The Bible gives us very little information about eternity; it is therefore a great shame that most of the information we do have has been obscured by wooly interpretation. The New Jerusalem is a tremendous hope and glory that was set before Abraham and the other OT worthies and is now laid before us. This New Jerusalem is described in reasonable detail in the twenty-first and second chapters of Revelation. However the reality of the vision we have been granted is generally lost by treating those verses as a symbolic representation of Heaven. Not only is this specifically wrong but it is generally damaging as the notion of Heaven we gather from the rest of scripture is particularly inappropriate for understanding these last two chapters of our Bibles.
The aim of this essay is to attempt to restore some small piece of the vision that has been lay before us. It will thus describe briefly overview the three differing concepts of heaven that our Bibles present and then contrast that to the picture given describing the eternal state.
The Bible really uses heaven in three distinct ways. The first could easily be rendered firmament and corresponds to what we would describe as the atmosphere. Thus we get the fowls of heaven and the eagles of heaven. The second heaven we would term space. Thus we read of the sun, moon and host of heaven and even the stars falling from heaven. The third heaven, and scripture even refers to it as the third heaven, is the place where God dwells. The third heaven is sometimes referred to as the heaven of heavens and De 10:14 shows that heaven and the heaven of heavens are distinct places as both are mentioned. There is almost a fourth sense when heaven is used in the form 'heaven and earth'
Of these three most Christians place their hope in the third heaven and would view this as their final resting place. However the Bible makes absolutely clear that the heavens as we currently know them are going to pass away. Most of the many OT passages that refer to this even could easily be referring to the physical heavens. However Matthew 24:35 is rather more suggestive. It states 'Heaven and earth shall pass away...'. It would appear to suggest that everything is to pass away. In fact 2Co 5:17 and Rev 21:5 both state that all things will be made new. That seems a very strange thing to say if the third heaven were staying fixed; especially in the Revelation context where it could so easily be misinterpreted. I believe the full force of these passages has to be absorbed; during this transition phase God effectively renders Himself homeless.
Or more accurately, God moves home. In Rev 21:2 we are told that the New Jerusalem has been prepared; she is not an afterthought and certainly not a rushed effort. The notion is of one that is fresh but fully prepared and adorned. In fact I believe it is the place that the Lord went to prepare in Joh 14:2. But notice that they key herald of this city is given in verse 3. Behold the tabernacle of God is with men! This is, I believe, the force and strength of this vision. It is not that we are bridging the gap to God by sitting on clouds and playing harps. God is bridging the gap to humans, even redeemed humans, by coming and living with us and in the midst of us. In fact the very light and temple of the city is God Himself.
Some may choose to describe this as Heaven; perhaps it does fit some of our popular notions of heaven. However the city is seen as distinct from heaven as it comes from the new heavens. The city also has physical dimensions which are huge for a city (being just a little smaller that Australia) but extremely tiny in comparison to the universe as we currently know it. In fact we specifically know that the New Jerusalem is not universally encompassing as there is an 'outside'. It should also be noted that the New Jerusalem is tied both to the Jewish and Christian future - the former have largely physical promises.
The former I have written with some confidence. I consider the clear, literal meaning of these passages is that there will be a new heaven and a new earth and upon the new earth will be a New Jerusalem in which God will dwell with man. The next piece however is more speculative and is offered for prayerful consideration.
We are told repeatedly in Rev 21 that God will be in the midst of men; the question I wish to raise is which one. In Rev 21:2 we are told that the New Jerusalem comes from God as a bride adorned for her husband. That could be a simple simile but so shortly after the marriage supper of the Lamb it is an extremely suggestive simile. Could it not be that the Lamb; the Lord Jesus is the principle representation of Deity that is dwelling within this city that is almost functioning as a marital home?
Rev 21:6-7 is particularly apposite in this regard. Firstly the Alpha and Omega speaks whom we know to be the Lord Jesus. But then He states that He will be our God and we shall be His children. This may justify equating 'God' from verse 3 to the end of this narrative with Jesus. This helps to explain examples such as verse 23 where we are told God illuminates the city but then specifically the Lamb is its' light. There is then only one reference to the Father being in the New Jerusalem as that is in the particular matter of worship in verse 22. I believe this may fit a pattern of God the Father actually being resident in the new heavens whilst God the Son is resident in the New Jerusalem.
These latter thoughts are highly speculative but it may even tie in with Genesis 2:24. It always struck me as odd that in a patriarchal society it was specified that the son leave the parental home to settle and be joined to his wife. The church is certainly the bride of Christ. The New Jerusalem is a city but there is certainly imagery that appears designed to tie it in with the marriage motif. If I may do so reverently I would like to suggest that this is more than imagery. It is the incredible purpose of God that redeemed humans should be united eternally to His Son and that the vision of the eternal state we are given is really our new home with Him. There are heavens, and parts of the earth, outside of this marital home. But this is the place that is being prepared for us and where our future lies.
In summary, I believe it is trivial to separate the New Jerusalem from Heaven for anyone that takes scripture literally. The incredible feature presented to us is that the abode of God will be with man and that takes place in this city from heaven. It is possible, though perhaps too fanciful, to view this as the marital home of the Lamb and His bride. As I close I must say that writing this essay has somewhat refreshed my vision of the hope set before me - I hope and pray that reading it does some of the same for you.