Revelation 21 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
John's Interpretation of the Vision
This vision, unlike the one in chapter 17, is no "mystery" (see 17:5, 7). John is not amazed or beguiled by what he has seen (as in 17:6), nor does he need to have anything explained to him (as in 17:7-18). As a prophet, he is given the correct understanding to pass along to his readers. Curiously, the interpretation rests first of all on what he does not see. No "holy city," least of all Jerusalem, should be without a temple, but John sees no temple and concludes from this that the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (v. 22). With these few words he gathers up Ezekiel's elaborate prophecy of a renewed temple in Jerusalem (Ezek 40--48) into its concluding disclosure of the city's name: THE LORD IS THERE (Ezek 48:35; compare Rev 3:12). If God and the Lamb are the temple of the holy city, they are also its light (vv. 23-25). There is no need of the sun or moon, either as sources of light or as objects of worship, no special feasts determined by solar or lunar calendar, no more cycle of day and night. Normally a city's gates are open during the day for commerce and closed at night against enemy attack. But because there is no night there (v. 25), this city's gates are always open. Far from being a fortress, the new Jerusalem is an open city without enemies (contrast 20:9), for its enemies are in the lake of fire (see 20:15; 21:8).
To be sure, there are former enemies in the picture who are not residents of the holy city. They are the nations and the kings of the earth, who appear as friendly vassals (v. 24). The kings of the earth had earlier been deceived into immorality with Babylon the prostitute (17:2; 18:3, 9) and had fought (unsuccessfully) against God and the Lamb (16:14; 17:12-14; 19:19-21). Now at last they have given their allegiance to the true "ruler of the kings of the earth" (1:5), who is "King of kings and Lord of lords" (19:16). The nations, or "Gentiles," were similarly deceived more than once (14:8; 18:3, 23; 20:3, 8) and were thrown into turmoil (11:18). Yet all along their destiny has been that Jesus and those who follow him would "strike down" (19:15) and ultimately "rule" (12:5; 19:15) them "with an iron scepter" (fulfilling Ps 2:1-2, 8-9).
In short, John finds in this vision the realization of the "song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb" sung by the redeemed in chapter 15: "All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed" (15:4). Here too the hopes of the biblical prophets for Jerusalem have come true, above all Isaiah 60:3: "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" and 60:11: "Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night, so that men may bring you the wealth of the nations--their kings led in triumphal procession."
John concludes his interpretation with a reminder that while Jerusalem is open to the kings of the earth and their splendor (v. 24), as well as to the glory and honor of the nations (v. 26), it is not open to anything unclean or to anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (v. 27). Only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life will enter the city. The implication is that both the residents of the city and the Gentiles who bring their wealth and tribute into it are those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. John's vision includes not only the redemption of Christian saints and martyrs, but in some sense the redemption of the rebellious and often deceived Gentile nations as well (see Bauckham 1993:98-104). The two groups are allied in that both worship the God of Israel and the Lamb, but the precise relationship between them is left to our imagination.