Question: "What is the significance of the twelve gates in Revelation 21?"
Answer: The twelve gates in Revelation 21 belong to the New Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven to the new earth (verse 10), shining with the glory of God (verse 11). John describes the city: “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” (verse 12). The gates are miraculous in their construction: “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl” (verse 21). And the gates of the New Jerusalem will never be shut (verse 25).
In order to understand the significance of the twelve gates being inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes, we must look to the beginning of the Old Testament, when God promised a new land and a great nation to Abraham, whose descendants would spread blessing upon all other nations (Genesis 12:1–3). To Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, whom God later named “Israel” (Genesis 32:28), twelve sons were born to establish the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49). Those twelve tribes escaped slavery in Egypt, inherited the Promised Land (Exodus 6:14; 24:4), received the Law (Exodus 20), and were chosen by God to be His covenant people (Exodus 19:5–6).
During the reign of David, out of all the territories of the tribes of Israel, God chose the city of Jerusalem in Judah as the place where God’s name would rest (2 Chronicles 12:13). Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem that has been prepared for the reign of the Lamb (Revelation 21:1–3). This New Jerusalem sits on twelve foundations, representing the twelve apostles who would reign over the twelve tribes of Israel (verse 14; cf. Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30). The gates of the city are symmetrically arranged: “There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (Revelation 21:13). Each gate of the New Jerusalem bears the inscription of one of the tribes of Israel, and each gate is guarded by an angel (Revelation 21:12). These angels are there to let in “only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (verse 27).
Many scholars see a link between the New Jerusalem, with its three gates per side, and the city of the millennial kingdom, seen by the prophet Ezekiel: “These will be the exits of the city: Beginning on the north side . . . 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 . . . will be three gates: the gate of Joseph, the gate of Benjamin and the gate of Dan. On the south side . . . will be three gates: the gate of Simeon, the gate of Issachar and the gate of Zebulun. On the west side . . . will be three gates: the gate of Gad, the gate of Asher and the gate of Naphtali” (Ezekiel 48:30–34). See also Numbers 2, where God specified that three tribes would encamp on each side of the tent of meeting in the wilderness.
So what are we to make of all this? Let’s break down the description of the gates in Revelation 21 for a more careful look:
The gates of the New Jerusalem are inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Israel was chosen by God to be a light to all nations (Isaiah 49:5–7; Romans 9:23–25), and God will never revoke Israel’s status as His chosen people (see Romans 11:29). The New Jerusalem thus contains a tribute to the patriarchs of Israel. It also contains a tribute to the apostles (Revelation 21:14), so both Old Testament and New Testament are represented in the city—the New Jerusalem is filled with the elect of God from all eras.
Romans 9 makes a distinction between physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their spiritual descendants—i.e., those who exercise the same faith in God as the patriarchs did. Just as not all Gentiles come to the light of the world, some Jews choose to live in darkness: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. . . . It is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9:6–8; see also Romans 2:28–29 and John 8:39–47). Those who have faith in Christ are accounted the spiritual seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). It will be “true” Israel—those who have trusted in Jesus Christ—that will enter the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is through the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem that the true tribal people—believers of Jewish descent as well as Gentiles who have been “grafted in” with God’s people (Romans 11:17–25)—will enter the joy of the Lord (see Matthew 25:21).
Angels are at the gates of the New Jerusalem. As an angel was sent by God to guard Eden after mankind’s fall (Genesis 3:24), so God has angels guarding the new paradise. Nothing evil or impure will ever enter the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:27); the city is reserved for the redeemed of God.
Each gate of the New Jerusalem is made of a single pearl. The richness and supernatural nature of the city is profound. As commentator Charles Ellicott points out, “The pearl was esteemed of the greatest value among the ancients; it is an appropriate emblem of the highest truth. . . . It is the only precious stone which the art and skill of man cannot improve” (Commentary for English Readers, entry for Revelation 21:21). The imagery calls to mind Jesus’ parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45–46). This is the city that is worth more than anything this present world has to offer. Its builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10).
The gates of the New Jerusalem never close. There are eternal safety and peace in the New Jerusalem; there are no enemies to shut the gates against. Access to the heavenly kingdom on the new earth is free and unhindered, and “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (Revelation 21:26). The gates face every direction of the compass, and their perpetual openness invites everyone to partake of the goodness of God’s grace (see Revelation 22:17).