 14:00h, 07 November Reply

        Oh boy. John 1:1 doesn’t announce that the book is symbolism. I agree Revelation is symbolism, but don’t use 1:1 to say what it doesn’t. “which he made known by symbolism” has to be the worst and most inaccurate translation I have ever read.

  • marc
    Posted at 06:02h, 28 September Reply

    Seems to me all the author’s tipped their hands when they used the repeating motifs of 7 and 12. These are neither religious or spiritual concepts.

  • Udy
    Posted at 03:58h, 13 February Reply

    Literal interpretation misleads! Ok, that city was DESCENDING FROM GOD! But most Christians are hoping to ‘fly away’ to this same city IN THE SKIES. Again, look at the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Did the Israelites, on arrival, find literal milk and honey flowing like rivers in that land?

  • Udy
    Posted at 04:21h, 13 February Reply

    again, look at this: Rev 21:24 “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.” How would the kings OF THE EARTH bring their glory and honor INTO heaven in the skies? By special flights? Rather, this explains it: Isa 60:1 “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.
    2 For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
    3 And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
    When the Church (the Body or Bride of Christ) arises in her true beauty, clothed with the pure white linen of righteousness, gentiles and kings shall be attracted to that “city of God”

  • brodie
    Posted at 21:19h, 03 September Reply

    Great read! Just a thought the bible says a street of gold not streets so it would make no sense to have a literal 12 gates it is symbolic.

  • mvraan
    Posted at 23:24h, 25 September Reply

    Gold represents God and street represents your walk in Christ. Heaven is your conscious and is not outward somewhere. It is in your inner being and we will wake up to that. If we are walking in the divine life you are walking in the street of gold

  • Rich Mast
    Posted at 07:53h, 08 December Reply

    Greetings, Jason. I agree with you completely on this. Just wanted to share a couple of additional pieces to the puzzle. There is no temple in the New Jerusalem. (Rev 21:22) There IS a temple in Heaven. (Rev 7:15, 11:19, 14:17, 15:5-6) So they can’t be the same place. The New Jerusalem is coming OUT of Heaven so it can’t BE Heaven. (Rev 21:2, 10) When Jesus says He is preparing many mansions John 14:2 it’s the same word as 14:23 and simply means home or dwelling. “Mansion” seems to push the Greek pretty far. (though I’m no Greek scholar)

  • Lori Peterson
    Posted at 23:34h, 10 January Reply

    I love this !!! I have read my Bible many times and wondered if anyone sees it the way I do…….so many sermons I have heard that left me thinking I must be the only one who thinks differently …….. thank you !!!!!!!!!

  • glenn wright
    Posted at 16:34h, 19 January Reply

    Glenn Wright The scriptures are all about relationship and marriage, two becoming one . the new Jerusalem is a verbal picture of Gods completed work , our relationship with Jesus , two becoming one. The most beautiful thing that a human could describe, The new Jerusalem , a new creation in Jesus dwelling among men, God is a lot bigger than OUR three dimensional world and nothing is out of proportion. Thank you for sharing the truth.

  • Dustin
    Posted at 16:38h, 01 February Reply

    I’m going to stir up a different theology. I simply disagree with your interpretation. I’m not going to make a big fiasco about it, because as you said it is not a salvation issue, not hardly. We will ALL find out soon enough the actual reality and then there will be no more theorizing.
    I just got through reading Rev. 21 again. In the earlier chapters John describes his visitation of Jesus Christ and an angel. He describes them both quite simply and there is clearly no symbolism in the appearance of Jesus Christ. He painted a description, not a symbolic representation.
    Your theory would hold some ground if Rev. 21:27 was not included in John’s vision. Rev. 21:27 says But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes[o] an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
    If the New Jerusalem was the Bride of Christ then it would be unusual for her to be called an “it”. Even more unusual is this “there shall be no sinners who enter into it but only those who are written into the Lamb’s Book of Life.” How can a sinner (or a liar, as the verse states) enter into a Person (the Bride)? The most important piece that tells us that the New Jerusalem is indeed a physical structure is the very last of that verse. “Only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” can enter into it. We see then that in “it” abides all the people who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. This language greatly implies that “it” is a place, not a person.
    Lets get into Revelation 22 now. “Blessed are those who do His commandments,[g] that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may ENTER through the gates into the CITY. (Capitalization for emphasis) Bingo! Rev. 22:14 Jesus clearly states that that which was described in great detail in Rev. 21 is indeed a “city.”
    You see, if we take the New Jerusalem as being the Bride then we have to as well believe that the tree of life is going to be inside of us and the Throne of God and of the Lamb will be inside us also. This is quite peculiar theology that has not been implied anywhere in the Bible. And really, we don’t need to theorize on that, since Jesus states simply that the New Jerusalem is a “city.” I say let the Scripture interpret itself for you. I’ve perhaps given you some things to think about. Do what you will with it.
    God bless!

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 12:12h, 21 February Reply

      This is one of the dangers of reading in English, which is not a gendered language in the way Greek is. The “it” you’re referring to is in the feminine gender (“she”) in Greek since its antecedent is feminine. Think about how ships are often referred to as “she” or “her” in English and you’ll get how Greek tends to work across the entire language. But because English doesn’t tend to work that way overall, most Bible translators use “it” in these cases.

      The whole point is precisely that the throne of God and of the Lamb will be inside his people. That is indeed a theological principle found throughout both the prophets and the New Testament. God’s people are his holy city, they are his holy temple “not made with hands” (cf. Isa 66).

  • Katherine
    Posted at 13:40h, 09 February Reply

    So we may actually see starry nights on the new earth??

  • Dennis Gillig
    Posted at 11:08h, 06 April Reply

    It must be literal. any other way and you have whatever you want it to be. As with much of scripture, unless you are told it is LIKE or a PARABLE, it is literal. Read DeHaan.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 12:47h, 06 April Reply

      That has nothing to do with the subject of this blog post. I’m still a bit puzzled as to why you’re bringing it up here.

      For what it’s worth, it is also patently false that anything without the words “like,” “as,” or “parable” cannot be figurative. Like all literature, the Bible contains numerous metaphors; the biblical authors did not limit themselves to similes. Song of Songs 4:1, for example, says, “Your eyes are doves behind your veil.” It is an absolute certainty that the woman’s eyes are not literally doves. Similarly, Song of Songs 4:12 says, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride.” We can be certain that the woman being addressed is not literally a locked garden. There are hundreds of other examples throughout the Bible, regardless of what DeHaan says.

      But again, those coming out of the great tribulation have nothing to do with the subject matter of this blog post, so it’s unclear why you’re bringing it up at all here.

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