November 17, 2002
THE NEW CITY
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:10)
What’s the city of the future going to be like? Maybe you’ve seen movies that picture cities at some point in the future. Such movies usually portray the future city with lots of high-tech gadgets but also lots of low-life behavior. In these movies, the city of the future tends to be grim.
But the city of the future is not going to be grim; it’s going to be great! It will be safe. It will be clean. It will be prosperous. It will be beautiful. It will be well governed. It will be a splendid place to live.
You may have a hard time believing this. Some of you live in cities that are dirty and dangerous. Streets are littered and buildings are run down. City governments have a hard time keeping a lid on crime and violence. Homeless people wander the streets. Kids join gangs. Schools look like prisons, with metal detectors, chain link fences, and police officers roaming the halls. More children than ever are growing up with one parent or none. The outlook for future generations of city dwellers appears worse than ever. If current trends are any indicator, it’s hard to get excited about the city of the future.
But I’m going to repeat what I said before: the city of the future will be a splendid place to live. That’s not wishful thinking. It’s a fact. Present trends may look discouraging, but the city of the future won’t be the product of present trends. It will be a new city, built and governed by God himself.
A Guided Tour
Let’s take a tour of that new city with the help of an excellent tour guide: Jesus’ best friend, the apostle John. In the final two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, John records a stunning vision of the new city of the ultimate future. John begins Revelation 21 with these magnificent words:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 21:1-6)
Things You Won’t See
Jesus reigns supreme in the new Jerusalem. The old order passes away, and a new one begins. This means the city of the future won’t have many things we now associate with city life.
You won’t see drug rehabilitation centers. You won’t see a hospital, or hear the wail of a siren. You won’t find any divorce courts or lie detectors. You won’t find a police station or jail. You won’t find any locks or security systems. They aren’t necessary in this city. “Nothing impure will ever enter it,” says the Bible, “nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful” (21:27). People who reject Christ and remain in sin won’t be in the new city, and those who have trusted Christ will have all their sins and shortcomings replaced with perfection.
In the city of the future, you’ll find no military headquarters, no missile factories, no gun shops. You’ll find no abortion clinics, no morgues or funeral parlors. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). A great many things will be missing from the city–but we won’t miss any of them!
Beauty Beyond Imagining
What will be in the city? John says,
He carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.
In the vision, the city has twelve gates bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles of Jesus. In other words, the city is the home of those who embrace the God of Israel and believe the apostle’s teaching about Jesus.
John then tells us the measurements of the city. It’s an immense cube, measuring “12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long.” If we take those dimensions literally, that’s a city 1400 miles (or 2200 kilometers) long, 1400 miles wide, and 1400 miles high! By comparison, the world’s tallest building is less than a third of a mile tall. How can we even imagine a city 1400 miles tall?
Let’s keep in mind that this vision, like the rest of the book of Revelation, is full of symbolic numbers. The cubical shape points to perfect symmetry, and the measurement of 12,000 stadia results from multiplying 12, a number that symbolizes completeness, by 1000, a number that symbolizes immensity. The picture is of a splendid city that’s perfectly symmetrical and vast beyond imagination, a city that goes on and on in every direction, that extends up and up almost without limit. If these measurements aren’t literal, it’s not that the city is less than the vision, but even greater. Symbolic numbers are needed to describe what literal statistics can’t. Can a mathematician give you a number for infinity?
In the vision of Revelation, the walls around the city measure 144 cubits thick. 144 is 12 times 12, and twelve symbolizes completeness. Walls 144 cubits thick mean complete security and protection. Will the new city really have massive walls like the great cities of the ancient world? Will the walls actually measure 200 feet (or 65 meters) in thickness? Who knows? But whether or not there are massive walls of stone, the mighty wall of God’s protection makes the city totally invulnerable to attack and free from fear. No army can march against this city. No terrorist can explode anything in this city.
After describing how vast and secure the new city is, John goes into more detail about its beauty and wealth and splendor.
The wall [he says] was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone… The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.
The most rare and precious materials we know now are common building materials in the city of the future. There won’t be structures of brick and mortar, of concrete and steel. There won’t be streets of dirt or asphalt. Not even marble is good enough; only gold and precious gems will do. For gates and doors, not even the most expensive wood will meet the building code; only solid pearl can be used. Again, if these details aren’t literal, it’s not because the reality is less but because it’s even greater.
Imagine trying to describe a modern skyscraper to someone from a tribal village who has never seen anything but small huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs. How would you describe the soaring steel, the thousands of windows, or the high-speed elevators? Not easy, is it? But it’s easier than picturing God’s new city in terms of what we know now.
John’s vision uses things we know to help us anticipate what we don’t know. It pictures what is beyond picturing. It helps us to value a wealth that is beyond evaluation, to imagine a beauty beyond imagining. The humblest building in John’s vision makes our highest skyscraper look short and the Taj Mahal look shabby.
No Zoos or Churches
Let’s continue the tour. As John describes the city, it becomes clear that there are some more things we won’t find. Earlier, we noted some of the sad and sinful things that will be missing, but there are also other structures we now have that we won’t see there–not because they’re bad, but because they’ve been replaced by something better.
For example, don’t expect to find a zoo. A large zoo is a highlight in many cities. My family and I love to go see animals in the zoo. But in the new creation, zoos will be obsolete. Not that there won’t be animals. We just won’t need to confine them in order to see them up close. They won’t be afraid or us or run away. They won’t be a danger to us or to each other. In Revelation 21, John was taken to “a mountain great and high,” and what are the animals like on God’s mountain? Isaiah 11 says,
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the vipers nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9).
The new creation may have many animals but no zoos. Who needs a zoo, when a baby can play with a cobra, when all God’s creatures live in harmony?
Something else will be missing from the new Jerusalem, and this may come as a surprise. There won’t be any churches or preachers. I hope some of us preachers make it there–but when we get there, our preaching won’t be needed, and there won’t be any church or temple. John writes: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
In this life we need church. We need preachers who are specially called by God to preach his Word. We need the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to strengthen our faith. But in the new Jerusalem there will be no temple, no church, no Sunday school, no rituals to seal our relationship to God, no symbols to remind us of God. We won’t need any of that, for we’ll be in direct contact with God, face to face with Jesus. In the new creation, the Lord doesn’t have a temple; he is the temple.
Churches will be obsolete, and so will everything created to give light. Sun, moon, and stars might exist in the new creation, but simply for God’s delight and our enjoyment, not because their light is needed. The glory of the Lord will provide all the light we ever need. Revelation says, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp (21:22-23).”
The new city is a place where bad things are completely shut out and where even good things, such as zoos, churches, and sunshine, are replaced by better things.
Best of Everything
Next, John describes what comes into the city:
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:24-27).
Nowadays, cities seem to have the best of everything, but they also have the worst. Cities have the highest concentration of wealth, but they also have the foulest slums and the most demeaning poverty. Cities have the most splendid works of culture: the finest paintings, the best universities and libraries, the most glorious concert halls and playhouses and museums. But cities also include the worst garbage: prostitution districts, porn shops, drug houses, and the like. Cities have the best of what’s human but also the worst.
The city of the future, however, will include only the best. A steady stream of splendor and glory and honor from a great diversity of nations and cultures will flow into it. God’s people will be purified of anything unworthy, and everything they’ve done to God’s glory here on earth will be transformed and given a place in the new Jerusalem.
This doesn’t just affect the far-off future. It means that the things we do now, our loving deeds and our finest cultural achievements, are somehow preserved and added to God’s glorious treasury in the holy city. “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it,” says John.
Like a giant magnet, the new Jerusalem will draw to itself everything noble and worthwhile, but it will repel everything sinful and worthless. Those who have rejected God, who have refused his salvation in Christ, who have chosen to remain in sin, will find no place in the new creation. They will never set foot on the streets of gold. “Their place,” says Revelation, “will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). That’s very sobering, but it’s a fact. Anyone who doesn’t love God can’t bear to be where God shines in unveiled glory, and anyone who refuses to let go of sin can’t enter a place that excludes sin and sorrow. Only those who trust Christ will ever enter.
After that sobering reminder, John writes:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (22:1-2).
This isn’t just a nice municipal park. It’s life, life, and more life, bursting and bubbling and flowing and growing from the source of life, the One who is Life, the living God. The river of Holy Spirit life flows from the Father and the Son, brimming with refreshment and renewal. God’s tree of life nourishes the city with a never-ending abundance of fruit, and its leaves mean health for all. Just as Christ brings life and healing even now, so in the new city the tree of life will mean perfect health and wholeness forever.
No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (22:3-5).
To serve God perfectly, to see him clearly, to wear the divine mark and bear his name, to bask in his radiance and share in his rule over the universe–these are wonders beyond words, but that will be the normal way of life in the city of the future.
The Real World
I know what some of you are thinking at this point. You’re thinking, what about the real world? What’s the use of talking about a future fantasy, when right now we’re surrounded by greed, filth, and violence, by gangs and drugs and pollution? Well, friend, what we’ve been talking about is the real world.
Granted, our cities have many problems (at least for the moment) and we need to deal with them somehow. But let me just ask: Who’s in touch with the real world? Is it people who are so bogged down in broken families and addiction and violence, in sin and selfishness, that they can’t even imagine anything better? Or is it those who are in touch with the one reality that lasts forever? I totally agree that we need to be in touch with the real world, but the ultimate reality is the eternal city of God.
When we’re in touch with this reality, when we really believe in the city of the future, we can also change the future of the city. We can begin to make our cities better right now, starting with ourselves. Instead of caving in to despair, we can have new hope and new energy, knowing that the future is bright. The more of us who start living right now as citizens of heaven, the better our neighborhoods will be.
The most realistic thing you and I can do, both for now and for our ultimate future, is to recognize the living God as Lord of the universe, to trust his Son Jesus as the way, the truth, and to look eagerly to the city of the future. This glorious realism has moved God’s people ever since Abraham. In Hebrews 11 the Bible says Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). That’s what we need to do as well: look forward to the city with foundations, the city that lasts forever, the ultimate reality.
Headed For Home
A final truth about the city of the future is simply this: it’s home. It’s where we were always meant to be, the only place we truly belong. Through faith we’re like the believers described in Hebrews 11:
All these people were still living by faith when they died… And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth… they were looking for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
The New Jerusalem is home, because that’s where our Father lives.
The knowledge that we’re headed home makes all the difference in life’s journey. As a young boy on the farm, I had a white pony with brown spots named Frosty. He was old, he was ornery, and he was clever. Whenever I tried to ride Frosty in a direction away from home, he got very stubborn. First he would rear and try to dump me off. Then he would try to brush up against a fence or building to crunch my leg and rub me off. When that didn’t work, he would go as slow as he possibly could, and I had to work like crazy to keep him moving. After we had gone a ways, Frosty would start to limp. Soon the limp was so bad that if you didn’t know better, you’d think his leg might fall off.
But when we’d gone far enough, and I turned Frosty around and headed for home–oh, what a miracle! Frosty’s limp vanished, as if by magic. No matter how far we had traveled or how tired he was, the old pony would suddenly have a new burst of energy and race like the wind, strong and full of zest. Frosty was headed home, and he knew it, and that made all the difference.
Some of us limp through life, tired and reluctant. The older we get, the more we feel like we’re moving away from where we want to be. Our best years are behind us, and we’ve got nothing to look forward to. But when we trust in Jesus and look forward to the splendid city of the future, life’s journey isn’t a grim burden. We know what lies ahead. And so we shake off the things that slow us down, we overcome our weariness and reluctance, and we run with eagerness toward the goal. Many things can be said about the new creation and its capital city, but perhaps the best thing that can be said is this: it’s home.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that in your Father’s house are many mansions and that you are preparing a place there for each of us who trust in you. Rescue many from sin and despair, and give each of us faith to embrace this splendid future through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.