(Rev. 21:22-23 ESV) 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
How can God and Jesus together be a temple?
Ezekiel spent seven chapters describing the restored temple and its ordinances (Ezek 40–46). For John there is no temple because symbol has given way to reality. The temple is replaced by “the Lord God Almighty, and the Lamb.” Jesus told the woman at the well that the day would come when worship of God would no longer be geographically circumscribed (John 4:21). Paul later declared that the believing congregation was in fact the temple of the living God (1 Cor 3:16–17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21–22). The final state toward which this points is eternity itself, where the presence of God the Father and the Lamb permeates and sanctifies all that the heavenly Jerusalem symbolizes.
Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 395.
Think of it this way. In the ancient world, a temple was a place to worship a god because the god has a special presence there. The god’s priests carried out acts of worship there. Sacrifices were made there.
In the New Heavens and New Earth there will be no place of special presence because God and Jesus will be fully present everywhere. No place will be better for worship than any other place. Indeed, no group of people will be closer to God or enjoy a greater presence through a special indwelling. All will be enjoy the full, continuous presence of God.
Hag. 2:9 prophesied that “the latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,” and Jer. 3:16–17 predicted that “they will no longer say ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again. At that time they will call Jerusalem ‘The throne of the LORD,’ and all the nations will be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD in Jerusalem.” The italicized words are repeated almost verbatim in Isa. 65:17 (which is alluded to in Rev. 21:1, 4; cf. also 1 En. 90:28–29 below).
G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 1090–1091.
As is so often the case, N. T. Wright captures not only the theology but the bigger story and even the poetry in what we’re being told is far better than most.
Earlier today, I came upon some workmen who were putting scaffolding up around an old stone building. Scaffolding is normally extremely functional: it’s made to do a job, not to look pretty. But supposing a builder decided to construct a beautiful shell of scaffolding? Supposing he made it so stunning that people came to admire the scaffolding itself, without even realizing that there was something far, far more impressive being built inside it? When the building was finished, some might be sad at the thought that this wonderful sight was to be taken away. But the builder would, of course, insist on removing the scaffolding, however splendid it was. That was the point of it in the first place, to do its job and then be dismantled so that the ultimate reality, the real new building, could be seen in all its glory.
That is the spirit in which we must read verses 22 and 23. We are not surprised, by now, that there is ‘no temple’ in the new city (as there was both in the earthly Jerusalem and also in its heavenly counterpart, as in 11:19 and 15:5). We have already realized that God’s own dwelling in the city, and the shape of the city as a giant cube, are telling us that there cannot be a ‘temple’ as a specific place within the city where God lives.
The Temple in Jerusalem, and also it seems in the first heaven, are advance signposts to that great, almost unthinkable reality to which nevertheless so much of the New Testament points, that ‘the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14). That is the goal towards which so much of scripture is pointing, a goal forgotten by those who imagine that the whole aim is to leave earth behind and go to heaven instead. Heaven has come down to earth; why would we want it otherwise? We have the reality. We don’t need the signpost any more.
But in verse 23 we discover that it isn’t only the Temple that is no longer needed. Even the sun and the moon, the two great lights that play such an important part in the first creation, and are celebrated as such in many scriptural passages (think of the sun in Psalm 19, where it is an image of God’s holy law itself)—even the sun and the moon will become redundant. They are part of the scaffolding, and we must not mistake them for the ultimate reality.
They are yet another pair of signposts to the ultimate truth, that God himself is the light of his people, shining and radiant. Slowly we rub our eyes, and discover that even the glorious world of Genesis 1 was the beginning of something, rather than an end in itself. It was itself a great signpost, pointing to the world that God always intended to make out of it.
Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides, (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 197–198.