Verses 12-14 build upon the description of the “new Jerusalem” in terms of its divine/heavenly splendor (do/ca v. 11, cf. the previous note). The details of the city, as such, relate to its overall symbolism—the exalted place of believers, as the people and children of God, who dwell together with God in the New Age. The symbolic building and structure of the city represents both the people and their dwelling.
“(It) was holding [i.e. it had] a great and high (wall) built (around it), holding twelve gate-ways, and upon the gate-ways (were) twelve Messengers, and names having been written upon (them) which are [the names] of the twelve off-shoots [i.e. tribes] of the sons of Yisrael—from the rising up (of the sun) [i.e. the east] three gate-ways, and from the (direction of the) north-wind three gate-ways, and from the (direction of the) south-wind three gate-ways, and from the sinking (of the sun) [i.e. the west] (als0) three gate-ways.” (vv. 12-13)
The number of twelve gateways (pulw=ne$)—three in each of the four directions of the (square) city—corresponds to the vision of the future/ideal Jerusalem in Ezekiel 40-48 (cf. 48:30-34; 42:15-20), as also in the Qumran Temple Scroll (11Q19 29:12-13; cf. also 4Q365a fr. 2 ii. 1-4; 4Q554 fr. 1 i. 13-ii. 10; Koester, p. 814). The heavenly Messengers (Angels) serve as gate-keepers, probably envisioned, quite literally, as standing upon (e)pi/) the wall itself, and above the gate. The significance of the presence of these Messengers may be seen as twofold:
- Marking the complete security of the city—the preservation of its holiness, etc. Typically, the gate-keeper or sentinel of a city helped to protect it (and its citizen) from outside enemies and others who might be a source of danger or disruption (cf. Neh 3:29; 1 Chron 26:1-9; Isa 62:6). This would scarcely be necessary in the heavenly city of the New Age, but the motif of eternal security/preservation is still important to the imagery.
- They indicate the divine/heavenly character of the city, being that of the honor/splendor (do/ca) of God Himself, and marking God’s presence in the city, all the way to its outermost wall. In the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition, the Messenger functioned as the personal representative of God Himself, as also the honor and power of His manifest presence.
The naming of the twelve gates according to twelve tribes of Israel has precedence based on historical tradition (Neh 8:16; Jer 37:13), but here again the main influence is the vision of Ezekiel (48:30-35), followed by the Qumran texts cited above (esp. 11Q19 39:12-13; 40-41; Koester, pp. 814-15), etc. There is special significance to this symbolism in the context of the visionary narrative of Revelation, in terms of identifying believers in Christ as the true people of God (cf. below).
“And the (wall) built (round) the city was (also) holding twelve (foundation stone)s set down, and upon them (were) twelve names, of the twelve (men) of the Lamb (who were) se(n)t forth.” (v. 14)
Along with the twelve gate-ways, there were twelve large ‘foundation stones’ (qeme/lio$ literally meaning something “set/placed [down]”). I have translated the noun a)po/stolo$ quite literally as “(someone) set forth”, i.e. sent out from, or on behalf of, another. However, by the time the book of Revelation was written, this noun had long taken on a very specific technical meaning in early Christianity, to the point that one might transliterate the word in English as a title (“apostle”), as is typically done. There are two levels to this specialized meaning:
- The original circle of disciples of Jesus, whom he “sent forth” as his representatives, to proclaim the Gospel and continue his mission (Mark 6:7-13 par; Luke 24:48-49; Acts 1:8; John 20:21).
- To any from the first generation(s) of believers, who either witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, and/or who were similarly commissioned to the continue the work of the first disciples (Matt 28:16-20; Acts 1:21-22ff, etc). Paul clearly considered himself to be an apostle in this sense.
Early tradition, however, also construed the term more narrowly, referring to the group of twelve, who were Jesus’ closest followers (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, etc). Almost certainly, the use of the number twelve goes back to Jesus himself, and that it was, from the beginning, meant as a parallel to the idea of the twelve tribes of Israel (cp. the saying[s] in Matt 19:28; Lk 22:28-30). I discuss this at length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (Galilean Period, Part 1).
This symbolism is clearly present, and important, to the narrative in the early chapters of the book of Acts, where it possesses eschatological significance—the reconstitution of the Twelve represents the (end-time) restoration of Israel, understood in terms of the early Christian mission (cf. Acts 1:6-2:42 in full). The book of Revelation makes comparable use of the twelve-tribe motif to depict believers as the people of God. This is expressed most clearly in the symbolic image of the 144,000 in 7:1-8ff and 14:1-5. It is possible that the 144,000 in 7:4-8 are specifically meant to represent Jewish believers (compared with the multitude from all the nations in vv. 9ff). This may well be true (I discuss the matter in an earlier note); however, in 14:1-5, the figure of the 144,000 does not appear to have any such limiting aspect, but is better understood as signifying all believers, esp. those who remain faithful through the end-time period of distress.
In previous notes, I also mentioned how I would interpret the twenty-four “Elders” (4:4, 10; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4) as representing the People of God, in their heavenly aspect, drawing upon the twin-motifs of the twelve tribes of Israel (the People of the old Covenant) and the twelve apostles (the People of the new Covenant)—12 + 12 = 24, even as 12 x 12 x 1000 = 144,000. This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the symbolism here in 21:12-14, where the twelve tribes and twelve apostles are explicitly joined together to define the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostles are described with the same image of a foundation-stone, or similar kinds of support-figures (Matt 16:18; Gal 2:9; Eph 2:20; cp. 1 Cor 3:10-11ff). However, it is important to remember that the apostles are representative of the people as a whole—and, indeed, all believers serve as stones that support the heavenly city/house (Rev 3:12; 1 Pet 2:4-5ff; Eph 2:19-22).