Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27 (Sixth Sunday of Easter—Series C)
“A Vision of the Church Triumphant”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
May 1, 2016
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Second Reading recorded in Revelation 21:
9And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came and spoke with me saying, “Come here, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and he showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God 11having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a precious stone, like a stone of jasper, clear as crystal. 12It had a great and high wall, having 12 gates and at the gates 12 angels, and names were written upon them, which are the names of the 12 tribes of the sons of Israel: 13on the east three gates and on the north three gates and on the south three gates and on the west three gates. 14And the wall of the city had 12 foundation stones and on them were the 12 names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb. . . . 21And the 12 gates were 12 pearls; each one of the gates was from one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold like transparent glass. 22And I saw no temple in her, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb is her temple. 23And the city has no need of the sun nor the moon to shine on her, for the glory of God shines upon her, and her lamp is the Lamb. 24And the nations will walk by her light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory into her 25and her gates shall surely not be shut during the day, for there will be no night there. 26And they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into her. 27And anything unclean shall surely not come into her nor those who do detestable things or falsehood, but only those who stand written in the Lamb’s book of life.
How do you illustrate in human language something that is beyond our senses? How can you describe with human words something that is beyond our knowing? Human language, whether it is English or Spanish or German, or even the Greek of the New Testament, is by its nature limited in what it can say and in what it can convey to us. Trying to illustrate that which the Lord Christ showed to John in the revelatory unveiling of the Church Triumphant in the new heaven and earth must have been a daunting task for John. Thankfully, we can be absolutely sure that John wrote down everything exactly the way God wanted it to be revealed to us. Since “all Scripture is God-breathed,” it is His Word put down in human words (2 Tim. 3:16).
And those divine words from Revelation 21 that we consider as our text today are a word picture. The Lord Christ, through the use of words, is describing for John and for us what the Church Triumphant, God’s people in Christ, is like in the new heaven and earth that we heard about in the opening verses of chapter 21 last Sunday. So the God-breathed words wich John uses here describes the people of God, the Church, in terms that we normally apply to a city. A comparison is being made between something we can wrap our heads around—a city with walls and gates—and the people of God in the new creation, which we really have no concept of in our present world. So let’s unpack things a little here this morning.
As our reading opens, John is told what he is going to see: “I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” The Lamb, as we have learned, is the Lord Jesus Christ. Who, then, is this Bride, the wife of the Lamb? By the power of God the Holy Spirit, St. John sees this Bride, pictured, not in a white dress with a long train and lots of lace, but pictured as a city, a city that God has put together since it comes “out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.” So we want to remember that what John is seeing here is illustrating/representing people—the whole people of God in Christ Jesus. “I will show you the Bride,” a collective person. It’s not about a literal, physical city. Not only do we know this from the very words of God’s angel, but in the verses that we didn’t read this morning, we get the measurements of the city, which puts it at 1,380 miles long and 1,380 miles wide and 1,380 miles high. This isn’t meant to depict an earthly city, but something much more—the people of God in Christ.
Now I’ll come back to these measurements in a minute, as long as you remember we’re picturing with words the believers in Jesus as a city so that we can come to better understand the Church Triumphant in the new creation. What do we learn, then, from this vision, about Christ’s Church in glory? The city is pictured having a wall, great and high. In the ancient world you walled your city for protection—to keep the bad guys out. Picturing God’s people surrounded by a wall suggests that in the new heaven and earth God’s people will be under God’s gracious protection forever. It’s an image we also find in the Old Testament. Think of Psalm 46, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Ps. 46:7 ESV). In the new creation, God will serve as our protection as a wall served a city for protection. We will never again suffer attacks or be afflicted. Never again will we be tempted by the enemy: the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature.
Now, if your city is walled, then you need gates to get into it. The city depicting God’s people in glory is pictured as having 12 gates, three on each of its four sides. Each gate was made out of a huge pearl! So precious is the entrance into the city that it is worth any cost. But you and I couldn’t pay it. How could we ever pay for what our sins have done to our relationship with God and with each other? How could we ever pay off that debt and escape the punishment of death so that we might enter and become the people of God in glory? We couldn’t. But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could and did. He shed His blood, more precious than silver or gold or giant pearls. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that won our forgiveness and our salvation from sin and death. It is the riches of Christ, the victorious Lamb, which He has given to us in Baptism and that brings us into His kingdom and glory. Oh how precious is the inheritance which we have received by grace so that we should live with the one, triune God forever in the new heaven and earth!
But why 12 gates? In the ancient world, the city gate was most vulnerable to attack. Having to defend more than one entrance was difficult. Imagine 12? But attack is not possible in the new creation. God’s people have His everlasting protection, and so there is abundant entrance to the Lord’s presence. Note that His angels are also pictured standing guard at the gates. Nothing unclean and nothing detestable and false will ever again be with the people of God. Indeed, nothing will keep us away from the Lord as He dwells with us face to face because God, by grace alone through faith alone, brings us into His presence through the atoning blood and merit of Jesus. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, (the “twelve foundation stones” in Revelation 21!) Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22 ESV).
Being built together into a holy temple and dwelling place for God, then, brings us back to what John saw in the holy city that stands in for the saints of God in Christ. He saw a great, high wall, gates each made out of a single pearl, foundation stones, and the whole thing was just brilliant, like a crystal clear gemstone. But we have to take notice of what John doesn’t see. He doesn’t see a building that is a temple. He doesn’t see a place for worship. Odd, don’t you think? Throughout the Lord’s history with His people, God’s glory dwelt among them in the tabernacle and then in the temple at Jerusalem. It was necessary to mediate and to temper God’s presence since no sinner was able to see God face to face. His glory and overpowering holiness and awesomeness would wipe us out for sure.
But now, in the new creation, things will be different than they are today. Now we are still separated from God because, although we are saints of God in Christ Jesus, at the same time we are still sinners. At the resurrection on the Last Day, that will no longer be true. We will be raised in glory and perfection, in holiness. In our state of righteousness, we will be able to look directly into the face of God! No longer will God have to hide His glory from our view. God can dwell directly and personally live in the midst of His saints with His glory. So there’s no longer a need for a physical tabernacle or a temple. God the Father Himself with the Lord Christ is that temple. And the city itself, the people of God, are the Holy of Holies in which God dwells!
I wouldn’t do this text any favors if I didn’t bring this out. Remember, I promised to come back to the measurements: the pictured holy city, which is a representation of the Church Triumphant, measured 1,380 miles long and 1,380 miles wide and 1,380 miles high. It’s three dimensional. In fact, it’s a perfect cube. Do you know what else in the Bible was a perfect cube? The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple where the Ark of the Covenant and God’s presence dwelt among His people Israel. On the Last Day, God and the Lamb will fill the new creation with their glorious presence, a presence formerly sequestered in the Holy of Holies, but now abiding in the midst of His people directly. In the new heaven and earth, God Himself is the temple, but within that temple you and I and all the people of God in Christ are the Holy of Holies where God dwells with us personally. We, the Church Triumphant, are where God’s presence will be—face to face—without any curtains or veils, without any hindrance or hiding, without any sacrifices of blood, for Jesus our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed and is risen again. And we are His people with whom He will live personally, face to face.
So how do you illustrate in human language something that is beyond our senses? How can you describe with human words something that is beyond our knowing? By the power of the Holy Spirit, St. John did a really good job. What a vision of the Church Triumphant! What a vision of the people of God in glory in the new heaven and earth! His divine presence and protection will be ours forever. He will live with us and be our God and we will be His people. We will be His Holy of Holies because Jesus has made us holy with His blood. What a future will be ours in HIM! Amen.
Special thanks to the now sainted Rev. Dr. Lou Brighton, my seminary professor, who opened the text of Revelation to me in a pastoral, Christ-centered way, for the material used in this sermon.