In Revelation 21:22-26 John describes a situation in which the new Jerusalem is surrounded by the nations, which walk by its light, and the kings of these nations bring their “glory and honour” into the city. Despite the fact that the gates of the city will always be open, nothing unclean, nor any detestable or false person, will enter into the city.
I recently reiterated my view that this second vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9-22:5) belongs to the historical order, whereas the first vision (21:1-8) is of a final renewal of creation. My reasons are: i) the second vision of the new Jerusalem is shown to John by one of the angels of judgment against Rome, one of whom also showed him the “judgment of the great prostitute” in similar manner (Rev. 17:1-3): this new city supersedes pagan Rome; ii) the second vision powerfully evokes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored city and temple in the midst of the nations (cf. Ezek. 39:21; 40-48); iii) God’s servants “reign” in this second vision (Rev. 22:5), which is necessary only as long as there are enemies; and iv) the continuing presence of the nations, which need healing, and probably also of unclean things and bad people (21:24-27). In the light of the comments made, I want to develop the point a bit further. For more on this see: What happens at the end of Revelation?
Commentators generally agree that in the background is the “theme of the kings and nations of the world making an eschatological pilgrimage to see the light and glory of God in Jerusalem” (D.E. Aune, Revelation 17–22, 1171). The standout example is Isaiah 60:3: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” There is a clear distinction between the city and the nations; they are not to be confused with each other. The nations come not to become citizens of it but to see its glory, bring tribute to its king, and learn the ways of righteousness and peace. Then they go home again.
Aune further says that the “pilgrimage of the kings of the earth to the New Jerusalem presupposes the existence of the nations of the world and their rulers as well as the location of the eschatological Jerusalem on the earth”. It is all imagined within the conceptual field of ancient political realities.
Mounce notices the difficulty introduced by the presence of unclean Gentiles outside the city:
The problem raised by vv. 24–26 (along with 22:2 and 22:15) is the presence of Gentiles outside the heavenly Jerusalem following the final judgment, the overthrow of evil, and the restoration of a new heaven and earth. Just who are these referred to in such a manner? (R. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 396)
He considers four solutions:
1. Rev. 21:9-22:5 is a slightly edited Jewish document that “retains mention of the heathen who remain on earth as the subjects of God’s people in the messianic kingdom”. But, Mounce asks, why wouldn’t a Christian editor remove the unredeemed heathen?
2. The nations are “redeemed peoples”. This doesn’t work because the redeemed live within the city. I would add that there also appears to be explicit reference to things that are unclean, people who commit abominations (probably a reference to sexual immorality) and falsehoods, which will not enter the city, a statement which Mounce oddly ignores.
3. This is a picture of universal salvation: “God is not content to save a few martyrs and let the rest of humankind perish along with all of human culture.” Mounce thinks that this is reading too much into “incidental references”. It also depends, I think, on what we mean by “salvation”. On this elevated geo-political plane what salvation looks like is a restored city replacing not only old rebellious Jerusalem but also decadent Rome as the glorious capital of the empire of YHWH.
4. Mounce’s own view is that “John has taken over from the prophets the language and figures of speech that presuppose the continuance of Gentile peoples on the earth after the establishment of the eschatological era.” Prophecy speaks of the future “in terms of the historical conditions of the present”, and John “inadvertently retained certain elements that were not entirely appropriate to the new setting”. But this is hardly an improvement on the first proposal. It suggests that John is as careless as the supposed editor of the Jewish text. And again, there is the fact that John does not merely retain the presence of the nations; he pointedly allows for the continuing reality of unclean or “common” (koinon) items and people of dubious character.
Koester argues that John is writing at a time when the forces of evil are still active. The passage “warns that those who adopt the ways of evil defile themselves, making themselves unfit to enter God’s presence” (C.R. Koester, Revelation, 833). Possibly, but this is not how the Old Testament antecedents work. The eschatological renewal of Jerusalem allows for the continued existence of evil, but excludes it from the city or the sanctuary:
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. (Is. 52:1)
Thus says the Lord GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary. (Ezek. 44:9)
So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who dwells in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it. (Joel 3:17)
And every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the LORD of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them. And there shall no longer be a [Canaanite] in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day. (Zech. 14:21)
It seems to me likely that Revelation 21:27 is meant to answer a question raised by the preceding statement about the nations and the perpetually open gates of the new Jerusalem. Doesn’t that mean that harmful elements of Gentile life will find their way into the city? John does not say that these things have been destroyed in the lake of fire, which would be the obvious response if this was the same world as that described in 21:1-8. He says only that such things will not enter in. But they remain a real threat.
We also need to take into account the following paragraph, which seems to me to belong to the same scenario:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev. 22:14–15)
Again Koester thinks that when “read descriptively, as a picture of the ungodly lingering outside the city gate in the new creation, the verse is incongruous”, so he suggests that it is simply designed to move people from sin to repentance (855). But if this is not the “new creation” but the new historical age of the politically realised presence of God and the Lamb in the midst of the nations of the empire, this strained and tendentious line of interpretation is unnecessary.
The obvious solution is that John really does share the Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic outlook here. He is reworking the prophetic language, within the natural limitations of his historical purview, for an end-of-the-age of second temple Judaism, beginning-of-the-age of Christian Europe scenario. Prophecy does not speak of a transcendent future in terms of existing historical conditions; it speaks of future historical conditions.
Until there is a new heaven and a new earth, God will dwell in the midst of the nations, not in the old Jerusalem, which has been or will be destroyed, but in the new Jerusalem, which is the church that has triumphed over the savage forces of pagan empire. The nations will walk by its light, as indeed they did for 1500 years; and the kings of the nations will bring their glory into it, as indeed they did for 1500 years. This corresponds to Aune’s third strand of Jewish expectation regarding the place of the Gentiles in an eschatological scenario: “the Gentiles as subservient to Israel and as making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pay tribute” (1172).
Finally, we note that the leaves of the trees that grow beside the river that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb are for the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Aune says that the ‘allusion is simply mechanical… since there is no real place in the eschatological scheme of Revelation for “the healing of the nations” construed as their conversion’ (1178). Not their conversion perhaps, but their geo-political realignment. The nations were profoundly damaged and corrupted by Roman rule. The foreseen worship of the living God and of his Son and the establishment of a new culture, a new way of living in the light of the new Jerusalem, will bring about their healing.