The reality that there is a Heaven and that God wants us to live with Him there forever is one of the most deeply-rooted notions of Christianity. In fact, it’s the end-point of everything we believe.
But it’s logical to ask: If Heaven is so all-important, why is the Bible so vague about it? If you look carefully, you’ll find that nowhere in scripture is Heaven spoken about in anything but general terms.
A good example of this is St. Paul who had been granted an extraordinary mystical vision of Heaven. All he could say about it to the Corinthians was “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
See how helpful that is? Not.
It’s understandable, though. Paul was very concerned about Christian living so he used a lot of earthy terms in his letters like “running the race” and “fighting the good fight” to encourage his people to live well.
St. John the Evangelist, on the other hand, was writing for a persecuted Church, so he was more concerned about Christian dying. In the Book of Revelation, he talked a lot about ultimate things like Heaven, Hell, and the final judgment (spoiler alert: the bad guys get what’s coming to them.)
It was John who gave us the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which may help us understand to some degree what Heaven will be like.
For the Senses and Imagination
The two final chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, are a foretaste, or preview, of Heaven. I use words like fore-taste and pre-view deliberately because they are sense words (taste and sight) and require the use of the imagination rather than the logical mind to reach an understanding of something.
These chapters describe Heaven, not in doctrinal terms, but in images and metaphors, which is why the imagination is the key faculty. It’s as if God is saying to us, “You guys just can’t handle the beauty, truth, and goodness of Heaven right now. So here’s an appetizer for you. Trust me, the meal will be much better!”
Symbols, metaphors, and analogies lead us to contemplate the mystery of Heaven rather than try to analyze it (which our minds are too small to do anyway).
The Rich Symbolism of the New Jerusalem
The imagery of Revelation 21-22 is so rich and varied that I can only give an overview of the images before we turn our attention to the jewels. These chapters describe the afterlife variously as
- a new heavens and a new earth (21:1);
- a beautiful bride coming to meet her husband (21:2)
- preparing for their wedding banquet (see 19:7-9);
- a magnificent city (21:10-27); and
- a life-giving tree (22:2) that spans out over the River of Life flowing from God’s throne (22:1).
We could spend a whole lifetime contemplating these beautiful images!
Gates, Walls, Pearls, and Gems
We’ll focus only on one image: the city, which St. John calls “a new Jerusalem” (verse 2). He says that it “gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal” (verse 11). Wow! He goes on to describe its dimensions, its walls, its gates, and its streets, which are paved in gold.
I particularly love the description of the twelve gates of the city, each of which is made of one single pearl (imagine that!) This is where we get the image of the “pearly gates” of course, and each gate has one glorious angel standing guard over it who lets nothing unclean enter the city (22:3).
Interestingly, the twelve gates are engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel signifying that all who enter them are members of God’s chosen people. Then, the number twelve is repeated in the stones that give strength to the wall – the foundation – and here the stones are engraved with the names of the twelve apostles.
The Greek word for “foundation” is actually plural, indicating that this wall is so fortified that it actually has twelve foundations that are “decorated with every precious stone” (verse 19). That makes for a complex and radiantly beautiful image of strength.
If I make it to heaven some day, I think the precious stones that make up the foundation are going to be among the most dazzling of all its visions.
Twelve Courses of Precious Stones
Here is the list of the English names of the stones and what their names would look like in the original Greek. Even though most of these stones appear in a fairly wide range of colors, I’ve tried to choose stones that are representative of their classes.
As you contemplate these gems, use your imagination and envision them as “gleaming with the splendor of God,” radiant, precious, and “clear as crystal.” As beautiful as earthly gemstones are, they are just a shadow of the heavenly gemstones whose luster is literally out of this world.
The Old Testament Parallel
As with any New Testament image, however, there’s some history to it. The precious stones image didn’t just appear out of nowhere.
A Jew reading this passage would have immediately thought of the prophecies in Isaiah (54:11-14) and Tobit (13:16-18) which envisioned a future ideal Jerusalem to be a walled city encrusted with gems and precious stones.
But the crucial Old Testament metaphor is something quite striking and unexpected.
The gemstones of Revelation mirror, almost exactly, the precious stones in the holy breastplate of the high priest of Israel, Moses’ brother Aaron. In fact, the comparison between the passages in Exodus and Revelation is quite astonishing, despite the fact that they were written a thousand years apart!