Your minutes, days, and years contain the greatest work of all time.
I have no idea when all the masks are going to disappear, but one thing is for sure—orange barrels won’t be going away anytime soon. And they’re an omen of things to come. Like shutting down the exit ramp I need to get from the freeway to my neighborhood. There’s going to be some contorted detour—Chutes and Ladders for grownups. Guaranteed, one person in the crowd will always say “It’ll be great when they get it done!”
Yeah, it had better be, because by the time they get it done we’ll all be dead of old age.
Okay, my sarcasm is showing. But I think there’s a similar cynicism when a lot of us think about life in general. Assuming God is going somewhere, after all the noise and suffering, is it going to be worth it?
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance and he went out not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise” (Heb. 11:8).
Now why did Abraham do that? He packed up all his stuff, inconvenienced his family, relocated, and stayed there, in the middle of a rather uninspiring place. He talked his sons into staying there with him, not to mention his wife, and there were probably lots of conversations about harsh weather, and people who weren’t friendly, but at the end of the day, they stayed put. Why? Well, in the very next verse, it says, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9).
Abraham was looking for something more substantial than a tent. He desired a city built by the constructing hand of God. Now, here at the end of scripture, in the book of Revelation, we encounter it. How did Abraham, back in the Book of Genesis, see a city all the way out in the Book of Revelation? No doubt, it was God opening the eyes of his heart, causing him to see see something blurry, ill-defined. He had nowhere near the kind of clarity we have available to us in the New Testament, and yet this man felt it was so worth it to order his entire life and family around it.
The New Jerusalem is God’s crowning achievement, the biggest thing in Scripture, and it is worth seeking and entering ever more deeply.
Consider this city that Abraham would have loved to see in greater detail:
“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’ll show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9).
This is one of the angels back in chapter 16 that poured out the wrath of God. Here, he offers to show John the most positive vision in the whole Bible. Even negative things can promote the positive purpose of God, which, in this case, is the bride, the wife of the Lamb.
This last vision reminds us of God’s love for his redeemed people. He called himself the husband of Israel (Isa. 54:5); in the New Testament, the church is called the bride of Christ (Eph. 5)–altogether one bride in light of His overall redemption. For thousands of years, the history of God with his people is like one long love story, like John 13:1 that says, Jesus loved his own who were in the world, and he loved them to the end.
In verse 10, John writes, “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.” The first thing of note about this bride is that she is a city. We are not only seeing the consummation of a love story, but one of epic construction. In John 14:3, Jesus told the disciples, “I go”–to the cross, into Resurrection, to the throne– “and prepare a place for you.” The entirety of church history is a preparatory time, where God in Christ is slowly, and incrementally preparing a builded city.
Is this a literal city? John did see one, but remember that much of the content of Revelation is conveyed through signs. As a sign it reflects heavenly reality. Nor can we say the city is heaven, because it comes down out of heaven. Neither can we say it is a literal city because it is the wife of the Lamb; Jesus would never marry an inanimate object. Instead, New Jerusalem is actually us in our final form. It is us and for us, all at the same time.
Take a closer look in verse 11.
It had “the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” Jasper is not naturally clear, so the gemstone mentioned here is obviously beyond nature. It has the glory of God, which appears like Jasper. Back in Revelation 4:3 God sits on the throne and looks like a jasper stone. Thus, the city and God look the same. Over time, He radiated it with His glory. We’re told in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that, “we all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of Glory to another, and this all comes from the Lord who is the spirit.” The work of radiating God’s glory into his people is carried out through the Holy Spirit.
Having seen this glorious city loved and built by God, we wonder how to get into it. Well, if you believe in Jesus, you are already “in.” Non-Christians need explanations on how to enter. But for believers, we speak of these things as a matter of edification, praise, joy. Either way, verses 12-13 address issues of entrance.
12 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— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.
The city has a boundary, a wall, which means not everything is allowed in it–not every kind of life, or belief, or way of being (c.f. 21:27). But the verses do go on to say the city has twelve gates, which means abundant access. Still, at each gate is an angel, presumably supplying watchful oversight as to what goes into the city (c.f. Gen. 3:24).
On the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed, meaning that the faithful Old Testament peoples are there. Abraham will, at long last, obtain the city he waited for. Israel, who received and believed the prophecies and the promises concerning Jesus Christ, even though not exhaustively understanding them, will be there in the city as well.
Gates facing east, west, north, and south, refer to the four directions of the globe. The city has brought in, and is bringing in people through the gospel from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And on each side are three gates. Three is a significant number, since it represents the resurrection of Jesus, who rose on the third day. Anytime a person goes through the gates of the city, they’re entering through the resurrected man, Jesus Christ (and vice-versa). And when they do so, they’re simultaneously passing through a portal provided in the Person of the divine Trinity–the other significant “three.”
Verse 14 says, “the wall of the city had twelve foundations and on them where the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” The whole city is based upon the apostolic ministry of the twelve, their eyewitness testimony of Jesus’s earthly ministry, His crucifixion, his resurrection, and ascension. The people of God throughout all the ages are based upon the personal identity of Jesus Christ, as communicated in the gospel.
This city, which is currently in preparation, will, in its finished state be the greatest achievement of all. Sometimes this work becomes noticeable because of its intensity–we call it “revival”–and there are fresh, powerful moves of repentance. At other times, it’s hardly noticeable at all for long periods, as the Holy Spirit works quietly in the mundane lives of the saints. Regardless, one thing is always constant: two pierced hands do such perfect work that nothing in our life ever needs to be undone or redone.
Since I have an artistic streak, I like to look at sand sculptures. People who create these things spend countless hours proportioning the sand just right, causing beautiful figures to appear. Then they go home. Within a few hours, though, high tide comes in and dissolves their work, or some kids wander by and kick it. Regardless, the beach artist who had just spent all day creating it probably wouldn’t hesitate to say it was worth their time.
But when God shows a vision of His city, He calls us to something that’s truly worth it. He promises that if you order your life according to it, no tide will come in and eat it. Nobody’s going to walk by and cave it in.
I’m sure every Christian would say amen to this. But then something always seems to occur that calls God’s love and building work in our lives into question. We’re utterly distraught. There was a pastor down in south Louisiana who started a good church with a large facility, doing great work among the underprivileged. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, demolishing his building, and scattering the members of the church all over the South. The man’s life work was over in one night.
I couldn’t help but feel how unfair the whole thing was. He hadn’t been trying to build a casino, or a nightclub. He was trying to build a church. But I began to wonder if, when I think of the love of Jesus, I look at the wrong things. And when I think about the building up of the Holy Spirit, do I even know what that looks like. This was back in the days when I still thought of ministry like a brand you “had,” or the church as a collection of best practices and events. This man had been stripped of all those things, yet his faith had been clarified, and his spirit seemed fresh and new. Looking back on it, his situation was not a setback to God’s building, it was God’s building.
We Christians need to have a reset on a regular basis, where we tell the Lord, “You are free to love me anyway you want, and build me up with others anyway you want.”