Acts 16:9-15 Psalm 67 Revelation 21:10-22:5 John 14:23-29
Have any of you ever read through the book of the Revelation of St John from beginning to end? Did any of you start reading, but stopped because you kept wondering what it was the Apostle was smoking at the time? Or did you think he had discovered a hallucinatory mushroom on Patmos that caused him to see such weird and wonderful things? Or did you have the distinct misfortune of reading an End Times book in which the author sought to prove that the revelation was a doomsday prediction featuring 21st Century helicopters and such?
This is sad, really, as the book was meant to be understood…it was meant to be a revelation rather than an obscuration…something 1st Century folk were expected to understand and obey. In 1:1-3 John seemed to think that what he was writing about was imminent: “This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants the events that must SOON take place. He sent an angel to present this revelation to His servant John who faithfully reported everything he saw. This is his report of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and He blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is NEAR.” Hard to obey something you don’t understand, isn’t it? And either what John was writing about was fast approaching and on the horizon or he was mistaken about the timing…and if he was mistaken about the timing then why should we listen and obey as he may have been mistaken about several other things as well. No, one must not twist the words of Scripture…ever.
Now I can hear you thinking…alright Dr smarty-pants…if you’re so sure this clear as mud book can be understood, what on earth was John talking about in our reading for today? I am so glad you thought that, because I’m going to give it my best shot in a moment.
But before we take the plunge, allow me to remind you that even though it is John who physically wrote these words, he was inspired by the one Who was sent to teach us everything and remind us of everything Jesus taught…namely the Holy Spirit Himself. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the unseen Author behind the “seen” authors. He is the one behind everything written in Holy Scripture…so, firstly we need Him to guide us as we read and, secondly we need to remember everything He has revealed in all Scripture and allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Imagine for a moment that you are reading a crime thriller written by a Swedish author…the suspense is killing you and you want to know who did it and why…so you get the bright idea of picking up a crime thriller written by a British author all the while expecting to find clues in her story to understand his story. That just doesn’t make sense, and you wouldn’t do that, would you? No, you would let the author lead you to the unravelling of the murder mystery, wouldn’t you?
So why do we treat the Bible differently? We need to understand the Bible by and through the Bible…guided and aided by the Author Himself.
So, keeping that in mind, let’s dive in. Revelation 22:10 and following.
Revelation 21:10-21: The first thing we notice is that it is the Holy Spirit Himself that transports John to the top of an unspecified great high mountain. Without going into too much detail, high mountains in the Old and New Testaments indicated God’s presence in some form or another. Remember Mount Sinai, Mount Zion, the Mount of Olives, and the Mount of transfiguration? So we are not surprised to read that the holy city, the New Jerusalem, descends from heaven to this location.
The second thing we notice is that it is shining with the glory of God, has twelve foundations stones and twelve gates decorated with semi-precious stones and the names of the twelve Apostles. This is a reference to Exodus 28:15-30 where the High Priest had to wear a chest piece decorated with twelve semi-precious stones on which the names of the twelve tribes of Israel had been inscribed. The reason for this was so that the High Priest would always “carry the names of Israel on the sacred chest piece over his heart when he (went) into the Holy Place.” It is also a reference to a prophetic statement found in Ezekiel 48:30-35 about the Holy City of the future. By the way, the fact that the city was a perfect cube indicates that we are dealing with symbols here and not with literal dimensions.
But it is not the names of the twelve tribes that are on the gates, but rather the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. This does not exclude the twelve tribes of Israel as all the apostles were Israelites, but it does indicate that the New City is a place for the New Israel…an Israel that includes all nations not just one. I think Peter says it best in his first letter 2:4-10. Writing to suffering followers of Jesus, the Apostle reminded them that they had come to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple, rejected by people, but chosen by God for great honour.
Then he added, “And you are living stones that God is building into His spiritual Temple. What’s more you are His holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” Christians, followers of Jesus from all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike, make up the New Israel, the New Priesthood, the New City, the New Temple. We are the chosen people, we are His royal priesthood, we are His holy nation, we are God’s very own possession…and as a result, we can show others the goodness of God, for He called us out of darkness into His wonderful light.
How very comforting, don’t you think? But it get’s better!
In Revelation 21:22, John tells us that we are never ever alone. “I saw no temple in the city (in other words no physical structure), for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” How cool is that? This conjures up all sorts of images like “even though I go through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me” and other Scriptures that speak of God’s eternal presence with His people. The Tabernacle had stood in the centre of the camp of Israel during their wilderness wanderings to show that God was in their very midst. This is what John was trying to say in the first chapter of His Gospel, verse 14, “And the Word became flesh (or human) and TABERNACLED (or dwelt) among us.” But it is in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, verses 21-24 where Jesus revealed to a woman outside of Israel that a day was coming when the physical city of Jerusalem (and thus the physical Temple) would no longer be the focal point of true worship. Rather it would be a spiritual reality of which the physical had only been pictures.
The Church is not a physical building…it is a spiritual building made up of all believers and inhabited by God Himself.
Of course there would be no need for any external form of illumination if the one who is Light dwells with us. (Revelation 21:23-27) Again this is not meant to be taken literally, any more than when Jesus calls us the light of the world and tells us to let our lights shine before men that they might see the glory of God. What it appears to indicate is that our lives ought to be so attractive, shining out the character of the Lord Who lives with us and in us, that the nations…all ethnic groups…might be drawn into the city…into the Church…into the presence and person of God. This is a reference to Scriptures like Isaiah 60 (Isaiah 60:3, 5, 11, 19-20 (the light), 52:1, see also Zechariah 14:7, Psalm 72:10-11) where we are told that the future Jerusalem would attract all nations, merchants, foreigners, and their kings – all would come in as the gates would stay open day and night. The Church is open to all…its doors ought never to be shut as the dividing walls between us are broken down in Christ. In Jesus all who call on His name are united into a new nation…the new Israel of God.
Now let’s look quickly at Revelation 22:1-5. The backdrop here is, of course the first three chapters of Genesis. Just read Genesis 2:9-10, and 3:22 when you have time. (See also Ezekiel 47:1, 12, Joel 3:18, Zechariah 14:1, 11, John 7:37-39, Matthew 5:8, Isaiah 60:19-20, Daniel 7:18, 27, Zechariah 14:7) When God created the heavens and the earth, there was no sin and therefore no curse. When Jesus ushered in the new creation with His resurrection from the dead, He removed the curse as He had absorbed it on the cross. So, in John’s imagery, the Church of Jesus – the spiritual Church, not necessarily the physical church, if you understand my meaning – is no longer cut off from the presence of God, but rather built around the very throne room of God almighty and therefore there is no curse there…rather we will see Him face to face and His name will be inscribed on our foreheads…remember in Exodus 13:9 the Word was to be worn on the hand and on the forehead…well Jesus is the Word and it is His name that is placed upon our foreheads at baptism.
In the spiritual city of Jerusalem there is no night because God shines on us. Yes, in this world we may face tribulation, as did the recipients of this letter of John as well as that of Peter and many other New Testament authors, but in Jesus we have and do overcome the world. That is the image John is trying to conjure up in this passage. God is with us…we are in His very presence for eternity…we are built in Him and on Him…and His glory shines in and on us.
But this brings me to my final point. What is the purpose of this Holy City shining with the glory of God on a very High Mountain top? Why doesn’t it stay in heaven? Why does it come down to earth?
It is so that the nations might walk in its light. Jesus said, we are the light of the world…we are a city set on a high mountain (or hill) neither of which ought to be hidden from view. The Church remains in the world for the sake of the world God loves so much. Our purpose is to bring the nations into the City, the New Jerusalem…our purpose is to provide healing to the nations…to lead them to the tree of life and to the very throne of God.
That is why we are here…built as living stones upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as our cornerstone. We are the City and we are the Temple of God as God inhabits us – He tabernacles in us – He dwells with us and works in and through us.
Dearest beloved brethren, as you come into His presence once more today to feast at His Table before His throne, reflect on the final words of the Eucharist: “Go in peace to love and serve our Lord.” It is what we do outside the walls of this building that show whether or not we are living members of the City John described in the reading today. It is through us that the Psalm we read today, Psalm 67, is fulfilled…it is through us that the ways of God will be known throughout the earth, His saving power among people everywhere…it is through us that the nations of the world will praise God…it is through our witness to Jesus that they will sing for joy.
It is us, dearest brethren, who have the light…let us not just bask in the warmth of that light, but also take it into the dark places of our world so that those who do not know God yet, will be attracted by what we show in our lives and be led to our God.
© Johannes W H van der Bijl 2019-05-20