Rev. 21:12 – The city had a massive high wall, with 12 gates. Twelve angels were at the gates; the names of the 12 tribes of Israel’s sons were inscribed on the gates. 13 There were three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west. 14 The city wall had 12 foundations, and the 12 names of the Lamb’s 12 apostles were on the foundations. (HCSB)
A massive high wall
In verses 12-21 John describes the exterior of the New Jerusalem, turning to the interior in verses 22-27. The New Jerusalem has a “massive high wall, with 12 gates.” The walls and gates speak of protection, which angels ensure as they stand guard.
God’s people have nothing to fear from their enemies any longer. Though hated and harassed on earth, these pilgrims are now safe from all harms. Where once they wore shackles behind prison walls, they now walk freely within the gates of the heavenly city. Where once they wandered about in sheepskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated, wandering in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground, they now receive a better inheritance as they bask in the never-ending daylight of their eternal home.
The end of enemies
Jurgen Roloff cautions us not to place too much emphasis on the walls as a means of defense, “for in the new creation there will be no more enemies of God and his own. Moreover, in vv. 24-25 it is precisely the openness of the city that is emphasized. Walls and gates were, as many excavations indicate, common parts of a city and important for its outward appearance. The gates, specifically, were places of communication, deliberation, and administration. The symbolic number of gates, twelve, above each of which stands one of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, is taken from Ezek. 48:31-34. For John the church is also the people of the twelve tribes, renewed at the end time, for whom the promises of Israel apply” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, pp. 242-43).
The wall features 12 gates, with an angel at each gate – or possibly 12 angels at each gate, according to some interpreters – and the names of the 12 tribes of Israel’s sons on the gates. There are three gates on each of the four sides. This would seem to represent the totality of the Old Testament people of God, just as the names of the apostles on the 12 foundation stones represent the New Testament people of God.
Together, we may see New Jerusalem as the place of the united people of the Lord. Steve Gregg writes that three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west “speak of universal access into the church, for Jesus predicted that ‘They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 13:29)” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 494).
The city wall has 12 foundations, and the 12 names of the Lamb’s 12 apostles are there. No doubt Judas’ name is absent, but whether the name of Matthias or Paul has replaced it is a matter of speculation. Scholars disagree about the positioning of these foundations. Some argue that the foundations are stacked one upon another in 12 layers. Others contend that each foundation supports a portion of the wall between two gates. There would be 12 such portions of the wall, each resting upon its own foundation.
Foundations of ancient cities often are extensions of the rows of stones making up the walls, going down to the bedrock. Jerusalem’s first-century walls and foundation stones have been excavated. Huge stones, some of which are five feet wide, four feet high and 30 feet long, weighing more than 80 tons, go down 14 to 19 layers below ground level.
Of more importance, however, are the names of the 12 apostles. This illustrates what Paul writes about when he says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20-22).
The “cornerstone” refers to a capstone that holds an entire structure together. In ancient structures it was placed at a right angle joining two walls, with the royal name inscribed on it to signify the ruler who took credit for the building’s existence. Paul includes the “prophets” because they, like the apostles, enjoy a unique ministry in the cause of Christ. The prophets foretell the coming of the Messiah and the apostles are eyewitnesses of His earthly ministry, which fulfills the prophetic record. The two walls of testimony meet in Christ, the cornerstone.
The city’s expanse
Now we come to the external measurements of the city. The one who is speaking with John has a gold measuring rod to measure the city, its gates, and its wall (v. 15). The city is laid out as a cube, its length, width, and height 12,000 stadia – or 1,400 miles – in each direction. The wall is 144 cubits, or more than 200 feet, thick.
This measurement recalls Ezekiel 40-42, in which an angelic messenger carries a measuring line and a reed to measure the gates and walls of “a structure resembling a city” (40:2) with a temple in it. Some commentators insist on a literal understanding of these dimensions, arguing that a city of this size, with multiple levels within, could house billions of people; they add that while the present earth would wobble out of orbit with a cubed-shape city of these dimensions, God will fashion the new earth to accommodate this heavenly city. Others, however, point out that the numbers are symbolic, the multiples of 12 being a reference to the majesty, vastness, and perfection of the church.
In any case, it’s important to note the cube shape of the city, which corresponds to the Holy of Holies in the temple. Since John sees no temple in the city (v. 22), we may infer that the whole city is the temple, or more specifically, the Holy of Holies. It is the place of the glory of God. Just as our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16), the New Jerusalem, the bride, the wife of the Lamb, is corporately the spiritual household built up for the habitation of God.
Of note, we should mention that according to ancient tradition, Babylon and Ninevah were designed in the form of a square. But the city of God surpasses these human endeavors in its harmony, since it is in the shape of a cube, which in the ancient world symbolized supreme completeness. The immensity of the New Jerusalem dwarfs the greatest man-made cities of human history.
We have noted that many commentators see the New Jerusalem as an actual city with foundations, walls, and gates. It’s important to acknowledge the possibility, however, that this glorious city describes the redeemed people of God of all times, basking in the glow of the very presence of God. There are several New Testament passages that speak of God’s people as His place of residence. We cited 1 Cor. 3:16 above. In addition, take note of the following:
- 2: 19-22 – So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.
- 1 Tim. 3:15 – But if I should be delayed, I have written so that you will know how people ought to act in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
- 3:6 – But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household. And we are that household if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope.
- 1 Peter 2:4-5 – Coming to Him, a living stone – rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God – you yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Next: The number 12 – Revelation 21:12-14