The gates of heaven have long fascinated people and served as the subject of countless books, movies, songs and even jokes. Some Christians wonder whether they'll get past the pearly gates and gain entrance into heaven itself. Though much has been written about what they symbolise, the best place to find the answer is in the Bible where the phrase originated.
The apostle John wrote about the gates of heaven after experiencing a vision of the celestial realm while imprisoned on the Greek island of Patmos around 96 A.D. The written record of his supernatural tour, along with 15 other visions, constitutes the largely prophetic book of Revelation, which completed the Bible canon in 397 A.D. The first detailed view of the gates of heaven occurs near the end of the book at Revelation 21:12. The beaming city called heavenly Jerusalem is shaped like a colossal cube surrounded by four walls with 12 gates, three positioned in each wall.
Angels Guard the Gates
Although many jokes depict Saint Peter as a heavenly bouncer deciding the fate of deceased mortals, the idea is not based in Scripture. The Bible never mentions Peter guarding any of the 12 gates. Rather, Revelation 21:12 specifically relates that 12 unnamed angels tend the gates---one angel stationed at each. Some theologians surmise that the concept sprang from a misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18-19 in which Jesus Christ entrusted Peter with the keys of the kingdom. The New Testament book of Acts explains that Peter used these symbolic keys to open up new understanding among the Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles regarding the role of Christ in fulfilling God's purpose for mankind.
Gates Made of Pearls
In John's vision at Revelation 21:21, the gates of heaven are actual pearls: huge ones that cover the 12 entrances to the city. In Bible times, pearls gathered from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea commanded a high price. Jesus used this fact to illustrate the value of God's Kingdom in his parable of the priceless pearl, recorded in Matthew 13:45-46. A merchant finds an exquisite and very expensive pearl, and eagerly sells all his other wares to acquire the rare jewel. Gaping at the celestial gates made of unusually large pearls may have convinced John that heaven was more magnificent and impregnable than any city on earth, including mighty Rome.
The opening verses of Revelation inform readers that the book is largely written in signs and symbols. Earlier, in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul described heaven as a spiritual place, rather than a physical structure. However, since John was a mortal man at the time he received the vision, he saw the brilliant grandeur of heaven from a perspective comprehendible to humans. Tying in the symbolism of Jesus' parable about the merchant who sold all his goods for one pearl of high value, readers may discern that the pearly gates of heaven represent an individual's choice to give God exclusive devotion. Doing so ensures entrance into the grand future that awaits them when God's kingdom rules over mankind. Countless people worldwide express this hope when they pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven." Revelation 21:25 says that at that time the gates of heaven will remain open day and night, since all humans will be living in peace, as described at Isaiah 65:17-25, and nothing will disturb the security of heavenly Jerusalem.
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