The prophecy describing the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21 is a metaphorical description of the church, the bride of the Lamb, and the holy city that God is building in the present age. Most commentators assume that the prophecy in this chapter describes either the church as she will be, or a place where the saints will dwell in the future. Only the former view is considered here. Among scholars who adopt that view, there are various positions. Either the prophecy applies to the church in the present age, or it describes the church in a future one.
Richard Bauckham thought that two Jerusalems are described in
Revelation, besides the earthly city. He thought the description of the
heavenly Jerusalem in chapter 21 applies to the New Jerusalem of
the future. But if that were so, what need would there be for the
wall, and gates? Bauckham invoked another Jerusalem, one that is
“trampled by the Gentiles” for forty-two months as stated in Revelation
11:2. His comments supporting this idea are provided below. A table in
which the New Jerusalem is contrasted with Babylon follows. Comments by
William Milligan, who proposed that the vision of the heavenly
Jerusalem applies to the church in the present age, which would seem to
make Bauckham’s two Jerusalem idea unnecessary, are also provided.
Bauckham wrote: 
There are, indeed, two Jerusalems in Revelation. There is the New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven in the new creation. Like the harlot Babylon, the New Jerusalem is both a woman and a city: the bride and the wife of the Lamb (19:7; 21:2, 9) and ‘the holy city the new Jerusalem’ (21:2), the city of my God’ (3:12). Babylon and the New Jerusalem are the contrasting pair of women-cities which dominates the later chapters of Revelation. But as well as the New Jerusalem of the future, there is also ‘the holy city’ of 11:2 and the heavenly woman of 12:1-6, 13-17. The city of 11:2 is not the earthly Jerusalem, in which Revelation shows no interest, and 11:1-2 does not allude to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the sanctuary in the temple was certainly not protected from the Roman armies. John is here reinterpreting Daniel’s prophecies of the desecration of the temple (Dan. 8:9-14; 11:31; 12:11) and perhaps also the prophecies in the Gospels, dependent on Daniel, which prophesied the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20-4). He is reinterpreting them to refer to the persecution of the church in the symbolic three-and-a-half year period of the church’s conflict with the Roman Empire. The holy city trampled by the Gentiles is the faithful church in its suffering and martyrdom at the hands of the beast. The sanctuary with its worshippers is the hidden presence of God to those who worship him in the churches. In the midst of persecution they are kept spiritually safe, just as Christ promised the church at Philadelphia to ‘keep’ them from ‘the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world’ (3:10). They would suffer and die, but be kept spiritually safe. The little prophecy about the temple and the city in 11:1-2 corresponds to the spiritual immunity of the two witnesses (11:5) and their martyrdom (11:7-8). The holy city trampled by the Gentiles is wherever the witnesses lie dead in the street of the great city. (11:8).
For the same period in which the sanctuary is protected, in which the holy city is trampled and the witnesses prophesy (11:1-3), the heavenly woman who has given birth to the Messiah is kept safe in the wilderness (12:6, 13-16), while the dragon, frustrated in his pursuit of her, turns his attacks onto her children (12:13-17). Her refuge in the wilderness is an alternative symbol for the same spiritual safety of the church in persecution as is depicted by the protection of the sanctuary in 11:1-2. She is kept safe while the beast rules and puts her children to death (13:5-7). She is the mother of Jesus and of Christians — and Mary, Israel, Zion and the church all combined in an image of the spiritual essence of the covenant people of God. She is the female figure corresponding to the holy city of 11:2.
Thus the New Jerusalem of the future, the bride of the Lamb, has both a forerunner in the present and an opposite in the present. The forerunner is the holy city, mother Zion. The opposite is Babylon, the great whore. But while Babylon is ‘the great city that rules over the kings of the earth’ (17:18), the holy city exists only in hiddenness and contradiction. While it resembles the New Jerusalem in its holiness, it contrasts sharply with the unchallenged glory of the New Jerusalem which the kings of the earth will honour (21:24). And while the New Jerusalem contrasts with Babylon in her evil, she resembles Babylon in splendour and universal dominion.
The table below, adapted from Richard Bauckham’s work, contrasts New Jerusalem with the worldly religious system that John calls Babylon.
|The chaste bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:2,9)||the harlot with whom the kings of the earth fornicate (17:2)|
|Her splendour is the glory of God (21:11-21)||Babylon’s splendour from exploiting her empire (17:4; 18:12-13, 16)|
|The nations walk by her light, which is the glory of God (21:24)||Babylon’s corruption and deception of the nations (17:2; 18:3, 23; 19:2)|
|The kings of the earth bring their glory into her (i.e. their worship and submission to God: 21:24)||Babylon’s luxurious wealth extorted from all the world (18:12-17)|
|Uncleanness, abomination and falsehood are excluded (21:27)||Babylon’s abominations, impurities, deceptions (17:4, 5; 18:23)|
|The water of life and the tree of life for the healing of the nations (21:6; 22:1-2)||Babylon’s wine which makes the nations drunk (14:8; 17:2; 18:3)|
|Life and healing (22:1-2)||the blood and slaughter (17:6; 18:24)|
|God’s people are called to enter the New Jerusalem (22:14)||God’s people are called to come out of Babylon (18:4)|
In the following quote, William Milligan explains that the prophecy of the New Jerusalem presents “an ideal representation of the true Church of Christ as she exists now.” 
What aspect of the Church does the holy city Jerusalem, thus come down out of heaven from God, represent? Is it the Church as she shall be after the Judgment, when her three great enemies, together with all who have listened to them, have been for ever cast out? Or have we before us an ideal representation of the true Church of Christ as she exists now, and before a final separation has been made between the righteous and the wicked? Unquestionably the first aspect of the passage leads to the former view; and, if there be anything like a chronological statement of events in the Apocalypse, no other may be possible. But we have already seen that the thought of chronology must be banished from this book. The Apocalypse contains simply a series of visions intended to exhibit, with all the force of that inspiration under which the Seer wrote, certain great truths connected with the revelation in humanity of the Eternal Son. It is intended, too, to exhibit these in their ideal, and not merely in their historical, form. They are indeed to appear in history; but, inasmuch as they do not appear there in their ultimate and completed form, we are taken beyond the limited field of historical manifestation. We see them in their real and essential nature, and as they are, in themselves, whether we think of evil on the one hand, or of good on the other. In this treatment of them, however, chronology disappears. Such being the case, we are prepared to ask whether the vision of the new Jerusalem belongs to the end, or whether it expresses what, under the Christian dispensation, is always ideally true.
1. It must be borne in mind that the new Jerusalem, though described as a city, is really a figure, not of a place, but of a people. It is not the final home of the redeemed. It is the redeemed themselves. It is “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” [Chap. xxi. 9.] Whatever is said of it is said of the true followers of Jesus; and the great question, therefore, that has to be considered is, whether St. John’s description is applicable to them in their present Christian condition, or whether it is suitable to them only when they have entered upon their state of glorification beyond the grave.
2. The vision is really an echo of Old Testament prophecy. We have already seen this in many particulars, and the correspondence might easily have been traced in many more. “It is all,” says Isaac Williams, as he begins his comment upon the particular points of the description “It is all from Ezekiel: ‘The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God, and set me upon a very high mountain, by which was as the frame of a city;’ [Ezek. xl. 1, 2.] ‘And the glory of the Lord came into the house by the gate toward the east;’ [Ezek. xliii. 2.] The Lord entered by the eastern gate; therefore shall it be shut, and opened for none but for the Prince. [Ezek. xliv. 1-3.] Such was the coming of Christ’s glory from the east into His Church, as so often alluded to before.” [The Apocalypse, p. 438.] Other prophets, no doubt, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto us, who testified beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow, are to be added to Ezekiel; but, whoever they were, it is undeniable that their highest and most glowing representations of that future for which they longed, and the advent of which they were commissioned to proclaim, are reproduced in St. John’s description of the new Jerusalem. Of what was it, then, that they spoke? Surely it was of the times of the Messiah upon earth, of that kingdom of God which He was to establish with the beginning, and not with the end, of the Christian dispensation. That they may have looked forward to the world beyond the grave is possible; but any distinction between the first and second coming of our Lord had not yet risen upon their minds. In the simple coming of the Hope of Israel into the world they beheld the accomplishment of every aspiration and longing of the heart of man. And they were right. The distinction which experience taught the New Testament writers to draw was not so much between a first and a second coming of the King as between a kingdom then hidden, but afterwards to be manifested in all its glory.
3. This ideal view of the Messianic age is also constantly brought before us in the New Testament. The character, the privileges, and the blessings of those who are partakers of the spirit of that time are always presented to us as irradiated with a heavenly and perfect glory. St. Paul addresses the various churches to which he wrote as, notwithstanding all their imperfections, “beloved of God,” “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” “saints and faithful brethren in Christ.” [Rom. i. 7; 1 Cor. i. 2; Col. i. 2.] Christ is “in them,” and they are “in Christ.” [Col. i. 27; 1 Cor. ii. 30; Phil. iii. 9.] “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for it; that He might present the Church to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish,” [Eph. v. 25-27.] the description evidently applying to the present world, where also the Church is seated, not in earthly, but in “the heavenly places” with her Lord. [Eph. i. 3.] Our “citizenship” is declared to be “in heaven;” and we are even now “come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to innumerable hosts of angels, and to the general assembly and Church of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven.” [Heb. xii. 22, 23.] Our Lord Himself and St. John, following in His steps, are even more specific as to the present kingdom and the present glory. “In that day,” says Jesus to His disciples, “ye shall know that I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you,” [John xiv. 20.] and again, “And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as We are one;” [John xvii. 22.] while it is unnecessary to quote the passages meeting us everywhere in the writings of the beloved disciple in which he speaks of eternal life, and that, too, in the full greatness both of its privileges and of its results, as a possession enjoyed by the believer in this present world. The whole witness of the New Testament, in short, is to an ideal, to a perfect, kingdom of God even now established among men, in which sin is conquered, temptation overcome, strength substituted for weakness, death so deprived of its sting that it is no more death, and the Christian, though for a little put to grief in manifold temptations, made “to rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and glorified.” [1 Pet. i. 8.] From all this the representation of the new Jerusalem in the Apocalypse differs in no essential respect. It enters more into particulars. It illustrates the general thought by a greater variety of detail. But it contains nothing which is not found in principle in the other sacred writers, and which is not connected by them with the heavenly aspect of the Christian’s pilgrimage to his eternal home.
4. There are distinct indications in the apocalyptic vision which leave no interpretation possible except one, that the new Jerusalem has come, that it has been in the midst of us for more than eighteen hundred years, that it is now in the midst of us, and that it shall continue to be so wherever its King has those who love and serve Him, walk in His light, and share His peace and joy.
(1) Let us look at chap. xx. 9, where we read of “the camp of the saints and the beloved city.” That city is none other than the new Jerusalem, about to be described in the following chapter. It is Jerusalem after the elements of the harlot character have been wholly expelled, and the call of chap, xviii. 4 has been heard and obeyed, “Come forth, My people, out of her.” She is inhabited now by none but “saints,” who, though they have still to war with the world, are themselves the “called, and chosen, and faithful.” But this “beloved city” is spoken of as in the world, and as the object of attack by Satan and his hosts before the Judgment. [Comp. Foxley, Hulsean Lectures, Lect. 1.]
(2) Let us look at chap. xxi. 24 and xxii. 2: “And the nations shall walk by the light thereof; and the kings of the earth do bring their glory into it;” “And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Who are these “nations” and these “kings of the earth”? The constant use of the same expressions in other parts of this book, where there can be no doubt as to their meaning, compels us to understand them of nations and kings beyond the pale of the covenant. But if so, the difficulty of realizing the situation at a point of time beyond the Judgment appears to be insuperable, and may be well illustrated by the effort of Hengstenberg to overcome it. “Nations,” says that commentator, “in the usage of the Revelation, are not nations generally, but always heathen nations in their natural or christianized state; compare at chap. xx. 3. That we are to think here only of converted heathen is as clear as day. No room for conversion can be found on the further side of chap. xx. 15, for every one who had not been found written in the book of life has already been cast into the lake of fire.” But the words “or christianized” in this comment have no countenance from any other passage in the Apocalypse, and in Hengstenberg’s note at chap. xx. 3 we are referred to nothing but the texts before us. On every other occasion, too, where the word “nations” meets us, it means unconverted, not converted, nations; and here it can mean nothing else. Were the nations spoken of converted, they would be a part of that new Jerusalem which is not the residence of God’s people, but His people themselves. They would be the light, and not such as walk “by the light” of others. They would be the healed, and not those who stand in need of “healing.” These “nations” must be the unconverted, these “kings of the earth” such as have not yet acknowledged Jesus to be their King; and nothing of this can be found beyond chap. xx. 15.
(3) Let us look at chap. xxi. 27, where we read, “And there shall in no wise enter into it anything unclean, or he that doeth an abomination and a lie.” These words distinctly intimate that the time for final separation had not yet come. Persons of the wicked character described must be supposed to be alive upon the earth after the new Jerusalem has appeared.
5. Another consideration on the point under discussion may be noticed, which will have weight with those who admit the existence of that principle of structure in St. John’s writings upon which it rests. Alike in the Gospel and in the Apocalypse the Apostle is marked by a tendency to return at the close of a section to what he had said at the beginning, and to shut up, as it were, between the two statements all he had to say. So here. In chap. i. 3 he introduces his Apocalypse with the words, “For the time is at hand.” In chap. xxii. 10, immediately after closing it, he returns to the thought, “Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand;” that is, the whole intervening revelation is enclosed between these two statements. All of it precedes the “time” spoken of. The new Jerusalem comes before the end.
In the new Jerusalem, therefore, we have essentially a picture, not of the future, but of the present; of the ideal condition of Christ’s true people, of His “little flock” on earth, in every age. The picture may not yet be realized in fulness; but every blessing lined in upon its canvas is in principle the believer’s now, and will be more and more his in actual experience as he opens his eyes to see and his heart to receive. We have been wrong in transferring the picture of the new Jerusalem to the future alone. It belongs also to the past and to the present. It is the heritage of the children of God at the very time when they are struggling with the world; and the thought of it ought to stimulate them to exertion and to console them under suffering.
1. Richard Bauckham. The theology of the book of Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 1993. pp. 126-129.
2. William Milligan. The
Book of Revelation. Fourth Edition. Hodder and Stoughton,
London. 1889. pp. 367-374.
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