A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Book of Revelation (9) Chapters 21:1—22:21 

J McHugh

by Joe McHugh

New heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem

A new heaven and new earth appear. The old earth and even the old heaven, marred by sin, pass away. (Remember chapter 12:7: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” and expelled him from heaven.) John sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven.” God desires that both here on earth and in the New Jerusalem his people will live in community. John’s choice of Greek word for “come” suggests that the city is continually coming down from heaven. The New Jerusalem is an ongoing gift of God. In his wonderful way of mixing metaphors, John also tells us the New Jerusalem is the Bride of Jesus the Lamb. The people of God are the Bride. Back in chapter 19, the marriage feast of the Lamb and his Bride was announced. Now it has arrived.

John reflects on various Old Testament promises: God will dwell with his people and wipe away our tears. Ezekiel 37:27: “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Zechariah 8:7-8: “I will save my people…and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God….” Isaiah 65:17, 19: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.” And my personal favorite, often heard at funerals, Isaiah 25:6, 7-8: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines….he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”

Note that God does not say, “I am making all new things.” Rather, God says, “See, I am making all things new.” God doesn’t start over with all new things; he redeems and renews our sinful world – and us. God also says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” All things begin in God and end in God. Yet there is also a word of warning. Those who persist in disobedience will not share in God’s victory. God refers back to the letters to the churches, listing their sins.Angel_T

In 17:1 one of the seven angels who had the bowls of the final plagues showed John “the great whore.” It’s appropriate that one of that same group of angels should now take John to show him the Bride of the Lamb. A great contrast! Rome is a harlot; the New Jerusalem is a bride. The city has twelve gates, always open, on which are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; the wall of the city has twelve foundations on which are the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Twelve is a number rich in biblical imagery. (The Greek says the dimensions of New Jerusalem are twelve thousand stadia, cubed. English translations often convert the measurements into miles.) The length of New Zealand, measured as a gentle curve from the northern tip of the North Island to the southern end of Stewart Island, is slightly more than 1,000 miles. New Jerusalem is longer -- 1,500 miles. This is also the width of the holy city and also its expanse into space. It is a perfect cube (as was the Holy of Holies [1 Kings 6:20]).

John stretches our imaginations. The city is the place where God is. Its streets are made of pure gold, clear as glass! How marvelous is our God! Each of the gates of the city is a single pearl. Again, how can a round pearl function as a gate? But John is not concerned that his metaphors be logical. (By the way, 21:21 is the source of the image of coming to heaven being “arriving at the pearly gates.”)

John declares that he saw “no temple in the city,” but he immediately explains that the city does have a temple: God and the Lamb.  The “nations” are among those who come to worship, and, John tells us, they will walk by the light of God and the Lamb, and that “the kings of the earth” will bring their glory into the New Jerusalem. (Isaiah 60:1-11 develop this theme, especially the last two verses: “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.”) We might wonder, weren’t the nations and their kings destroyed by God? But remember John is not outlining a simple chronology of events but is presenting contrasting visions – warnings of judgment and promises of salvation. God’s will has always been the salvation of the nations, not their destruction.

The opening verses of chapter 22 echo the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3. When Adam and Eve sinned they hid themselves from the face of God. Now the story of humanity’s sin is reversed. In the New Jerusalem humanity will not hide from God but turn towards God’s face.


Revelation draws us back to our ordinary world as John’s prophecy in apocalyptic terms enclosed in a pastoral letter comes to an end. Revelation is not predictive; it calls us to faithfulness to the Lord. Would John have expected there would be a twenty-first century? Perhaps not. But his message that Jesus is coming soon is still valid. We know not the time of our own going to the Lord, nor his return in glory. Come, Lord Jesus!


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