THE RIVER OF LIFE (Revelation 22:1-2)
22:1-2 And he showed me the river of the water of life, shining like crystal, coming out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the city street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, which produced twelve kinds of fruit, rendering its fruit according to each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
So far the description has been of the exterior of the holy city; now the scene moves inside.
First, there is the river of the water of life. This picture has many sources in the Old Testament. At its back is the river which watered the Garden of Eden and made it fruitful (Genesis 2:8-16). Still closer is Ezekiel's picture of the river which issued from the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-7). The Psalmist sings of the river whose streams make glad the city of God (Psalms 46:4). "A fountain," says Joel, "shall come forth from the house of the Lord" (Joel 3:18). "Living waters," says Zechariah, "shall flow out from Jerusalem" (Zechariah 14:8). In Second Enoch there is the picture of a river in Paradise, which issues in the third heaven, which flows from beneath the tree of life, and which divides into four streams of honey, milk, wine, and oil (2Enoch 8:5).
Closely allied with this is the picture so common in Scripture of the fountain of life; we have it in Revelation 7:17; Revelation 21:6 in the Revelation. It is Jeremiah's complaint that the people have forsaken God who is the fountain of living waters to hew themselves out broken cisterns which can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13). The warning in Enoch is:
Woe to you who drink water from every fountain,
For suddenly shall ye be consumed and wither away,
Because ye have forsaken the fountain of life (Enoch 96:6).
The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life (Proverbs 10:11). The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life (Proverbs 13:14). The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life (Proverbs 14:27). Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it (Proverbs 16:22). With God, says the Psalmist, is the fountain of life (Psalms 36:9). "God," said the rabbis in their dreams of the golden age, "will produce a river from the Holy of Holies, beside which every kind of delicate fruits will grow."
H. B. Swete identifies the river of life with the Spirit. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus says: "He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water." John goes on to explain: "This he said about the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive" (John 7:38-39).
But it may well be that there is something simpler here. Those who live in a civilization in which the turn of a tap will bring cold, clear water in any quantity can scarcely understand how precious water was in the East. In the hot lands water was, and is, literally life. And the river of life may well stand for the abundant life God provides for his people which is there for the taking.
THE TREE OF LIFE (Revelation 22:1-2 continued)
In this passage there is an ambiguity of punctuation. In the midst of the city street may be taken, not as the end of the first sentence, but as the beginning of the second. It will then be not the river which is in the midst of the street but the tree of life. Taking the phrase with the first sentence seems to give the better picture.
John takes his picture of the tree of life from two sources--from the tree in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6); and even more from Ezekiel. "And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing" (Ezekiel 47:12). Here again the rabbinic dreams of the future are very close. One runs: "In the age to come God will create trees which will produce fruit in any month; and the man who eats from them will be healed."
The tree gives many and varied fruits. Surely in that we may see the symbolism of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). In the different fruit for each month of the year may we not see symbolized that in the life which God gives there is a special grace for each age from the cradle to the grave? The tree of life is no longer forbidden; it is there in the midst of the city for all to take. Nor are its fruits confined to the Jews; its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Only in the Spirit of God can the wounds and the breaches of the nations be healed.
THE BEAUTY OF HOLINESS (Revelation 22:3-5)
22:3-5 No longer shall there be any accursed thing. And the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him, and shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night will be no more, for they have no need of the light of a lamp, or the light of a sun, for the Lord God will be a light to them, and they will reign for ever and ever.
Here is the final culmination of the description of the city of God.
There will be no accursed thing there. That is to say, there will be no more of the pollutions which harm the Christian life.
God's servants shall see his face. The promise will come true that the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8). We may best understand the greatness of that promise by remembering that the Christian is promised a privilege which was denied even to Moses to whom God's word was: "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Exodus 33:20; Exodus 33:23). It is in Christ alone that men can see God.
The sight of God produces two things. It produces the perfect worship; where God is always seen, all life becomes an act of worship. It produces the perfect consecration; the inhabitants of the city will have the mark of God upon their foreheads, showing that they belong absolutely to him.
John returns to his vision that in the city of God there can never be any darkness nor need of any other light, for the presence of God is there.
The vision ends with the promise that the people of God will reign for ever and ever. In perfect submission to him they will find perfect freedom and the only true royalty.
FINAL WORDS (Revelation 22:6-9)
22:6-9 And he said to me: "These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show to his servants the things which must speedily happen."
"And, behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."
It is I John who am the hearer and the seer of these things. And, when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel who was showing them to me. And he said to me: "See that you do not do this. I am your fellow-servant, and the fellow-servant of your brothers the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God."
What remains of the last chapter of the Revelation is curiously disjointed. Things are set down without any apparent order; there are repetitions of what has gone before; and it is often very difficult to be sure who is the actual speaker. There are two possibilities. It may be that John is deliberately sounding again many of the themes which run through his book, and bringing on the stage many of the characters for a final message. It is perhaps more likely that he did not finally set in order this last chapter and that we have it in unfinished form. We have three speakers.
The first is one of the angels who have been the interpreters of the divine things to John. Once again he stresses the truth of all that John has seen and heard. "The God of the spirits of the prophets" means the God who inspired the minds of the prophets. Therefore the messages John received came from the same God as inspired the great prophets of the Old Testament, and must be treated with equal seriousness.
The second speaker is Jesus Christ himself. He reiterates that his return is not to be long delayed. Then he pronounces his blessing on the man who reads and obeys the words of John's book. Swete aptly calls this "the felicitation of the devout student." The devout student is the best of all students. There are too many who are devout, but not students; they will not accept the discipline of learning and even look with suspicion upon the further knowledge which study brings. There are also too many who are students, but not devout; they are interested too much in intellectual knowledge and too little in prayer and in service of their fellow-men.
The last speaker is John. He identifies himself as the author of the book. Then, strangely enough, he delivers exactly the same warning against angel worship as in Revelation 19:10. Either John would have removed this passage as a needless repetition, if he had had opportunity fully to revise his book; or he was so aware of the danger of angel worship that he believed it necessary to give the same warning twice. He certainly leaves us in no doubt that worship of angels is wrong and that worship must be given to God alone.
THE TIME IS NEAR AND THE TIME IS PAST (Revelation 22:10-11)
22:10,11 And he said to me: "Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book; for the time is near. Let the wrong-doer continue in his wrong-doing; let him who is filthy continue in his filthiness; let the righteous man continue in his righteousness; let him who is dedicated to God continue in his dedication."
This passage insists that the coming of Christ is close at hand; it must be the Risen Christ who is speaking.
In the older Apocalypses, written between the Testaments, the instruction is always to seal them and lay them up for a distant future. In Daniel, for instance, we read: "Seal up the vision, for it pertains to many days hence" (Daniel 8:26). But now it is not the time to seal but it is the time to open and read; for the coming of Christ will take place at any moment.
What, then, is the meaning of this curious passage which seems to say that men must remain as they are? There are two possibilities.
(i) There comes a time when it is too late to change. In Daniel we read: "The wicked shall do wickedly" (Daniel 12:10). As Ezekiel had it: "He that will hear, let him hear; and he that will refuse to hear, let him refuse" (Ezekiel 3:27). A man can so long refuse the way of Christ that in the end he cannot take it. That is the sin against the Holy Spirit.
(ii) The ancient commentator, Andreas, says that the Risen Christ is saying: "Let each man do what pleases him; I will not force his choice." This, then, would be another warning that every man is writing his own destiny.
THE CLAIMS OF CHRIST (Revelation 22:12-13)
22:12,13 Behold, I am coming soon, and I have my reward with me, to render to each man, as his work is. I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
The Risen Christ once again announces his speedy coming; and he makes two great claims.
(i) He has his reward with him and will render to every man according to his work. H. B. Swete says: "Christ speaks as the Great Steward, who in the eventide of the world will call the labourers to receive their day's wages."
(ii) He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. This is a repetition of titles used in Revelation 1:17; Revelation 2:8; Revelation 21:6. There is more than one idea here.
(a) There is the idea of completeness. The Greeks used from alpha (Greek #1) to omega (Greek #5598) and the Hebrews from aleph to tau to indicate completeness. For instance, Abraham kept the whole Law from aleph to tau. Here is the symbol that Jesus Christ has everything within himself and needs nothing from any other source.
(b) There is the idea of eternity. He includes in himself all time, for he is the first and the last.
(c) There is the idea of authority. The Greeks said that Zeus was the beginning, the middle, and the end. The Jewish rabbis took over this idea and applied it to God, with their own interpretation. They said that, since God was the beginning, he received his power from no one; since he was the middle, he shared his power with no one; and since he was the end, he never handed over his power to anyone.
THE ACCEPTED AND THE REJECTED (Revelation 22:14-15)
22:14,15 Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and that they may enter into the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the fornicators and the murderers and the idolaters and everyone who loves and acts falsehood.
(i) Those who wash their robes have the right of entry into the city of God; the King James Version has: Blessed are they that do his commandments. In Greek the two phrases would be very like each other. Those who have washed their robes is hoi (Greek #3588) plunontes (Greek #4150) tas (Greek #3588) stolas (Greek #4749), and those that do his commandments is hoi (Greek #3588) poiountes (Greek #4160) tas (Greek #3588) entolas (Greek #1785). In the early Greek manuscripts all the words are written in capital letters and there is no space left between them. If we set down these two phrases in English capital letters, we see how closely they resemble each other.
"Those who have washed their robes" is the reading of the best manuscripts, but it is easy to see how a scribe could make a mistake in copying and substitute the more usual phrase.
This phrase shows man's part in salvation. It is Jesus Christ who in his Cross has provided that grace by which alone man can be forgiven; but man has to appropriate that sacrifice. To take a simple analogy, we can supply soap and water, but we cannot compel a person to use them. Those who enter into the city of God are those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
(ii) There follows the list of those who are debarred from the city of God. We have already considered a very similar list in Revelation 21:8 of those who were cast into the lake of fire. The new phrase here is the dogs. This can have two meanings.
(i) The dog was the symbol for everything that was savage and unclean. H. B. Swete says: "No one who has watched the dogs that prowl in the quarters of an eastern city will wonder at the contempt and disgust which the word suggests to the oriental mind." That was why the Jews called the Gentiles dogs. There is a rabbinic saying: "Whoever eats with an idolator is the same as he who would eat with a dog. Who is a dog? He who is not circumcised." Andreas suggests that the dogs are not only the shameless and the unbelieving, but also Christians who after their baptism "return to their vomit." The dog may, then, be a symbol of all that is disgusting.
(ii) But there is another possibility. There is a strange phrase in Deuteronomy 23:18. The full verse runs: "You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow." The first part is clear enough. It is forbidden to offer to God money that has been made by prostitution. But the wages of a dog is more difficult. The point is this. In the ancient temples there were not only female sacred prostitutes, there were also male sacred prostitutes; and these male prostitutes were commonly called dogs. Dog can denote a thoroughly immoral person, and that may be its meaning here.
Every one who loves and acts falsehood is shut out. Here is an echo of the Psalmist: "No man who practises deceit shall dwell in my house; no man who utters lies shall continue in my presence" (Psalms 101:7).
THE GUARANTEE OF TRUTH (Revelation 22:16)
22:16 I, Jesus, sent my angel to you to testify to these things for the sake of the Churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright morning star.
Jesus guarantees the truth of all that John has seen and heard. The point of this guarantee is this. The book begins by promising a revelation to be given by Jesus (Revelation 1:1); this is the attestation of Jesus that, however the vision came, it came from him.
He then goes on to give, as it were, his credentials. "I am the root and the offspring of David," he says. That is a reference to Isaiah 11:1 : "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." Jesus is saying that in him is the fulfilment of this prophecy, that he is at one and the same time the eternal source of being from which David came and his promised descendant.
"I am the bright morning star," he says. To call a man a morning star was to class him very high among the heroes. The rabbis, for instance, called Mordecai by that name. More than that, this would recall the great Messianic prophecy: "A star shall come forth out of Jacob" (Numbers 24:17).
This would awaken other realms of thought. The morning star is the herald of the day which chases away the darkness of the night; before Jesus the night of sin and death flees away.
Surely this would awaken still another memory. In the days of his flesh Jesus had said: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). When the Risen Christ said that he was the morning star, he claimed again to be the light of the world and the vanquisher of all the world's darkness.
THE GREAT INVITATION (Revelation 22:17)
22:17 The Spirit and the Bride say: Come! And let him that hears say: Come! Let him who is thirsty come and let him who wishes take the water of life without price.
There are two different interpretations of this passage.
H. B. Swete takes the first two parts as an appeal to Christ to fulfil his promise and come quickly back to this world; and he takes the third part as an invitation to the thirsty soul to come to Christ. But it seems very improbable that there should be such a difference between the first two parts and the third. It is much more likely that the whole passage is a great invitation to all men to come to Christ. It falls into three sections.
(i) There is the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride. The Bride, we know, is the Church. But what are we to understand by the Spirit? It may be the Spirit who is operative in all the prophets and who is always calling men back to God. Much more likely, John uses the Spirit for the voice of Jesus himself. The regular ending of the letters to the seven Churches is an invitation to hear what the Spirit is saying (Revelation 2:7; Revelation 2:11; Revelation 2:17; Revelation 2:29; Revelation 3:6; Revelation 3:13; Revelation 3:22). Now, the speaker to the seven Churches is the Risen Christ; and, therefore, quite clearly there the Spirit and the Christ are identified. "The Spirit and the Bride say: Come!" probably means that Christ and his Church join in the invitation to accept all that he has to offer.
(ii) "Let him that hears say: Come!" symbolizes the great truth that every Christian is to be a missionary. He who has been found by Christ must find others for Christ.
(iii) The third section is an invitation to all thirsty souls to come to Jesus Christ that their need may be satisfied. It must remind us of God's great invitation, "Ho, every one who thirsts come to the waters, and he who has no money; come, buy and eat! come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isaiah 55:1); and also of the great word of Jesus himself. "He who comes to me shall not hunger; and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). In Christ alone the longing of the soul can be satisfied.
O Christ, in thee my soul hath found,
And found in thee alone,
The peace, the joy, I sought so long,
The bliss till now unknown.
Now none but Christ can satisfy,
None other Name for me!
There's love, and life, and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus found in thee.
THE WARNING (Revelation 22:18-19)
22:18,19 I give this warning to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book. If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book. And, if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
There are certain things to note about this solemn warning.
(i) It is not to be interpreted with absolute literalness. It does not refer to every individual word of the Revelation. It so happens that the text is, in fact, in bad condition and we do not know for certain what the actual wording is. What it does warn against is distorting the teaching which the book contains. It is very much what Paul meant, when he said: "If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8-9). It is the truth, and not the wording of the truth, which must not be changed.
(ii) This is far from being an unique ending to an ancient book. It is, in fact, the kind of ending that ancient writers commonly added to their books. We find similar warnings in the Bible in other places. "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2). "Every word of God proves true.... Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar" (Proverbs 30:5-6). In the Book of Enoch the writer demands that no one should "change or minish ought of my words" (Enoch 104:10).
The Letter of Aristeas tells how the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, was made by seventy Jewish scholars at the request of the King of Egypt. When the task was done "they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making an omission" (Letter of Aristeas 310, 31 1). In the preface to his book On Origins, Rufinus adjures in the sight of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, anyone who reads or copies his book, not to add, subtract, insert, or alter anything. Eusebius (The Ecclesiastical History 5.20.2) quotes the way in which Irenaeus, the great second century Christian scholar, ends one of his books: "I adjure thee who mayest copy this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by his glorious advent, when he comes to judge the quick and the dead, to compare what thou shalt write, and correct it carefully by this manuscript, and also to write this adjuration, and to place it on your copy."
In the ancient days, since all books were hand-copied by scribes and everyone knew how easy it was for a scribe to make mistakes in the copying, it was a regular custom to insert at the end of a book a solemn warning against change.
It is in the light of that regular custom that we must read John's words. To use this passage as an argument for verbal inspiration is an error.
One final word must be said about this passage. R. H. Charles points out that this warning may not be part of the original book at all. We must be impressed by the number of times John insists that Christ will come at any moment (Revelation 22:7; Revelation 22:10; Revelation 22:12; Revelation 22:20). "Behold, I am coming soon" is the very refrain of the chapter. And yet this warning would seem to imply the expectation of a long time of reading and copying the book, a time which John himself clearly did not expect. It is, therefore, by no means impossible that these words are the words not of John but of a later scribe, anxious that none should alter the book in the days to come.
LAST WORDS (Revelation 22:20-21)
22:20,21 He who testifies to the truth of these things says: "Yes, I am coming soon." So let it be! Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
There is both pathos and glory in the way in which the Revelation ends. Amidst the terrible persecution of his day, the one thing which John longed for was the speedy return of Christ. That hope was never realized in the way in which he expected, but we can never doubt that Christ nevertheless abundantly kept his promise that he would be with his own even to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20).
Then comes the glory. Come what may, John was sure of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and equally sure that it was sufficient for all things.
It is surely symbolic, and it is surely fitting, that the last word of the Bible should be GRACE.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
G. B. Caird, The Revelation of Saint John the Divine (ACB E)
R. H. Charles, Revelation (ICC G)
T. S. Kepler, The Book of Revelation
H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St John (MmC G)
ACB: A. and C. Black New Testament Commentary
ICC: International Critical Commentary
MmC: Macmillan Commentary
E: English Text
G: Greek Text
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)