Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved." Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. The apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers.
This is the letter delivered by them: "The apostles and the elders, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey the same message by word of mouth: "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell."(P) The word of the Lord.
May God have pity on us and bless us; may he let his face shine upon us. So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation. (R)
May the nations be glad and exult because you rule the peoples in equity; the nations on the earth you guide. (R)
May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you! May God bless us, and may all the ends of the earth fear him! (R)
The angel took me in spirit to a great high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. There were three gates facing east, three north, three south, and three west. The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.(P) The word of the Lord.
Whoever loves me will keep my word, says the Lord, and my Father will love him and we will come to him. (R)
Jesus said to his disciples: "Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me."
"I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, "I am going away and I will come back to you." If you love me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe."(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
There is a story of a man, who had grown tired of life and wanted to go to heaven where he could be free of all worries and cares. So, one morning he set out on his journey, full of hope. After walking for straight five days, he became exhausted and stopped to rest under a tree by the wayside. Before lying down, he took off his shoes and pointed them in the direction he had been walking so that, when he awoke, he could resume his journey in the right direction. But it so happened that, while the man slept, a trickster who had been watching from afar picked those shoes up and set them down again, pointing them in the opposite direction. When the man awoke, he put on his shoes and set off again, not realizing that he was backtracking every step of the way. After a couple of days, the man noticed that much of the terrain began to look vaguely familiar. "Surely I must be approaching heaven", he said, "for I have been told that heaven has a familiar beauty to it".
This man's notion of heaven seems to fit the description of heaven spoken of in the Book of Revelation. John, the beloved apostle of Jesus and the author of the book, pictures heaven with its old familiar and beautiful surroundings.
Now, before going into today's first reading, we shall recall briefly what we have learned in the last five weeks. In the years after Jesus' death and resurrection, His apostles dispersed to different parts of the world to preach the Gospel in His name. And as a result, Christian faith quickly spread across the world, particularly throughout the Roman empire. Tradition holds that Apostle John, who initially served the church in Jerusalem, moved to Ephesus after the martyrdom of Paul and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; there, he founded several churches. In his old age, he was exiled to the island of Patmos as a punishment for preaching God's Word and for giving testimony to Jesus Christ.
During this exile, and while separated from his Christian community, John himself describes that on the Lord's day, the risen Jesus appeared to him in a vision and instructed him to write down in a scroll all that he saw and heard, and send them to the seven churches under persecution for their faith, Revelation (1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19). Following this instruction, John was taken up to heaven where he saw God sitting on His throne, and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, standing at the centre of the throne, with many elders, living creatures, angels encircling them while crying out that the Lamb alone is worthy to receive "power and riches, wisdom and strength, honour and glory and blessing", Revelation (5:11-14).
Then, he saw a great crowd of people, from all races, languages and nations, who had endured tribulations and trials on earth and had washed their robes and made them white with the blood of the Lamb, standing before the throne and singing glory to both God and the Lamb day and night. John also heard one of the elders saying that these people will never be hungry or thirsty again nor will they be overcome by the sun or any burning heat because the One who sits on the throne will protect them. And Jesus will also live among them, and He would lead them to find rest at the springs of life-giving waters which God will provide.
And then, John saw the old heaven and the old earth passing away, and the new heaven and the new earth emerging. The newness not only refers to the fact that the old Jerusalem was destroyed, but that the whole order of things in the entire universe was remade in his vision. He also saw "the holy city, a new Jerusalem", which symbolically represents the eternal home of the redeemed people of all ages and from all nations or all the Saints or the Church, coming down out of heaven to earth like a bride dressed beautifully in her wedding gown and ready to meet her husband.
Besides, John heard a voice from the throne calling his attention to the vision he had just seen and then saying that God Himself has come to live with humanity forever and that He will dwell with them as their God; and that they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them. In other words, with the old heaven and the old earth passing away, God ushered in a new era of peace and communion with human beings, much like that in the Garden of Eden.
In today's text, John gives an elaborate description of the holy city, Jerusalem. However, it should not to be taken literally any more than his preceding visions. In other words, the text is more figurative. John writes, "The angel took me in the Spirit to a great mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendour of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal", Revelation (21:10-11). "The angel took me in the Spirit" means that he was, in a sense, given an insight or understanding into the vision that was about to be revealed to him. However, since the vision could not be contained by earthly parameters, he was carried away to a "great mountain", meaning, he was, given the capacity to comprehend the extraordinary things.
John then describes the city as having the glory of God. It is worthwhile to note that John perceived God's glory fully, most probably due to his previous experience of the glory on the mount of Transfiguration, Mark (9:2-8). And then John says that the city was full of radiance like the richest and most precious stone "jasper" that generally comes in diverse colours, but is absolutely clear and transparent like crystal. In other words, the city shines with the glory of God in all His splendour, brightness, and beauty.
After describing the city's general appearance, John then moves to its exterior design, beginning with the walls. He writes, "It had a massive, high wall with twelve gates, where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites", Revelation (21:12). In Biblical times, most cities were walled and fortified for protection against enemies. So, the city wall that John saw was "great and high", indicates that it is a safe and peaceful place, and all those who are there are separated and protected from all evils and enemies.
Moreover, the city had "twelve gates" to signify a difficult access for enemies to break in, but an easy passage for citizens themselves to go in and out. And each of the twelve gates being guarded by an angel is an indication that none will be able to enter except the true citizens, and those whom God chooses to admit, which are here named to be the "twelve tribes of Israel", that is, all the survivors of the great distress, all who turned their backs on the sins of the past and devoted their lives to Jesus, and all who believe in the Lord of Israel, the true God, both of the Jews and Gentiles, Revelation (7:13-14).
John, then, goes on to tell us that, of the twelve gates, "three were facing east, three north, three south and three west", Revelation (21:13). This description is reminiscent of the way the twelve tribes, in groups of three, camped around the tabernacle, that is, the portable sacred tent which the Israelites used as the place of worship during their forty years of wandering in the desert and until the construction of the temple, Numbers (2). But in this vision of John, three gates facing every direction indicates that access to the holy city on the new earth is free and unhindered, and that it is open to all human beings from all quarters of the world, just as the Prophet Isaiah (43:5) proclaimed and our Saviour Jesus Himself said, "Many shall come from the east and west, and north and south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven, Matthew (8:15); Luke (13:29).
Moreover, John describes that the city sits on twelve foundation stones and each stone has the name of one of the apostles of the Lamb, to signify that the foundation of the New Jerusalem, meaning the Church, is laid upon the teachings of the apostles and prophets, and Jesus Christ Himself being the corner stone, Revelation (21:14); Ephesians (2:20). The names of the twelve tribes of Israel on the gates and the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb on the foundation stones of the city indicate that God brings His plan of man's redemption to its glorious conclusion. Both Jewish and Gentile believers will all be part of the God's household and share in eternity.
John further says that he saw no temple in the city. It is hard to imagine that John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, without a temple. In John's day, the temple was central to Jewish religious life. Prophet Ezekiel states that the temple is the place of God's throne, John (43:7). Whereas John maintains that there was no temple in the city he described. He points out that the whole city had become the place of God's throne. In fact, John identifies God and the Lamb as the city's temple, since they are worshipped everywhere by all the creatures, angels, patriarchs, apostles and all the people. Furthermore, John says the city had no need of the sun or moon because it is filled with the glory of God, and the Lamb, Jesus, was the light of the city, Revelation (21:22-23).
What is the message for us?
We are not sure exactly what heaven is like and what it holds but from the scriptures we do know for certain that heaven is real, more like home, where we will go upon death and live as spirits in God's presence for all eternity. Moreover, in heaven we will be reunited with our own families and loved ones and with the people of God from all ages. This union has been made possible by our Lord Jesus Christ who descended from heaven, lived among us, suffered and paid the penalty for our sins but rose again and then ascended to heaven, where He now sits at the right hand of God the Father. As Christians, we can earnestly strive to live the gospel of Jesus and have the hope that, someday, we will be with God, Lord Jesus and others in heaven.
At the same time, we can also look for the new heaven and the new earth on this earth which God has already begun by raising Jesus bodily from the dead but will be consummated when the Lord Jesus returns the second time. The Bible tells us that when Jesus returns to earth at the end of the age in power and glory, He will conquer Satan, Revelation (16:15-17; 17:14) and fully restore God's Kingdom with His people, 1 Thessalonians (3:13); Zechariah (14:5). Jesus Himself has spoken in great detail about the events leading up to the time of His return, Matthew (24; 25). But He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through his holy prophets, Acts (3:21).
However, it's so comforting to know that even though we still live in the "old earth", we are invited to live now as citizens of the New Creation - the new heaven and the new earth - for which the "New Jerusalem" is the heavenly sanctuary. The New Jerusalem is the ultimate expression and consummation of God's long-term plan to dwell among His people. That New Jerusalem is the Church of Christ, both individual believers and the corporate church, universal and local. The Church is the mutual dwelling place for God and us, the redeemed people for eternity. It is the spiritual kingdom of God, the heavenly city on earth, the Temple of the Living God, and it is specifically chosen by God to reflect His glory and shine it forth to the world until Jesus returns.
It welcomes all people who believe in the sacred tradition and sacred texts of both the Old and New Testament, which Christ passed on to His Church through the Apostles. God in Jesus Christ as the divine light guides the Church and enlightens everyone in the Church, John (1:9). I believe each one of us, as a little New Jerusalem, has a unique part to play in God's great mission of renewing not just ourselves and our fellow human beings, but all of creation. Today, we can give thanks to God for making us new creations in Christ and for all that He has done and is doing in the universe through us.(P) Amen.
God Bless You!