"The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Made Known to John" (Continued)

The New Heaven and the New Earth (Rev. 21:1-22:21)

John has completed his rush from the parousia and, in one chapter, now has made it to the new Jerusalem, the climax, goal, and finis of his work. Being here, he will settle down to his normal way of doing things, taking a more leisurely look and even using his familiar device of repetition. He will give us a quick scan of the scene in Rev. 21:1-8, and then will double back to spend the remainder of the book going through the same scene at greater length, even following the same order of scan.

Let us refer back to the "destinies" chart to make sure we have our alignments right for this new picture. All the supernatural forces of Evil are gone for good; they no longer figure in the account. Mankind exists in just two groups, as regularly has been the case in John's thought--although now the distinction and separation between the two are at a maximum. The Christians (i.e.. the church) have been resurrected into the ultimate of second-order LIFE and await only the opening of the urban renewal project just being completed. The beast's people have gone from death to death, into the ultimate second-order DEATH of the lake of fire. Thus, in the present scene, just as there are only two groups of people, there are only two locations, the new Jerusalem and the lake of fire. John shows no knowledge of any people apart from these two groups or any territory except these two locations.

This fact explains an important feature of John's final scene. Clearly, he is basing it upon a similar picture from the concluding chapters of Ezekiel. Ezekiel's dream of eschatological redemption centers upon a magnificent new temple (man's link with God), which itself sits in the center of a new Jerusalem (redeemed Israel), which is itself the center of a new landscape (the redeemed world). John tries to follow this pattern but discovers that his Christianity won't let him do it. The points at which John is forced to modify Ezekiel's picture are the most theologically instructive.

Ezekiel found it natural and right to make a distinction among the redeemed. Even though both may be fully redeemed, a Jew is still a Jew and a Gentile a Gentile; nothing can change the fact, because the faith itself is premised upon this ethnic distinction. A new Jerusalem, outside of which lies a new world, is the proper way for Ezekiel to draw his picture.

But John can't do it, because he knows that Christianity recognizes no distinctions, ethnic or otherwise. With Christianity, redemption is based solely upon faith in Jesus Christ--and anyone who so believes is just as much a Christian as anyone else. There is no way of recognizing or delineating two spheres of redemption. John tries to follow Ezekiel in speaking of the church and the world (the redeemed world); but he realizes that these come to the same thing. The only alternative is to make them coextensive--just as the City of San Francisco and the County of San Francisco occupy precisely the same territory and claim precisely the same citizenry. We will find evidence to indicate that John has in mind this very solution.

Rev. 21:1-8, Introductory Overview

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more
for the first things have passed away."
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."

This scene is organized into three parts--which three we also will locate as we go through it again later. The first part, verses 1-4, describes the new Jerusalem, the redeemed church. The second part, Rev. 21:5, is at least an attempt to speak of the redeemed world. The third part, Rev. 21:6-8, consists of exhortations to the reader.

The keynote of everything John will show us is its "newness"; and plainly, the distinction that defines it as "new" is the total absence of anything that is less than perfectly good and right. Evil, with all its consequences, implications, and overtones, is gone. So, too, is anything like separation, alienation, and distance between God and man, between man and man. And what sort of newness could be conceived that would be more strikingly "new" to human experience? New architecture, new flora and fauna, new technologies would be only as new as the same old stuff we've seen in science-fiction movies since H. G. Wells. But this newness will go far beyond that.

John talks of a new heaven and a new earth. Yet it is significant that he speaks of a new heaven and earth rather than a completely different "something else," a "somewhere else" totally divorced from what had gone before. In short, although John wants to speak of newness, he also wants to affirm a continuity with what had been previously. Certainly there is a continuity of the people involved--though also a rather radical discontinuity in their having been resurrected. Just so, John knows that, in spite of what happened to it consequently, God's original creation was "very good"--and God is not about to act now in a way that would deny the fact. Why, even the new holy city is still "Jerusalem"--very different from the old one, of course, but Jerusalem nonetheless. God will make "all things new"--not "all new things."

The newness of God is properly the consummation of history--not a junking of history in order to start over with something entirely different. Yes, Evil has been junked; but history was more than that. God is Redeemer as well as Creator; and his newness is as much or more that of redemption as of creation. Whatever is redeemable, God will redeem.

John talks of a new heaven and a new earth; but when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, the distinction between the two is lost--and thus another element of radical newness is introduced. From here on, the picture will include elements of heavenliness and elements of earthliness--with absolutely no way of extricating the two. Recall our previous suggestion: earth was that which actually is but with inevitable aspects of wrongness about it; heaven was rightness but still in process of coming to be; what we have now is the union representing a rightness which actually is--and that is something new!

The new Jerusalem comes down "like a bride adorned for her husband." The language recalls John's earlier references to "the wedding of the Lamb"; the likelihood is that he means to spot it at this point. After all, just as "Jerusalem" was the city of the old church, "the new Jerusalem" is the city of the resurrected church; so the scene here does portray the church coming into a new relationship of special intimacy with God and the Lamb.

Rev. 21:3-4 describes the new situation in terms almost identical to those in which John had predicted it in Rev. 7:15-17. The emphasis is completely in terms of personal relationship between man and God and the disappearance of everything that earlier had hampered such relationship. Note well that John gave us two descriptions of this sort before he breathed so much as a word about pearly gates and golden streets--we should let our own expectations be formed accordingly.

Verse 5 attempts to expand the newness--as if there were anywhere else to go with it! John is reaching beyond the new Jerusalem to a new world. But perhaps there is somewhere else to go with it. Is it quite accurate for God to say, "Behold! I am making all things new," if, in fact, nothing is changed in the lake of fire? I only ask the question; but this line could point toward something like, say, the second resurrection. We still are not ready to make a decision; but by all means put this verse into the "universalism" collection.

Rev. 21:6-8 turn away from the scene and address the reader in order to spell out the implications of what he has witnessed: The picture can be taken as trustworthy and true; there is no doubt of its reality. Indeed, it can be taken as "already fulfilled." How so? I think John means to say that God's promise and commitment--and his having already accomplished the pivotal event in Jesus' death-and-resurrection--make this new heaven and earth as sure as if we already were living there. That God is the End of history just as truly as he is its Beginning makes the outcome a certainty. And the basic promise behind it all is that of LIFE. This the victor can count upon, life the quality of a father's life in and with his son. (Undoubtedly it is deliberate that John here is picking up ideas he introduced clear back in the letters to the Christians of the seven churches. He wants to show that his entire story has been dealing with them--he has not wandered off into some imaginative "other world." This new heaven and earth is for them.)

However, in verse 8, he comes down hard to insist that it is for them only if they are and remain "in Jesus." Whoever chooses rather to be "in the beast"--his place is the lake of fire and not the new heaven and earth. Let's be careful at this point. That the new Jerusalem includes no people of the sort John describes is obvious; the only people there are those who belong to the Lamb rather than the beast. However, John neither says nor implies that, once a person has been cowardly, faithless, or whatever, he is condemned to be so forever. That plainly is not the case: John has allowed for (and urged) the possibility of repentance, of a person's changing his loyalty from the beast to the Lamb. Further, we have not seen one word to indicate that John understands this possibility to be closed off with the moment of first-order death. Granted, this verse does not suggest the continued possibility of repentance; and we are not arguing that it does. Our point is only that this verse cannot be used as proof that damnation is eternal. The question must be left open and settled on other grounds.

Rev. 21:9-27, The New Jerusalem in Detail

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. 18 The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day--and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Now John doubles back upon his brief overview to repeat the scene in more detail. This passage corresponds to Rev. 21:1-4, the appearance of the new Jerusalem. Verse 9 makes it even clearer that this event also represents the wedding of the Lamb. The business of measuring a magnificent structure comes straight out of Ezekiel. However, Ezekiel's efforts were focused on the measuring of the temple. John doesn't have a temple (for reasons we shall discover in a bit), so he measures the city!

John seems to have two main purposes behind this scene. One is to highlight the beauty of the redeemed church. He resorts to the most impressive physical imagery he knows to describe a reality and a glory that are far more than and quite different from the merely physical. Therefore, no one is to get literal and start asking questions like: "Who'd want to live in that kind of a city?" or, "Would pure gold even stand up as a construction material?" What John is saying here is, "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!"

John's second purpose in the measuring is to show us that this entire city is built on twelves (the same "12" as that of the twenty-four elders; the 144,000; the stars in the crown of the woman clothed with the sun). Here is continuity. Granted, this new Jerusalem doesn't look much like any church we have known; but all those twelves are meant to ring a bell. If you belong to the church of Jesus Christ, then this is your church; this is what God will make of the church as he gets the twelves to come right! Every measurement given in this passage is related to twelve. (Be careful with some of the Bible translations that try to put these references into modern measurements and, in the process, accomplish nothing except to lose the twelves. John isn't trying to tell us how big the city is; he is describing its character. See the footnote in the NRSV on verse 21:16: the "1500 miles" is "twelve thousand stadia" in the Greek).

Two of the twelves call for particular attention. The gates, the instruments of "entering," bear the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The foundation stones, the instruments of "upholding," bear those of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. John has not told us when and how it happens but these details confirm his earlier indications that Israel is to become an integral part of the bride of the Lamb. The city "foursquare is an inclusive city--and we haven't seen the half of it yet!

With verse 22, John leaves his beauty-measurement theme and his dependence upon Ezekiel, and things begin to get interesting. In direct contradiction to Ezekiel he says, "I saw no temple in the city." Why so great a "no"? Partly because John is a Christian and so has moved beyond need of the mediatory services of temple, cult, and priest; Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and man. But more, John likely sees that the temple is actually a poor symbol to include in the present scene; what sense does a symbol of mediation have, when the entire point is that man and God have now come into face-to-face intimacy? When the sovereign Lord God and the Lamb are right there, the last thing you need is a temple; they can be their own temple.

Out of the biblical tradition of eschatological vision that had come to John, two themes always had been strong: light and life. The "light" theme John picks up here; he will get to "life" in just a bit. But light? Don't talk about suns and moons and stars and novas; we have God and the Lamb-and with them is the light that is truth, clarity, and illumination with nothing of darkness about it.

"The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.... People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations." Now, honestly, aren't those the very last people you ever expected to see here--and the wealth and splendor of the nations the last merchandise you would have thought could be allowed in? After all, the last we saw of those kings, they were a feast for buzzards (and leading candidates for the lake of fire); and the wealth and splendor of the nations went down with Babylon!

Both of these--"the kings of the earth" and "the glory and honor of the nations"-are terms John has used often enough, consistently enough, and with enough of pointed overtone, that it simply is inconceivable that he could have written them this time offhandedly, carelessly, without thinking of what he was doing. In fact, that he did know what he was doing is indicated by verse 27, where he turns quickly to assure us that "nothing unclean shall be entering." (This, by the way, is a more exact translation than NRSV's "will enter"; the Greek verb definitely suggests continuing traffic into the city.) In other words, "Yes, I did say 'kings of the earth,' but I still insist 'nothing unclean.' In that lake of fire something has happened to these kings that makes them entirely different people, gives them an entirely different significance than they had before. If the kings of the earth are here (as I, John, say they are), it can be only because their names now are to be found 'in the Lamb's roll of the living.'"

When John deliberately puts "the kings of the earth" and "the wealth and splendor of the nations" right onto the streets of the new Jerusalem, there would seem no alternative but that he also is talking of a continued possibility of repentance and redemption, of a "second resurrection." And if that is a possibility for the kings of the earth--whom John, clearly, has considered as the worst of all people--then it is a possibility for anyone.

There is another detail that reinforces our interpretation. In verse 25, John makes it emphatic that the new Jerusalem is an open-gated city; its gates are never closed. John plainly has something in mind with his symbol; what could it be? Walled cities were, of course, as common to his experience as they are uncommon to ours. The walls (and more particularly, the gates) are for one purpose only: to let wanted people in and keep unwanted people out. They normally are kept open during the day when those entering can be watched; at night, when bad people are intent on wickedness, they are closed. Because there is no night in the new Jerusalem (it isn't like the old earth where the "light" sinks below the horizon just when it's getting dark and you really need it), the gates are always and forever open.

Open gates have no meaning at all unless there is traffic to use them. Rather certainly, there is no out traffic from the new Jerusalem: Why would anyone want to leave? --and where is there to go, except to the lake of fire? The gates must be "open" for the sake of incoming traffic. John says as much in verses 24, 26, and 27: "will bring ... into it," "will bring into it," "will enter." Yet there is no place for any traffic to come from except the lake of fire. What other interpretation possibly can be given to John's emphasis upon the open-gatedness of the city?

So, the "destinies" chart is designed to show the possibility of a continuing traffic from the lake of fire into the new Jerusalem. It can only be labeled as a "resurrection"; for the lake of fire is second-order DEATH and the new Jerusalem second-order LIFE, and by what conceivable means could a person get from one to the other except by "resurrection"? This passage--both for its reference to "the kings of the earth" and to the open-gatedness of the city--must rate as Exhibit #1 in our "universalism" collection.

An Excursus on Universalism

All told, we have found in Revelation quite a number of references that are "universalistic" in thrust, either directly or by implication. We have not tried to hang a theological argument upon any one of them alone. Of course, they are of differing weights and values and point to differing aspects of what could be called "universalism." But now, looking not at any one of them in itself, what does the collection as a whole amount to, what does it tell us?

  1. If John does teach a universalism (and we are still holding that question open), it is a universalism of a somewhat rare type--one that avoids most of the objections usually raised against the doctrine. He, obviously, is not proposing the possibility of salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ. His is not the picture of a God who says, "Oh, shucks, you were all fairly nice people (in your own ways); come on in! All that bit in the New Testament about the necessity of accepting Jesus Christ--I didn't really mean that. So come on in!" John cannot be accused of any sort of deviation from the rest of the New Testament on this score.
  2. Neither can John be accused of underestimating the power of evil and the pervasiveness of its influence among men. He does not show us a world that every day in every way is getting better and better--until one fine morning we wake up to discover that we are all saved people and wasn't that nice! If John exaggerated the truth about the world's condition, it wasn't in this direction.
  3. Likewise, John is fully aware of the seriousness of sin. It is not something that can simply be ignored or brushed aside. God does forgive sin, but that is something quite different from saying that it doesn't matter. John knows that to reject the Lamb and go after the beast is to bring great calamity upon oneself and others; the way of sin is the way to second-order DEATH and a lake of fire.
  4. John knows, too, that God's love cannot be true unless it includes justice; he understands the propriety and rightness of punishment. His is not the sort of universalism that would ask God simply to forget wrong rather than insist that it be made right.
  5. And finally, John never could be accused of the sort of universalism that undercuts the evangelistic urgency of decision. When the picture is drawn John's way, no one in his right mind is going to put off accepting Christ on the grounds that it will be just as easy to do it late--after being eaten by vultures and spending time in the lake of fire, maybe? No, within Revelation itself, John is proved a very competent evangelist and one entirely capable of preaching for a decision with urgency.

Each of the points above concerns that which we can be sure John does teach; but does he teach universalism? Let us take great care and show true caution in our conclusions. I think it would be wrong to come out dogmatically, saying that John teaches that all men eventually will be saved. That would be to go further than the evidence allows. Granted, he says a number of things that could be taken to imply this; but he never comes out to state it as a fact--and he does say some other things that could be taken to imply a different conclusion.

But as it would be wrong to assert that he teaches that all men will be saved, just as wrong would it be to assert that he teaches that some men never can be saved; he doesn't say that, either! As much as we can say with confidence, then, is that John teaches that we dare never deny the possibility of any person's being saved--if "the kings of the earth" can find their way to redemption, then it's a possibility for anyone! Don't ever say that you know for a fact what is the ultimate destiny of any man--be he Adolf Hitler, Cain, or Judas Iscariot. We dare not be dogmatic as to what God will do--whether save all or only some. But even more, we dare not suggest that God is limited in what he can do. Who are we to say how many people or which people God in his love and grace will be able to get to and win? Who are we to say that, at some point, God quits loving people and working for their redemption, the redemption for which he gave his only Son? No, John does not make a universalistic claim about what God will do; but neither is he willing to make a dogmatic assertion about what God will not do. What we can and must say is that John attributes to and leaves with God "the universalistic possibility."

It should be said that the rest of the New Testament has the net effect of doing this, too--although not quite in the way John does. Revelation, as we have seen, comes out rather directly in support of "the universalistic possibility"; the remainder of the New Testament as much as forces the same conclusion by failing to give unanimous support to any other alternative.

Scattered throughout the New Testament are a number of passages that would seem rather clearly to point toward some sort of universalism. Paul's "Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11) is just one example. Conversely, there is another group of passages that seem, just as clearly, to point toward a doctrine of eternal damnation. And there is no way of deciding for or against either group on the basis of the authenticity, dating, or authority of its texts.

The common way of handling this dilemma is perhaps the least permissible. The expositor simply latches onto the verses he personally prefers, uses them to "prove" his position, and conveniently ignores even the presence of an equally weighty body of scripture pointing toward a different conclusion. The much more honest solution would be simply to leave the issue open, refusing to become dogmatic either way. Indeed, Scripture may be wanting to tell us that this question regarding the ultimate destiny of individuals is not one we need to have answered, not one that affects our present opportunities and obligations, not one that needs to cause division between Christian and Christian. We know what our present Christian responsibility is and what we should be doing about it. The rest safely can be left to God, because our "doctrine" won't change things in any case. The "universalistic possibility" must be attributed to and left with God.

Rev. 22:1-5, The New World Attempted

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. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants a 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.

This passage corresponds to Rev. 21:5 in the introductory overview and is again John's attempt to follow Ezekiel in describing a new, redeemed world. He does stick close to the Old Testament model; but it gives him trouble.

The theme, now, is "life"--and as with Ezekiel, "water" is taken as its symbol. Anyone who has lived in arid country that requires irrigation instinctively will feel the force of the symbol. Ezekiel's vision had "the water of life" come from a spring in the temple, flow through the city and out one of the gates to become an ever growing blessing that ran on to irrigate the world. John tries; but he doesn't have a temple, so the river starts from beneath "the throne of God" (a theological improvement over Ezekiel). The river then flows down "the middle of the city's street." The picture is a little awkward perhaps; but John has no alternative. There can't be a sphere of blessing and redemption outside the city, because redemption is in Jesus Christ--and that redemption is what the city itself stands for. The world is the city, and the city is the world. But despite the difficulty, John says all that Ezekiel had said: God redeems and blesses everything in sight, everything redeemable.

The river of life irrigates the tree of life; the tree man lost when he was driven out of Eden is his once more. Life, now, is nourishment as well as irrigation. Ezekiel, apparently, had thought simply of an orchard that bore fruit the year around, whereas John envisions a special kind of tree that bears a different variety of fruit each month. The leaves of John's trees, we are told, make poultices effective for "the healing of the nations." Further, "every accursed thing shall disappear." But surely, there is no "accursed thing" in the new Jerusalem nor anything that needs "healing." John's language has again pointed us to something like "continued redemption" and a traffic into the city from out the lake of fire. This verse constitutes another specimen for our "universalism" bag--the contents of which we will examine in just a moment.

Verses 3-4 close John's description of the new heaven and earth as it opened--with an emphasis on the direct presence of God and man to each other, the intimacy and completeness of their relationship. The seal on each person's forehead--originally so dim as to be invisible--now shines in brilliance: "I belong to God and the Lamb!" And verse 5 ends the scene with a burst of eternal light.

Rev. 22:6-21, Closing Exhortations

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.

This passage is an enlargement upon the third section of the introductory overview (21:6-8). It is interesting to note how many of the ideas are ones we have encountered earlier, in much the same form even. A number of them come right out of the opening chapters of the book. The phenomenon certainly is not accidental. John is like the good preacher who "tells 'em what he is goin' to tell 'em; then he tells 'em; and now he tells 'em what he told 'em." With this section, we come to know for a certainty what John intended should be the central purposes and emphases of the book as a whole.

Rev. 22:6-7 opens with the familiar theme that is absolutely vital to John's concept of the book: these things "must shortly happen"; "I am coming soon." Recall once more that those words obviously were meant to be read by first-century Christians before they were meant for us. They cannot be taken as a disclosure confirming that Jesus will return in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

John is not claiming any sort of inside information regarding either the time or any other calendarizing details having to do with the end of history. He is saying, rather, "Although the eschatological whens and hows of God's plan for history are far beyond our ken--and properly so--you dare not treat this message as a science-fiction story, something interesting and even curious, fun to speculate about, but nevertheless remote, unreal, and irrelevant to the actual situations you face and decisions you must make. What I have written may be future history, but it is nonetheless your history." Whatever the hour may be on God's clock, Christian eschatology always has a soonness" about it; it describes a history that is sure and not "iffy," a history, indeed, which even now is in process. It is the one "future" that incorporates our "now" and can tell us what that "now" means and where it is headed. Christian eschatology always must be read, not as a speculation about what may happen then, but as a "soon-coming" which must be lived out in expectation now.

Thus, the beatitude in verse 7 specifies blessedness for the one who "heeds the words," or "keeps the sayings." That injunction points one to a task quite different from doping out a calendar and scenario for the consummation of history. God can and will handle that one without our help and without regard to our shrewd guesses and clever readings. To "heed" and to "keep" points us, rather, to the quality of our own loyalties, our present ethical choices and actions. And there is not the slightest doubt but that this is where John wants his book to come out.

Rev. 22:8-9 reiterates John's earlier warning against angel worship. "It is God you must worship." And just as he warns against worshipping the messengers of the revelation--whether the angel or the prophet-author--so, I am sure, he would warn against worshipping the revelation itself. John is speaking strictly: "It is God you must worship."

Rev. 22:10 puts us back into the "soonness" emphasis; and verse 11 gives it a very difficult and troublesome twist. What does John have in mind with his "let the evildoer still do evil"? First off, we can speak with some assurance about what John does not mean. He cannot be expressing a discouragement of evangelism; we already have seen to some extent and have yet to see to how great an extent Revelation is an evangelistic appeal. John hardly can be running down evangelism in the very same passage where he is intent on playing it up. Likewise, John cannot mean to be saying that ethical and moral distinctions are of no importance; his whole book-including verses 14-15, just two verses ahead-contradicts such a reading.

I take John to be saying, rather, that even though it is one of our highest obligations to invite our fellow men to give their loyalty to Jesus and live out its implications, it nevertheless is not our place to try to stop them if they insist on going another way. What they choose to do with the Christian invitation is a matter between them and God--which matter will be properly cared for without our interference or well-meaning help. You preach the everlasting gospel that gives the evildoer the choice; but if he chooses not to take the opportunity, you "let the evildoer still do evil"; God doesn't need your moralistic manipulations in dispensing either salvation or judgment.

If this is the counsel John intends, it is one much needed in our day. It is needed by those evangelizers who are determined to irritate people into accepting Christ, who will not respect the evildoer's right to say "no" but continue to twist his arm until he will say "uncle" in the words they want to hear. It is needed just as much by those who seem to think that heaping imprecation and hell-fire upon evil-doing U.S. presidents and other such moral perverts will change the character of the world. Although it is a hard saying, John is correct in calling us to "let the evildoer still do evil" and concentrate, rather, on being a good man who perseveres in his goodness and is true to his dedication.

Rev. 22:12-15 continues the "soonness" theme but proceeds to make specific the ethical decision to which the "soonness" lends urgency. The coming of Jesus will mark an administration of justice in which consequences are in direct correlation to the character of one's deeds. One of the gross "wrongnesses" of the world is that such correlation currently does not obtain; in the justice of God's kingdom, it will. There is, then, a real urgency in getting "right" before that time comes.

Rev. 22:14 makes it plain that getting "right" is not simply a matter of deciding that now I will he a good boy. There is only one way of getting clean, and that is by letting one's robe be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. For John, the ultimate distinction between man and man is that of ethical behavior and moral uprightness (in the broadest possible sense of those terms); however, he also is certain that no person has a chance of achieving that sort of authenticity through his own moral striving but only as he experiences both the forgiveness and enablement that come from Jesus alone. John's demand for ethical rightness and his call for a personal allegiance to Jesus are not two foci but one and the same thing; having a clean robe and washing it in the blood of the Lamb are inseparable conditions.

The phrase that concludes verse 14, "will enter the city by the gates," more closely should be translated "may be entering." The wording rather clearly points to a transaction that continues beyond the establishment of the city. But again John is quick to specify that incoming traffic dare not be understood to imply the entrance of evil into the city. What is certain is that, as long as a person is one of the kinds John enumerates, he is outside; only those with washed robes may enter. (It would not be wise to try to read into this verse any Johannine prejudice against puppy-dogs; he is talking about a quality of dogdom that is the perquisite of human beings rather than canines.)

Quite clearly, the material from verse 16 to the end of the book constitutes a great invitation-dialog on the theme "come "--except that verses 18-19 form a rather obtrusive interruption. Not only do they interrupt, they may also betray something of the "gnostic" mentality we earlier attributed to the Interpolator. That is, they could be taken as implying that Revelation is a magical writing designed to communicate esoteric knowledge and power to initiated "lovers of wisdom" and that tampering with the occult formulations would bring supernatural curses upon the head of the guilty one. If this is how the passage is meant to be read, then it is quite unlike John. However, if the passage means to say simply that Revelation is a presentation of the Christian gospel and that anyone who presumes to teach a different gospel from what God has revealed in Christ is bringing serious consequences upon himself--then it is quite conceivable that John wrote these words. But the matter is not worth arguing one way or the other; the important thing is not to allow this warning to break up the great passage in which it appears.

In Rev. 22:16, Jesus appears; he comes to authorize and confirm the gospel which Revelation proclaims and to present himself as being the Messiah--God's chosen one earlier described as the Lion of Judah (whom we also know to be the Lamb--and "the bright morning star," the celestial first-fruit whose rising introduces and guarantees the coming of total LIGHT. John undoubtedly wants this line to call to mind everything we have learned about Jesus from the foregoing.

Jesus has appeared; and the response of the Spirit and bride undoubtedly is addressed to him. "Come to us, Lord Jesus!" they say. This pairing of the Spirit and the bride is most significant. "The bride," we know, is the church, the community of those who bear the Lamb's mark and make their martyr-witness to him. The Spirit is the presence of God as it constitutes, motivates, and empowers the faith community. The New Testament specifically identifies the Spirit as the mode of God's working that sustains history from the time of Jesus' earthly leave-taking until his return. The Spirit and the bride are together and speak together. Outside the Spirit, the bride cannot be "bride" and has no true existence. And just so, the primary assignment and work station of the Spirit is with the bride; here is where he operation of the Spirit can be expected and encountered. And the prayer of the bride is also the prayer of the Holy Spirit himself, "Come to us, Lord Jesus!"

But John does well not to leave the matter at this somewhat mystical level. "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.' And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.'" The bride--and indeed, in one sense, even the Spirit himself--cannot pray until individual Christians are ready to take up the prayer for themselves. You, my friend, are not a spectator to the scene portrayed here but a participant. How well, how truly, are you praying for the coming of the Lord Jesus?

Christians today are full of prayers for the coming of peace, righteousness, and social justice; but until we are willing to couch those petitions as a prayer for the coming of Jesus, they are not what John calls for. He knows that it is only in the coming of the Lord Jesus that there is hope of these other achievements. How well, how truly, are you praying for the coming of the Lord Jesus?

The theme word is "come"; and John plays it in perhaps three different modes. Thus far it has been the church's prayer that the Lord Jesus will come to it and to the world. Now it shall be Jesus' invitation for the church—all that desire it--to come to him and to the end-state blessings he is prepared to give. Finally, the "come" reference is to the actual event of that final coming in which he comes to us even as we come to him.

So the final line of verse 17 is an invitation, an invitation into LIFE, the second-order life of men dwelling in the direct presence of God with no barrier or hindrance between them. The invitation offers "a free gift to all that desire it" here is a footnote specimen for our collection of "universalistic" texts--and a beauty it is, too! And the first line of verse 20 caps that invitation with Jesus' own most strong and solemn affirmation of his promise: "Yes, I am coming soon!"

To which the faithful church responds with the word that is most truly and rightly hers: "Amen (may it be so)!" The church is the church only as she says "Amen!" In a very real sense, all the church has to do to be the church, all she is called to do, is to say "Amen!" If the church continually responds with a "may it be so to the commands and promises of God and if she conducts herself in such way as to allow it to be so, as to help it be so, what more is there that she can or should do?

And when Jesus says, "Yes, I am coming soon," and the church responds with its "Amen!"--this is to pray, "Come, Lord Jesus." That little prayer in verse 20 is the least original line in Revelation. John is writing in Greek, and these words, along with the rest, are in Greek; but John's earliest readers, and anyone else who knows, immediately would recognize the phrase as a translation of the original, early Christian, Aramaic prayer, Maranatha!

All the evidence indicates that this was the earliest, dominant, and central prayer of the original Christian community. It was used at the high point of the worship experience, in the taking of the bread and cup during the regular love feasts--and undoubtedly upon many other occasions as well. It was so precious a possession that the original Aramaic wording often was retained even in entirely Greek-speaking congregations. "Maranatha: come, Lord Jesus!"

And suddenly something comes clear. Revelation is not--as it so often has been seen--a late and rather foreign appendage to the normative New Testament tradition. Not at all! Although done in a style and language different from what is customary with the other writers, John's work actually is an exposition of the prayer that was right at the center of the New Testament faith. Consequently, perhaps the most valuable thing Revelation can do for us is to awaken an appreciation for this orientation that was so essential to the original gospel--teaching us, with meaning and understanding, to join those first brothers and sisters of the faith in praying, "Maranatha: come, Lord Jesus! Amen!"

John closes, then, by pronouncing his own benediction upon the beloved brethren to whom his work is addressed.

Now when the last word of the book is found to be "Come!"--what does that tell us about the book itself? It tells us that Revelation is first and foremost an evangelistic appeal. This ... this ... this ... always and everywhere this--and never ever a convoluted cryptogram with which to crystal ball hidden events out of a secret future. John's interest is a revelation of Jesus Christ, the gospel. And the "good news" embodied in that gospel takes the form of an invitation: "Come! ... come! ... come!" (and not merely to "the church in the valley by the wildwood" but to the church which is the bride of Christ in the new Jerusalem). John's--from first to last--is the "Come!" book. And the respect in which he even adds to the evangelistic invitation of the remainder of the New Testament is in stressing that the one to whom we are invited to come is himself "the Coming One," the one who has promised himself in a soon-coming that will establish a presence and knowledge and enjoyment of God far to surpass anything man has yet known or dreamed.

So "Come to us, Lord Jesus!" the bride prays through the Spirit. "Come to us, Lord Jesus!" let you, along with every other hearer, reply. "Come forward," the Coming One invites, "and take from me the gift of life that is free to all who desire it; for it is true that I am coming soon!" "Oh, may it indeed be so!" the expectant--the perpetually expectant--community cries, "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!"

Copyright (c) 1974