Throughout the Bible, precious stones are used symbolically to represent certain attributes and qualities. In the Old Testament, these stones are associated with the breastplate worn by the High Priest, as well as the foundations of the New Jerusalem described by the prophet Ezekiel. In the New Testament, precious stones are used metaphorically to describe the glory of God’s presence and the virtues of the righteous. For Christians, these stones point to the surpassing value of God’s kingdom.
- Precious stones like gold, silver, and precious gems are symbols of God’s majesty, glory, and holiness throughout Scripture.
- The 12 stones on the breastplate of the High Priest represented the 12 tribes of Israel and their connection to God’s covenant.
- The precious stones of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 portray the church triumphant, the people of God perfected in glory.
- Precious stones can represent godly virtues like faith, love, patience, and righteousness.
- Jesus Christ is described as the precious cornerstone or capstone, indicating his preeminence and centrality.
The Breastplate Stones
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In Exodus 28, we read about the sacred vestments worn by Aaron, the high priest of Israel. Part of his attire was a breastplate studded with 12 precious stones, each stone inscribed with one of the names of the 12 tribes of Israel:
“You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.” (Exodus 28:15-21)
This breastpiece was known as the “breastpiece of judgment” because it served as a memorial before God, a reminder of His covenant with the 12 tribes of Israel. The high priest bore the names over his heart when he entered God’s presence in the tabernacle.
The stones were also used for discerning God’s will, as we see in 1 Samuel 28 when David inquires of the Lord through the stones of the breastpiece. Each stone was specially chosen to represent one of the 12 sons of Jacob and tribes of Israel:
- Sardius (Reuben) – The first stone, sardius, was a fiery red stone, likely a ruby or sard. Associated with the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn.
- Topaz (Simeon) – A golden yellow stone, possibly a chrysolite. Associated with the tribe of Simeon, Jacob’s second son.
- Carbuncle (Levi) – A flashing bright red stone like a garnet. Representing the tribe of Levi and the Levitical priesthood.
- Emerald (Judah) – A bright green stone representing Judah, the tribe of kings and the Messiah.
- Sapphire (Issachar) – Deep blue in color, the sapphire stood for Issachar and the tribe’s wisdom.
- Diamond (Zebulun) – Most likely a turquoise gem with golden flecks. Associated with the prosperous tribe of Zebulun.
- Jacinth (Dan) – A reddish-orange zircon, linked to the tribe of Dan and their craftsmanship.
- Agate (Naphtali) – A multi-colored banded gem representing Naphtali’s spiritual richness.
- Amethyst (Gad) – A purple quartz stone symbolizing the tribe of Gad.
- Beryl (Asher) – Possibly a yellow or golden gem connected with the blessed tribe of Asher.
- Onyx (Joseph) – A layered stone with different colors for Joseph’s coat of many colors.
- Jasper (Benjamin) – A dark opaque stone representing Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son.
This collection of beautiful gems worn over the high priest’s heart reflect God’s delight in beauty, splendor, light, and color. Each stone was carefully selected to represent the unique personality and history of each tribe of Israel, God’s covenant people. For Christians, they foreshadow the consummate, radiant beauty of God’s kingdom and the church united in Christ.
The Foundations of New Jerusalem
The apostle John describes the celestial city of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 using architectural imagery and precious gems. The city has 12 foundations adorned with 12 precious stones (Rev 21:19-20):
- Jasper – clear as crystal, representing God’s brilliance and glory.
- Sapphire – deep blue, reminding us of God’s faithfulness and the throne of heaven.
- Chalcedony – possibly green in hue, symbolizing life and growth.
- Emerald – a bright green stone reflecting life, resurrection, and rest.
- Sardonyx – layered red and white for the atoning blood and purity of Christ.
- Sardius – flaming red gem pointing to God’s flaming love and righteousness.
- Chrysolite – a golden yellow stone representing God’s unapproachable light.
- Beryl – a sea green stone reminding us of God’s protective care.
- Topaz – a golden gem depicting God’s greatest treasure, his saints.
- Chrysoprase – an apple-green quartz indicating healing, grace, and goodness.
- Jacinth – a violet zircon speaking of Christ’s humility and sacrifice.
- Amethyst – a regal purple stone showing Christ as King of Kings.
This symphony of prismatic color and light conveys the splendor of the new creation and the church made perfect. The brilliant, transparent stones remind us that in heaven we will see and know fully, illuminated by the glory of God (1 Cor 13:12). The variety of gems speak of the diversity within the unity of God’s redeemed people from every tongue, tribe and nation (Rev 5:9).
Precious Gems Representing Virtues
Not only do precious stones represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the foundations of the New Jerusalem, Scripture also uses them as metaphors for spiritual truths and virtues:
- Diamond – As one of the hardest substances, the diamond symbolizes fortitude, strength, and resilience through trials. Believers must be “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed” (2 Cor 4:8).
- Ruby – The deep red ruby speaks of passion, zeal, courage, and sacrifice. “Be earnest and repent” (Rev 3:19).
- Emerald – Its green vibrancy pictures life, resurrection, restoration, and growth in Christ. “That they may be called trees of righteousness” (Isa 61:3).
- Pearl – Formed gradually through suffering, pearls represent wisdom, purity, and perfection gained through adversity. We are being made into “jewels” fit for Christ’s kingdom (Mal 3:17).
- Amethyst – As a royal purple gem, the amethyst signifies kingliness, sovereignty, and divine rulership. It reminds us that we are “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9).
- Sapphire – Its heavenly blue hue represents faithfulness, trust, and hope in God’s promises. “Whoever believes in me…out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).
Christ the Precious Capstone
Most importantly, Jesus Christ is described as the precious and chosen cornerstone or capstone (Eph 2:20, 1 Pet 2:6). Just as the crowning gem completes an ornate piece of jewelry, Christ is the focal point, the supremely valuable One who gives coherence, meaning, and brilliance to all of God’s redemptive work in history.
Our lives must be built on the solidarity of Christ as our foundation (1 Cor 3:11). Though “rejected by men,” the Father has made him the “cornerstone” of salvation (Ps 118:22). For those who believe, he is precious, but an obstacle to those who lack faith (1 Pet 2:7). As believers, may we grow into a holy temple in the Lord, founded and united upon Christ alone.
From the tribal stones on the priestly breastpiece to the gem-studded foundations of the New Jerusalem, precious stones in Scripture give us glimpses of the beauty, value, and perfection of God’s kingdom. Their colors, clarity, and splendor reflect the perfections of God’s character, the glories awaiting the redeemed, and the virtues of the Christian life. Most importantly, they point us to Christ, the true cornerstone and jewel beyond worth, in whom all the treasures of wisdom are found (Col 2:3). May these jewels of Scripture orient our hearts toward the supreme worth of Jesus and the unsurpassed riches of knowing Him.