James: The gates of New Jerusalem are made from a single pearl. Wouldn’t you hate to meet that oyster in a dark alley?
Dave: You got that right! No oyster [like] that exists in our world. So, I would think this would be ample evidence of figurative language?
James: Why, Dave? Does God explain the gates and the oyster to be something else? He describes an enormous city and describes some details of the materials of its construction. Why should we assume it is a figure of speech? Hebrews says that Abraham looked for a city of the future whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). That is a straightforward statement of fact. Why is New Jerusalem not the city for which Abraham looked? It certainly appears to be a city of the future, for we see it coming down after the Judgment (Rev 20:13-21:2). Hebrews says the city for which Abraham looked has foundations (plural). New Jerusalem has 12 of them (Rev 21:14). God certainly built the city of New Jerusalem and not man. No city on earth has ever approached dimensions that are 1500 miles on a side and that can float in the sky. God’s city surpasses anything that man has ever devised. If God can build a city 1500 mi X 1500 mi X 1500 mi and make it float down from heaven, why can’t he make a pearl that is big enough to be a huge gate? After all, He made the oyster in the first place, did He not?
If you are going to make the gates of pearl a figure of speech, what are you going to use to interpret it? As far as I know, pearls are never used of anything except pearls in the Bible. There is no key to explain what it means. Like McKnight said in his remarks on Revelation, If “gold” does not mean “gold” and “precious stones” do not mean precious stones, we are at a loss to know what any words mean in the Bible. If you are at the point of saying that “pearl” does not mean “pearl” because it is too big, then why can you not say that “baptism” does not mean “immersion” because it is a work? That’s what Jack Holt did recently. Unbelief is not a reason to declare a passage to be a symbol or figure of speech.
When we are talking about symbols in the Bible, such as the seven-headed dragon (Rev 12:3) and the land-beast of Rev 13:11, those symbols are 1) used in a context where it is clear that symbols are being employed because the beasts are used interchangably with actions of people 2) there are explicit Bible keys that tell us what the different beasts mean. For example, Rev 12:9 and 20:2 both explain that the serpent/dragon is a person, the Devil. Nowhere does the Bible explain that pearls are anything but pearls.
The “gates of pearl are figures of speech” approach is one of my big beefs with people writing about Revelation. There is another group of expositors, the preterits, that take the position that ALL prophecy was fulfilled by AD 70. They use exactly the same technique of taking plain text and saying “this is figurative”, and then attaching an AD 70 interpretation to it. Looking at the pearl and saying “it is figurative” is the same approach, except you do not choose to put an AD 70 moniker on it. Using this technique, you can read any text in the Bible and treat it exactly the same way with the same justification: there isn’t any. You can read any text, say, “It is figurative” and apply whatever meaning you can imagine to it with the same justification that you can read “the twelve gates were twelve pearls” (Rev 21:21), and decide they are figures of speech. When you take the “it is figurative” approach to the Bible, you have essentially abandoned what God says and are substituting your own thoughts for God’s thoughts. At that point, you might as well throw the Bible away, and write your own, because you have abandoned what God is saying for your own imagination. It simply boils down to the fact that you do not believe what God said. The “it is figurative” syndrome essentially is one of unbelief. The expositor simply does not believe that what God is saying could be true.