As Christmas season continues after the rapid-fire presentation of four big holidays in a row, my lectionary readings have taken me back to the minor prophets begun in Advent. This morning I started in on Zechariah, reading the first two chapters. About the first half of Zechariah is a series of eight apocalyptic visions – revelations about the end-times. The third vision, in 2:1-5, was about the future greatness of Jerusalem.
In this vision we’re shown a man trying to measure how large Jerusalem is, presumably to plan out how long the walls are going to need to be. But the angel tells Zechariah to tell the man not to bother, because Jerusalem is going to be so full of people and cattle that it’ll have no walls at all. God promises that he himself will the wall of fire around them, and the glory in their midst.
It struck me as I read this that there is a similar image taken up by the Apostle John in his apocalyptic vision. In Revelation 21:9-27, John describes the New Jerusalem descending to earth like a bride processing up to her bridegroom. This time Jerusalem is depicted to have walls, which at first glance might seem like a contradiction with Zechariah’s image, until you remember that these images are highly symbolic, and not to be taken strictly literally, but have other purposes for their details. In particular, the walls are used to give measurement to this new city: 12,000 stadia in each dimension – a giant cube. But what is a stadia? Turns out it’s about 607 feet, so the entire city is 1,380 miles across each side. This is physically impossible, given the fact that the earth is a globe, and no stretch of land is perfectly flat to receive a giant cube. Come to think of it, the gravitational impact of something that large touching down on the earth, however gently, would probably really mess up earth’s solar orbit, not to mention the moon’s. Haha, but again, this isn’t a literally physical description.
Rather, the point is that Jerusalem is ridiculously huge. When you take these two visions together, you come out with a few key truths:
- the “new Jerusalem” will be really large,
- large enough to house a really large population,
- God will protect it from disaster (from sin & death),
- God’s glory (his presence) will be in its midst.
A quick note about that fourth point. God’s glory in the Old Testament is usually a visual sign of his presence, such as the burning bush, the fire & smoke over the Ark of the Covenant, and the “glory of the Lord” in the Temple of Solomon. In Revelation 21, John explains that although he saw no Temple in the new city, he saw instead “God Almighty and the Lamb” living in the city among his people! That’s one serious upgrade from the Old Covenant benefits, as well as even from the current New Covenant arrangement.
Why are we shown these images? Zechariah’s audience was Jews filtering back into the promised land from exile in Babylon; they needed encouragement that God would look after them, and had a bright future in store for them. John’s audience was Christians suffering one of the first rounds of government persecution; they needed encouragement that God would look after them, and had a bright future in store for them. How do we receive these truths today? We’re living in a world still polluted with evil, sin, and death; we need encouragement that God will look after us, and has a bright future in store for us. These visions were first delivered to people in more dire straits than most of us are in today, so even if or when things get worse, God’s word still stands as a bastion of comfort and strength.