Maybe You Already Entered the Pearly Gates
The Streets of Gold and Gates of Pearl
Some of the most common components of heaven in the popular imagination are the “streets of gold” and “pearly gates.” The image comes from Revelation 21:21, “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”
I don’t know how many funerals have spoken of the deceased entering “the pearly gates,” and I don’t want to nitpick the expression. As a functional colloquialism it has a meaning everyone understands. But as an actual description of heaven, it’s a misconception. This is because the streets of gold and gates of pearl that belong to the city come in a vision not of “heaven,” but of the church.1
The streets and gates belong to “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). This appears to be another name for “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (v. 9). The angel showing these visions to John says that he will show John the bride, and what John immediately sees is the city. The bride of Christ of course is the church (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27), so it’s a fair assumption that the vision of the city in Revelation 21 is a symbolic picture of her. The architectural features are descriptive of people, the qualities of the redeemed, and facets of redemption, not primarily actual buildings, just as the church and its members are described in 1 Corinthians 3:10-17 as components of a temple (cf. also 1 Peter 2:4-5).
It seems to me that the way the text breaks down is this. In Revelation 20:11-15 there is a vision of final judgment. The dead are raised and judged, and anyone not found written in the book of life is cast away to be burned up. Chapter 21 begins with John seeing the new heavens and the new earth, after the first had fled away. Elsewhere in the Bible the “new heavens and new earth” might well refer to the new covenant era (Isaiah 65:17ff), but the vision here seems to be something more final: The bride has been prepared (v. 2, it’s a perfect participle in Greek, suggesting an accomplished action), and every tear is wiped away, and most importantly, “death shall be no more” (v. 4). This is a clear step beyond the vision of Isaiah 65, where death is still the reality (Isaiah 65:20). So the first eight verses of Revelation 21 are climactic. They describe briefly but richly the perfected state of the redeemed.
I think, though, at verse 9 (and running through 22:5), we are backing up from this and looking at the church more broadly.2
An angel comes to John and says he will show him the bride, and John sees the city, the new Jerusalem (vs. 9-10). We are not seeing “heaven,” we are seeing the bride of Christ on earth, with the names of the apostles at the foundation (21:14; cf. Ephesians 2:19-21). The city is jeweled like the breastplate of the high priest (cf. Exodus 28:15-30), because the people of God are a kingdom of priests with access to his presence. Tellingly, “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). The city as described here still exists in the midst of the nations, and is absorbing their glories into itself. One can’t help but think of Christendom here as it existed from the time of Constantine up through the misnamed “Enlightenment.” Likewise also the city has trees whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations” (22:2).3 Will the “nations” need healing in the eternal state?
Revelation 21:9-22:5 points an extremely wide-angle lens at the church as it exists and will exist until and through the consummation. There may be aspects that are more “literally” fulfilled in the eternal state, but nothing is said that is not already true of the church at least in seed form or symbolic (which does not mean unreal) form. For example, “no need of the sun” could just be a graphically poetic way of affirming that Jesus is the light of the world, that the saints are a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. The watery gemstone “pearly gates” perhaps point to baptism as the rite of entry into the church, and the “streets of gold” may speak of the paths of the righteous which are “like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18). Much of the imagery in this chapter actually comes from the later chapters of Isaiah and Ezekiel, and some from the Psalms, and point toward God’s new covenant work of redemption in Christ, not “heaven” as commonly conceived.
The upshot of this is that Revelation 21 gives us rich resources for a theology of the church and for understanding its place in the world.
I made a brief comment on Twitter about the subject of this article, and Jason Staples linked me to an article he had written over a decade ago arguing the same thing I argue here (https://www.jasonstaples.com/bible/new-testament/most-misinterpreted-bible-passages-2-pearly-gates-and-streets-of-gold/).
If this helps, here it is graphically: The red bracket is a vision of the end, while the blue bracketed section backs up and takes the wider view that embraces the “church age” before the consummation.
In his book “The Rise of Western Christendom,” historian Peter Brown says this about the function of trees at the graves of saints in the church’s early centuries: “Trees also regained some of their majesty. The tree that [Saint] Martin had blessed beside the road at Neuille-le-Lierre, in Touraine, was still standing, though now dead; for its bark had been entirely stripped away for medicinal remedies. All over Gaul, great trees blossomed profusely over the graves of saints. Gregory [Bishop of Tours] looked on such trees with happy eyes. They no longer spoke to him of pagan rites - of bright rags fluttering from branches which drew their strength from the dark and questionable powers of the earth. Rather, they brought down from heaven to earth a touch of the unshackled, vegetable energy of God’s own paradise” (pg. 164).