by Daniel Harrell
The end of Revelation has been a long time coming, both in terms of this sermon series (I’ve been going at it for 3 years) and in terms of Jesus’ return (2009 years and counting). The latter wouldn’t be a problem had Jesus not said “I am coming soon.” He said soon three times in this chapter alone. Some translate Jesus as saying, “I am coming quickly,” to square with his frequent analogy of coming “a thief in the night,” emphasizing the how rather than the when. Others, more troubled by Jesus’ delay, interpret “coming soon” as Jesus’ showing up in the crises of life or at the point of each individual’s death. The problem is that such an interpretation adds more difficulty to Revelation than it reduces, and interpreting Revelation is difficult already. For me the best solution to the problem comes from the apostle Peter who wrote, “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I like that God waits in order that all might believe. The only problem here is that not all for whom God waits do believe. While those in verse 14 who “wash their robes” in the blood of the Lamb gain access to the tree of life, even at the end there remain dogs outside the gates; “people who love and live lies.”
Patience does have its limits. When the day of the Lord does come, Peter writes, it will come “like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare… but in keeping with God’s promise we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, a world filled with God’s righteousness.” This new heaven and new earth came in Revelation 21. With it came an end to death and mourning and crying and pain. I use the past tense because John does, emphasizing the surety of God’s promises; so sure that they can be spoken of as having already happened. In the new world there is no more problem of evil because there is no more evil. In the new world God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. For Revelation’s first readers, faithful Christians tortured by the Romans with unimaginable cruelty, these assurances of divine deliverance and divine retribution were like fresh water on parched ground. In time, the God who rules in sublime majesty would triumph in perfect justice. And in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the sovereign God would patiently endure injustice alongside his people. They would wait together.
One of the interesting things I hope you’ve noted about Revelation is the way it repeats itself, going over and over the same information again and again even as its imagery varies. Seven times in fact (seven being a good apocalyptic number) Revelation cycles its warnings and blessings. In chapters 1-3, Jesus called upon existing churches with forecasts of woe and weal, readying them for the apocalypse proper which commenced in chapter 4. Chapters 4-7 described seven seals of God’s judgment, which effectively rewound and repeated as seven trumpets in chapters 8-11. After that, in chapters 12-14, came a woman giving birth to a son whom a dragon awaited to devour. The dragon turned out to be Satan who introduced two beasts to the drama for an unholy trinity, one from the sea (the 666 antichrist) and another from the earth (also known as the false prophet). Next came seven bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16, which rid the world of its evil, epitomized this time by the wicked witch of Babylon. She falls again in chapters 17-19, along with the two beastly escorts and the rest of the world’s perniciousness. All that remains of evil is Satan, who meets his doom in chapter 20, which along with chapters 21 and 22 comprise the last of the seven cycles.
Chapters 20 through 22 portray the end as a glorious wedding between Jesus the Lamb and the New Jerusalem—representative of God’s redeemed people. It’s the Big Day not just for Revelation, but for the entire Bible. In Revelation 21, John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”――just like the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. The Holy City descends as a beautiful bride—an odd juxtaposition that we explored last time. The bride picks up on that ancient language of marriage between God and his people while the city imagery stresses his people as his dwelling place. There is no Temple in the New Jerusalem because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple, living among God’s people.
Chapter 21 provided most of the standard specs of the New Jerusalem: streets of gold and pearly gates; symbols of purity and worth. Here in chapter 22, the final details turn out to be the most significant. A river of life flows down Main Street, with the tree of life spanning the river and bursting with abundant fruit. The picture is intentionally Edenic; the Genesis curse has been reversed. In the New Jerusalem, God’s creatures no longer hide their faces in shame and seek refuge in the shadows. Instead, having had their sins washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, they freely step into the light to gaze upon God. The Old Testament had warned that nobody could see the face of God and live, a danger that mandated the high priest to identify himself with God’s name on his forehead and shield himself with smoke from burning incense when he annually stepped into the Temple’s inner sanctum. However in the New Jerusalem there is no more temple, no more smoke, no more shame and no more fear. Everyone wears the name of God on their foreheads here.
The river of life is a throwback to Eden too, but it’s an image picked up and expanded upon in Ezekiel, an Old Testament book that reads a lot like Revelation. Water is a prevalent image throughout Scripture—springs, streams and rivers of living water emitting God’s mercy find mention in the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel and Zechariah too. In the thanksgiving-like Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, prayers were offered for water as part of an elaborate water liturgy designed to solicit God’s provision of both agricultural hydration and spiritual healing. In the original tabernacle desert years, God miraculously slaked Israel’s thirst with water from a rock. The prophet Joel foresaw a miraculous provision of God’s Spirit to be “poured out” on His people, a prophesy fulfilled by Pentecost. For Zechariah, living water signaled the final triumph of God over evil: “On that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem…The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. …All nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up … to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.” And in Ezekiel’s vision, what began as a trickle miraculously expanded into a river gushing out from Jerusalem into the Dead Sea transforming both uninhabitable desert and languid sea into a lush garden. With living water, God redeems all creation. “Where this river flows,” Ezekiel foretold, “everything will live.”
In John’s gospel—amidst all the fervor generated by the Tabernacles liturgy, a fervor enhanced by Roman oppression and the hope of God’s deliverance— a homeless, working-class carpenter audaciously stepped forward to announce: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within.” Jesus shockingly proclaimed himself to be Ezekiel’s river of living water bringing life wherever he flows. He is the Exodus Rock from which water gushed, saving rebellious wanderers from withering away forever. He is Zechariah’s Jerusalem in whom God fully resides and from whom living water drowns evil while drawing all nations to himself. Jesus embodied all of God’s great deeds past as well as God’s great promises for the future. He is the Alpha and the Omega, verse 13, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the both the Root and Offspring of David, the bright Morning Star. To whomever is thirsty he will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.
The invitation to drink came originally from Isaiah, was offered by Jesus on earth, and gets reissued twice in Revelation. First in chapter 21, and then again here in verse 17. It’s an invitation to faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. “Come and take the free gift of the water of life.” What happens when you do? Jesus says that streams of living water will flow out of you. Just like that old camp song: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me!” But what does this mean? John explains in the gospel how this river of life from within is the Holy Spirit; a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The Spirit, like the New Jerusalem, descended from heaven and filled the first Christians and fills every Christian since. But like any flowing course of water, it cannot remain stagnant. And thus the water that flows from Christ flows through Christians, a river of life from which others can drink as Christians speak words of truth and grace, as we love our neighbors and our enemies, as we serve those in need, and suffer for what we believe.
This is not always easy. In the King James Bible, Jesus is quoted in John’s gospel as saying, “whoever believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” The NIV omits the word belly (feeling perhaps that talk about anything flowing out of the belly may sound a bit too intestinal), but I like what belly implies. It takes guts to follow Jesus. It takes guts to be honest about your faith, guts to endure ostracism and skepticism, guts to speak against injustice and cruelty when you’d rather keep quiet and not draw attention; it takes guts to renounce materialism and free up your resources for the poor, guts to bypass lucrative, personal fame in order to serve others, guts to forgive those who’ve wronged you, guts to confess your sin to those you’ve wronged. It takes guts in our culture to save sex for your wife, guts to work on your marriage, guts to hold your tongue from gossip, guts to press on when hardship makes God seem so far away.
If the book of Revelation is about anything, it’s about having the guts to follow Christ. Interestingly in America, our paragons of faith generally remain paragons of success: the Christian who is also the accomplished scholar, the profitable businessman, the prize-winning athlete, the award-winning author, the soul-winning missionary, the popular preacher, the recovered addict, the patient restored to health, the parent of behaving children. Not that these sorts of people aren’t faithful, mind you; but imagine if they were the only portraits of faith John’s original audience got to see and hear. For these early Christians, doomed to suffer under the brutal persecution of Rome, their faithfulness looked more like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. To believe got them singled out, insulted, abused, tortured and crucified. Their accomplishments were the horrors they endured. The God who saved them did not save them from suffering. The God who saved them, saved them through suffering. Their loss was their gain. To lose required courage.
One of the things that’s made it hard to preach Revelation is that there are so few illustrations of people who have to suffer for their faith in America. For the earliest Christians, “taking up a cross” meant being strung up on one. But for Christians in America, as I mentioned a few months back, in America, taking up a cross is more like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you’d have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m relieved most days that being a Christian in America (even a Christian minister) means that I’m generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police recently opened fire on a Christian gathering. Or in Sri Lanka, where six pastors are currently being held prisoner. Or in Yemen, where three of nine people abducted with ties to missionary organizations were recently murdered. Or in Laos where thirteen Christians have been arrested without for believing in Jesus. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing the gospel.
The worse that ever happens to me is getting laughed at now and then. Each Thursday a group of us go out onto the Common where we feed the homeless, share our faith and conduct a little worship service. A couple of weeks back we stood and sang as it poured down rain. We sang “I’ve got a river of live flowing out of me.” The passersby, as they often do, stared at us like we were crazy. Some shook their heads, others rolled their eyes in disbelief. Every now and then we get to explain ourselves, thankfully. We’ve had to explain ourselves to the police a few times too. It takes some guts to stand on the Common and publicly worship God. Especially when you do it by singing badly. We can’t help but look like fools for Jesus some nights. And by the way, we could use a few more members if you’d like to join us.
Of course what ridicule we endure on the Common is a pittance compared to that endured by so many brothers and sisters around the world. Is it worth it? To read Revelation is to respond absolutely! Revelation paints a reward bursting with lavish abundance. A beautiful, bright city in which there is no more sorrow or trouble. No more night to fear, no more curse to dread. A limitless, gushing supply of water that ensures a cornucopia of plenty. The joy is endless and the company perfect. But can Revelation’s picture stir us as it stirred those earliest Christians? That depends. We live in a land where abundance is the status quo. We can get fresh fruit in the middle of winter and plenty of water at the turn of a spigot. Such abundance is not the global status quo. Many political scientists assert that coming world wars won’t be fought over who controls the oil, but over who controls the water. I’m reminded of a short term mission trip to West Africa many years ago where our water came from a Peace Corps well located a good truck’s ride away from our village. Once we pumped it and drove it back, it still required 24 hours of filtering before it was drinkable. One day, due to construction-induced dehydration amidst sub-Saharan temperatures as well as plain bad planning, we ran out of water a day before the water truck was due. Thirsty and afraid, our prayers took on a new urgency. Nothing amps up prayer like a crisis. As God would have it, the truck unexpectedly (and thankfully) arrived that afternoon, a day early.
The subsequent enormity of our gratitude reflected our prior desperation. Yet our desperation had been but day’s worth. Such desperation is every day life for the Africans who populate that desiccated countryside—just as is for those who live in so many other parts of the world. Ironically, getting back to the States rarely makes you grateful for the ample provisions we so enjoy in America. Instead, you tend to feel shame and disgust. I always feel it most fiercely in the supermarket. Many, upon returning stateside after stints in developing countries, break down crying when confronted by the endless aisles of groceries. It’s not the vast availability of food that’s the problem, but rather the blatant injustice of it’s all being here.
Verse 2 promises a tree of life whose leaves provide healing for the nations. On the one hand, as people through whom God’s river of life flows, the responsibility for this healing lies with us. Through ministries of relief and development along with evangelism and mission, the church is called to heal the nations. But Revelation’s vision stretches past our calling to Christ’s accomplishment. Ultimately, He will set all things to right. Amen, but when? We read about Pakistan, where the military’s battle with the Taliban is creating the country’s worst refugee crisis in 60 years. We read about Iraq, where at least seven bombs exploded Thursday amid an uptick in violence. We read about the developing world where the lives of 1.4 billion souls living in extreme poverty worsen with the recession. Is this why Revelation finds it necessary to reiterate its promises over and over again? In chapter 22, three times, Jesus insists that yes, he is coming soon, soon, soon.
In verse 7, “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.” Throughout Revelation, prophecy is known by what it does: true prophecy moves people to serve the true God and false prophecy draws people away from God. That people remain drawn away from God is evident in verse 11. “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile.” What reads like resignation to the state of things, or even like permission to go on doing what you’re doing, is better read, I think, as an acknowledgement of good and evil’s continued existence in the face of Revelation’s hope. This acknowledgement can be enough to make you lose hope, which is why Jesus speaks up again in verse 12. “I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what they have done.” This is bad news for the evildoer, good news for the one whom verse 11 describes as holy and doing right. While this is not about a salvation earned by good works, it is about a faith confirmed by good works. While you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Living water that flows into you must flow through you too.
Jesus says, “I am coming soon, I am coming soon.” The Spirit and the bride respond by saying “Come on then,” to which Jesus assures one last time in verse 20: “Yes, I am coming soon.” John utters his own final “Amen” of trust. But then for good measure, he adds his own: “Come on Lord Jesus.” The final answer to life’s struggles and its evils do not lie in our ability to make a better world, but in God’s power to make a new one. Therefore, we pray it too, “Come Lord Jesus.”