Having the Glory of God
Having the Glory of God
by William Klock
Have you ever considered that Revelation has at least as much to tell us about who we are as the Church—right now!—as it has to tell us about where we’re headed as the Church? In other words, that it’s got more to say about identity than it does our future—and that what it does have to say about our future is integrally tied to our identity. We read the description of the New Jerusalem found in these final chapters of Revelation and our focus seems almost always to be on it as a description of heaven, of the afterlife, or something like that, when the truth of it is that what John sees here is a picture of the Church. It’s future, yes, in the sense that what he sees is the Church perfected, but the important thing we too often miss is that that means it’s a picture of what God has called us to be and what he is making us even today through the work of Jesus and the Spirit.
In the first part of Chapter 21, we read last week John’s description of the city descending like a bride adorned for her husband and I said that all of Church history is like the bride walking down the aisle. With each step she becomes more beautiful, her dress brightening, her face more radiant, until she reaches her bridegroom, Jesus, perfected.
And last week we look at that passage about the city descending and asked, “If the city is the Church and the Church is here, how is it that it also descends?” And I said that this is John’s way of showing us the fulfilment of what Paul wrote in Colossians 3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Since his ascension, Jesus has been preparing this great day, the consummation of his new creation, the great wedding—there are so many different ways to view it and so many analogies to describe it. In many ways, the preparation goes back all the way to Genesis 3. Before the word ever became incarnate in Jesus, God was preparing for this day. The history of the Lord and his people in the Bible is like an Advent calendar. Each day we open a door and find another little bit of the story leading us to the last great day when all the Christmas decorations and all the presents come out of the closet or from under the bed and we celebrate. But along the way we learn who we are in Jesus as a people. And along the way he prepares us.
Too often we’re like the couple who calls the minister a few weeks before their planned wedding, just expecting everything to be ready and available so that they can show up and get married. It doesn’t work like that. And neither does the wedding John shows us in Revelation. And so, in verses 6 and 7, as we read last week, God speaks from his throne and declares:
To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
Can you remember when Jesus said something like this? Think back to the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. “Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” In verse 4 the Lord says that he will wipe away every tear, echoing Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And, of course, remember the context. John was writing to those churches in Asia Minor about to be caught up in a whirlwind of opposition and persecution and tribulation, all on account of their commitment to Jesus. Think back to Matthew 5:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven… (Matthew 5:10-12a)
And here at the end we see that Jesus has, indeed, blessed those who have committed themselves to him and to his kingdom. Repeatedly Jesus urged the believers in those churches to “conquer”—to stand firm in faith—and here we see them, along with the whole church throughout history, receiving their reward. They’ve not only stood firm in faith, confessing Jesus as Lord even as they faced persecution and sometimes martyrdom, but they’ve actively pursued the agenda of the kingdom. These are the people who in faith and hope prayed “on earth as in heaven” and now they see those prayers fulfilled. In their prayers and in their lives they have commit themselves to God’s new world and, having done so, they’ve finally arrived.
In contrast, the Lord warns from his throne:
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
It might strike us as odd that at the head of this list of sins that exemplify human rebellion and rejection of Jesus and that exclude people from his kingdom is cowardliness. But, again, remember the context. Think of the martyrs and of Jesus’ exhortation to conquer, to overcome, to stand firm. That takes courage—and not any courage, but a courage built on faith and hope in Jesus. Not everyone conquered in the face of persecution. There were some who took the easy way out and betrayed their Lord—who offered a pinch of incense to Caesar, who took part in the pagan temple rites lest people think them disloyal or irreligious, who compromised with the Jews on things like circumcision out of fear of being kicked out of the synagogue. As Jesus said to the Christians in Sardis, “The one who conquers…I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (Revelation 3:5). A faith-inspired courage is required of kingdom people. Again, think back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Following the cowards are those who have, each in their own way, bought into the devil’s lie and who have been enticed by the great prostitute and her chalice of filthiness. Murderers. Liars. Both chief characteristics of the devil. And sandwiched between those two: sexual immorality, sorcery, and idolatry—all things associated the worship of false gods. In contrast to the blessed who gave their allegiance to Jesus in faith and then lived out the values of his kingdom on earth as in heaven, these are they who have committed themselves to the dragon, to the beast, and to the prostitute, to their lies, to their kingdom, to everything that has corrupted God’s good creation. Jesus has come to make all things new, to renew and to restore. The first group—the courageous who looked forward to his new world in faith and hope—they’ve joined him. The latter have actively opposed Jesus and, as John has seen, have been wiped from creation and cast into the lake of fire to be destroyed, their corrupting influence gone forever.
Brothers and Sisters, there’s no neutral ground. There’s no fence sitting. And there’s no getting baptised or saying a prayer and then just expecting to be invited to the wedding. Those with whom the Lord makes his dwelling are those who have invested their lives in the pursuit of God and have lived the life that Jesus and the Spirit have given. They’ve been committed—even to the point of death—to seeing his kingdom come: proclaiming the good news about Jesus and pursuing the values of the kingdom: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. They have shown mercy and they have worked for justice as Jesus has exemplified them. At the core of it all is that they have scene and known for themselves the love of God made known in Jesus and especially at the cross, and they have loved him in return and committed their whole being to him.
Now look at verses 9-10:
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…
It's telling that one of the same angels responsible for pouring out God’s wrath on the earthy city now shows John the heavenly city. Brothers and Sisters, never forget that God’s wrath and his mercy are inseparably twined together—to side of the same coin. He is just in punishing sin and in finally and ultimately removing it from his creation and he is equally just in showing mercy to those who have committed themselves to him in Jesus the Messiah. And the structure of the vision is meant to contrast with what we’ve seen earlier. Both times one of these angels says to John, “Come, I will show you…” it’s to show him a woman. Both are beautiful and richly dressed, but one is an illusion, the other is real. The whore’s beauty and riches, on closer inspection, are nothing but filth and corruption. She embodies the great lie that has enslaved the human race. Over against the whore is the bride. The lamb has brought her with his blood, he has washed her clean, and clothed her in white. The bride is as pure as the prostitute is filthy.
But, again, the glory of what John sees here is so difficult to describe that he shifts his imagery. It’s a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope, ever-changing, but still there’s a consistent theme that links the images together. John sees the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God”. This is the second time he's seen it come down, which leads some commentators to think that some later editor jumbled up John’s visions, but I don’t think that’s the case. This is all symbolic and when we consider the nature of the city—and remember the city is the Church—there’s a sense in which every time you close your eyes and reopen them or every time you turn away to look at something else and then turn back to see the city, it’s going to be “coming down out of heaven from God”. That’s the nature of the church—especially once she’s been perfected. Brothers and Sisters, there is nothing in this world, there is nothing in any of us that could ever possibly bring us together into this body and to do what we do—and not just our little local church, but the church throughout the world. The Church is unique. It’s called by God. It’s established on his word as it was communicated by the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New, it is unified not by anything it has done, but instead by its union to Jesus, and it does what it does in the power of the Spirit. We are of earth, but everything we are and do comes from God and by his grace, which is again why we are the people who pray “on earth as in heaven”.
So the city descends. I don’t think the point of John’s statement about being on a great high mountain is that he’s on one mountain and the city descends to another. It’s one mountain. Ezekiel has the same sort of vision, but John’s also calls back to Psalm 48:2, “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.” Now, John goes on in verse 11, describing the city as:
having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
The city—the Church—has the glory of God. The word John uses is one that describes God’s presence in the Old Testament and, specifically, his presence in the midst of Israel. It was associated with the tabernacle and with the ark of the covenant. And so here the city shines like a rare gemstone, clearly and brightly, because God is in her midst. John again points us to the source of the Church’s beauty. We don’t make ourselves beautiful. We were sinners clothed in filthy rags, but by his grace Jesus has washed us clean, clothed us in white, and filled us with the Spirit to make us holy. And that leads us into John’s description of the city. The imagery he uses doesn’t come out of nowhere. This whole scene echoes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple in chapters 40 to 48 of his prophecy. And that’s key, because remember that the temple was the place of the Lord’s presence in Israel. John goes on in verses 12-14:
It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
So the city has bounds—we’ve seen already, it is only for those who belong to Jesus. It has twelve gates, which bear the names of the tribes of Israel, and it has twelve foundation stones bearing the names of the apostles of the Lamb. Those gates and those foundation stones identify the city with the people of God—not just the New Testament Church, but, too, the Old Testament Church. God has only one people and they are all those who are in Jesus the Messiah, whether that’s by looking forward to him in hopeful longing or looking back to him through history. He is the culmination of Israel’s story and the cornerstone on which this temple is built.
Look now at verses 15-21:
And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.
Like Ezekiel, John measures the city—or he watches as the angel measures it. What might be the most remarkable thing here is the size. 12,000 stadia just sounds like a big number if you have no idea what a stadia is, but it translates to about 1,500 miles or 2,400 kilometres. That means that if the centre of the city was at Vancouver, Thunder Bay would be just outside the bounds of the eastern wall. Fairbanks and Tuktoyaktuk would be well inside the walls to the northwest and New Orleans the southeasterly-most neighbourhood. But more specifically, it’s big enough to descend and obliterate the Roman Empire. The bride will replace the prostitute. The heavenly city will leave no place for the earthly. There’s a reason why the ESV doesn’t translate the measurement into something modern, because the “1,200” is itself symbolic. Over and over we see the number twelve in this vision—referring to the patriarchs of the old Israel and the apostles of the new, and here it’s multiplied by one thousand. It’s a symbol of the church, the people of God, perfected. It’s also a symbol of the Church’s conquest of the earthly city. And, too, it’s not just the length and breadth, but the height. John says the city lies “foursquare”, meaning it’s a cube. So it’s 1,500 miles high, too. And if we haven’t clued in yet, this should make it clear he’s seeing all this in symbols, not blueprints. The point of the imagery is to highlight the city as the dwelling place of God. It’s an enormous holy of holies—that cubical in the tabernacle where the ark rested and that was filled with the cloud of God’s glory. One day when the Church has accomplished the mission Jesus gave her, when she is herself perfected, the Lord will fulfil his promise through her—his glory will fill the whole earth as the waters cover the sea. That’s the point of this imagery that shows the Church as a giant holy of holies.
The symbolism continues: The thickness or height of the wall—it’s not quite clear which John means—is symbolic as well: twelve times twelve for 144 cubits. And the wall is like jasper—which he compared earlier to the glory of God manifest in the city. We might wonder why, with God’s enemies all finally defeated, the city even needs a wall. Remember that in the ancient world walls defined cities. But this one’s not so much for protection from enemies as it is simply the radiance of God’s glory surrounding his city. Too, the city is built of gold, and yet a gold clear as glass. And the foundations are adorned with gemstones. There are a variety of theories as to the significance of each and I won’t bore you with that this morning. The key point is that the imagery is drawn from the priest’s vestments in Exodus, the stones representing the tribes of Israel. I think the key takeaway is, again, that the Church as the bride of the lamb is everything of which the prostitute was a parody. Both were adored with jewels and finery, but one was a lie who enticed the nations of the world to drink from her chalice of filth to their own destruction, and the other is adorned with the truth of the gospel and the chalice she drinks from is Jesus himself. One woman brings destruction and death to humanity; the other proclaims life—and she is us.
That’s as far as we’ll go today in Revelation 21. The important takeaway here is to remember that this isn’t just about the future. John is certainly showing us a kaleidoscopic and symbolic vision of the future of the people of God. But John’s point in writing all of this—or I should really say, Jesus’ point in revealing all of this to John—was to encourage and exhort the churches under his care as tribulation was about to hit them like a tidal wave. Remember that Revelation is about three things: tribulation, perseverance, and kingdom. John shows us the kingdom consummated and in all its future fulness, but he does so, so that we can see it present today as God indwells his Church in Jesus and the Spirit—so that we can see him today leading us by the hand into that future. John shows us the Church, perfect and glorified, but the same characteristics that mark her out in her future perfection mark her out even today—because past, present, or future it is God himself who graciously makes the Church what she is—because at the centre of it all is Jesus. And Jesus is not just a future hope. He lived and died and he ascended and now reigns. Even if the kingdom hasn’t come in all its fulness, even if the Church is not yet perfect and ready for her marriage, Jesus reigns and holds those seven stars—his people, his Church, his bride—in his hands. He always has, he does today, and he always will. The same Jesus we see standing as bridegroom at the end of the aisle, waiting to receive his bride is the Jesus who died for his bride and gave her the Spirit. He is the Church’s centre and foundation in the future, because he is our centre and our foundation in the past and in the present. He is our Lord and what we do in worshiping him and in witnessing him today is drawn up by God in his mercy to build his kingdom bit by bit as she walks in faithful perseverance through tribulation, through opposition, and even through martyrdom. The gospel spreads one person at a time and as it does we also see the bride walking the aisle and growing more beautiful and perfect with each step. I often say that the duty of the Church in proclaiming Jesus is to lift the veil on God’s new creation to give the world a glimpse of what is to come, but here in his vision, John lifts the bride’s veil so that we today, as we face the challenges of the earthly city, can see a glimpse of what God has in store for us as his people and persevere in hope, for Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: Father, in the Collect we asked you to teach us to ask for those things that please you. Having seen John’s vision of your Church perfected—the embodiment of all that pleases you—we ask for your gracious help to be in the present the people you would have us to be: a people who pursue holiness and live the fruit given by your Spirit, emboldened to live and to proclaim the good news of Jesus, crucified, risen, and Lord, to all the world, a people who commit our all to you in love, because you have given yourself for us. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.