More on the new Jerusalem in the midst of the nations

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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.

Prophecy does not speak of a transcendent future in terms of existing historical conditions; it speaks of future historical conditions.

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.

Helge Seekamp | Fri, 11/02/2018 - 17:22 | Permalink

Thanx, Andrew, The picture is getting clearer and clearer. I wonder, how the dominant old (eschatological = transcendent) Paradigma got for 2000 jears the power to captivate all the interpretations. Only if you read the apocalyptically stuff consequently historical, it will make the Reader an ease of interpretation.

Now, why is this last section placed after the first vision of new Jerusalem. Is this narratively logical or is this simply a fault of the texture (literarcrtical to correct)? I will check out, how German exegets handle it.

Thanks, Helge. The main reason for the long dominance of the old paradigm has to be, I think, that as the church established itself in Europe, it lost touch—sometimes quite wilfully—with its Jewish historical and conceptual origins. The church exchanged the Jewish worldview for the Platonic as its intellectual scaffolding—hence the pervasive allegorisation of the Old Testament. It is only in the modern era, with the development of the historical-critical method and the discovery of the extensive literature of second temple Judaism that we have been able to re-enter the first century Jewish mindset.

I’m just reading Matthew Thomas’ Paul’s ‘Works of the Law’ in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. His early chapters on the development the new perspective underline how long it takes for critical thought to correct the distortions of theological tradition.

Now, why is this last section placed after the first vision of new Jerusalem. Is this narratively logical or is this simply a fault of the texture (literary-critical to correct)? I will check out, how German exegets handle it.

Let me know what you find. It’s a good question. It may simply be that John wanted to return to the narrative of the defeat of Rome and the establishment of a new political-religious order in order to finish with the theme that was of overriding interest for his readers.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 11/02/2018 - 18:43 | Permalink

I wouldn’t say that your previous piece on the new Jerusalem made the distinction you are now making between the N.J. in 21:1-9 and N.J. in 21:9-22:5, but anyway, you make it clear enough in this post. You cite commentators who assume the existence of unredeemed people living outside and alongside the N.J., but does anybody think that the N.J. of 21 part 1 is at a completely different time in history from N.J. in 21 part 2?

The description of the N.J. in 21:9 and following has clear echoes of Ezekiel’s temple, and equally clear dissimilarities. 21-22 describe a New Jerusalem, not a temple. There is no temple in this city. So we should be asking what else has changed as the narrative moves forwards, rather than how can we maintain the old prophetic narrative as rigorously as possible in interpreting its fulfilment in the new prophecy.

Even allowing for apocalyptic hyperbole, verses such as 21:23 become a mockery if applied to a fulfilment in the post Constantine’s church. That aside, the various echoes of OT prophecy which suggest a worldwide rule of Israel from a geographical Jerusalem are only a problem if they are accepted in the most literal sense. But Revelation doesn’t do that, as I have already pointed out. The precise status of kings and nations and the presence of unredeemed sinners is left very open. The prophecy isn’t a literal fulfilment of OT aspirations, nor a literal transcription of the future. It doesn’t have to be. It makes good sense as a vision of the new creation, flowing from the gift of the Spirit on the church as its birthday, which can be construed also from Ezekiel in 39:29.

You cite commentators who assume the existence of unredeemed people living outside and alongside the N.J., but does anybody think that the N.J. of 21 part 1 is at a completely different time in history from N.J. in 21 part 2?

Beasley Murray says that “There is reason to believe that the extended description of the city of God in 21:9-22:5 applies to the kingdom in the millennial age as well as in the coming eternal age”.

So he has it both ways: 21:9-22:5 is both the ‘kingdom’ in the (as yet future) ‘millennial age’, ie in history, as well as its future fulfilment in eternity. Not “completely different” then, but sort of. 

Needless to say, it’s not what you are saying at all, but it does suggest a distinction, of sorts, in the time frame between 21:1-8 and 21:9-22:5. Maybe. 

…but does anybody think that the N.J. of 21 part 1 is at a completely different time in history from N.J. in 21 part 2?

Fair comment IMO. As I understand it… both Rev 21:8 and Rev 22:15 make it very plain and very clear that the N.Js. in view are in fact one and same N.J. and not two separately distinct creational scenarios.

But in one case the wicked are destroyed in the lake of fire, which is the second death, in the other they are permitted to exist outside the city. It’s not at all obvious that the same scenario is in view.

Andrew… it might simply be that John’s ‘lake of fire’ was the DoJ, i.e., Jesus; ‘gehenna’ and thus the same scenario; some perished in the conflagrations while others did not — each, however, having “their part in the lake of fire” doesn’t necessitate literal death, though obviously not precluding it. IF Babylon is viewed as Israel’s first death which had promised resurrection, well certainly this second national death had no such promise and was permanent. Just a thought.

Even allowing for apocalyptic hyperbole, verses such as 21:23 become a mockery if applied to a fulfilment in the post Constantine’s church.

In Isaiah 60 Jerusalem, having been restored after punishment, is described as a city in the midst of the nations, glorious with the presence of God. Kings and nations will walk by its light; its gates will always be open so that the power and wealth of the nations may be brought in; the city will be illuminated not by the sun and the moon, “but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (60:1-3, 11, 19).

John no longer expects such a restoration of the physical city of Jerusalem with its physical, which will have suffered the final devastation of God’s wrath. He believes in a new Jerusalem that will be given by God, which will constitute the place of God’s presence in the midst of nations that are no longer hostile towards it. Revelation 21:23 makes use of this metaphor to speak of the impact of that city: the nations which were formerly subject to Rome and walked in the light of its pagan values and culture will henceforth live by the light of the presence of God and the Lamb. The nations will abandon the old religious system and learn the ways of a righteous and holy God from his servants.

I find that an exact description of what happened. The fathers of the church taught the nations of the empire the ways of the biblical God.

It’s an interesting idea, Andrew, and you pursue your theory rigorously. I just don’t think it works. My objections have already been detailed. It’s also fair to say that in history, the church has in various ways both succeeded and failed to be a light to the nations, not least 312 C.E. onwards. I think you need to evaluate more thoroughly the failures.

I also think it is worth considering what being a light to the nations might actually entail when taking a rather more comprehensive and detailed view of the NT, and especially how Jesus and the apostles modelled being that light in their ministry and example. I think we would come to some very different conclusions from the simple equation of the new Jerusalem with the European church post 312.

If the apostles’ ministry and the loyalty of the early church are limited to the overthrow of paganism in the Roman Empire, your interpretation is worth consideration. That limitation does little justice to the foundational value of the life and ministry of Jesus for the apostles, the early church and within church history.

Revelation radically changes OT prophecy from a triumphant vindication of OT Israel the nation with Jerusalem as its capital and the temple as the focus of worship. It’s odd therefore that your argument seeks to uphold the political arrangements of the OT in interpreting Revelation. The example and ministry of Jesus, apostles and early church call this line of interpretation strongly into question.

The NT goes further, and also calls for a radical reimagining of God. It might be asked whether the church has always been courageous or consistent enough in following through this reimagining.

In your subsequent item, you refer to Ezekiel’s prophecy as being about the new Jerusalem. I was going to object that it is a prophecy about the temple, not Jerusalem, but I notice that other commentators also describe the prophecy as describing the new Jerusalem. If we’re going to be precise, Ezekiel is not prophesying a new Jerusalem, and this is one of the radical ways in which Revelation’s new Jerusalem differs from Ezekiel. The dissimilarities are as striking as the similarities.

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)

I don’t think these verses correspond with Revelation 21:22-26. It looks to me like John is no longer referencing future events in the section that contains Rev. 22:14–15, but is referring to his present time.

Douglas Wilkinson | Sat, 11/03/2018 - 00:57 | Permalink

I think your real problem is that the passage from which the phrases “New Heavens” and “New Earth” comes from (Isaiah 65-66) describes that era as one in which people still die, are still unsaved, are being successfully evangelized, and the word about the existence of God and the fact of the day of the Lord is still being spread throughout the world. That’s after the New Heaven and New Earth begin.

You’re correct that the New Jerusalem exists at the same time that there are still sinners and people being evangelized. The complexity of having to assert (against any clear scripture to the contrary) that there is actually a New New Heaven, a New New Earth, and a New New Jerusalem at some point is unnecessary. Instead, you simply have to accept that there are no grounds for asserting that there is a future absolutely perfected world in view. The perpetual state of Isaiah matches that of Revelation 21-22 (and Zechariah 13-14, Ezekiel 47, Daniel 2 and 7, etc.) which is normal history with the nations walking in the light of the New Jerusalem, the church.

I agree with you about Isaiah 65-66: he is describing a new but very worldly reality. John takes up this vision in Revelation 20:11-21:8 and adds to it a final judgment of all the dead, including the dead lost at sea, and the categorical and unmistakable destruction of death and Hades. Neither of those elements are found in Isaiah, but John gives considerable prominence to them. This reflects not only “Christian” developments. Jewish apocalypticism more generally had begun to conceive of a remaking of the cerated order that went beyond the restoration of Jerusalem and the renewal of the covenant. Preterists fail to take this into account.

Peter Wilkinson | Mon, 11/12/2018 - 18:24 | Permalink

Just as an aside, Bradley Jersak in “Her gates Will Never Be Shut” mentions in a footnote that the first Holy Roman Emperor (Otto I) was crowned in 962, and the last (Francis II) abdicated in 1806. If this is taken as a start and end point of Christendom, that’s near enough 1000 years, isn’t it?

Jersak is not arguing for a New Jerusalem as Christendom — that’s my suggestion (though I’m not buying it). He does suggest that God judged Christendom for the same sort of sins (oppression, injustice etc) as Israel, and through the Enlightenment released the fiery judgment of a culture of secularism in Europe (Marxist-Leninism communism etc?).

However, Jersak also suggests that God’s judgments were salvific, in releasing new expressions of his mercy and compassion.

Just an aside, but thought it might be of interest. (Jersak is full of interest, not least on Revelation 21-22. The book is mainly an in-depth look at the idea of hell in the bible, and in Jewish and church history. As such, it’s a good read. He’s done his homework).