An angel takes John to a high mountain for a spectacular view of the shining city. John gives us the following detailed impressions.
21:9-14 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
On reading this description people almost always ask, "Is this a literal or symbolic description?" The fact is, in this as in so many other passages of Revelation, we do not have to make that choice. God loves to use literal things to symbolize deeper truths. Throughout Revelation we have seen the blending of literal and symbolic meaning.
Personally, I believe the city will have a literal dimension. It will be a great, visible city, brilliant and glorious, located somewhere above or within the atmosphere of the new earth. Some commentators have suggested that the New Jerusalem might even orbit the new earth like a second moon. It will be characterized by stability, symmetry, light, life, beauty, and ministry.
But it will also have a symbolic dimension. Let us look at the symbols of this new city and interpret their meaning.
The high wall of the city speaks of separation and of intimacy — separation from what is without, intimacy with what is within. If you want to have an intimate garden party you meet in a yard enclosed within a wall. The wall shuts out the outside and protects the inside, creating a safe enclosure for intimate fellowship.
All through Scripture God expresses a strong desire for what He calls "a people for my own possession." In a sense all that exists is His possession for it is His creation. All animals, all creatures are His. The billions of angels are His. The entire human race is His creation.
Yet He has created human beings with free will, the ability to choose Him or reject Him. Henceforth, only those human beings who choose Him are truly a people for His own possession. The saints alone are His possession, because with them He can share the depths of His heart. They satisfy Him and fulfill Him just as a bride satisfies and fulfills her husband.
The gates symbolize means of entering and leaving the city. There is an amazing verse in the gospel of John where Jesus says, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture." This seems to be a portrayal of the widespread ministry of believers throughout the eternal ages.
The new universe will surely be as big or bigger than it is now — and its vastness is orders of magnitude beyond human comprehension as it is! Billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars like our own sun, sprinkle the heavens for as far as our greatest telescopes can see. Each of those stars may be circled by planets — perhaps even many earthlike planets. These may be new limitless worlds for us to encounter, explore, develop, and experience. Every moment of eternity will be a new adventure of discovery.
The gates of the Holy City are named for the tribes of Israel. It is a perpetual reminder that "salvation is of the Jews." Access to the city is through Israel — not merely because it was the Jewish nation that gave us Jesus, but also because Israel gave us the Old Testament prophets and the godly traditions and practices of the Old Testament. Many of those brilliant but enigmatic Old Testament passages that now puzzle us will someday come to life as profound jewels of truth. Scripture that once perplexed us will one day lead us to adventures we never dreamed of in this life.
The foundations symbolize those aspects of the New Jerusalem that give it stability and permanence. They are named for the twelve apostles. Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was replaced in the apostolic band by Matthias, as we learn in Acts 1. These foundations speak of New Testament truth and practice. Spiritual realities that we only faintly grasp now will become startlingly clear and meaningful in that eternal plane of existence — and especially those three things which Scripture says will abide forever: faith, hope, and love! "But the greatest of these," says Paul, "is love."
Language is inadequate to express the beauty and truth that is embedded in this description of the Holy City in the fact that the truths of God's Word will never pass away, in the fact that faith, hope, and — above all! — love will never pass away, but will go on and on, enduring beyond this dying and temporary world and crossing the divide into that new heaven and new earth! How can everyday language express a reality that is light-years beyond the reach of our deepest joy and highest exhilaration? Yet it is my prayer, as you read these words, that God would enable the inner eye of your imagination to catch a glimpse of the profound experience that awaits us in the new heaven, the new earth, and that shining new city.