Most cities are known for certain distinguishing characteristics. Perhaps it is the architecture, the culture, the social opportunities, or some combination of features that make it unique. Whether it is a hamlet or a bustling metropolis, each is distinct. But there has never been nor ever can be one like the heavenly city God has prepared for His saints. Of necessity, it is identified with eternal life in God’s kingdom.
The heavenly city is completely unlike any in this world because God is its Builder and Maker, and He has established it for eternity (Heb. 11:10). Cities in this world are flawed at best, but the heavenly city is Paradise (Rev. 2:7). Cities in this world have crime, but the heavenly city knows only righteousness (Rev. 21:27). Cities in this world have their share of the poor and homeless, but everyone in the heavenly city has a dwelling place and experiences only complete fulfillment (Rev. 21:3-7).
The heavenly city exists even now, and our Lord Jesus Christ prepares a place in it for everyone who truly believes in Him and, therefore, belongs to Him (Jn. 14:1-4). It is the true Jerusalem, which the earthly Jerusalem temporarily and imperfectly represents as the capital city of God’s kingdom. And when God destroys this present creation and creates it anew, the heavenly city will be called New Jerusalem. It will descend out of the highest heaven and illumine the new creation because the glory of God will radiate from it.
These are certainly reasons for the Christian to look forward to heaven. However, as this book teaches, heaven’s greatest appeal is the fact that our holy God is forever present, dwelling among His holy people. For this reason, New Jerusalem is the city of glory (cf. Rev. 21:22-27). So heaven is more than just the place we will spend eternity; it is the perfect condition in which we will spend eternity with God. Eternal life is not simply a never ending existence but one that is enjoyed in holy fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer (Jn. 17:3).
Revelation 22:1-5 explains that New Jerusalem is also the city of life. Its distinguishing characteristics, which Christians will enjoy forever in God’s presence, are here described. Namely, its river, trees, throne, and light.
The City of Life
Its River (v. 1)
The apostle John first sees in this final description of the city, “a pure river of water of life.” The angel, who gives him this guided tour of New Jerusalem (v. 9), “showed” him its very real yet symbolic waterway. Dissimilar to any river on earth today, the one in heaven does not contain H2O as we know it. The liquid we must have now to sustain life on earth is not sufficient for eternal life in heaven, although it certainly is intended to foreshadow heavenly things (Jn. 4:10-14). The water in heaven’s only river is characterized by its eternal purity. It is “clear as crystal,” and likely enhances the eternal experience of those who drink it (cf. Rev. 21:6; 22:2; 17).
But the river forever flows primarily as a symbol of eternal life with God in Christ. Like many aspects of the city, the heavenly river is a memorial to what God has accomplished for the saints — a testament to His provision of eternal life for which they will forever glorify Him. It will serve as a constant reminder that He has quenched our soul’s thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6), but it is not necessary to sustain or eternal condition.
It is not itself the source of eternal life, but it is seen “proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” This emphasizes that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have sovereignly created us and provided atonement for our sins through Christ (God the Son incarnate) who is the Lamb of God. God, who is ever-present, sits exalted in heaven with the river of life flowing from His throne. Those in heaven will always have a reminder that eternal life is a gracious gift of their Almighty Creator and Redeemer.
Its Trees (v. 2)
Secondly, John sees what are apparently many trees in the city of life, and each of them is a “tree of life.” In the “middle” of what is possibly its only “street” (or at least its main thoroughfare), he finds the trees growing. He also sees them “on either side of the river.” The interior layout of the city is not clear, but we know that these magnificent trees add to its beauty. It is a garden paradise foreshadowed by the original Eden of this present creation.
A tree of life was found in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9). It was evidently enjoyed fully by Adam and Eve, being very much a real tree (Gen. 2:16). But like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it was primarily symbolic. It was a privilege to eat of the tree of life in the Garden, because it signified fellowship with God (Gen. 3:8), which is eternal life with all its accompanying blessings. That privilege was taken away when Adam and Eve chose to join Satan’s rebellion, declaring themselves judges of what was good and evil (Gen. 3:24). They no longer had a right relationship with God, which is the very essence of eternal life.
Eternal life is the experience of heaven’s citizens, and the privilege to eat of the tree of life is restored to humanity in New Jerusalem. It stands to reason that this very physical experience will only be enjoyed when we are fully glorified in resurrection. While the saints dwell with God in their glorified spirits now in heaven’s Jerusalem, they are not yet fully glorified. They may very well not partake of the tree of life as they will when it is called New Jerusalem.
In New Jerusalem, the tree of life bears “twelve fruits” — seemingly a different kind for each month. This surely signifies the abundant and endless blessings of eternal life. This fruit will obviously be edible and bring satisfaction to those who enjoy it, and they will, no doubt, praise God for satisfying their soul’s hunger for righteousness (Matt. 5:6).
The last part of the verse tells us: “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” We get our English word, “therapeutic,” from the word translated as “healing.” Since there is no sin in heaven, then there is no death, sorrow, crying or pain (21:4). This means there can be no sickness or disease. So the leaves are therapeutic in the sense of enhancing the heavenly experience in some way.
Like the water of life from the river, and the fruit of the tree of life, the leaves of the tree will bring satisfaction. It is worth noting that all our experiences in heaven will be satisfying and fulfilling in the most righteous way. Were it not for sin, our experience in this world would be totally satisfying, but such is the contrast of this world and the next.
Its Throne (vv. 3-4)
Thirdly, we see that the city of life will prominently display “the throne of God and the Lamb.” Everything else about the city is secondary to the presence of God. The Godhead (repeatedly identified by Their sovereignty in redemption) will be exalted in New Jerusalem, “and His servants shall serve Him.” Redeemed humanity will joyfully do the will of God forever.
As we saw in 21:7, there is no sin in the city because there are no sinners. There are only saints of God who have no desire other than to do what pleases God their King. They have been made holy through the atoning blood of Christ, and they dwell with their holy God. That is why the beginning of verse three says, “…there shall be no more curse.”
The curse God pronounced on the human race as a result of sin brought sorrow and suffering (Gen. 3:16-19). In the city of life, the saints will only experience the blessing and goodness of God who loves them. Christ, who bore the curse of sin for us on the cross, loved us and gave Himself for us that we might know the fullness of eternal life with God (Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24; Rev. 1:5).
This is why the throne of God and of the Lamb are exalted! Even now, Christians are no longer enemies of God, but we are reconciled to Him through faith in the Person and work of Christ (2 Cor. 5:15-21). In heaven, we will be completely holy, and we “shall see His face” in intimate fellowship without fear of death. We had no relationship to God before Christ reconciled us to Him. In New Jerusalem we will be clearly identified as His own personal possession (“His name shall be on their foreheads”). The language here stresses the eternal and intimate nature of God’s relationship with the saints.
Its Light (v. 5)
The final distinguishing characteristic of the city is its “light” — a salient feature already emphasized in 21:22-25. As explained in that passage, we again read: “There shall be no night there.” And if there is no night (i.e. no darkness), then there is no need for a source of artificial light. We need such sources of light in this universe because God in all His glory dwells outside of this creation. But that is not the case in the eternal new creation where He is Himself its holy light.
The citizens of New Jerusalem will not “need [a] lamp” or “light of the sun,” because “the Lord God gives them light.” God, who illumines the heavenly city now, will give light to the entire new creation as heaven literally infuses it (21:1-2). As we have already discovered, the light of His presence will radiate throughout the city and be refracted by it so that no darkness exists in the new heavens and earth.
As 21:24 taught us, “…the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light.” That is, all of redeemed humanity will in all places be in God’s holy presence living in complete righteousness. But while verse three said we will serve God in His presence, this verse adds, “And they shall reign forever and ever.” This is mankind’s original purpose — to serve God by reigning over His creation (Gen. 1:26-28; cf. Rev. 3:21), but we must exist in a holy relationship with God to accomplish it! The light is His holy presence in which we will live.
New Jerusalem is the city of life because all of its distinguishing characteristics remind the saints of the blessings of eternal life with God. The river of life, the tree of life, the throne of life, and the light of life will bring eternal joy and satisfaction to all of heaven’s citizens. And the more the true Christian discovers about this city from the pages of Scripture, the more he or she desires to be there.
David wrote: “You [LORD] will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). God is leading us heavenward to the city He has prepared for us, from which we will experience the blessings of eternal life in a new heavens and a new earth.
This is the city of all cities, and to live there requires that you be reconciled to God through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. That is, you must know God, which is the essence of eternal life. Will you spend eternity in the city of life?
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