“Husbands love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present her to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27 NKJV).
“Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God” (Revelation 21:9-11).
Most Christians are familiar with John’s vision of the New Jerusalem as recorded in Revelation 21. We frequently long for the time when we will approach the Holy City, New Jerusalem (v. 2), enter through its gates of pearl (v. 21) and walk those glittering streets of gold (v. 21). Even as we imagine those things however we puzzle over many questions: where exactly is heaven? How literal are those gates and streets? What will we do when we are there? On the one hand we are intrigued with the imagery John uses. On the other, we understand that it is a vision, and therefore may not be intended literally.
It seems to me that the above thoughts lead us along a “stray path” from what John, or more accurately the Holy Spirit, is intending for us to understand. Is this vision actually about a place, even a spiritual place? The fact is, not really.
If you have not already done so, go back to the two passages cited at the beginning of this article and compare them carefully. In both passages the subject is the Bride of Christ. And that Bride is specifically identified in Ephesians 5 as the Church for which Jesus died. Is it not natural and proper to assume that same identity in Revelation?
If that is not convincing, look at Hebrews 12:22-23. There a close approximation of the other phrase used in Revelation 21 (“the Holy city, New Jerusalem”) is found – “the Heavenly Jerusalem,” also called the “city of the living God.” Again there is an identification of just what is intended by these phrases. It is “the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are registered in heaven.”
Granted, the same figure of speech or metaphor may be used in various places in the Bible to refer to different objects or persons. Jesus, God, and elders of the Church are all referred to as “shepherds”. The context makes it clear what is intended in each occurrence. But in the case of these figures, the language is very similar and the context suggests that the same referent is in view.
Note that in Revelation 21:1, the vision begins with the appearance of “a new heaven and a new earth.” The context or setting of the revelation of the holy city / bride of the lamb are first revealed. “The first heaven and the first earth (i.e., the first creation) had passed away” (Revelation 21:1) and it had been replaced with a new creation which would become the environment for the city / bride which was then revealed.
What is my point? That the “city four-square” for which we long is not so much a place as it is the glorified, resurrected Kingdom of God – the perfected and glorious Church. It is that anticipated eternal glory which Jesus bestowed through his death. It is that glory which is illustrated with perfect shapes (the cube), beautiful gemstones, and pure lustrous gold.
Perhaps a question will help our understanding. When you give thanks to God for being a citizen of the United States, what is your reason for considering that a special blessing? Is it our location in North America? Or is it more about our national identity, government, constitution, freedoms, and historical legacy? Yes, our location is special, but without the other it would not benefit us nearly so much.
Our eternal home will be in a remade location of some kind, almost certainly more spiritual than material. But what will make it truly “heaven” will be our relationship with the King (and with one another) within his glorious undefiled Kingdom.
Complaints about the imperfect church on earth are valid. There are hypocrites, mis-interpretations, divisions, and other sins with various congregations. But those are temporal. The time will come when the Lamb will claim his perfected, glorious bride “And they shall reign together forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).