We cannot make sense of these verses from Revelation if we read them as if they were a scientific document or a literal account of the future. John describes the new Jerusalem as he has seen it 'coming down from God' (21:10). The present tense of the verb implies not a once and for all occasion, but a continuous event. The new Jerusalem that he describes is even now coming down; one day it will have arrived and the new age with it, but that has not happened yet. So what John is describing is a glorious foretaste of what is to come, and is relevant to his own context and to ours.
There is much that is picture language, making a theological point as well as painting a joyful scene. Note:
a) the temple (21:22). The city was shaped like the Holy of Holies, the innermost shrine of the Jerusalem temple; it too represented the dwelling place of God, but this time within the whole city in which God's people were living. No representation of God's presence was needed, nor anything that is marked out as holier than the rest, for everything that went on in the city was holy. Anything, however mundane, we do today knowing that God is with us, is holy. It would have been a comfort for Christians in John's day to know that they did not need a temple building to replace the one in Jerusalem destroyed in AD 70.
b) the light. Light comes from God's glory and from the Lamb - Jesus. God is Light, and there is no need for created lights (sun and moon) to supplement him. In the city there will be no absence of light, such as in the night (22:5), for God is always there. The light of God shines not just within the city, but outside on 'the nations' (21:24). Light give us the ability to see where we are going and not to stumble; the light of God has a moral dimension, enabling us to do the right thing always, and even those not yet in the city are able to do right.
c) the gates (21:25). These are always open for people to come in. They cannot come in unless they have been transformed and belong to Jesus; but while the city is still 'coming from God' the way is open for people to repent and enter life. Moreover, the 'kings of the earth will bring their glory into the city'. Human achievement has its place in the city of God; things that are of honour and good report here on earth can become treasure in God's kingdom also.
d) the water of life and the tree of life (22:1-3). These images from Genesis 2 and 3, and from Ezekiel 47, show that any hurts and mistakes and imperfections of this world (the nations) can receive their healing in the next - and need to be healed, if we and our achievements are to be made whole.
e) the throne (22:3). Notice that there is one throne of God and of the lamb, not two thrones - Jesus and the Father are one. The original curse (Genesis 3) meant separation from God; in the new order there is no separation. This is our great hope! God's servants will always serve him, will always see him face to face, and will always reflect his image - God's name stands for his nature, and will be impressed on our nature. That service is not demeaning; it is reigning: we shall have glorious responsibilities in the new creation. What a privilege! Yet that privilege is foreshadowed even now, for Christ the king is always with us, God's nature is growing in us, and we have even now authority from Christ to act in his name.
ISSUES AND QUESTIONS
How do you picture life in the hereafter? Is it something you look forward to? Is it something that motivates you or guides you in daily life? If not, what would need to change for it to affect how you live in the present?
IDEAS FOR MEETINGS
Complete the sentence, 'I feel nearest to heaven when I...'
Provide people material for them to create a symbol of the new creation, by drawing or painting or writing or making. Have a piece of paper with a drawing of a throne (or chair!) and the words 'God' and 'The Lamb' on it. When all are ready, place that paper in the centre of the room, and arrange around it everyone's creations. Then have a time when people can praise God for what is to come, in prayer or singing.