Theme: Jerusalem and Babylon
In these lessons we focus on heaven as the place where God and his redeemed people will dwell forever.
Scripture: Revelation 21
It’s really not possible to come to this chapter at this point in the Bible, right at the end, without realizing that when John has this vision of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, this is in contrast to practically all of the great themes preceding this that have to do with our normal, earthly expectations. Jerusalem is certainly contrasted with Babylon, which is mentioned just a few chapters before. Babylon stands for everything that is human in opposition to God.
You have a great history of Babylon in the symbolism of Babylon in the Old Testament. You find it way back in the Book of Genesis. Nimrod is the one who built Babylon. This man is described as a mighty warrior, a man who set out to found the first world empire, to bring people together by force of arms, and to set up his kingdom. That’s Babylon, and Babylon grew, and flourished, and became the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar. The Book of Daniel shows an interaction of a spiritually-minded man with the kind of secularism that was present in that city, symbolized by Nebuchadnezzar, who stood and looked out over Babylon from the roof of his palace and said, “Is this not mighty Babylon that I have built by my power for my glory in the strength of my majesty.”
Babylon’s a secular city. It’s of man, and it’s by man, and it’s for man’s glory. And because it’s established in that way without reference to God, it’s also a very, very wicked place. And it falls. It fell historically, never to rise again. And here in the Book of Revelation, it falls spiritually, as Babylon—which represents all of the secularism of the world, all of the hostility of the world, all of the machinations of the minds of the men and the women of the world against God—is brought down. You have that great fall of Babylon in Revelation 18, and the woes pronounced over the mighty city by the kings of the earth, the merchants of the world, and the sea captains: “Woe, woe,” they say to Babylon the great, for she has fallen, never to rise again.
You have that contrast, a secular city on the one hand, and here in chapter 21 the heavenly city, which is the destiny of God’s saints. I think it wouldn’t be fair, however, to make the contrast merely between earthly Babylon and the heavenly Jerusalem without recognizing that there is also another contrast that strikes much closer to home. We who, by the grace of God, have come to know Him through Jesus Christ, could easily say, “Well, of course, naturally, we’re with Jerusalem. We’re not with Babylon. That’s the world.” We could sort of pat ourselves on the back at that point and not realize that not only do we have the contrast between Babylon and Jerusalem, but we also have the contrast between earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down from heaven from God.
Earthly Jerusalem was to be a thing of great beauty. It certainly was a thing of great privilege because this is where God established His temple. This is where the worship of the true God, conducted according to the revealed law of God, was practiced. This is the very site in which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified, giving His life for His people. Earthly Jerusalem was a marvelous thing, and yet sad as it is to say this, it became quite secular and quite wicked as well.
When you turn to Revelation 18, which talks about Babylon, that city is described as the great prostitute, the harlot. But if you turn back to the first chapter of Isaiah and find Isaiah writing to the Jerusalem of his day, you find precisely the same image. The prophet writes: “See how the faithful city [Jerusalem] has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes. They chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (1:21). That’s what it is to be a prostitute in the sight of God. That’s the wickedness that God has in mind, and this is Jerusalem, you see, that has become that.
That means the church—that which God has called into being and which is to hold forth His glory in Jesus Christ crucified before the world—becomes the harlot. And so the contrast is not merely between Babylon and Jerusalem, but the contrast between the visible, earthly church and the new Jerusalem established by God.
In the Bible “Babylon” is both an actual city and a symbol of opposition against God. Trace the theme of Babylon through Scripture, and note the qualities that characterize it.
How does the new and heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation 21 compare with the earthly city? How are they similar, and how are they different?
Reflection: The church is to be a faithful reflection of the heavenly city of God. In what ways is it doing this? In what ways does it at times not do this?