1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
6 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 his servants what must soon take place.”
7 “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; 9 but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”
10 And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”
12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
16 “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19 if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
20 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
Revelation’s place at the end of the Christian scriptures places this final chapter as the final word among a collection of writings and experiences of God’s relationship with God’s people and the world. The story began with creation and in the second chapter of Genesis we encounter humanity in a utopian dream of a garden where there is adequate food and a harmony among the created order. We close the final chapter of the bible with a return to a utopian scene, but this time the garden is situated in the New Jerusalem combining both urban and rural elements. The tree of life, lost to humanity in the story of Adam and Eve, now returns in a scene that combines elements of a naturally occurring phenomenon of trees growing along a riverbank with the city planning of streets and the agricultural cultivation of an orchard. This new garden of Eden within the new Jerusalem which stands at the juncture of a new heaven and new earth closes the vision of Revelation. Cities are no longer a feature of a world that is east of Eden, or outside God’s description of the world should be. It is a city where the water of life and the fruit that will heal the nations flows out of the city itself in contrast to Rome where the riches and produce of the nation flowed inward to feed the Caesar and his empire. This image of a great city becomes the producer of the fruit and leaves that will feed and heal the nations rather than the consumer of the fruit and riches of the nations.
This vision in Revelation builds upon both the images of Genesis two and three and even more closely continues to follow Ezekiel’s vision of a renewed Jerusalem in Ezekiel 41-47. In Ezekiel’s 47th chapter we hear about the waters flowing from the temple flowing out towards the sea and renewing the waters of the sea and allowing them to be filled with fish and creatures. Along the banks of these waters are trees that produce food every month and their leaves have healing properties. Revelation’s vision expands the horizon of Ezekiel’s: Ezekiel hopes for the renewal of the people of Judah and Israel from the place of exile, Revelation expands this hope to encompass the nations. The new Jerusalem is for the countless multitude who bear the name of God on their foreheads and not only Israel is healed, but now the trees of life provide their fruit and healing to all the nations and the redeemed of all nations can drink from the waters of life.
The book of Revelation ends with a combination of injunctions from various speakers that take us back to the beginning of the book. In verse six we have an unidentified speaker confirming the trustworthiness of what the hearer has just heard. We know from the letters to the churches in chapters two and three that there were multiple people claiming the authority of prophecy to advance different interpretations of what faithfulness entails. Here we are taken back to the opening verses of Revelation one where the source of the vision is ultimately from Christ, but an angel was sent to bring the message to John to communicate to the seven churches, and by extension to the church.
We are reminded several times in this passage that Christ is coming soon. In the letters to the churches they were encouraged to persevere or repent because Christ was coming soon and here in this final chapter, we hear four separate times the refrain that Christ is coming soon. For the original hearers of the message undergoing persecution it may have reinforced their resolve to continue in the faithfulness of their calling. Churches in the centuries after Revelation have wrestled with this delay in multiple ways. Some have simply bypassed this, along with much of Revelation, and have continued to live out their faith in a way that makes sense in the expectations of the culture they are a part of. Other churches have constructed themselves around timelines and expectations where they believe their current generation are the ones that Revelation was written to and they are living in the last days and that they will soon see the destruction and hope of the book unfold. Throughout my ministry and throughout this reflection I’ve attempted to walk a middle path between these options. There is a story told about Martin Luther, who did believe the events of his time could be possibly signals of Christ’s return, about how he would respond if Christ was coming tomorrow. His response is told as, “I would plant a tree.” Now Luther probably didn’t say this, but it does reflect a way of looking at the world that is helpful—a life lived in the expectation and hope that Christ will come but not living in the panic and fear that seems to come with people who become focused on dates and timelines. I believe it is helpful to remember that for the early Christians the return of Jesus was looked upon as a hopeful time.
Revelation has been consistently focused on repentance, on people turning away from the places where they have trusted in idolatry or placing trust in the might and power of the Roman empire and returning to place their trust in God and Jesus. Keeping the words of this prophecy would be consistent with eliminating actions that, in Revelation’s view, compromise the faithfulness of the hearer. From the letters to the seven churches onward we have been called to choose the path of wisdom rather than foolishness, God rather than the promises of the empire. Yet, with all calls to repentance, the people who wash their robes may include people who previously would have been outside the community of the saints. Revelation’s hope is for a countless multitude from all nations gathered together in the city of God and the presence of God. Yet, there is a reluctant realism that the ‘evildoer will continue to do evil and the filthy will still be filthy.’ Ultimately, for the holy they are called to remain holy, the righteous are called to remain righteous, those who have washed their robes are to remain clean. Within God’s kingdom there is no place for the falsehood, idolatry and other vices that the people of God have encountered in the empire of Rome.
In the spirit of expectation, the book is not to be sealed, in contrast to Daniel’s visions which were to be sealed up until the end (Daniel 8:26 and 12: 4). For Revelation the time of the end is near and longed for. Revelation views itself as a final cry in the wilderness for the people to see, hear and turn to the Lord. The words of Revelation are to be read and acted upon and preserved. Here at the end of the book there is are several declarations of the authority of the book and a call for the hearer to respond. In the history of the church, Revelation has frequently been overlooked or left to the artists and musicians. Recently, Revelation’s position in some churches has shifted to become almost as important as the gospels. Revelation may not be central for me as the gospels, Paul’s letters and even significant portions of the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) in my life and reflections of faith but it does deserve to be heard and wrestled with.
I finish this set of reflections at the beginning of the season of Advent in 2018, and I find that fitting. To end the book of Revelation with its repetitive call “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” when we as a church begin to look both backwards to the Incarnation and echo with our Jewish ancestors, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears” but we also look forward to when our Lord returns with songs like the African American Spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning.” Revelation has a challenge a call and a hope for all readers: a challenge for there are many places where we also have compromised with the cultures that we inhabit and have trusted in the promises of our own nations and cities; a call to return to the Lord, our God who is gracious and merciful, to repent and hear the good news of the kingdom of God’s approach; and a hope that the world as we see it is not the end, that God still has a vision which stretches and expands beyond the point where my limited imagination can contain. Over the past year I have allowed Revelation to evoke and challenge me, I have attempted to understand the visions it has to offer. The danger of this type of reflection is that in my own ways I attempt to moderate or tame these visions or lock them into a time in the past. Yet, my hope is that I can stand with the Spirit, the bride, the hearers and the thirsty and join in the cry for Jesus to “come!”