Even while the church is unfinished, we can celebrate the glories to come.
You’ve probably driven somewhere and seen a pile of bricks and lumber on the side of the road. Maybe you decided to take another route for a while. Three months later you returned to that original route, and instead of all the lumber and bricks, a brand new apartment building sat there. You were mildly surprised. Then you reasonably concluded that construction had happened during the months you were absent.
This identical dynamic happens in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation.
In Genesis 2:12, as Scripture is introducing us to the Garden of Eden and its environs, we’re told that the area had gold, Onyx stone, and bdellium (a pearly substance). But when you come to Revelation chapter 21, those specific materials now compose a city (gold, v. 18, pearl, v. 21, and precious stones, vv. 19-20).
What was going on between Genesis and Revelation, the two ends of the Bible? Again, you’d reasonably (and correctly), assume building work took place, a work which is happening even now, in our current timeline.
But other things are being built up in this world. There’s a rival to God’s building that also began in Genesis—Babel. In chapter 11 it appears as a tower, representing humanly manufactured unity and purpose (v. 4-7). However, it shows up again fully formed in Revelation chapter 14, where it is called Babylon the great (v. 8).
What went on between the tower and the fully formed system? Building—a rival to God’s Building, thoroughly populated with people of this world who are not transformed by the Holy Spirit. Though they offer a lot of lip service about Christ, they don’t allow His lordship over their lives. They’re busy building this system trying to make it optimal, without Jesus.
We should never stop trying to bless the world around us, but we must always stop short of trusting the works of our hands—our peace, our unity, our goodness. Never trade God’s best for man’s best. A system largely composed of sinners will always have fatal limitations built in. Truly, for a man or a woman without Christ, this world is as close to Heaven as they’re ever going to get. That’s awful.
Things are constantly breaking down, springing leaks, needing patches, hacks, props. That’s because it was never fixed to begin with. Instead, a tremendous amount of effort goes into cosmetic appearances, making things sound right and look good without necessarily being right.
I had a friend who bought a nice looking house. After living in it a short time, he began to notice water stains in the ceiling. Immediately he realized it was a bad roof, which had very likely been concealed during the sales negotiations. He called the former owner, who denied any knowledge of it. My buddy then climbed into the attic, where he discovered an intricate network of plastic funnels and pipes that had been set up to shunt roof leaks away to various parts of the house. Of course my friend was livid, and with good reason. Eventually, he and the prior owner reached an agreement, but this sort of thing is analogous to life in Babylon—constantly being told that something is fixed, and when it breaks again, we’re furious about it.
It reminds me of another friend I had who was always sullen and moody. As it turned out, he was listening to a lot of political talk show analysis, appropriating everyone else’s angst, and making it his own. He was living on borrowed rage. His targets? Faceless foes “out there,” but one for sure: Bill Clinton. He could barely live on the same planet as Clinton. Back in those days I was apolitical, and didn’t quite know the difference between a Republican, a Democrat, and a fire hydrant. But I recognized hate when I saw it. I had seen it earlier in folks who abhorred Reagan with the same kind of animal dislike. Eventually, my friend’s family couldn’t bear the burden of his smoldering anger, and his marriage ended.
There’s something better. Look at Revelation 21. The Bible doesn’t end with an improved version of America, an “ism,” an ideology, or or any kind of bent. It ends with the New Jerusalem.
Consider the city’s name. Jerusalem actually means “Foundation of peace.” That’s a promise already, especially in light of the recent racial divisions here in the United States. We say we want peace for ourselves and our kids, but think we can get it by more oppression, more armed force, or more destruction of public and private property. We think we’re going to get peace by slandering and shaming, and accusing in social media.
Only a coerced, false peace will come from such tactics. The peace of Babylon always looks good on the outside, but it’s actually broken on the inside. Only New Jerusalem represents real collective peace, and the fact that it’s new means it’s not a retread, a duplication of something already tried and failed in the past.
21:15 And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia.
From the earlier verses, we know the one who’s speaking with John is an angel. He’s giving the old apostle an exacting tour of all that God has been doing, down to the measurements. And it’s impressive. The height of the city (12,000 stadia) equals the modern measurement of 1,380 miles. You can see it off-world!
The fact that the length and width and height are equal, mean it’s a cube. That’s important. Back in the Old Testament, where we find God’s earlier dwelling places—the tabernacle and the temple—there was a special room called “the holy of holies,” a place where man and God would meet in deepest communion. In each case, the dimensions of that room was also a cube. But the New Jerusalem takes those cubic measurements and enlarges them into a holy of holies experience with God that is the absolute perfection of worship and fellowship.
17 He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. 18 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass.
The gold mentioned here is transparent, something beyond nature, but reminding us the city is pure, like the divine nature of God, containing no adulteration. And Jasper is a precious stone, the result of transformation processes. It represents the work of the Holy Spirit in human beings as He convicts them, comforts them, and changes them slowly over time.
19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.
These precious stones are us, you and I, in final form. And they differ, perhaps in personalities and temperaments. Maybe races, as well—a multitude of people groups in whom the Holy Spirit has flushed out all their impurities, and then added the sanctified elements of the spiritual life of God. The result is beautiful. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s so many different people in the world with so many different places of origin, skin colors, and attached stories, it’s because it takes all of them and all of the Spirit working in them to bring out the complete glory of God.
Peter addresses the dynamics of this in greater detail: “As you come to him [Christ] a living stone rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up.” (1 Pet. 2:4-5a).
The process here shows that as human beings come to Jesus, they’re coming to the original precious stone. We all started off as common gravel on the side of the road, but when we started coming to him, we began changing, entering a transformational process, to become like Him. Peter is careful to point out that this only happens as you come to Christ. During that time, we are being built up a spiritual house. It is a “now” experience, in our current timeline. As Peter says, we “are being built up.”
And yet we’re not just sitting around in a comfy community. The rest of 1 Peter 2:5 says, we’re being built up “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” This means we’re to be a collective servant of God. In fact, the precious stones, as they appear here in Revelation 21:19-20, roughly correspond to the stones on the high priest’s breastplate in Exodus chapter 28.
Next on this tour of the city, the angel showed John that, “the Twelve Gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl” (Rev. 21:21). A pearl comes from the wounded tissue of an oyster. When a grain of sand gets into it, and makes a cut, the oyster begins to secrete a coating around the sand, and it becomes a pearl. It reminds us that the Lord Jesus was the only person who ever died a death so ugly, and yet so beautiful. We hurt Him, killed Him, and when we punctured His side, his life secretion came out. The product was gates of pearl.
Christ’s beautiful death has become our entrance into the city, but He has died not only for mere entrance, but that we would walk according to God. Verse 21 goes on to say, “the street of the city was pure gold like transparent glass.” Those who enter through the priceless sacrifice of Jesus, should walk according to the very nature of God. We practice such a walk now, but there will be a time when it is perfect and fully manifested.
This tour gives the impression that God is simply delighted when he sees the holy city. It is the sacrifice of his dear Son, the innumerable interactions and experiences between the Holy Spirit and his people. It is so much better than man’s efforts in Babylon.
My family built a house when I was growing up, and we went to look at it while it was about fifty percent completed. We went onto the foundation, and my dad directed me to what would be my room. As I stepped into the bare concrete enclosure, bordered with those stark frame walls, I wasn’t impressed. Neither were my siblings. As kids, we couldn’t envision the finished product, like our parents could. We were more interested in leaving, and getting snowcones.
Sometimes I wonder if churches think of themselves that way, like I thought of our half-done home. When upsets occur in our society, like the recent racial friction in our country, we’re tempted to think all the important stuff is going on in front of news cameras and out on the streets. We wonder what’s the big deal about helping people read their Bible know God better. What’s the use of encouraging someone to forgive? How will it help anything to assist a person in being filled with the Holy Spirit and joy? None of those things seem newsworthy.
But I would like to call upon all churches right now to accept their critical importance at this current time. Every church that embraces the biblical faith of Jesus Christ is in some way a precursor of the holy city, the New Jerusalem in construction. We need to practice that City. It is not currently manifested in full, but it’s at least in some phase of completion. It is, as we would say, “Now, but not yet.”
For one thing, look at the holy city with its variety of stones all built together, and its gates facing the four corners of the earth calling in races from every group of people. Accordingly, all churches should end even the sentiments of segregation. Obviously, classic segregation with signs forbidding certain races isn’t practiced anymore, but estranged sentiments do remain.
Any congregation can welcome the newcomer of another race, can put out a sign that says, “All are welcome,” or, “Hate has no home here.” Those are certainly nice slogans, but it takes a different level of commitment to actually build someone of a different race into your faith community.
We tend to trust token gestures, and good-hearted, awkward overcompensation. But the real question is, could we share a meal with someone whose skin is a different color than our own, without trying to demonstrate that we are “woke” or enlightened? Could we converse normally? Have deeper conversations, spiritual fellowship, hang-out times? Could we serve one another? If the answer is yes to just some of these, it’s the setting for building up to happen, according to the reality of the holy city.
Due to circumstances arranged by God, I was baptized by an all-black fellowship. After relocation and marriage, my wife and I met with a Mexican church. I’m so happy that neither one of those groups treated me like some kind of evidence of their open-mindedness. I wasn’t the trophy white, the odd man out, or the enemy. I was made to feel I was a brother in Christ.
Building someone in, takes a more robust commitment than simply attending an event, or getting angry on behalf of their racial group. Building together takes time, and it’s hard. It’s more than anti-racism. It’s pro-community.
But as with Peter, I also want to remind you this only works as the individuals involved are coming to Christ. If we settle for cosmetic appearances, that is, if we’re satisfied with looking right and sounding right, social pandering, then we will forge a peace that is outside the holy city—the peace of Babylon. And it’s just waiting to break down the next time someone somewhere goes overboard with unjust behavior.
As people of the new covenant, let’s practice the holy city, and get the real thing.