Have you ever thought about heaven as a city?
In the apostle John’s account of the new earth in Revelation 21-22, prominent attention is given to the New Jerusalem, the capital of the eternal heaven. Nearly half of Revelation 21 is devoted to describing the physical properties of the magnificent metropolis. Its glorious splendor will be the heart of the new earth, for it is here that God Himself dwells.
Christians rarely think of heaven as a city, and yet that is precisely how God describes it (Heb. 11:16; cf. John 14:2). Cities have buildings, streets, houses, and citizens. They are places of political power, economic industry, higher learning, refined culture, and impressive architecture. These characteristics are true of the heavenly city as well, though the New Jerusalem will far outshine any of earthly city in both its magnificence and its might.
The fact that every major society on earth organizes itself into cities is indicative of the way God designed human beings. He created them to function in community with other people. It is not surprising, then, to learn that life on the new earth will center around a great municipality. As John MacArthur explains, “The concept of a city includes relationships, activity, responsibility, unity, socialization, communion, and cooperation. Unlike the evil cities of the present earth, the perfectly holy people in the new Jerusalem will live and work together in perfect harmony” (Revelation 12-22, 264).
In stark contrast to the harlot city of Babylon (destroyed in Rev. 18), the holy city of the New Jerusalem is free from God’s judgment (21:9). It is the home of the redeemed and the bride of the Lamb (21:2). It is also a realm characterized by the glory and presence of God (v. 11). Like a giant prism, illuminating God’s glory everywhere, the New Jerusalem will light up the entire new universe.
Unlike the dirty, smoggy cities of this world, the New Jerusalem glistens like a massive jewel as it descends from heaven onto the new earth. The Greek word translated “jasper” in Revelation 21:11 does not necessarily refer to the actual gem jasper, which possesses a reddish or brownish hue. Rather, it is a general term that can refer to any kind of precious gemstone. The further description, “clear as crystal,” suggests that John is describing a diamond. Thus, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven onto the New Earth like a jewel-studded crown from heaven. The image of a heavenly crown is appropriate because, as Revelation 22:2–5 describe, it is the very throne room of God Himself.
According to Revelation 21:15–17, the measurements of the New Jerusalem are immense, approximately 1,500 miles long on each side. By way of illustration, if one corner of the city were placed on Los Angeles, a second corner would sit on Mexico City, a third corner on St. Louis, Missouri, and the final corner on Edmonton, Alberta. If the center of the New Jerusalem rested where the current Jerusalem stands, it would stretch across three continents from Greece to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Libya. The current city of Los Angeles has an area of 468 square miles. The state of California comprises roughly 164,000 square miles. But the New Jerusalem will encompass over 2 million square miles. That is the equivalent of 14 states of California put together; or 4,807 cities of Los Angeles combined.
But the New Jerusalem is not just a big square. It is a cube. The highest mountains on earth are about 5 miles tall; but the New Jerusalem will rise into the air 1,500 miles—with walls over 200 feet thick. The massive city houses a total volume of more than 3 billion cubic miles. In light of the city’s immensity, some commentators have speculated that the resurrection bodies of the redeemed may not be subject to gravity. If so, the residents of the New Jerusalem would be able to traverse through space not only horizontally, but also vertically, making every part of this glorious cube inhabitable and accessible to the citizens of the New Jerusalem.
But there is more going on than just information about its enormous dimensions. The specific arrangement of the three gates on each side of the city, in verses 13–14, points back to the way the twelve tribes of Israel camped around the tabernacle (cf. Num. 2:1–31), and also the arrangement of the gates of the millennial Jerusalem (cf. Ezekiel 48:30– 35). Furthermore, the cube-shaped dimensions of the New Jerusalem hearken back to the Holy of Holies. As Mark Dever explains,
Any Christian who knows the Old Testament knows that John’s vision harks back to the Most Holy Place. This special place within Israel’s temple was itself a perfect cube and the most manifest location of God’s presence on earth. Now, in this cube-shaped heavenly city, God’s full, unmediated presence is given to all his people. The whole world becomes the temple. (The Message of the Old Testament, 39)
In Revelation 21:22, the apostle John transitions from an external description of the New Jerusalem to an internal one. Having established the physical dimensions of the capital city, with significant parallels to the Most Holy Place, he begins to describe the worship and activity that characterizes those who are inside. He primarily focuses his attention on the fact that the Triune God will be personally present there. As a result, there will be no need for a temple because God and the Lamb are the temple (v. 22).
The redeemed will live forever with the Lord in intimate worship and fellowship; they will not need a curtain to separate themselves from His holy presence, because they have been made perfect just as He is perfect (cf. 1 John 3:2). Above all else, it is God’s personal presence that defines the new earth as heaven (Rev. 21:3). It is not heaven because it is beautiful and glorious; or because the saints of all the ages are there; or because angels lift up their voices in magnificent hymns of praise. On the contrary, it is only heaven, because the Triune God will make it His dwelling place. In the words of D. L. Moody, “It is not the jaspar walls and the pearly gates that are going to make heaven attractive. It is the being with God.” In heaven, the redeemed shall be reunited with their Redeemer!
Spending eternity with Him in perfect fellowship, worship, and service is what makes eternity so glorious. His presence is heaven’s essence. Charles Spurgeon poignantly expressed this reality with these words:
Oh, to think of heaven without Christ! It is the same thing as thinking of hell. Heaven without Christ! It is day without the sun, existing without life, feasting without food, seeing without light. It involves a contradiction in terms. Heaven without Christ! Absurd. It is the sea without water, the earth without its fields, the heavens without their stars. There cannot be a heaven without Christ. He is the sum total of bliss, the fountain from which heaven flows, the element of which heaven is composed. Christ is heaven and heaven is Christ.