I found this version of an old joke that you’ve probably heard before:
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”
The man says, “Methodist.”
St. Peter looks down his list and says, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”
“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”
“Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?”
St. Peter tells him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Thinking about that joke, I remembered a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband” (Revelation 21:3). A little later in the passage, John tells us: “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and [each gate was made of a single pearl]…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (Revelation 21:12-13).
And I smiled, wondering if there was a sign on each of those pearly gates, one that said “Methodists,” one that said “Lutherans,” one that said “Presbyterians,” one that said “Baptists” and so forth, all around the wall.
The joke, I thought, would be on all of us, when we dutifully entered through our respective gates and discovered that we were, in fact, all in the same place. I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”
You know what’s funny? In that passage there are actually names on the gates of the New Jerusalem. “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” (Revelation 21:12). It makes me wonder if those twelve tribes sometimes had trouble getting along, if the tribe of Benjamin occasionally turned up its nose at the tribe of Dan, for example.
Would the twelve tribes be surprised when they came through their respective gates and found that they were, in fact, all in the same place? Would they stare at each other for a long moment before they all burst out laughing?
It doesn’t seem to be God’s intention to keep us separated. He seems to want to bring his big, scattered family together in one place.
One of my favorite parts of this passage comes a few verses later, in verses 22 through 25, where John tells us that there wasn’t a temple in the city because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple; and it didn’t need the sun or the moon because the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp; and the nations will walk by that light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into that place, and the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there.
Did you catch that last part? The “nations” will walk by that light (the word in Greek is the same one used for “Gentiles”). The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem. It doesn’t sound like it’s only going to be a place for God’s chosen people; it sounds like it’s going to be a place for all of God’s people. And the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there, which means, of course, that the gates of that city will never be closed.
The New Jerusalem will always be open.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.