A New Garden of Eden
In John’s symbolic vision of this great rebirth, he saw a new heaven and earth—a clear reference to the very beginning of the biblical narrative. Amazing! So, what did it look like?
“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, [a]clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of [b]the Lamb, 2 in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve [c]kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (ch 21).
It's an all-new Garden of Eden, the paradise of eternal life with God! This is an image of the Old Testament prophetic echoing all the way back to the first pages of Genesis. He saw the tree of life there, accessible to all and eternally yielding fruit. It could do this because its roots had access to the eternal river of life, which can dispense nourishment to all the new creation because it flows from the presence of God himself.
However, in John’s account of a garden, humanity wasn’t represented by a couple. John describes seeing all the nations there, working to cultivate the garden as Adam and Eve did in Genesis. For John, the fulfillment of God’s purpose through Jesus would result in the restoration of humans to their place as co-rulers of God’s world, ready to work with God to take creation into uncharted territory.
A New Jerusalem
But it's not just a return back to the garden; it's a step forward into a new Jerusalem, a great city where human cultures and all their diversity work together in peace and harmony before God. John first described the new creation as a marriage of heaven and earth. Heaven is represented as both a city and a bride, coming down out of God’s heavenly domain and landing on earth, much like the staircase Jacob saw in his dream. John called the city-bride a “new Jerusalem.” It was so marvelous that he could only describe it regarding brilliant stones.
Jerusalem itself was a powerful symbol for John. It was the first and only city where God resided in a permanent holy house, the first city where kings worshiped the true Creator. At the heart of the Israelites’ Promised Land, Jerusalem represented the ultimate Promised Land: all of restored creation. He depicts the reunion of heaven and earth as the descent of a new Jerusalem. Unlike the old Jerusalem that was corrupted and dishonored by most of Israel’s kings, the new Jerusalem would be ruled by a divine king. This new city would be built by God, not by human hands.
But, NOT A New Temple
John was a master of the Hebrew Scriptures, and his vision of the new creation is a kaleidoscope of images drawn from the biblical poets and prophets. His goal was to create a visual collage of Old Testament metaphors that forces us to reckon with the meaning of these images.
A great example is John’s physical descriptions of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:15–21. He says the heavenly city has four sides, each with three gates, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. Then he mentions 12 huge foundation stones, which correspond to the 12 apostles. After this, John says the heavenly city is a perfect cube, each side being 12,000 stadia, or 1,400 miles. Then we’re told that the walls were 144 cubits high, or about 200 feet.
And in the most surprising twist of all, there's no temple building in the new creation, because the presence of God and the lamb that was once limited to the temple now permeate every square inch of the new world. There's a new humanity there fulfilling the calling placed on them all the way back on page 1 of the Bible, to rule as God's image to partner together with God in taking this creation into new and uncharted territory—and so ends John's apocalypse and the epic storyline of the whole Bible.
This sounds like a structure that defies mathematics, and some people leave it at that. But John wasn’t trying to document a blueprint. He was using two distinct Old Testament references to craft a deeper meaning. Let’s break this down:
The image of a city on a high hill with 12 gates corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel is adapted from Ezekiel’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Ezekiel 40.
The concept of a cube is derived from 1 Kings 6:19–20, which specifies that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple was cubic.
The results of combining these references only makes sense on a symbolic level. If you try to draw it, the numbers just don’t work. But John’s goal was to communicate that Ezekiel’s idea of a new Jerusalem would be one giant temple with the same qualities as the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple.
Still confused? It means there will be no need for a physical temple or Holy of Holies in the new creation because the fullness of God’s presence will be everywhere. All of the new creation will be God’s Holy of Holies.
A Whole New Vague Creation
John’s visions leave most of our questions about the new creation unanswered—and that’s not a bad thing. John’s goal wasn’t to satisfy our curiosity about the new world, but to instill confidence that the creation would be reborn just as Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
This is the hope of the story of the Bible: God’s domain and our domain will one day completely unite. All things will be made new. Death will be replaced with life. The whole earth will be a recreation of the garden, and the glory of the temple will cover the whole earth. Every nation will be blessed through the power of the resurrected Jesus, and God’s own personal presence will permeate every square inch of the new creation.
Ok! So, I can buy all vision of the future in which I can place my hope, but you still haven’t told me where I go when I die?