I have begun to wonder whether there may be more jokes about St Peter and the Pearly Gates than any other jokes:
There are certainly plenty of Cartoons Featuring St Peter and the Pearly gates.
One that I really enjoyed this past week was St Peter standing behind his podium with the book open. There before him on a puffy white cloud is a little dog looking up at him. And St Peter with an open smiling face says: Well, what a good dog you are!
There was also one for cat lovers. The caption at the bottom of the cartoon says: “How cats came to have 9 lives”.
In the cartoon itself, St Peter is standing next to the pearly gate, which he has half-opened. Sitting in front of the gate of heaven is a cat with St Peter saying: Make up your mind! Are you going in or not?
In the last 10 years or so, it seems that the Book of Life has now been exchanged for a computer. In one of the cartoons, a you boy is standing in front of St Peter and St Peter says to him, “Don’t worry, this is just a near-death experience, but while you’re here, would you help me with this computer?”
As we continue our exploration of the book of Revelation, it is interesting to note that the idea of the pearly gates comes from Revelation 21 where the New Jerusalem is described as having 12 gates and each of those gates is made of a single pearl.
Last week we explored Revelation 20 and the lake of burning sulphur or the lake of fire and brimstone. Examining the passage more closely, we explored the possibility that the lake of fire and brimstone is a symbol of spiritual purification rather than a symbol of eternal damnation and torture. One of the biggest clues is that the kings of the earth who waged war against Christ in Revelation 19 are are then seen bringing their splendour into the New Jerusalem in chapter 21:24. And this occurs after the lake of burning fire.
Having explored the Lake of Burning Sulphur last week, I would now like to explore Revelation 21 and the opening verses of chapter 22 which introduce us to 4 images: The New Heaven and the New Earth, the Wedding of the Bride and the Lamb, the New Jerusalem, and Eden Restored.
Last week I had said that a deep fear of Hell as a place of eternal divine punishment is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience. Today as we look at Revelation 21, it is perhaps worth noting that studies also suggest that belief in a supernatural heaven is consistently associated with greater happiness, and greater life satisfaction. In short, belief in some kind of heaven can actually have a positive influence on one’s life in this world.
And that brings us to Revelation 21 and the beginning of Revelation 22. These passages perhaps more than any other in the Bible have been the basis for much of Christian belief in heaven. But what is interesting about them, is that they don’t actually give a literal description of heaven at all. Rather this section of Revelation provides us with 4 major symbols that describe the end of evil and the consummation of history, so that history finds it’s fulfilment, it’s final resolution in union and communion with God.
The first image that we encounter is the image of the New Heaven and the New Earth. It is an image that John draws from the writings of Isaiah 65. For the Jews to whom the prophet was writing, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth was poetic language expressing the Jewish hope of how life would be transformed when God would finally restore the glory of Israel and the glory of Jerusalem following after their exile in Babylon and their return to a new and rebuilt Jerusalem. When this promise was never fulfilled as they had hoped it would be, the symbolism of a new heaven and a new earth remained a metaphor and a symbol expressing their ongoing hope that one day God would intervene and re-establish the glory of Israel.
By the time that Revelation was written, the new heaven and new earth had come to be associated not just with the restoration of Israel, but with the renewal of all things when Christ would come to bring all of history to it’s consummation.
The second image that we encounter is the image of the New Jerusalem. Again, this was a symbol and a promise that went back to the Babylonian invasion of Judea which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and led to the Jews spending around 70 years in exile in Babylon. It was in Babylon that the prophet Ezekiel began to plant seeds of hope into the hearts of these exiled Jews, painting a description of the restoration of Israel like dry dead bones being brought back to life. In a passage designed to inspire hope for the future and a return to a restored Jerusalem, Ezekiel writes of being given a measuring rod with which he is instructed to measure out the dimensions of a New Temple in the restored Jerusalem.
But the glory of the new temple was never actually restored. The dream of a renewed Jerusalem remained a deferred hope for the future. In Revelation, this image of hope for the future is utilised by John. In a similar scenario to Ezekiel, John is handed a measuring rod of gold with which he is to measure the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. What he measures is a perfect cube – it is meant to symbolize the holy of holies in the old temple in the earthly Jerusalem which contained the tabernacle of God’s presence. Now in the heavenly city of Revelation 21, the whole city has become the holy of holies in which the fullness of God’s Presence is manifest.
The third image we encounter is the image of the wedding of the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The bride is the New Jerusalem itself, and thus, the New Jerusalem is more than a city, but rather a symbol of the very people of God. The image and symbol of marriage is one that runs throughout the whole of the Bible. It is an image that is constantly used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. The Jews had come to believe in their epic history and sacred story that when God had rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them out to Mount Sinai where he had given them the 10 commandments, that this was a kind of a marriage ceremony where God pledged to be their husband, caring for them and protecting them. But time and again, prophets, like Hosea, wrote of how Israel had behaved like an unfaithful spouse. But the promise and hope remained that one day the remarriage and consummation between God and his people would take place.
For the earliest Christians, the hope of the return of Christ was looked forward to as wedding feast in which the final consummation of all things would be like a moment of communion and union between humanity and the divine. God would dwell with them. They would be his people, and he would be their God.
The fourth image that we encounter is the image of Eden Restored in the first 5 verses of chapter 22.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”
This passage is a combination of imagery from Ezekiel 47 and Genesis chapter 2. The river of the water of life is described in Ezekiel as flowing from the midst of the temple that makes abundant life flourish where-ever it flows. It is as though this river restores the life and joy of the original Eden. In verse 3 we are told that there will no longer be any curse. And this takes us back to the mythical garden of Eden where after Adam and Eve in disobedience to God eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they bring a curse upon themselves and also upon the whole of God’s creation. But in Revelation 22, we see that the curse of Genesis is now turned around and removed. And in the renewed Eden, in place of the tree that brought a curse upon them, there is instead the tree of life that brings healing to the nations.
This is all symbolic language, and I believe it is meant to point to the intuition in the heart of every human being that there is a realm or a spiritual dimension to life where there is a true refuge and a solace from the struggles, pain and turmoil of this world of birth and death in which we live.
There are some who suggest that Revelation 21 and 22 is ultimately not about the end of historical time at all. Rather the symbolism in these chapters speak of a mystical or spiritual union with the Divine so that even in this world it is possible that we can be in touch with a spiritual dimension to life in which we are so in touch with the infinite peace of God that the pain and struggles of this temporary life taken on a whole different perspective. It is like being in a traffic jam. When you're in the midst of it one can feel desperate and frantic. But if you were in an aeroplane looking down on that same traffic jam, it would look and feel completely different.
Whether it be in this life or the next, what Revelation 21 and 22 reminds us is that we were made for a life of union or communion with the Divine. That is our final destiny. It is the true meaning, purpose and consummation of life. As the writer of Ecclesiastes so poetically puts it: God has placed eternity in our hearts. And if it is eternity, the world of the spirit, that is our truest destiny, our truest meaning, and our truest purpose, then our hearts will never truly be fulfilled with anything less than that.
May we remember that this world of impermanence, this world of birth and death will never fulfil our hearts truest and deepest desires. Only the infinite life of God’s Spirit can do that. May we remember that our truest and deepest purpose will never be fulfilled by any temporary glory that a city in this world can offer. Our truest and deepest purpose and satisfaction in life will only be fulfilled by that which is Eternal that dimension to life that is beyond time, beyond birth, beyond death and which is symbolised by the eternal city, the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21. This is a promise not just for a future world. Even in this world, we can begin to see with the eyes of the New Creation, the New Heaven and the New Earth right here in our midst.