One of the lectionary readings set for this Sunday is expressed thus: ‘Revelation 22.12-14, 16, 17, 20, 21’. It is a very odd set of references—but the moment you look at the passage you can see what is going on. I have put in bold the verses that are omitted.
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let those who hear say, “Come!” Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If any one of you adds anything to them, God will add to you the plagues described in this scroll. And if any one of you takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from you your share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Rev 22.12–21)
I don’t really know what on earth the compilers of the lectionary thought they were doing here—did they imagine no-one would look at their Bibles and check what the omitted verses said? The first omission cuts out the awkward negative language, as if the New Jerusalem were a place of mere inclusion, rather than a place of holiness (its shape, a cube, indicates that it is a giant ‘Holy of Holies’ in the temple of the earth which is now God’s dwelling place); and then the second omission, in a moment of supreme irony, cuts out the warning to those who cut out verses from this text! The reason why this matters is that, throughout the book, there is a careful balancing of invitation to the free gift of life in God with the theme of judgement and justice for those who refuse this gift and continue their allegiance to that which is evil. If you cut out one half of this, then you fail properly to understand the other half.
Here are the comments on this passage I made in my Tyndale commentary on Revelation.
12–13. Jesus says seven times in Revelation that I am coming! Despite the clearly future sense of the phrase here (and at 16:15; 22:7, 20 and probably 3:11), and the future orientation of Revelation’s eschatology, in the first two occurrences of the phrase (2:5 and 2:16) the sense is clearly a local one. Moreover, Jesus is from the beginning depicted as coming among the assemblies by being the one like a son of man who is in the midst of the lampstands (1:13), and is also depicted as having a presence in the world through the seven Spirits who are ‘the seven eyes of the lamb which are sent through all the earth’ (5:6). Jesus’ final return should be seen in continuity with the other ways in which he ‘comes’, and as the completion and fulfilment of them.
The statement that he brings his rewardwith him continues a tradition that goes all the way back to God’s encounter with Abraham in Gen. 15:1 ‘I am your very great reward’ and continues throughout the prophetic tradition (Isa. 40:10; 62:11). The repayment according to their deeds is a consistent theme of both Revelation and the wider New Testament, and does not stand in opposition to the free offer of the gift of life (see comment on 14:13 ‘their deeds go with them’). But in both Old and New Testaments, it is God who repays according to deeds (Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10; Rom. 2:6) and here Jesus takes up the role that was previously God’s.
This merging of the role and identity of Jesus and God is decisively confirmed in his claiming the titles that were distinctly attributed to God in 1:8 (Alpha and O) and 21:6 (the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End) and coming it with his claim to be the first and the last from 1:17 to make a total of seven occurrences of this idea.
|God||1:8||I am the Alpha and the O|
|Jesus||1:17||I am the first and the last|
|God||21:6||I am the Alpha and the O,|
|the beginning and the end.|
|Jesus||22:13||I am the Alpha and the O,|
|the first and the last,|
|the beginning and the end.|
The fulness of God is found in our encountering him in the person and redemption of Jesus.
14–15. The speech of Jesus, which began (unannounced) in v. 12, appears to continue here since it is clearly continued in v. 16. These two verses continue to hold together the double emphasis carried throughout the book on the gracious invitation to the free gift of redemption with warning of the consequences of judgement for those who refuse this offer – an emphasis which would have had a significant rhetorical impact on John’s audience in the assemblies. Here we have the last of seven blessings in the book which began with those who read it aloud in the assemblies (1:3). The washing of robes is not a direct reference to baptism (which involves the washing of a person, not what they wear) but is a close parallel to the washing ‘in the blood of the lamb’ from 7:14 where it symbolises the forgiveness of sins and redemption that have been won by Jesus’ death. The result of accepting this gift of grace is the right to the tree of life which was denied Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the garden and means an end to death, and entry through the gates of the city. It was made clear that ‘nothing impure will enter it’ (21:27) and so those who accept the gift of life are assumed to also become obedient to the holy commands of God (12:17; 14:12); on entering the city, they enter into the holy presence of God with his people.
The list of those prohibited is a close match to the other two lists of ‘vice committers’ in 19:20–21; 21:27 (see comment on 21:27) though substituting the term dogs (not domestic pets as in some cultures, but wild, aggressive and unclean animals; see the negative use of the term in Matt 7:6, Matt 15:26 and Phil 3:2) for the opening three terms in 21:27. From a narrative point of view, the statement does not make sense, since the immoral have died in the lake of fire, the second death in 20:15. The statement here contributes less to a universalist perspective on future destiny, and more to the rhetorical impact of the differentiation between the two groups – those who enter the city in response to the universal invitation, and those who choose to remain outside the always-open gates.
16–21.The shape of these final verses bear a remarkable resemblance to the final verses in Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he appears to take the pen from his amanuensis to add final greetings in his own hand (which seems to be his habit), 1 Cor. 16:21–23:
|I, Paul write this greeting||I, Jesus…bear witness…|
|Let anyone be accursed…||If anyone adds…God will add to the plagues…|
|Our Lord, come!||Come, Lord Jesus!|
|The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you||The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all|
In terms of the narrative form of the text, John is claiming that Jesus is the real author, not just of the visions that John has seen, but in his prophetic testimony to all he has ‘heard and seen’. It is not just the vision and auditions themselves, but John’s record of them which have the apostolic authority that comes from being an eyewitness to Jesus. The solemn warnings in vv. 18–19 confirm the importance of the exact words which John has written.
The articulation of Jesus’ name, his affirmation of his testimony and the confirmation of his titles all conform to the usual practice of witnesses confirming the reliability of the account they are authenticating. The you to whom the message is sent is plural; this is unlikely to be the ‘angels of the assemblies’ in Rev. 2–3, since they do not feature again, nor the members of the assemblies themselves, since the message is to be passed on to them. It perhaps refers to John’s ‘fellow prophets’ alluded to in 11:8; 16:6; 22:6, and those who ‘read aloud’ the message (1:3). The title root of David, repeated from 5:5, affirms his identity as the David messiah, and being the morning star suggests both Jewish messianic hope and Roman ideas of a divine ruler (see comment on 2:28).
John’s prophetic, visionary letter concludes with multiple affirmations which echo the rhetorical effect of the pattern of the praise and acclamation of all creation. John’s audience are not a small and insignificant group surviving within the crushing power of a human empire, but are joined by the Spirit of God in their longing to see Jesus come take up his just and holy rule. Despite the seriousness of the consequences of those outside the city, the generous invitation remains open, for all who are thirsty to come and take the free gift of the water of life. Whatever else the Book of Revelation says, it remains essentially a book that communicates a message of grace for those who will receive it. Amen.
And so John ends where he has begun—signing off using epistolary features that match the epistolary features in chapter 1. His emphasis is not on his own revelatory experience, but the very words he has used to describe them—and, surprisingly, it is not just his visions that come from Jesus, but the words themselves. John is claiming that it is Jesus himself—the origin and the subject of this ‘revelation’ in 1:1—who is the real author of this message, and that John is merely his visionary-prophetic amanunensis, passing on to others what has been passed on to him.
What more can we add as we reach the end of this extraordinary prophetic-revelatory letter? The vividness of its images, the power of its rhetoric, the depth of its theological reflection and the continued relevance of its message has made it the most influential text in all human history.
Like the tracks coming into a central railway station in a capital city, all the lines of theological thought from earlier in the book converge in these last chapters and the climactic vision of the eschatological presence of God with his people. Because John has been drawing on the whole range of the Old Testament canon, there is a powerful sense in which the end of Revelation also draws together all the hopes and aspirations of the people of God from the long history of his dealings with his people – and in doing so, all the hopes and aspirations of humanity itself. It is a fitting end to the canon of Scripture. Here we find the rediscovery of the idyll of Eden, though transformed from a garden into a city; here are realized both the promise to Noah for the renewal of the earth and the promise to Abraham that his offspring will be beyond counting. We enter here the final freedom from the slavery of sin, a city that fulfils every promise of the Promised Land. It is occupied by a holy people under the rule of a just and holy God, free from threat and danger. The exile of sin and rebellion which led to estrangement from God has finally come to an end, and all God’s people have found their home. All this has come about because of the sacrifice of the lamb on the throne – the faithful witness of the man Jesus in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwelled bodily (Col. 2:9).
Yet the final verses remind us of the beginning – that this message does not float free from human history but was given to a particular person, at a particular time and in a particular place, and was given to transform the particular lives of those who first read it and heard it read. And we need to read it, the message of Jesus to the assemblies in Asia conveyed through John, knowing something about their own particular circumstances, so that we can understand how this transcendent vision of hope and faith might transform the particulars of our time, place and culture as we wait with them for God’s promises finally to be fulfilled.
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