I have to admit that the first analogy that came to mind when reading this chapter was the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. Both are fantasy lands of a sort, although the one was shown to be but an illusion, while the other (the holy city descending from heaven) is an inspired vision of what awaits the believer in the life to come.
This must have been quite a revelation for John, to be transported to this future dwelling of God, the Lamb, and the chosen. While the building blocks of the holy city are fabulous enough themselves, with all the gold, jasper, topaz, and such, the symbolism of the numbers is rich as well, pointing as they do beyond themselves in sequences of perfection.
Even more fabulous is the lack of a need for a temple; the Lord God and the Lamb are here!
A bonus: This passage is a quick tutorial on the origins of the oft-used expression “the pearly gates” (see v. 21).
Is everyone welcome?
This picture of a future time of splendor for people of all nations and all situations in life is a powerful source of inspiration for those mired in the troubles and imperfections of the present time. As such, it can serve as a respite from current struggles, since we are assured that in the by-and-by things will be better (as we’ll see in a moment, this can also be used to distract the suffering from their present situation).
Our text today may be helpful to the down-and-outer in another way: The gates of the city point in each of the cardinal directions, signifying an openness to all, and later we are told that “the nations” and even “the kings of the earth” (v. 24) will be invited, meaning anyone from anywhere whose name is in the book of life is welcome here.
In his quite revealing book on Revelation, The Most Revealing Book of the Bible, Brethren theologian Vernard Eller suggested that the presence of kings and nations, whom John has previously derided (chapter 13), demonstrates that these must have been given a second chance postmortem. Their baptism by fire in the lake of fire made them into something wholly different, now worthy of being on the roll that’s called up yonder.
And since the city gates are never closed (v. 25), they could enter. From where? The lake of fire, Eller says, making the case for universalism—that is, the eventual redemption of all people. (Some early Brethren, including Alexander Mack, believed that there would be punishment for some in the afterlife, but that a loving God would not make this last for eternity.)
The future is now
This picture of a welcoming-to-all, beautiful-beyond-imagination world would be particularly helpful to people struggling against various forms of oppression in the here and now, as they can see in scripture that there is a glorious, God-ordained future when everyone has equal standing. This vision of the future could help people envision a better present world, empowering them to act now to make this a reality.
This reminds us of enslaved people in our own history. We know that this vision of a sumptuous and well-appointed afterlife was used by slaveowners to pacify African Americans during the pre-emancipation era. However, the enslaved readily interchanged “heaven and hell” for “freedom and slavery” in their interpretation of Christianity, using their faith as a springboard to push for “heaven on earth,” full rights as citizens in the present day.
Later on, Black leaders would have none of the ploy to use visions of future glory to divert attention from an inglorious present. John Lewis once said of Martin Luther King Jr.: “He was not concerned about the streets of heaven and the pearly gates. . . . He was more concerned about the streets of Montgomery and the way that Black people and poor people were being treated in Montgomery.”
Looking back, looking ahead
In launching their movement, the early Brethren looked back to the primitive church to shape their beliefs and practices. They felt the early Christians were pristine, in the sense that they were closest to Jesus and thus would have had the best understanding of how Christianity should express itself. The group was especially committed to casting off traditional religious observances to align themselves more closely with the early church and with Jesus’ own teachings.
In today’s scripture, we have another example of “the way things should be” on the other end of the historical timeline—the beauty and inclusivity of the holy city of God. Here, too, the direct presence of God and the Lamb gives credence to the values on display, as did proximity to Jesus for the primitive church.
How is this vision of the shimmering city of God and its “gates are always open” approach helpful to us?
- It foreshadows the marvelous future that awaits us, reminding us that life on earth is not all there is. Especially those who have struggled in this life can know that respite is in their future.
- It is a model for our living here, challenging us to raise our vision of what God’s intentions are for human life. In this way it reminds us of Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6:10: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (KJV). We see what heaven is like in these verses. How close are we to approximating this in our world today?
- The open gates, which seem to welcome those we might not have imagined gaining access, is a helpful reminder of the pitfalls of a hell-and-damnation gospel. On the other hand, as people or institutions in our own times bring pain and grief on people or God’s creation, they need to be held to account for their behaviors, as the heavenly city reveals that God clearly seeks beauty and harmony.
There goes the neighborhood
My dad taught A Guide for Biblical Studies to his Sunday school class at Blue Ridge Church of the Brethren for the last 50 years of his life, until passing away in January 2016. He was a staunch Brethren who saw in our denomination the truest expression of Christianity, whether it was related to service, peacemaking, the ordinances, or social justice.
In his final months on this earth, however, we might say he had a revelation. Many of us in the family had come to visit him at the hospital following a treatment of some kind. Once he awoke from the procedure, he proclaimed: “I visited heaven, and guess what? There weren’t just Brethren there!” Rather than chagrined, he seemed elated by what had been revealed to him.
A few weeks later he joined the Baptists, Catholics, and others in those eternal habitations, no doubt wisecracking to them about whether God had likewise burst their bubble by letting them know ahead of time that even Brethren had been invited to pass the pearly gates.
John’s vision of the culmination of history—marked by God tenting among the people and by the people themselves no longer being subject to pain, tears, and death—is a powerful image of the next life that awaits those who have persevered in this life. As such, it can both sustain us in times of trial and inspire us to aspire for a world more like that in the here and now. Why should the peoples of the world have to wait for what we know God wants for them?
David Radcliff, an ordained Church of the Brethren minister, is director of New Community Project, a nonprofit organization working at care for creation and peace through justice.