February 9: Revelation 21:22-23

Revelation 21:22-27

Having depicted the heavenly city of the “new Jerusalem” generally, and its walls (gate-ways and foundations) in particular, the vision proceeds to describe life within the city, in two respects: (1) its dependence on the presence of God Himself (and of Christ the Lamb), and (2) its relation to the ‘outside world’ (the nations). This section may be divided into three parts:

    • The presence of God and Christ takes the place of outward, earthly forms (vv. 22-23)
    • The surrounding nations are drawn to this eternal Light (vv. 24-26)
    • Who and what is allowed into the City (vv. 27)
Revelation 21:22-23

When compared to ordinary human cities, the situation in the “new Jerusalem” is very different, in that the presence of God (and Christ) takes the place of outward, earthly forms. This is symbolized two ways—one religious (the Temple), and the other natural (light).

“And I did not see (any) shrine [i.e. Temple/sanctuary] in her, for the Lord God the All-mighty is her shrine, (as) also (is) the Lamb.” (v. 22)

The Jerusalem Temple sanctuary (nao/$) plays a key role in the book of Revelation at several points. This, of course, is symbolic, and no real conclusions can be made regarding the date of the book, based on these references—i.e., whether it was written before or after the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.). Early Christians were perfectly capable of making important use of the Temple, figuratively, long after the physical building-complex in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Christian use of the Temple as a symbol preceded its destruction by several decades, going back to Jesus’ own words and the early Gospel Tradition (on the relationship between Jesus and the Temple, cf. my earlier article in the series “The Law and the New Testament”). A tendency to spiritualize the Temple is found throughout the New Testament. Already Jesus and the earliest believers appear to have relativized the importance of the Temple (and its cultus), envisioning a different purpose for its (symbolic) space (cf. my article on the Temple in Luke-Acts). Earlier in this series, I discussed the significance of the Temple in Jewish eschatology and Messianism.

Of special importance was the early Christian tendency to identify the Temple with the person of Jesus himself (Matt 12:6; Mark 15:38 par; John 2:19ff [cf. Mk 14:58 par]; Eph 2:20); by extension, Paul especially identified believers—individually and collectively (the ‘body of Christ’)—with the Temple building (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22). The book of Revelation clearly recognizes this same sort of symbolism (3:12, etc), while retaining a more concrete sense of the Jerusalem Temple as an actual sanctuary. Let us briefly survey the visionary passages which feature the idea of the Temple sanctuary (nao/$):

    • As part of the vision(s) of chapter 7, believers who have come through the period of distress now have an exalted position before the throne of God and “give service to Him day and night in His shrine” (7:15). Clearly this is a heavenly sanctuary, centered around the very presence of God.
    • In 11:1ff, the Jerusalem Temple (its sanctuary and altar) serves symbolically to distinguish faithful believers from the rest of the wicked city (possessed by the nations). The earthly Jerusalem is called the “great city” (v. 8), a label otherwise reserved in Revelation for the wicked “Babylon” (and/or Rome). I discuss the parallels with chapter 21 (the measuring of the city, etc) in a prior note.
    • In 11:19, we read specifically of “the shrine of God th(at is) in heaven”; again the very presence of God is indicated (symbolized traditionally by the golden box [ark] of the Covenant). It is from this heavenly sanctuary that the great Judgment (and the messages regarding it) issues forth.
    • Along this line, voices and Messengers are heard/seen coming from out of the heavenly sanctuary, where God resides—14:15, 17; 15:5-8; 16:1, 17.

Thus, in all but one instance, the sanctuary (nao/$) refers to God’s presence in heaven. Now that God Himself resides directly with his people, i.e. in the “new Jerusalem”, there is certainly no longer any need for a Temple-building as such. Even the idea of a heavenly sanctuary seems to have disappeared, indicating a level of closeness and union, between God and His people, that transcends even the earlier throne-vision scenes in the book. There is also a clear contrast with the scene in 11:1ff:

    • Ch. 11—Believers exist in the world, living in the wicked “great city” (earthly Jerusalem). The faithful are separated from the world only by the space of the sanctuary (understood figuratively), where they gather around the ‘altar’, i.e. in the presence of God.
    • Ch. 21—Believers are no longer limited to the space of the sanctuary, for now the entire city is pure and holy, and there can be nothing wicked in it any longer.

In this regard, the vision in chapter 21 is quite different from similar depictions of a future/glorious Jerusalem, both in the Old Testament and subsequently in Jewish eschatology. The Temple—envisioned as a real, if idealized, building—features prominently in Ezekiel’s great vision (chaps. 40-48), as also in Zech 14:16-21, and other prophetic passages. Of other eschatological references, we may note Tobit 14:5; 1 Enoch 91:13; 2 Baruch 32:4 (cf. Koester, p. 820, and my earlier article). The Qumran Community certainly expected the Temple to be at the center of the New Age, whether in terms of a restoration/transformation of the existing building, or as a new (heavenly) Temple which God will build (or send) in its place—cf. the Temple scroll [11Q19] 29:8-10; 11Q18 frs. 19, 20; 2Q24 fr. 4 l. 3; 4Q400-405.

“And the city held no occasion of [i.e. need for] (the) sun, and not the moon (either), that they would shine forth in her, for the splendor [do/ca] of God gave light (to) her, and her lamp is the Lamb.” (v. 23)

There was also no need in this city for any natural light—that is, coming from the natural sources of the sun and moon. While the vision may genuinely understand the absence of sun and moon as an authentic cosmological detail in the New Age, it would be a mistake for us to make too much of this. The ancient cosmology of the first-century Near East, including the place of the sun and moon in it, is radically different from our expanded view of the universe today. What is most important here is the idea of the sun and moon as the primary sources of natural light. Instead, believers in the “new Jerusalem” rely on supernatural heavenly/divine Light that comes from the very presence of God and Christ.

This motif derives largely from Isaiah 60:19 (also vv. 1-2); as we shall see, a number of details here in verses 22-27 stem from the oracle in Isaiah 60. Of all the elements or features of the natural world, light was chosen, due to its primary religious and theological significance (which hardly needs to be demonstrated), as well as the way in which it marks the beginning of the original creation (Gen 1:3). Since God was the source of the first (created) light, His manifest presence provides an even greater, and truer, source of pure light. Jesus is also identified with light-imagery, especially in the Johannine tradition (Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 1:5, 7; 2:8-10), where the imagery goes beyond the traditional Messianic associations (Matt 4:16; Luke 1:79; 2:32, etc). The specification here of Jesus as a “lamp”, as opposed to God as the true source of the light, suggests a Christological ‘subordination’ that would make many Christians uncomfortable; however, it generally reflects early Christian thought on the matter, though perhaps formulated not as precisely as we might like. The exalted Jesus rules alongside God the Father, sharing the same authority and power, but he still receives this from the Father. This, too, is a key point of Johannine theology, which Jesus himself declares repeatedly throughout the Gospel Discourses.

In the next daily note, we will explore the next part of this visionary description, of the relation of the city’s Divine Light to the surrounding nations. This presence of the “nations” in the vision raises certain difficulties of interpretation, as we shall see.

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