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August 14 lesson: A New City

August 01, 2022
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A New City

Summer Quarter: Partners in a New Creation
Unit 3: The Great Hope of the Saints


Sunday school lesson for the week of August 14, 2022
By Dr. Jay Harris


Lesson Scripture: Revelation 21:10-21

Partners in a New Commonwealth
 
The title of this lesson is “A New City.” When we think of cities, we often think of skylines, cityscapes, and SIZE! Perhaps a better word to use then is commonwealth – a new commonwealth. A commonwealth makes you think of a particular group of people and how they are organized. The New Testament Greek word which is translated “city” is polis. A city is a poli-tical entity – a particular social arrangement made up of people. Instead of size, think of the QUALITY of relationships and governance.

Think back to Genesis 11:1-10, to the Tower of Babel, which is one of the earliest stories in the Bible. At first, it just seems to be a story that explains why people began speaking different languages around the world. This story, however, is more than about language. Why did God think the actions of the people were so dangerous that God had to put an end to their work? Notice that they were not just building a tower; they were building a city. They were not just organizing to meet their basic needs. The people in the story wanted the top of the tower they were building to reach into the heavens – in order to make a name for themselves. They were building a monument to their own supposed greatness in their attempt to rival God. Centuries later, the pursuit of fame and power would lead the Egyptian pharaohs to build cities and great monuments at the expense of Hebrew slave labor. Perhaps God’s confusion of the language was meant to place a check on this human tendency toward vanity that so often leads to oppression and betrays the promise of God’s likeness in us.

This story of the Tower of Babel does something else in its placement within the larger biblical story. It tells us that the self-destructive tendencies within humankind that existed before the Flood still exist after the Flood. Something more was needed to realize the potential in the human family as God created it. Something more was needed to express the love that is capable of existing between God and the human beings God created. What happened in the very next chapter was that God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. From this covenant, God set out to create a people who live under the reign of God.

We need to keep the word “quality” in mind as we go through today’s scripture lesson in the Book of Revelation. It will feature the new city of God. The structure of the city, its unique building materials, and its dimensions will make us think of the physical. Let’s remember, however, that the Book of Revelation uses symbols. Symbols point beyond themselves to something greater. In this case, the physical will point to the spiritual.

“And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:10) Notice that the holy city Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God. Everything about its creation is divinely directed. The city is a divine creation for human habitation. A city which is God-made and coming down out of heaven from God is in direct contrast to the Tower of Babel, which was human-made and was being built to rise toward the heavens. In the case of the Tower of Babel, God had to confuse the language in order to prevent it from being built. The Tower of Babel was essentially a sin in the making. The holy city being sent from God is a symbol of the opposite – the completion of humankind’s redemption.

The holy city is called the New Jerusalem. Think back to the meaning of Jerusalem for God’s people. We recall what Moses told the people in Deuteronomy when they were about to cross over the Jordan River into the land God had promised them. They were to tear down the high places where the Canaanites worshiped their idols. They were not to worship on those places. Moses said, “But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there.” (Deuteronomy 12:5) At that time the location was not named, nor was it even known, except by God. It was just referred to as the place which would serve as God’s habitation and forever have God’s name attached to it. It was when King David, who took the fortress of Zion inside Jerusalem and made it the City of David, that Jerusalem was revealed as the city God had chosen. Jerusalem is forever associated with God’s name and, by extension, God’s reputation and holy nature.

After David established Jerusalem as his capital, Solomon would build the temple in Jerusalem. The temple and the city would be destroyed later by the Babylonians. The temple and city would be rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by the Romans in 70 AD. Nevertheless, Jerusalem continues to be known as the city in which God’s name dwells, despite its on again off again physical existence. Think of the New Jerusalem of Revelation as a spiritual arrangement of people built to embody God’s ideal and reflect God’s image.

According to Revelation 21:2, the New Jerusalem is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. We therefore associate the New Jerusalem with the Church, the Bride of Christ. The inhabitants of the new city are those who have remained faithful to the Lord through trials and temptations and have been refined. The New Jerusalem is both their habitation and their reward. This is meant to be a depiction of the Church, not as it is now, but as it was always meant to be. As it is being described, we should imagine what the symbols that follow might mean.

“It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.” (Revelation 21:11) Although jasper is not the rarest of jewels, it would definitely be considered the rarest of building materials to be used in the construction of a city. When we think of the building of a city, we normally think brick, cut granite, or concrete. What is different about this city is that it is made of materials that can be shined up like crystal and reflect light. It would be radiant because it would be reflecting God’s light and God’s glory. The light of God’s radiance would reflect off this city quite unlike a city built of brick or stone. The city would positively glow off the reflected light of God’s holiness, God’s goodness, and God’s love.

A Church that is the New Jerusalem reflects God’s ideal in the collective life of a people in terms of its holiness of life and faith. God’s ideal is also reflected in the quality of its relationships – its life together. The God who is, himself, love is reflected in the love shared and expressed by this community of Christ. This community would reflect God’s glory. Reflecting God’s glory and glorifying God are two ways of saying the same thing. When the Church perfectly embodies the love of Christ, it glorifies God and gives witness to God’s love.

This same community that reflects the unity and love of the triune God is the same community described in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” In other words, there is great diversity in this ideal portrait of the Church. There is unity in the midst of diversity. The beauty of the Church is in both its diversity and its unity. 

“It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:12-14) Modern cities are often defined by their skylines, but ancient cities were defined by their walls and gates. The strength of the walls were byproducts of their foundations. Notice that the number twelve keeps repeating in the description of the new city. There are twelve gates, three facing east, three facing north, three facing south, and three facing west. On the twelve gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. On the twelve foundations which uphold the four walls are inscribed the names of the twelve apostles.

This is clearly a reference to the Old Testament and New Testament foundations of God’s people, the Church, the New Jerusalem. The Church that is God’s ideal at the end of time is the fulfillment of the promise God had always envisioned for Israel and the Church. This ideal for the Church is fully informed by the Bible – both parts of the Bible! You should note that there are more Old Testament references in Revelation than any other New Testament book. You could say that the foundations of the Church run very deep.

“The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using.” (Revelation 21:15-17) Notice that the city is shaped like a perfect cube – a symbol of perfection. The number “one hundred forty-four” is a symbolic number because it is twelve multiplied by twelve. This is a continued reference to the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles.

“The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.” (Revelation 21:18-21) The gemstone radiance of the New City continues to be emphasized. The city and its streets are pure gold, and everything is polished so that it reflects light like mirrored glass. There is a divine radiance in this symbolic picture of the Church as the light of God’s holy character and love are reflected in the life together of the saints. Gold and gemstones are also valuable. One of the meanings for “glory” that can be traced to its Hebrew origins emphasizes weight, heaviness, and gravity. God’s glory and immense majesty are reflected in the opulence of its construction materials and overall beauty of the New City in Revelation.

The twelve gemstones that adorn the foundations of the walls provide yet another reference to the Old Testament. It could be a reference to the sacred breast piece that the high priest in office wore, beginning with the first high priest, Aaron, the brother of Moses. The instructions for making it are recorded in Exodus 28. It had gold cords and rings, and it featured twelve different gemstones with the names of the twelve tribes (sons) of Israel inscribed on the stones. The twelve stones were arranged three across and in four rows. Wearing a breast piece made it where the high priest bore the concerns of God’s people over his heart when he went before the Lord.

The Letter of Hebrews emphasizes to the New Testament Church that Jesus is our high priest forever. Jesus is the one who brought the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. He brought the sacrifice, because he himself was the unblemished Lamb who allowed himself to be sacrificed. The high priest in the Old Testament had to bring the sacrifice over and over every year, but the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice once and for all. The promise and potential for atonement in the Old Testament is brought to complete fulfillment in Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is therefore our high priest forever.

The dual foundations of the Church in both the Old and New Testaments echo what Paul wrote in his letter to the Church in Ephesus: “So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22) Paul mentions that the foundation of the Church comes from both the apostles and the prophets – a reference to the New and Old Testaments.

Our scripture in Revelation is the ideal Church revealed at the end of time, but notice that Paul’s appeal was to the Church living in the present. There are two theological terms that describe these two states of the Church: the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. The Church Militant is the Church pursuing, in the present, its redemptive mission of defeating evil’s hold over human lives and systems. The Church Triumphant is the Church of the future after its mission is completed under the reign of Christ. The Church Militant is imperfect, but it is being made perfect through Christ and the refining fire that overcomes evil.

This picture of the Church at the end of time in Revelation is not intended to describe what the Church is, but what the Church will one day be if it continues to be faithful to its promise and potential in scripture. We should never presume that we are already the Church Triumphant. We should never take on that kind of presumptuous attitude. We should resist resting on our laurels. We should pursue our mission with militant and loving fervor and commitment. We should never presume in any way that we ourselves have arrived. It may sound counterintuitive, but the Church Militant should be filled with a deep sense of humility and dependence on Christ.

A church that pretends to be the Church Triumphant is usually a church that has 1) ceased to care about its mission beyond its walls, and/or 2) has ceased to care about getting better in its relationships as a community of faith. How much does your church care? How much do you care?

Prayer

God of the New Jerusalem, the Church, You are refining Your Church to reflect Your holy nature and love. Continue to show us Your grand design for the Body of Christ and point out to us Her deficiencies in our life together, that we may see glimpses and experience foretastes of Your divine life as we seek to be a Church that reflects your radiant glory, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com.

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