I have traveled to Israel six or seven times. The first time was the summer of 1982 when I lived with thirty other teenagers in Beit Jala, on the West Bank, building a “chicken coop” for a Christian school. The coop—or “poultry operations building” as we jokingly called it—would house several thousand chickens and provide a steady stream of income to the school.
On the weekends, we got to go into town, which normally meant Bethlehem—the closest large city—but often meant Jerusalem. Several of us would pile on a public bus to make the hour-long trek to Arab East Jerusalem, within walking distance of the massive Damascus Gate. I fell in love with Jerusalem the first time I saw it and spent much of my free time exploring its narrow streets and alleys. On my trip to Israel in January 1997, I peeled off from the tour group to spend some time alone and discovered—to my amazement—that I still knew my way around the city.
Revelation 21 speaks of “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” Verses 9–27 describe its gates and foundations; its height, width, and depth; the precious materials that went into its making; and its inhabitants. It is a city like no other. For one thing, it is a perfect cube: approximately 1,400 miles high, wide, and deep. Its twelve gates each are made of a single pearl, and its streets are paved with gold.
Now, obviously, John is speaking symbolically here. How do I know this? Because John tells us so. The angel who shows John the new Jerusalem tells him, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” The city, in other words, is not a literal city, and not even a literal bride, but rather—literally—the church. What John sees is the church of Jesus Christ, the community of people who have put their faith in the God of Jesus Christ and received salvation as a gift. What, then, do John’s elaborate descriptions of the city tell us about the church?
First, it exists by the grace of God. It descends from heaven as a gift (verse 2). It cannot be built by human hands but only by a divine builder. That is why it shines with “the glory of God.” It is the work of his hands.
Second, it is built on and controlled by the revelation of God. Verses 13–14 describe its gates and foundations. On the former are written the name of the twelve tribes, representing the covenant God made with Israel, a covenant recorded and celebrated in the Old Testament. On the latter are written the name of the twelve apostles, representing the new covenant established through Jesus Christ with all people, which of course is recorded and celebrated in the New Testament. There is no church without the Word of God, without the whole of Scripture.
Third, it is beautiful (verses 18–21). John uses precious stones and metals to describe the church because those are earthly things that have connotations of beauty and value. To God, the church is beautiful, because he has blessed it with every spiritual blessing in Jesus Christ.
Fourth, God is present. The most important thing about the church is that God is present among his people. “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (verse 22). We often speak about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In eternity, we will have that kind of relationship in all its fullness.
Grace, revelation, beauty, and divine presence: These words describe the church in eternity. To what extent do they describe the churches you and I worship in today? Let us pray—and work—for such churches here and now.