Revelation describes heaven as a huge, richly appointed city with twelve gates. If heaven is a place without sin and evil, why does it even need gates and walls? And why does heaven have twelve gates instead of just one?
The twelve gates of heaven are symbols that represent God’s people. Read on to explore the important truths revealed in this symbol.
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…
It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb…
The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl.Revelation 21:10-14, 21a
In order to understand the significance of heaven’s gates and their number, let’s examine the details of the gates. From John’s description, we know the number of gates, their composition, and placement. We also know that they are named for the twelve tribes of Israel and flanked by foundations named for the twelve apostles.
John’s description of heaven and its gates is the most comprehensive description found in scripture, but it isn’t the first:
In the closing chapters of Ezekiel, he looks ahead to the restoration of Israel to the Promised Land, which most scholars interpret as a parallel to John’s description of heaven in Revelation.
Ezekiel’s book ends with an itemization of the city gates:
“These will be the exits of the city: Beginning on the north side, which is 4,500 cubits long, the gates of the city will be named after the tribes of Israel. The three gates on the north side will be the gate of Reuben, the gate of Judah and the gate of Levi.
“On the east side, which is 4,500 cubits long, will be three gates: the gate of Joseph, the gate of Benjamin and the gate of Dan.
“On the south side, which measures 4,500 cubits, will be three gates: the gate of Simeon, the gate of Issachar and the gate of Zebulun.
“On the west side, which is 4,500 cubits long, will be three gates: the gate of Gad, the gate of Asher and the gate of Naphtali.
“The distance all around will be 18,000 cubits.
“And the name of the city from that time on will be:
the Lord is there.”Ezekiel 48:30-35
Like John, Ezekiel describes three gates facing each of the four compass directions, with each gate named for one of Israel’s twelve tribes.
John adds the additional detail that the foundations of the city walls (which rest between each gate) each bear the name of one of Jesus’ twelve apostles.
But before we examine the significance of these names—and their number—let’s take another step back and look at an even earlier description of heaven.
When the Israelites were living in the wilderness between their exodus from Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land, God gave them detailed instructions for constructing a tabernacle to be used for worship.
God gave Moses detailed and specific instructions for the tabernacle:
“Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.Exodus 25:8-9
The tabernacle would serve as God’s dwelling place among His people. So His instructions to Moses were meant to reflect God’s heavenly dwelling place. Our focus in this writing is on the exterior gates of heaven, not on the details of its interior. Nevertheless, it is important that we establish the symbolic design of the tabernacle in order to complete our understanding of the exterior.
While the Israelites lived in the wilderness they were instructed to camp around the tabernacle:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.”Numbers 2:1-2
The rest of the chapter describes how the Israelites arranged themselves with three tribes on each of the four sides and the tabernacle at their center. So even in the earliest depiction, we see that a complete picture of heaven is one of God dwelling in the midst of—and surrounded by—His people.
The People of God
From the tabernacle through Ezekiel to Revelation, the twelve tribes of Israel surround God’s holy city. John’s addition of the twelve apostles’ names to the foundations underlines the fact that God intends to dwell with His people.
The twelve tribes represent God’s people from the Old Covenant, while the twelve apostles symbolize the New Covenant—the church.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the number 12 is the number that represents God’s people. Throughout scripture, several numbers are repeatedly used symbolically to reveal truths about God’s purposes.
Why does God use the number 12 to represent His people? We can only speculate, but most scholars believe that the number 12 is derived from three (the numerical signature of God) and four (the numerical symbol for creation).
Just as three plus four (7) symbolizes completion and perfection, three times four (12) represents the most significant and precious component of God’s creation—His image-bearers.
God and His People
As Christians, we understand that God’s unconditional love for us is the reason that He has gone to great lengths to restore us to Himself (Romans 5:8). John’s description of heaven further reveals the value that God places on His people.
Each of the twelve foundations is decorated with a different kind of precious stone (Revelation 21:19-21), the apostles who were called from their various lives and repurposed as God’s ambassadors. But each of the gates, through which the people of God enter heaven, is fashioned from a single pearl.
Unlike gems, which are mined from the ground and must be cut, shaped, and polished in order to display their beauty, pearls are formed in a manner that requires no further shaping by human hands. For this reason, many cultures value pearls above gems, citing their inherent, natural, God-given beauty.
Jesus uses pearls as an illustration in a brief parable about the kingdom of heaven:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”Matthew 13:45-46
If we read this too quickly, we might think that Jesus is describing heaven as an extremely valuable place that we should desire no matter what the cost. And that is precisely the point that Jesus makes in the previous parable about a man who purchased a field to obtain a hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44).
But in this parable, heaven is not the pearl. Heaven is the merchant in search of pearls. And heaven is willing to pay everything to acquire the most valuable pearls.
So what are the pearls, then?
You and I are the pearls.
You and I—the people of God—are the things that are so valuable, that He paid the ultimate price, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, to acquire us for eternity.
It is through this sacrifice, through His purchase, that we pass through the pearls that testify to our worth and enter into the city of God to dwell with Him forever.