The Revelation: Chapter 21:2 (The Bride of Christ, Part 1)

lion-dove-lamb-yeshua

At last we move to the next verse (the pace will pick up as we go) —

(Rev. 21:2 ESV)  2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 

At first, this seems an easy passage to interpret. The OT often describes God as the husband of Israel, and thus Israel’s idolatry is described as “adultery.” In the NT, the church is described as the bride of Christ, surely bringing the OT imagery forward to show Christ as our Lord (which can also mean “husband”) and the church as the true Israel (that is Israel with faithful Gentiles grafted in, as in Rom 11).

But John doesn’t speak of the church or the Kingdom as the Bride. It’s the “new Jerusalem.” And as in Hebrews and Galatians, the new Jerusalem has been kept in heaven until this moment. We should think of the several worship scenes in the Revelation as taking place in the heavenly temple, which is either within or is the new Jerusalem. The Jews thought of Jerusalem primarily as the place of the Temple.

The church as temple

Then again … the NT often refers to the church as a temple. Indeed, N. T. Wright and Nicholas Perrin have forcefully argued that the early church saw itself as the replacement for the physical temple in Jerusalem — anticipating, no doubt, the state of affairs once the physical temple was destroyed by the Roman army.

Thus, the church is not just the people but also the place of worship. Of course, the Temple (and any other temple, pagan or otherwise) was not just a place to worship. Rather, a temple was a place that represented that god’s presence in the city. The statue of the god in a pagan temple was not thought of as the god himself but as a place where the god had a special, intense presence — much as the Holy of Holies in the Temple was where God himself was specially present.

The church, as temple, therefore would be a place where Jesus/the Spirit/God are specially, intensely present and so also a place a worship. A temple shows the glory of the god worshiped there to outsiders, as well as bringing the god’s blessings to the community where the temple is found.

Could the new Jerusalem represent the dead in Christ?

Another view would be that the new Jerusalem is filled with the dead in Christ — and so represents that part of the church that died before the Second Coming — but the text simply doesn’t say this and nowhere suggests that those alive when Jesus returns get Raptured into the new Jerusalem. So if that’s the point, John certainly didn’t bother to make his point.

The church as the Holy City on earth

I’m going to suggest another perspective, one that’s more Jewish than modern. Let’s start with —

The holy city or ‘beloved city’ has been a symbol for the faithful Church, particularly in its precarious state of being attacked by enemies (11:2; 20:9).

Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, Black’s New Testament Commentary, (London: Continuum, 2006), 294.

(Rev. 11:1-2 ESV) Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there,  2 but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. 

(Rev. 20:9 ESV)  9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them,

Most of the commentaries don’t pick up on this point. Earlier in the Revelation, the church on earth is called “the holy city.” The church is pictured as being Jerusalem, but not in heaven. It’s very much on earth contending with God’s enemies.

Why does the new Jerusalem descend to earth?

And yet the new Jerusalem plainly was in heaven before the events of Rev 21 —

It is theologically significant that this city is seen descending out of heaven from God (see 3:12). Representing a sharp contrast to human attempts to build the tower of Babel up to heaven (Ellul 1977: 221), this city is God’s gift. It is that ideal Jerusalem of Jewish apocalyptic which God’s faithful people have attempted to emulate here on earth prior to its revealing (cf. 4 Ez. 7:26; 13:36; 2 Bar. 4:2–6). It is nothing that humanity could create of itself, but something whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10; cf. ‘the Jerusalem above’ of Gal. 4:26). Nevertheless, neither is it unrelated to those human attempts to prepare for it and emulate the principles on which it is built: as John has already discovered, the bride’s shining clothing is made up of ‘the just deeds of the holy ones’ (19:8).

Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, Black’s New Testament Commentary, (London: Continuum, 2006), 294.

So in a sense, the new Jerusalem is the perfection of the church as Temple. In fact, the next verse (21:3) declares that God’s own dwelling is moving from heaven to earth as the new Jerusalem (and presumably its temple) is moving to earth. Indeed, the fact that God is coming to earth to dwell with man is the bigger point. No longer will heaven and earth be separate. No longer will God be in heaven while men live on the earth. They will live together forever! And it’s God who condescends to descend. God takes the initiative.

Therefore, we shouldn’t see the new Jerusalem as being mainly about the church coming to earth. It’s more about heaven and earth being joined as one — a uniting that is like the one-flesh unity of husband and wife.

It’s poetry, and if it was easy to express literally, God would have not needed poetry.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to The Revelation: Chapter 21:2 (The Bride of Christ, Part 1)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    The New Jerusalem described in Revelation is not the church on earth. It’s the saved AFTER this earth has been destroyed by fire. And how different existence will then be. This includes no need for telling others about Jesus and baptizing new believers. For everyone in the NEW JERUSALEM will already be saved. The judgment will have been in the past. The earth and all unbelievers will have been destroyed.

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