Exploring the New Jerusalem

I barely remember my several years as a teenager being a part of the Youth Sabbath School at the Walla Walla Seventh-day Adventist Church. But a few things that I do remember include the young and earnest youth leader, the bright fabric on the pews, and how I often used to sit in or near the back every Sabbath that my family attended.

And I remember exactly one of the numerous songs we used to sing during that time period in my life—“Mansion Over the Hilltop”—although I can’t remember how much I actually sung it with the rest of my youth group. Written in 1949 by prolific gospel song writer Ira Stanphill (1914-1993), this song was a frequent request:

First Stanza:

I'm satisfied with just a cottage below A little silver and a little gold; But in that city where the ransomed will shine I want a gold one that's silver-lined.

Refrain: I've got a mansion just over the hilltop In that bright land where we'll never grow old; And someday yonder we will never more wander But walk the streets that are purest gold.

Second Stanza:

Tho' often tempted, tormented and tested And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone; And tho' I find here no permanent dwelling I know He'll give me a mansion my own.

Third Stanza: Don't think me poor or deserted or lonely I'm not discouraged, I'm heaven bound; I'm just a pilgrim in search of a city I want a mansion, a harp and a crown.[1]

For most of my life I’ve had an easier time remembering the music of songs rather than any lyrics they have. But because we sung this particular song so much, portions of the lyrics stuck. Nevertheless, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the theology of the lyrics at the time, other than that they seemed to resonate with portions of Scripture that I had read or heard before, such as: the future home of Christians in a city, the New Jerusalem, a city that has a gold street running through it (Rev 21:2, 10—22:5); Jesus preparing mansions for us to live in (John 14:2-3); living forever (e.g., Rev 21:3-4); and playing harps (Rev 15:2) and wearing crowns (e.g., Rev 2:10; 3:11). Although I now know there are more scriptural allusions in this song, during that time in my life those scriptural images were powerful enough for me see the song resonating with my then-current understanding of Scripture. Despite the fact that I did not live in a cottage and had neither silver nor gold, I liked it.

One cannot deny that many Christians over the decades, particularly those from the working class who have had few “worldly possessions,” have found “Mansion Over the Hilltop” to be one that provided hope and encouragement to them. This song underscored the fact that God had a fantastic reward for Christians in the New Jerusalem to come, no matter how bad one’s personal economic situation was.

Nevertheless, one day I was struck by a thought: I sounded greedy when I sung this song. It was that part of the first stanza, oscillating between a desire and a demand (“I want a gold one that’s silver-lined”), that suddenly took on a different tone to me than it had before. I found myself not singing it anymore.

It is true that in the decades since the song was written, fewer and fewer have sung it. Genevieve Lerina James notes, with regards to modern megachurches in South Africa, that songs like this “are placed in archives or are called ‘old school’ or ‘classics’, for the simple reason that they are considered irrelevant today. This is because many megachurch members who, when referring to a mansion over the hilltop, would probably be referring to their own houses here on earth and not some hope in the afterlife. The megachurch congregants have moved from the romanticism of poverty and the hope of a better life in heaven to a global, public embracing of prosperity and abundance here and now.”[2]

Meanwhile, another shock regarding this gospel song awaited me in college. In its multiple references to mansions in the New Jerusalem, this song alludes to the KJV translation of John 14:2-3: “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” The Greek word translated “mansions” (monē; plural monai) is rare in the New Testament, occurring only in John 14:2 and 23. The noun is related to its verbal cognate menō, which means “to stay, abide, remain.”[3] In the latter text the KJV translated it as “abode” instead of “mansion.” Both translations made sense in the time of the KJV, since the basic meaning of the word is “a dwelling-place, an abode, a place to live.” Thus modern translations translate it in 14:2 as “dwelling places” (NASV, NRSV), “rooms” (ESV, NIV), and so on. Furthermore, the KJV was not off base in its translation, since its use of “mansion” derived from the Latin translation of the Greek, which referred to a place where a traveler stopped and rested.[4] The problem is our modern understanding of what a “mansion” is.

When the “great controversy” between Christ and Satan is over, Christians frequently view the ultimate future in light of the classic reference to the utopian New Jerusalem,[5] found in Revelation 21-22, which also describes where not only Christians will live but also God the Father and Jesus, the “Lamb.” The book of Revelation overflows with visionary material, and only rarely does its author John indicate what the various symbolic items in the visions mean (e.g., 1:20; 4:5; 5:6, 8; 12:9; 19:8; 20:2, 14; 21:8; etc.). But even when John does not interpret some visionary material, one typically must attempt to understand them symbolically instead of literally. For example, when John saw in his inaugural vision the glorified Jesus, he described Jesus as having a sword projecting from his mouth (Rev 1:16). But just as Jesus is not something akin to a sword-swallower, he hardly has a literal physical sword emerging from his mouth. And despite the “Lamb” being the most predominant visionary image of Jesus in Revelation, Jesus is not a physical lamb.

John’s visionary depiction of the New Jerusalem has basic characteristics similar to ancient cities, since it is described as having a surrounding wall (21:12-19), gates (21:12-25; 22:14), foundations (21:14-19), and (at least one) street (21:21; 22:2). Since its length is the same as its width (21:16), it resonated with the square shape of such cities as Nineveh, Babylon, and Nicaea.[6] It is clear that this is neither a modern nor a futuristic city but an ancient one that John and his readers could have identified with, despite its fantastic nature. Moreover, the description is multi-faceted in its description and contains more than just city imagery. Other imagery associated with the New Jerusalem includes bridal imagery (the city adorned like a bride [21:2, 19-20]),[7] imagery of the Most Holy Place of the temple (the city as a “golden cube” [21:16, 18, 21]),[8] high priestly imagery (precious stone imagery related to the high priest’s breastpiece [21:19-20]),[9] and Garden of Eden imagery (e.g., tree of life [22:1-2, 14, 19; cf. 2:7]).

But while many Christians have Revelation’s New Jerusalem in fairly literal terms, it is essential to see John’s description as containing symbolic meaning. For instance, the “Lamb” marrying its “bride,” the holy city called the New Jerusalem (21:2, 9), cannot be taken literally.[10] Neither is it likely that the measurements of the New Jerusalem should be taken literally (21:16, 17), since they are repeated multiples of twelve, numbers associated with the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (21:12–14, 16) and which took on symbolic meaning.[11] The city has gigantic gates made out of gargantuan pearls (21:21) about 250 feet in diameter,[12] yet these massive gates are never closed (21:25). The inhabitants of the city will have the name of God and the Lamb written on their foreheads (22:4; cf. 14:1). Taking these descriptions literally can create some intractable difficulties for those interpreting them.

Neither mansions over the hilltop nor a glittering, golden New Jerusalem should detract from the fundamental point that at the end of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, what truly matters is that God now permanently lives with his people without the barrier of sin or the sadness and sorrow of death: “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (NRSV). In light of that wonderful promise, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20, NRSV).

[1] Words and music by Ira Stanphill, “Mansion Over the Hilltop” (Copyright ©1949. Renewal ©1977 by Singspiration Music/ASCAP. All rights reserved. The Zondervan Music Group, Nashville). For the story that inspired this gospel song, see William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise Songs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2006), 448.

[2]Genevieve Lerina James, “Mission and Three South African Metropolitan Megachurches: Middle Class Masses in Search of Mammon?”, in A Learning Missional Church: Reflections from Young Missiologists, eds. Beate Fagerli et al (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock; n.p.: Regnum Books International, 2012), 175. For a brief discussion of this gospel song and others that deal with the theme of the attainment of wealth in heaven, see Scott Tucker, “Looking for a City: The Rhetorical Vision of Heaven in Southern Gospel Music,” in More Than Precious Memories: The Rhetoric of Southern Gospel Music, eds. Michael P. Graves and David Fillingim (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004), 30.

[3]Cf. the use of the verb in, e.g., John 14:10, 17, 25; 15:4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 16; etc.

[4]See Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 2:937, n. 65.

[5]For a succinct discussion of ancient utopias, see David E. Aune, Revelation 17-22, Word Biblical Commentary 52c (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1191-94. Cf. also Eric J. Gilchrest, Revelation 21-22 in Light of Jewish and Greco-Roman Utopianism, Biblical Interpretation Series 118 (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[6]Aune, Revelation 17-22, 1160-61.

[7]Ross E. Winkle, “‘Clothes Make the (One Like a Son of) Man’: Dress Imagery in Revelation 1 as an Indicator of High Priestly Status” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 2012), 120-21, n. 145.

[8]The New Jerusalem is a “golden cube,” just like the Most Holy Place of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs 6:20).

[9]Winkle, “Dress Imagery,” 8-9.

[10]This is the second time John has described the “Lamb” marrying: the first time was in 19:7-8, where the “Lamb” marries his bride, who is clothed in fine linen, the fine linen representing the righteous acts of the saints. While some argue that the New Jerusalem is not a bride but is rather compared to a bride (Rev 21:2), later in that chapter the interpreting angel tells John he will show him the bride of the Lamb and then shows him the New Jerusalem (21:9-10). See the discussion in, e.g., Aune, Revelation 17-22, 1122.

[11]Cf. the 144,000 (7:4-8; 14:1, 3), also a number that is a multiple of twelve and refers to the twelve tribes of Israel. On the fantastic dimensions of the New Jerusalem in relation to other ancient texts and structures, see the discussion in Aune, Revelation 17-22, 1161-62.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7378

“Gospel” music has always been about the individual. Many originated in the Deep South with slaves who were looking forward to the “Sweet Bye and Bye” where “Yes, we’ll gather by the River” and “Sweet Beulah Land” and many more that I cannot recall the names. From the poor, impoverished share croppers, music was the one way to relieve their conditions and inspire hope for a future with all the things they saw the wealthy own, which were always far beyond their reach. Heaven has always meant more to the poor and sick; not to the wealthy who have all their needs and wants met.

While the great anthems and music written for the church from the late Middle Ages and forward are still heard and enjoyed, many songs today have a shorter shelf life.


That may have something to do with the fact that the classic hymns tend to have deep and profound messages (e.g, Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott, by Martin Luther, Amazing Grace, by John Newton, or It Is Well with My Soul, by Horatio Spofford), while much of the newer stuff is shallow and repetitive.


You guys are obviously not familiar with some of the “newer stuff.” While some of it can be repetitive, there is some that is extraordinarily deep and beautiful. Casting Crowns’ Broken Together is worth a listen…and far more. Many people encounter God through this music. It’s just not European based hymnody or classical music; it’s something different that needs to be taken on its own terms. And, there are plenty of fifth rate hymns in our hymnal, and lots of bad classicial music. I write this as a classically trained musician, and music educator, and someone who enjoys good hymns, as well.

Btw… Hallelujah, from Handel’s Messiah, repeats the word 144 times. So much for repetition. Lol!




Are you familiar with Taize music and words that have come out of France?
Very simple. Very beautiful. Repetitious. And one catches oneself singing them in the mind at odd times.
Unfortunately, they are Catholic priests originated, so would never be sung in SDA churches.
Although, Silent Night, a staple Christmas song, is a Catholic originated hymn.

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Actually … no … The Communauté de Taizé is an ecumenical order, it’s founder Frere Roger and most founders were protestants. And the story (for a short version: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taizé_Community) is quite fascinating - as is their music. (I am sure most have heard “Laudate omnis gentes” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbb-kaurSW0 )… :wink:

Apart from the discussion of music styles and preferences … what about this week’s lesson and the symbolic nature of the New Jerusalem? Very difficult study … I am sure glad my Sabbath School class tends to be lively and eager to talk - so I can just shut up and listen to our dreams of heaven and the New Jerusalem and ponder the meaning of symbolism.


Casting Crowns is OK but it isnt congregational singing. That is the main difference. There are no new congregational tunes that are of the same depth of old.

Regarding Ross Winkle’s truly heart-warming ‘wrap up’:

“Neither mansions over the hilltop nor a glittering, golden New Jerusalem should detract from the fundamental point that at the end of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, what truly matters is that God now permanently lives with his people without the barrier of sin or the sadness and sorrow of death: “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (NRSV). In light of that wonderful promise, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20, NRSV).”

The very word, ‘Jerusalem’ – if understood as meaning ‘Teacher of Peace’ – brings to mind the usual spectrum of teaching tools : symbolism, ‘types’, language, theatrical performances. . . . So, it is very easy to get caught up in studying and discussing ‘Jerusalem’ objectively, as in a classroom, whether the ‘Old’ or the ‘New’. Objectivity is necessary in beginning the study of any topic, but unless a student becomes subjectively fond of that ‘any topic’, chances are that that topic will not ‘merge’ or ‘marry’ into the thoughts, motivations and actions of their daily life.

Referring to Psalm 95’s ‘Today’, Paul, in Hebrews 3:12&13 warns “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”

This might be roughly translated as :
“Be constantly wary of subjectively wandering away from the God who constantly lives. Cold objectivity, alone, can be deceiving and even make you hard-hearted towards God, even to the point of rejecting Him.”

This ‘hard-hearted’ attitude towards God had developed in the SDA church in the 19th century. So, another SDA scholar (who was also familiar with the Walla Walla area) spoke this to the General Conference of SDAs in his 25th of 26 studies on ‘The Third Angel’s Message’, in 1895. It should be noticed that he, like Ross Winkle, placed the mere ‘formal’, ‘objective’ study of Jerusalem and its Temple as being important, but not to the exclusion of the point of ‘what truly matters’ :

Alonzo Trevier Jones (before any ‘fall’) :

"The tendency is, even with us, to read of the sanctuary and its services and God dwelling in the sanctuary and the text, “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” and say, Yes, God dwelt among them in the sanctuary and that pointed to the sanctuary that is in heaven and the time is coming when God will dwell with His people again, for He says of the new earth, “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and God will dwell with them and be their God and they shall be his people.” So when the new earth comes God is going to dwell with His people again. But where is God now? That is what we want to know. What matters it to me that He is going to dwell with His people on the new earth? What matters all this, if He does not dwell with me now? For if He cannot dwell with me now, it is certain that He never can dwell with me on the new earth nor anywhere else, for He has no chance. What I want to know and what every soul needs to know is, Does He dwell with me now? If we put Him away back yonder in the days of the Jews and then put Him away off on the new earth, what does that do for us now? How does that give Him to men now? In that way, how is He with us now? That is what we need constantly to study. {March 5, 1895 ATJ, GCB 476.4}

Now, you can see that there is a great deal more in that system of ceremonialism than simply a little passing thing that disturbed the Jews a little while and then vanished. For human nature is still and ever bothered with it as certainly as the devil lives, as certainly as the enmity is in the human heart. That mind which is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be–just as certainly as that is in the world and as long as it is in the world, just so long the world will be cursed with ceremonialism. And as long as there is any of that in my heart, I shall be in danger of being cursed with ceremonialism. {March 5, 1895 ATJ, GCB 476.5}

Let us look again at the things the Jews were doing back there at the temple services, the sacrifices and the offerings that you may see this a little more fully yet. I know and so do you that the sanctuary, the temple, was a representation of the sanctuary which is in heaven, that the sacrifices were representations of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the priesthood and its service were representations of the priesthood of Christ. In all these things God would teach them and us too of Himself as He is revealed in Christ. There was a sanctuary first and there was the temple built in place of the sanctuary. There was the temple standing on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. And from that, God taught them that yonder is the true temple on Mount Zion in the heavenly Jerusalem. God dwelt in this temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, in Palestine, and by that He showed them that He dwelt yonder in the heavenly temple in Mount Zion, in the heavenly Jerusalem. {March 5, 1895 ATJ, GCB 477.2}

And He said also–and this was true in both places and from both sides–“Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place.” Anywhere else? “With him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” When? We are reading away back yonder. When did He dwell “with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit,” as well as “in the high and holy place?” Did He do this seven hundred years before Christ, when Isaiah spoke? Yes. But did the Lord begin only then to dwell with him that is of a humble and contrite spirit, as well as in the high and holy place on Mount Zion? No. {March 5, 1895 ATJ, GCB 477.3}

A thousand years before Christ, when David spoke, did He do it then? Yes. But had He only begun it then? No. He always, eternally, dwells in both places–with the humble and contrite as well as on high. {March 5, 1895 ATJ, GCB 477.4}

Well, then, did not God, in that temple on the earth, teach them not only how He dwelt in that heavenly country, but how he dwelt in the temple of the heart also? Most assuredly. There was the earthly Mount Zion right before their eyes, representative of the heavenly Zion, which God would have right before their eyes of faith. There upon Mt. Zion, the high and lofty place in the earthly Jerusalem, was the temple and God dwelling in the temple. And in this God would show that He dwelt not only there but also in the temple of the heart, the sanctuary of the soul, of Him that is of a contrite and humble spirit. And in putting His temple among sinful men and dwelling therein Himself, He was showing also how He would Himself dwell in the temple of Christ’s body, among sinful men and in sinful flesh." {March 5, 1895 ATJ, GCB 477.5}

This highly-subjective ‘temple of the heart’ is, right now, ‘today’, being studied and ‘mapped’ by brain scientists. The understanding of its functions by ‘science’ is finally emerging from hiding deep in the brain to become a perfect match for what Jones unwittingly described repeatedly in his 1895 ‘religious’ studies. And it is this newest understanding of the ‘Jerusalem’ of the ‘inner man’ that truly matters most ‘today’ in an SDA church self-destructing in highly-objective (regarding the ‘other side’) partisan struggles over such highly-relevant yet ‘near-miss’ topics as ‘Spiritual Formation’, ‘Women’s Ordination’, the ‘One Project’. . . . all of these ‘religious’ ‘arguments’ relate highly to this new ‘science’.

If we SDAs can’t live with each other, then how can God be living in us, or we with Him, anywhere ?

As his servants asked Naaman, we might ask, ‘Is it asking too much of a ‘religion’ to humble itself to seeking the ‘muddy Jordan’ of ‘science’ for the answers to heal its fatal ‘leprosy’ ?’

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