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Then he carried me away in the spirit to a mountain, a huge and very high mountain,

and he showed

me the holy city,


descending out of heaven from GOD,   (See Comment below.)


Then he carried me away in the spirit to a strong place; it had all the qualities one looks for in a place of protection, and he showed me the holy people all gathered together, THOSE WHO LIVE IN PEACE, who have their origin only in THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS,   (See comment below.)

The Holy City, Jerusalem, Is a Picture of the Church, Not Heaven

The city is the same as the bride; it is a different image for the same thing. Both of these images refer to the faithful people of God.

We have usually been taught that the rest of this chapter is a description of heaven, and that is why we think that heaven will have pearly gates Revelation 21:21, big walls Revelation 21:17, and streets of gold Revelation 21:21 etc. However, I hope to show you convincingly that this passage gives us several indications that it is referring to the true church, not to heaven.

Why do I specify the “true church?” I say that because God sees the heart of each individual and there are many people who “go to church” regularly who will not end up in heaven, and there are some who do not “go to church” who will indeed end up in heaven. The true church, the body of Christ, is made up on those whose hearts are right with God and who live for Him not for self.

Reasons People Think the Holy City Refers to Heaven:


  1. It sounds like it is describing a physical place.
  2. Some things, like the need for light in v. 23, can go either way; they can refer to a physical place we call heaven, or to the people of God. The same can be said about some aspects of vv. 24-27.
  3. We want heaven to be about things that satisfy our self-centered nature. Seeing “the holy city” as heaven makes us feel good, whereas seeing “the holy city” as a picture of the holy people of God challenges us. One appeals to our spiritual immaturity, the other to our deepest level of commitment and resolve.

Reasons the City is a Picture of the Church:

  1. We have failed to give proper importance to how this passage establishes an equivalency between the two images of “bride” and “city.” Twice in this passage the bride and the city are shown to be the same thing. In 21:2 the city is described as a bride; starting in verse 9 the bride is described as a city.
  1. We have failed to understand the use of symbolism as the people of John’s day would have. If it sounds like a city, then we think it is referring to a city. But that is not how symbolism works. In Ephesians chapter six Paul describes the spiritual armor needed to live the Christian life. Have you ever heard a preacher say we need to walk around in armor all the time? No. It is symbolism. In that case Paul tells us clearly what the symbols refer to, but in most cases symbolism was not explained.

As a word picture the word “city” refers to 1) security and stability, 2) a center of commerce and power, or 3) to a collection of people. In this context it must be a collection of people because it has been tied so closely to the bride and wife of Christ.

While a city could be used to describe either heaven or the church, trying to apply it to heaven runs contrary to the description that follows, and has little purpose; applying this symbol to the people of God produces a powerful and balanced message with a clear purpose.

Many today envision heaven as a place with lots of pretty things. Let me remind you that God is more concerned about our communing with Him than with impressing us with pretty things. Heaven will not be about our comfort, but about His glory.

  1. There appears to be no break in the narrative, no new topic of discussion. Rather, the vision flows seamlessly from a reference to the bride and wife of Christ to a description of the city of peace. Since the bride and wife of Christ refer to the followers of Jesus, we should not change the topic and suddenly start talking about heaven. Such a change is not warranted by the text.
  1. The harlot was also pictured as a city—Babylon (17:5). It is a woman given the title of a city. The imagery of a harlot and that of a city are mixed, but it is obvious that they refer to the same thing. In that case no one has trouble picturing the city as a gathering of wicked people, or the seat of leadership for wicked people. It is never seen as a picture of hell. Why then do we want to change gears when it comes to the bride and the holy city, Jerusalem? The text leads us to understand that the bride and the city are the same thing, not two different things.
  1. The city was “coming down out of heaven from God” (v. 10). If the city were a reference to heaven, its literal meaning would be that “heaven is coming down out of heaven.” That makes no sense and communicates nothing.
  1. The emphasis on purity, especially in verse 11, seems to indicate people over a place. It is possible for a physical place to be set apart as holy and pure, but usually the idea of purity fits best when describing people and their actions. The fact that verse 11 uses four tools to communicate “pure” seems to point to the purity required of God’s people.
  1. The giving of the details of a list was a form of emphasis. For instance, v. 13 could have simply said that the 12 gates were arranged with 3 on each side of the city. But no, extra effort is taken to specifically say, “three on the East, three on the North,” etc. While this was not necessary for communicating information, it was necessary for communicating emphasis. It was a way of putting a star beside this to indicate that we should pay close attention to this point because there is something here that is worth giving careful thought to. While it is veiled, it is very important.

God seldom gives us information we do not need, and it is even more rare for him to place emphasis on information for the sake of information. The type of emphasis we see here shouts at us to pay attention because there is a spiritual truth we need to apply to our lives. It is highly unlikely that God would place such emphasis on saying that heaven will have lots of pretty things for us to enjoy. The way this passage is constructed shouts that there is a deep spiritual meaning to be learned.

The lesson being taught here is one of balance and openness; access to God’s people is open to all; none are excluded, and none are given an advantage.

As we proceed with the rest of this description, try to retrain your mind to apply these word pictures to the true church, not to heaven.