Last Sunday, while teaching my class on Surprised by Hope, a student suggested that the new Jerusalem in Rev 21 is the church, reasoning that the church is elsewhere referred to as Jesus’ bride. Jon made the same point in a comment. It didn’t seem quite right to me, but then the argument has considerable merit. So I’ve decided to dig more deeply into the question.
The passage we were discussing is —
(Rev 21:1-3) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. 2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
The new Jerusalem
The idea of a new earth and new heaven goes back to the Old Testament prophets, as noted in earlier posts. And as Jon noted in his comment, “new” is kainos, which refers to freshness rather than age, so the idea is really of a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. Moreover, in Rev, the new Jerusalem is also a kainos Jerusalem — a fresh Jerusalem.
The “new Jerusalem” is a concept used by other authors much earlier than the Revelation. It’s referred to in Gal 4:26-27 as being in heaven and being the mother of the church. In Heb 12:22 it’s described in apocalyptic language —
(Heb 12:22-24) But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
(Also 10:11) But this passage clearly distinguishes the new Jerusalem from the church. Here, the new Jerusalem is where God lives (parallel to God’s dwelling in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion, in Solomon’s temple). Jerusalem is parallel with Mount Zion (on which the city is built). “Church” is parallel with “angels in joyful assembly.”
But the image is much older than the New Testament —
(Isa 65:17-18) “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.”
The new Jerusalem is where God’s people will dwell in the new heavens and new earth.
Now, with this background, let’s take a fresh look at the Revelation.
John introduces the idea of a new Jerusalem early on.
(Rev 3:12) Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.
The new Jerusalem is in heaven (as in Gal and Heb) and where God lives. So far, the imagery is consistent.
Next, we read —
(Rev 21:2-3) I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
Here, “new Jerusalem” is parallel with “dwelling of God.” He and his city descend to the earth so that he will live with men. Again, this is entirely consistent with all that has been said before.
Then John describes this new Jerusalem in detail —
(Rev 21:9-27) 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.” 10 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. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. … 21 The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. 22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Traditionally, we’ve taken this to be a description of where we’ll live when we die. And John says the “nations,” “kings,” and “those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will live in the new Jerusalem.
We next read of this city —
(Rev 22:14-17) “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. … 17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.
This is the city where the tree of life is planted and into which the righteous may enter. Indeed, this city (as bride) invites us to come! It would be odd for the church to be inviting the church — but, then again, Rev is chock full of odd things!
(Rev 22:19) And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Therefore, the new Jerusalem is the dwelling of the saints, not the saints per se. The “holy city” is a promise to be received by the saints, not the saints themselves.
But there’s more …
The bride of the Lamb
Mounce, in his commentary in the New International series, also points out that Rev is built on the contrast between the new Jerusalem, called a “bride,” and Babylon, called a “harlot.” Perhaps this contrast sheds some light on what this new Jerusalem really is.
We start with the prophetic references to a bride of God —
(Hosea 2:18-23) In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. 19 I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.
21 “In that day I will respond,” declares the LORD– “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth; 22 and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. 23 I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one. ‘ I will say to those called ‘Not my people, ‘ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.'”
If the imagery of Rev is built in part on this passage, then “bride” refers to God’s people. Just so, in Eph 5, Paul refers to the church as being the wife of Christ.
Consider also —
(Isa 54:6-7) The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit — a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. 7 “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
(Isa 62:5) As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
In Rev, we first read of a bride in c 19 —
(Rev 19:7-9) Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) 9 Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!'” And he added, “These are the true words of God.
As Mounce suggests, the church is seen as betrothed to Christ in this life but the marriage occurs in the Eschaton, bringing them to complete unity. Thus, it’s possible for the wedding feast to come at the end of time even though the church and Christ are betrothed today — and the language fits Isaiah quite nicely.
(Rev 14:8) A second angel followed and said, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.”
John frequently refers to Babylon as the “harlot.”
Nearly universally (as though any interpretation of Revelation might be called “universal”) “Babylon” is taken to refer to Rome (17:9 removes all doubt, really) — but not so much the city of Rome as the power of Rome as an opponent to the Lamb and as a rival claimant the throne of the world.
Thus, the new, heavenly Jerusalem is contrasted with Roman authority. The new Jerusalem is the seat of true power, of true rule, of the true Kingdom. It’s where God and the Lamb live.
But in the Old Testament references and in Eph 5, the “bride” refers to God’s people, not to a dwelling.
Combining the metaphors
“Bride” refers to God’s people from Isaiah through Hosea through Ephesians until Rev 21. But for the “bride” to parallel the harlot that was Rome, “bride” must come to refer to the new Jerusalem, thus tying the images all together in Rev 21-22.
The church will live in the new Jerusalem. It’s their new home. Thus, by metonymy, John refers to the church as the new Jerusalem, just as the people of Israel were sometimes referred to as “Jerusalem.” (e.g., Isa 4:4; 41:27; 51:17).
Thus, it can be argued that the new Jerusalem is both the church and the place where the saints will spend eternity (with each other, God, and the Lamb).
But because of Gal 4:5 and Heb 12:22, this is not true now. Now, the new Jerusalem is where God lives but not where we saints live. Nor is there any indication I can find that dead saints live in the new Jerusalem until the Eschaton. The new Jerusalem, therefore, is not the church so much as the resurrected church.
It’s all highly figurative language. It needs to make sense in light of the prior use of the same language by the prophets and the apostles. Nonetheless, there’s no simple substitution of “church” for “new Jerusalem.” After all, John doesn’t bother with a single figure for the same thing. Rome is both “Babylon” and “harlot.” It’s hard to picture a city as a harlot(!) but that’s John’s image.
I want to avoid the idea that the new Jerusalem’s descent from heaven to earth is the descent of the church. It’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t see it. Rather, the image is the dwelling of God coming to earth so that God will live with his people in his city, the new Jerusalem, to which we are all invited. But this new city is also the bride of Christ because it will contain all the church and the church is what it’s for and all about.
The new earth according to Wright
Now, I’m a little different from Wright in saying things this way. Wright sees those who’ve died in Christ as living in heaven until the Eschaton and then coming down to the new earth. If that’s true, then those who died in Christ presumably ride down in the new Jerusalem with God (although I can’t recall a place where Wright says that).
And this is possible and not an inappropriate image. I just don’t think this is necessarily so, for reasons we’ll be getting to.