Pearly Gates and Streets of Gold

Folio 55r of the Bamberg Apocalypse. Depicts the Angel showing John the New Jerusalem, with the Lamb of God at its center.

Folio 55r of the Bamberg Apocalypse.
Depicts the Angel showing John the New Jerusalem, with the Lamb of God at its center.

The Nature of the Book

One of the most misunderstood scriptures in our Bible centers around Revelation 21:21. This is the “pearly gates”, “street of gold” scripture.  Should we take this scripture literally?  Let’s explore what the scriptures reveal.

Revelation is undoubtedly a unique book. While considered part of the New Testament, it is different from other books of the New Testament. More importantly, it is different from styles of writing used today. Revelation is apocalyptic. The word ‘revelation’ in Greek is “apokalupsis”, which means ‘an uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’ Thus, Revelation is a book that was intended to reveal, not conceal! The book is an example of apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic literature is a literary style popular from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. It is a style known for highly symbolic or figurative language written during times of persecution. It usually depicts the conflict between good and evil while encouraging the righteous to persevere. Other examples of apocalyptic literature are parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Matthew chapter 24.

While the book of Revelation is challenging for us today, it probably was not a challenge to the early church. Christians in the first century A.D. were familiar with the apocalyptic style and Old Testament symbolism. They were familiar with biblical imagery. Also, they were familiar with the historical circumstances prompting the book of Revelation.

Revelation is challenging to people today who are often unfamiliar with apocalyptic literature and Old Testament symbolism. Most Christians today are unfamiliar with the historical background of the book. Therefore, passages are interpreted literally that should be viewed symbolically. Consideration of the historical context is also critical to the proper interpretation of the book. Also, we must interpret it in a manner that would have been meaningful to those to whom it was addressed. One of the most misunderstood scriptures centers around Revelation 21:21. This is the “pearly gates”, “street of gold” scripture.

Revelation 21:21 (KJV) – “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.”

Popular Interpretation

Many Christians understand this verse and the surrounding passages as describing the New Jerusalem, a heavenly abode where the saints of God will spend eternity. A Heaven with “pearly gates” and “streets of gold”. I’m sure everyone has encountered this interpretation depicting what “heaven” will be like.

A Description of Heaven?

Now, what’s wrong with this interpretation of Revelation 21:21? Well, the main problem is that it ignores the context of the scripture. This popular interpretation ignores what Revelation 21:21 is describing. This causes a problem anytime a scripture is taken out of context without considering the surrounding passages. Let’s look at how the passage begins:

Revelation 21:9-11 (KJV) – “And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.”

This passage certainly is clear in what it is describing: “the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” It is NOT describing a heavenly dwelling place. This is not a description of heaven or any other place. This passage is a metaphorical description of the “bride of Christ“. For those of you who are not familiar with metaphorical language here’s a good definition: “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare).” So Revelation chapter 21 is clearly a description of the “bride of Christ”—that is, of the church, the called out assembly of God.

Revelation 21 verse 12 speaks of a high wall because “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” must be entered the right way. This high wall also protects her from outside attacks. “The bride, the Lamb’s wife,” has twelve gates. This is because twelve is the number of tribes and the original number of the apostles. All must enter through the truth that they have established. The “pearly” gates are on all sides. This is because the Church is composed of people from all parts of the earth. In verse 14 the passage explicitly says that the twelve foundation stones represent the twelve apostles: Revelation 21:14 (KJV) – “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”

And what about the streets of gold and all the precious stones? This is yet more metaphorical descriptions that represent virtues and virtuous people. Let’s go to other scriptures to see this principle at work:

Proverbs 31:10 (KJV) – “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”
Proverbs 25:11 (KJV) – “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
Proverbs 25:12 (KJV) – “As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear.”
Proverbs 10:20 (KJV) – “The tongue of the just is as choice silver.”
Proverbs 20:15 (KJV) – “There is gold, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.”

The book of Proverbs is not the only place in scripture that uses metaphorical language. The Song of Songs Chapter 5 uses such language:

Song of Songs 5:11-14 (KJV) – “His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven. His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set. His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh. His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphire”.

Other examples are found in I Corinthians 3:10-13, 16.  One of the most important promises given to the Church is found in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 49 God declares that He has not forgotten Zion. In fact, the enemies of Zion will be put on jewels and bind them on as a bride (Isaiah 49:18).

Now is it clear that the description of the “New Jerusalem” is a description of God’s people, the church? It is not some future abode of the saints or some new, or renewed, earth.

What Difference Does It Make?

Now I understand that this is not the most important issue in Christianity. However, it does serve as an important example of how scriptures are taken out of context to form beliefs which are not correct. An improper interpretation would give us a vision of eternity that focuses on the carnal, on money, etc. This interpretation of Revelation 21:21 is often used as a selling point for Christianity. Heaven is portrayed as having all this valuable stuff laying around. But think about it for a minute. What good would it do if the streets were paved with gold? If that’s the case, the gold wouldn’t be any more valuable than the asphalt or concrete that our streets are paved with here on earth. More importantly, the true message of Revelation is missed in regards to the Church. And that is God’s people have become the jewels of righteousness and God is in the midst of His people. An improper interpretation also misses the connections with passages like Isaiah 49. The proper interpretation connects the restoration of Israel with the incorporation of the Gentile “enemies” into the future “bride of Christ.” So which is it? The “pearly gates” and “streets of gold” or the beautifully adorned “bride of Christ”?

Related articles: The Book of Revelation – An Introduction

Scripture

Ron

Managing Editor at Scripture Revealed
I’ve studied and taught the good news of Jesus Christ and His kingdom since 1985. My goal is to reveal the biblical truths I’ve come to see through prayer and study. I believe that the scriptures are revealed to those that study and rightly divide the "Word of Truth.”
Ron
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Cheryl
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Cheryl

Very hard to find those that understand more clearly the correct interpretation of Scripture. I’m glad you pointed out “street”, singular, not streets as there is no plural in Rev. Very insightful. Just “ran across” your website today in researching the number 1000 and have read several articles which I find very well balanced. Thank you.

Ralph Crawford
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Ralph Crawford

Very illuminating. I had never thought of this before and you are the first one I have ever read who pointed out that The Bible was describing the church and not heaven. Keep up the good writings Brother Ron. I believe you have more people reading your every post than you realize. I am a committed follower.