Streets of gold with St. Peter standing at the pearly gates—many Christians expect to see these in heaven. Are they really looking for the New Jerusalem?
Much of the popular imagery of heaven actually comes from Revelation 21, where we find the most extensive description of New Jerusalem in the Bible. However, as we will see, what the Bible describes is quite different from the popular view—and is much more exciting!
In addition to the many prophecies in the Old Testament showing that God will transform and elevate the current city of Jerusalem into the capital city of the earth after Christ’s return (see, for instance, Joel chapters 2 and 3 and Zechariah chapters 12 and 14), passages in the New Testament explain that there is another Jerusalem being prepared for God’s people.
Hebrews 12:22 refers to it as “heavenly Jerusalem” and Revelation 3:12 identifies it as “New Jerusalem.” The Old Testament patriarch Abraham anticipated dwelling in this city. As Hebrews 11:10 notes, Abraham “waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
It is vitally important to understand that Revelation 21 teaches us that New Jerusalem is a very real city that will actually come down to this earth in the future. It is not simply an imaginary reward for Christians. Furthermore, Revelation 21 is not a description of heaven itself or of anyone going to heaven. In fact, the Bible clearly states that humans do not go to heaven upon their death (John 3:13; 7:34; 8:22; 13:33; Acts 2:34). For a more complete explanation of this truth, see “Do We Go to Heaven When We Die?”
Background of New Jerusalem
The time setting for Revelation 21, where we read most extensively about New Jerusalem, is quite different from today’s world. In brief summary, by the time we come to Revelation 21, this present evil world will have come and gone, Jesus Christ will have come down to the earth to set up God’s Kingdom and He will have reigned upon the earth for 1,000 years—a period of time commonly called the “Millennium.”
After the Millennium, the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived and died through human history will be resurrected to live another physical lifetime (still on earth)—except this time without Satan present and with the truth of God and eternal life offered to everyone. Christ will be the King over the whole earth. This time period is known as the “great white throne” judgment period (Revelation 20:11-12).
After this judgment period is concluded, a fire will engulf the entire planet, melting all the elements and works of earth’s history (2 Peter 3:10-13). After this fire—also known as the “lake of fire” (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14)—has finished burning, a pure, transformed new earth will be in place—one which can never grow old or corrupt (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). It is this new earth upon which the city of New Jerusalem will descend.
New Jerusalem comes to earth
Explaining what he saw in vision, the apostle John wrote: “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). Here we notice that God the Father is still in heaven at this point and that this city is from Him; He had a part in preparing it.
Notice that this city was specially prepared “as a bride adorned for her husband.”
As for the residents of this city, Revelation 3:12 identifies overcomers of this age as the inhabitants of New Jerusalem: “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God” (emphasis added throughout). Notice also Hebrews 11:10, 16 showing that this city is prepared for God’s faithful elect.
We now come to one of the most encouraging prophecies in the Bible: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’” (Revelation 21:3-4).
Here we see that God the Father’s new place of residence will be earth, dwelling with His human-made-immortal family. It is most interesting to realize that while heaven is God’s current dwelling place, earth is destined to become His future home!
Promises in God’s Word, such as in Psalm 37, take on much more meaning in light of this reality. “But those who wait on the LORD, they shall inherit the earth” (verse 9). “But the meek shall inherit the earth” (verse 11). “For those blessed by Him shall inherit the earth” (verse 22).
A description of the city
New Jerusalem is described as an amazing city!
Illumination: In Revelation 21:9-10 we read of an angel showing John “the Lamb’s wife” and “the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.” John then says that this is a magnificent city, “having the glory of God. Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal” (Revelation 21:11). The luminescence or radiance of the city is described as being like a precious, translucent gem.
We are also told that “the city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light” (Revelation 21:23). The shining brilliance of God and Christ will provide light in all directions throughout the city. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no sun or moon; rather, that the city doesn’t need their illumination.
A wall and gates: The city is described as having “a great and high wall with twelve gates” (Revelation 21:12-13). The Greek word translated “gate” is pulon, which means a gateway, doorway, vestibule or portal of a building or city. Angels stand at these gates, each named after one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Here we see a continuation of a pattern that was set many years prior, in the city of Jerusalem during the Millennium, when the names of three of the tribes of Israel will be written on each of the four sides of the city (Ezekiel 48:30-34).
Above the foundations, the wall of the city extends upward about 250 feet (verse 17), constructed entirely of jasper and continuous on all four sides. In this wall are the three gateways or vestibules, each made of a single, enormous pearl. If evenly spaced in the wall, these gateways would be some 375 miles apart from each other!
Foundations: Continuing this pattern of naming parts of the city after people through whom God had worked, the city’s 12 foundations carry the names of the apostles (Revelation 21:14). Thousands of years prior, Christ had said that each of His 12 apostles would sit on a throne over a tribe of Israel (Luke 22:28-30). As a spiritual parallel, Christ’s Church today is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).
Size: Revelation 21:16 tells us that “the city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal.” According to most sources, the physical dimensions described here are astonishing—some 1,500 miles in each direction! (For comparison, the United States is about 1,300 miles north to south.)
Some of Christ’s final words to His disciples were, “In My Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2). The word “mansions” is translated from the Greek word mone, which means dwelling, abode, permanent place of residence or home. Christ was indeed correct in stating that His Father’s house had much space in which to dwell.
An apparent parallel to the shape of New Jerusalem is found in the “Holy of Holies” of the tabernacle and temple that God instructed Israel to build (and which will again be part of the new temple in the Millennium after Christ’s return). This room, which was modeled after God’s dwelling place or throne room in heaven, was a perfect cube (1 Kings 6:20; Hebrews 8:5). It is also interesting to note that New Jerusalem has no separate temple—God the Father and Christ “are its temple” (Revelation 21:22).
Construction materials: “The construction of its wall was of jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all kinds of precious stones. … The twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl. And the street [plateia, meaning a wide ‘plat’ or ‘place,’ as in an open square] of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass” (Revelation 21:18-21).
Any physical structure this high is impossible by our understanding of physics. But while New Jerusalem is described as constructed of various and distinctive materials familiar to us, it is apparently of a spirit composition that supersedes the laws of physics as we know them.
The city itself is described as being of pure, translucent gold. This is how John sees it, having no other words or frame of reference from his life to describe what he is seeing. While he sees that it is constructed of a variety of distinct materials, it is at the same time dazzling beyond what our human eyes have ever seen.
Somewhere in this great city is an open square or plaza. “Street” in verse 21 is singular and does not mean a street for travel, of which the city likely has many. Where this wide square or plaza will be situated in the city is not stated. Like the city, it, too, is described as being composed of glimmering, translucent gold in appearance. Could this place have something to do with the location of Jesus Christ’s and the Father’s thrones?
A dynamic city: Revelation 21:24-25 explains, “And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).” Since it is always daytime in New Jerusalem, the gates are always open. This description implies a regular passage of earth’s spirit citizens into and out of the city. Who are these nations and kings of the earth? The Bible identifies them as “those who are saved,” so they are part of God’s spirit family. Beyond that, we accept the fact that God has not chosen to reveal all details about the earth’s amazing future, and we can merely speculate.
Even though we do not know everything about God’s future holy city, we can confidently believe what God said through King David: “In your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). This is what we look forward to experiencing in New Jerusalem!
In order to dwell in New Jerusalem when it comes to earth, we need to respond to God’s expectations of us. If you wish to further your relationship with God, the section on “Change” on this website can be especially helpful.