This section of The Revelation involves John tediously describing the dimensions of heaven’s walls, the names of heaven’s gates, and the materials used in the construction of heaven’s foundations. I admit, I used to treat these descriptions as the apocalyptic equivalent of genealogies, and still partly do, but some recent study has revealed there’s more going on in those laborious details than I’d first imagined.
The “cubit” for example, has a history prior to its standardization as a unit of measurement. Much like our “foot” was the approximate size of a grown man’s actual foot before it ever became standardized into 12 inches, the cubit was the rough measurement of a man’s forearm (from wrist to elbow). Several Catholic scholars have noted that—since John’s description of the heavenly city brings the natural and the supernatural together—he likely intended the “cubit” to refer to the length of an angel’s forearm. And just how big is 144 angelic cubits? Who knows? But that’s the point. These measurements are not statistics, but symbols.
Likewise the precious jewels have a twin significance. On the one hand these 12 stones corresponded to those found in the breastplate of the high priest in the Jewish Temple. Heaven needs no Temple, but John wants us to understand that the earthly Temple—at the very least—foreshadowed the heavenly antecedent. On the other hand, these 12 stones match precisely the 12 stones that pagan astrologers associated with the zodiac. But in reverse. Which, I like to think, was John’s way of saying that [a] there is an order to the universe, although [b] it’s not what the Zoroastrians think it is. The true order of the universe comes from He who gave it its beginning and who will supply its end—the Alpha and the Omega, the source and the goal.
But amidst all these intellectual curiousities let’s not lose sight of the main thrust of heaven’s architecture. The big idea, of course, is that heaven is a perfect cube, reminiscent of the holy of holies. In the end, all creation functions as God’s sanctuary. Everything is expropriated for worship. Everything finds its fulfillment in God, with God, and before God. Which is to say that everything fits. There’s room for everybody. Everything, and everyone, has a place. Everything belongs. Which is good news, for the misfit toys of the world. Good news: God has a place for you. Good news: God has been waiting for you. Good news: God’s plans for the future of the world include you.
That’s gospel truth.