And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:10)
Many read this as a literal city, prepared by God, descending down from heaven. Gill, however, reads it differently. He understands the “city” not as a “place,” but rather as a “people:” all the redeemed from all of time. Progressive dispensationalists, of course, disagree. Yet, let’s at least hear out Gill’s reasoning.
The New Jerusalem
Even back in Revelation 20:9, Gill calls the New Jerusalem “the general assembly of the firstborn.” In Revelation 21:2, he says, “[A]ll the elect of God are intended, the whole body and society of them, as being a city.” In the timeline of events, John circles back here to the first resurrection. First, the righteous, both living and dead, are caught up in the air with Christ. Second, the heavens (atmosphere) and earth are purged of sin and made new by the great conflagration. Third, John is taken to a high mountain to watch as all the saints from all of time descend to the new earth as a “bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). Gill states:
[T]his will be . . . the third time that Jerusalem will be built, . . . a local descent of all the saints with Christ from the third heaven into the air, where they will be met by living saints; and their bodies being raised and united to their souls, they will reign with Christ in the new earth.John Gill, comments on Revelation 21:2
The notion of a “city” referring to a new society rather than a literal municipality is not without precedent in Revelation. The Apostle John repeatedly uses the city, “Babylon,” to refer to the wicked world system and its citizens.
The Description of the New Jerusalem
Seen this way, the New Jerusalem is the perfected church-state in the new earth. Therefore, many of the descriptors are symbolic of this new society’s innate qualities. This notion is not without precedent either. In Revelation 11:8, the Apostle John said the two witnesses “will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt.” The city’s name described the character of its wicked citizens. Here, the city’s name describes the character of its righteous citizens.
As such, the “walls” represent salvation, which Satan will try, unsuccessfully, to broach when he is loosed at the end of the thousand years; the “12 gates” represent the 12 tribes of Israel, the root of all the elect; the “12 foundations” represent the 12 apostles who pointed men to Christ; the “foursquare city” represents the four corners of the world, which shows the church will fill every part of the new earth; the “12 pearls” represent the purity of Christ; the “street of . . . gold” represents purity of life; etc. You get the idea. Gill takes this as descriptive of a new society’s perfect structure rather than a new city’s external infrastructure.
This certainly gives us much to think about. There are several strengths to this position. First, it fits within Gill’s timeline. If true, what a sight for the Apostle John to see: billions of redeemed, glorified saints coming to their new home in their new, glorified body to live in a new, sin-purged earth; all sparkling in magnificent radiance! Second, the city is called the “Bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21:9b. It makes sense Christ’s bride is a people rather than a foursquare city made of stone. Third, the apostate church is called a great city throughout Revelation (Rev 11:8; 14:8; 17:8; and, 18:10, 16, 18.). It should not surprise us if the redeemed church is called the holy city. Fourth, God can do anything, of course, but it is hard to imagine 12 pearls large enough to be gates. Gill observed:
This shews that this account cannot be taken literally, but mystically, for no such pearl was ever known, large enough to make a gate of.See Gill’s comments on Revelation 21:21
Certainly, we can think of viable objections to each of those assertions, but Gill’s position has other problems, too. First, Gill’s representations are arbitrary. At times, he seeks to make connections to the OT, but even when he does, no NT author makes those connections. Therefore, he is on shaky ground. Second, Gill takes both the “land of Israel” (Rev 20:9) and the new heavens and earth as literal (Rev 21:1), but in the same breath he takes the “holy city Jerusalem” as non-literal. Why the switch? Third, the city’s measurements with a “rod of gold” are precise. If John spelled out literal measurements in a literal earth, why isn’t it interpreted as a literal city? Fourth, the people will “bring into it” [i.e., the city] “the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev 21:26). The natural reading sure sounds like a physical city which the elect children enter and bring things into it.
So, which is correct? Is it a literal city, or is it a new society? Could it be both: a literal city and a new society? I’m the son of an attorney, and I worked in law for years myself. I could argue any of those positions. If we’re honest, we simply don’t know. That’s hard for some people to admit, but I promise you this: If you think it’s a literal city, and you get there to find it is not, you won’t disappointed. On the other hand, if you think it’s a new society, and you get there to find it is a literal city, you won’t be disappointed either. On the third hand, if you’re an amillennialist who thinks it’s all symbolic anyway, and you get there to find it is quite literal, I doubt even the amillennialist will be disappointed!
Christ will be there, and that is all that matters. I’m happy to wait and be surprised.