*If new to this series, please see the introduction.*
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. (Revelation 21:21)
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.