The Holy City – Revelation 21:2

Previously: The sea no longer existed – Revelation 21:1

The scripture

Rev. 21:2 – I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. (HCSB)

The Holy City

John moves from the vision of a new heaven and a new earth in verse 1 to a New Jerusalem in verse 2: “I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.” The name “new Jerusalem” is used in only one other place in the Bible. In Rev. 3:12 Jesus says, “The victor: I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God, and he will never go out again. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God – the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God – and My new name.”

We should note that the New Jerusalem is called “the Holy City,” in contrast with the earthly Jerusalem, which spiritually is compared to Sodom in Rev. 11:8.

John writes that the city is prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. We see the bride in Rev. 19:7-9 and we understand her to be the church, as in other New Testament passages. But in what way is the bride also the New Jerusalem?

The Bridegroom

To begin, let’s remember that scripture describes the Bridegroom as Jesus and the bride as the church. Jesus often refers to Himself as the Bridegroom:

  • When the Pharisees and others find fault with Jesus’ disciples because they do not fast, the Lord replies, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15).
  • In the parable of the wedding feast for the king’s son, it is clear that Jesus is the unmentioned groom (Matt. 22:1-13).
  • In the parable of the 10 virgins who are to meet the bridegroom when he comes, Jesus’ listeners understand that He is speaking of Himself (Matt. 25:1-10).

John the Baptist also refers to Jesus as the bridegroom. He says, “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).

The apostle Paul depicts Jesus as the bridegroom, and the church as both bride and virgin.

For example, Paul writes, “I have promised you in marriage to one husband – to present a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). In Eph. 5:29-32 he adds, “For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

So, if the bride, or New Jerusalem, is the church, what are we to make of Old Testament Israel, which Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea depict as the put-away wife of Yahweh?

Some interpreters point out that because of Israel’s spiritual adultery, God has divorced her. Even if she is restored, no restored wife is called a virgin, as the church is. However, from the full description of the New Jerusalem that begins later in Revelation 21, we see what appears to be the fellowship of Old Testament saints and New Testament saints in the heavenly city. The names of the 12 tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates and the names of the apostles are on the 12 foundations.

The apostle Paul reminds us, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Therefore, rather than compare the church with national Israel, we should see that the redeemed of all time inhabit the New Jerusalem with Jesus, the focal point of human history and the Redeemer of the world.

Living stones

Both times in Revelation, New Jerusalem refers to the final destination of God’s people, the heavenly city where they experience the presence of God. There is a sense in which one might see the New Jerusalem as a structure made up of “living stones.” On earth, the bodies of believers are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). In addition, the apostle Peter reminds us that we are living stones, being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices unto God, with Jesus as the chosen and honored cornerstone (1 Peter 2:4-6).

It may be possible that the resurrected and glorified saints of all time provide the perfect habitation for God as He descends to earth and dwells among His people. Just as a bridegroom leaves his father’s home and establishes a new home with his bride, Jesus one day descends to earth with the redeemed and fully establishes His kingdom on earth. This does not seem to be John’s primary intent in describing the New Jerusalem, but the imagery of God’s people providing a pure and everlasting habitation for their Savior is a New Testament theme.

One other consideration before we move on: In John 14:2-3 Jesus promises His followers He is going away – back to heaven – to prepare a place for us. “If I go away and prepare a place for you,” he says, “I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.”

Is it possible that Jesus is referring to the New Jerusalem as our dwelling place? If so, then upon death, we inhabit this heavenly city with our Savior, and when He returns to earth He brings the New Jerusalem and all the city’s residents – true Israel – with Him. Without a doubt we have Christ’s promises that He will never leave us or forsake us; that He has written our names down in heaven and is preparing a place there for us; that as long as He lives, we will live also; and that when He comes one day for us, wherever He is, there we will be also. If the New Jerusalem is the city in which the triune God dwells forever with redeemed mankind on a restored earth, then perhaps Jesus’ promise of a “place” for us in John 14:2-3 includes the heavenly city, which is to be completed when the last “living stone” is put in place.

The City of David

But how does earthly Jerusalem fit into all this? Historically, one cannot deny the city’s importance. King David makes it the capital of Israel (2 Sam. 5:6-10). It also is the focal point of God’s kingship as signified by the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. The city reaches the zenith of its importance with the construction of the temple under Solomon (2 Chron. 3:1-17).

However, the destruction of the city under Babylon illustrates the lengths to which God goes to discipline the nation (2 Kings 23:27). After the exile, Jerusalem and the temple are rebuilt, signifying God’s grace and the restoration of Israel. Jesus maintains a close connection to the city and the temple – note His triumphal entry and His frequent teaching in the temple – signifying the importance of the city as the place where God’s presence dwells. But His own people reject their King and crucify Him. In 70 A.D. God employs the Romans to destroy the city and the temple a second time.

“As the earthly Jerusalem came to represent the soul of the nation of Israel, the New Testament points Christians toward the heavenly Jerusalem as the ultimate realization of God’s kingdom promises. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that the earthly Jerusalem is not ‘an enduring city,’ since Christians are still ‘looking for the city that is to come.’ (Heb. 13:14; also 12:26-28). He writes that even Abraham looked ‘forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (11:10)” (Dictionary of Bible Prophecy and End Times, p. 309).

In Hebrews 11 the people of faith long for a “heavenly” country that includes a city God has prepared for them (Heb. 11:16). In the next chapter, the writer of Hebrews contrasts Mt. Sinai with the heavenly Mount Zion. While the law is given on Sinai amidst terrifying signs, and sinful people are forbidden from touching the holy mountain, redeemed people are welcomed into the heavenly Mount Zion, where they enjoy fellowship with God, angels, and one another. “Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God (the heavenly Jerusalem), to myriads of angels in festive gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven, to God who is the Judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, to Jesus (mediator of a new covenant), and to the sprinkled blood, which says better things than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24).

In whatever sense earthly Jerusalem is an imperfect dwelling place for God, the New Jerusalem fulfills God’s three-part covenant promise to true Israel: (1) I will be your God, (2) you will be my people, and (3) I will live among you. “God’s original promise included a restored Temple (e.g. Ezek. 37), but in Revelation the entire city of the New Jerusalem is a Temple (Rev. 21:22) in the shape of the Holy Place (21:16). The Temple city will know nothing of Satan, sin, sorrow, or death” (Dictionary of Bible Prophecy and End Times, p. 311).

Warren Wiersbe writes that “the most important thing about the city is that God dwells there with His people. The Bible gives an interesting record of the dwelling places of God. First, God walked with man in the Garden of Eden. Then He dwelt with Israel in the tabernacle and later the temple. When Israel sinned, God had to depart from those dwellings. Later, Jesus Christ came to earth and “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14). Today, God does not live in man-made temples (Acts 7:48–50), but in the bodies of His people (1 Cor. 6:19–20) and in the church (Eph. 2:21–22). In both the tabernacle and the temple, the veil stood between men and God. That veil was torn in two when Jesus died, thus opening a ‘new and living way’ for God’s people (Heb. 10:19ff). Even though God dwells in believers today by His Spirit, we still have not begun to understand God or fellowship with Him as we would like; but one day, we shall dwell in God’s presence and enjoy Him forever” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 21:1-5).

Next: God’s dwelling is with humanity – Revelation 21:3-4