Studying Revelation 22 1-7

This week, we consider the vision of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, flourishing on either side of the river of the water of life. We’re studying Revelation 22:1-7 for Sunday, August 21. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our third of four Sundays reading through the conclusion to the book of Revelation. By now we’re familiar with some of the background to the book. It’s a late first century CE composition, maybe from around 95CE, addressed to churches in Asia (Asia minor, or Turkey, to us). Authored by “John,” but which particular John a matter of some uncertainty. [Although as a reader, I can’t help noticing that there are some distinctive and prominent words, like the “keep” which shows up in our text this week, that are common features of Revelation AND the rest of the Johannine literature. For what that’s worth.] The genre of the book is “apocalyptic prophecy,” famous for its fabulous symbolism, surrealistic mood, and cryptic utterances.

This week the visionary images we encounter – the crystal clear river of the water of life, and the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit and its healing leaves, and the perpetual light of the face of God – will probably strike us as familiar, as well as beautiful. They are recurrent motifs of literature and hymns and art, even now.

Both the river and the tree will remind us of the river and tree of Eden (Genesis 2:9-10). This may make us think of the new Jerusalem envisioned by John as a restoration of the purity and the life created in and for that garden. We might want to reflect on the significance of the difference between a garden and a city. The envisioned future is distinctly urban, but it contains these remarkable features of the original “natural” environment.

The river and the fruitful healing trees also appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the new Jerusalem, with its restored temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). There, the river originates in the temple, the center of the presence of the glory of God. In John’s vision, since God is no longer localized in a temple, but is present in the city itself, we see the river originating at the throne of God and the Lamb.

Fruitful trees planted by rivers of water whose leaves never wither will also be familiar to readers of Psalm 1 and Psalm 52 and Jeremiah 17 and Isaiah 61:3, where trees are an image of righteousness. The wise, upright and righteous person is like a green tree planted by a river of water. Wisdom, of course, is herself a tree of life (Proverbs 3:13-18).

Seeing God has some historical, scriptural precedent (Genesis 28, Exodus 24:9-18, 2 Chronicles 18:18-22, Isaiah 6:1-5, Ezekiel 1 (and arguably Ezekiel 10 and Ezekiel 43 — although if we’re going to count the “GLORY of God” we should probably also count Exodus 40:34-38 and 1 Kings 8:11), Daniel 7, and Acts 7:55. But those visions are always limited to privileged characters, and are always temporary.

Seeing God’s FACE, specifically, also has a history in scripture: Moses is not allowed to do it (Exodus 33 & 34), although God does talk with Moses “face to face” (Numbers 12). God makes a special appearance (face hidden in cloud) to say so, in fact. But the upright shall behold God’s face (Psalm 11:7). And God’s face blesses people when it shines on them – whether they can see it or not, it seems (Numbers 6:23-26). The Psalmist seeks God’s face (Psalm 27), because God is “light and salvation,” and dwelling in the house of God is the Psalmist’s one request. Hmm.

Ultimately, being able to share a space with God, and particularly to see God’s face, is something ordinary people can only dream of, in scripture, until John’s vision. That may tell us something about the character of the citizens of the new Jerusalem, too.

Most of our text (vv1-5), along with much of the last chapter (22:22ff) is one of the lectionary’s choices for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (C). Aside from our familiarity with cultural images that draw their inspiration from this Biblical text, we’re likely to know it from hearing it in church at least once or twice.

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CLOSER READING: The angel seems to continue to be John’s guide in v1. The river of the water of life is clear – we probably read here pure, as well as beautiful – and originates at the throne of God and of the Lamb. God and the Lamb are continually identified in these verses.

In v2, the tree of life is literally “wood.” This word can be used for “tree,” but also for materials from trees. It can be used, for instance, of the cross of Christ. This seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Western artists, in particular, have made the identification of the cross of Christ with the tree of life graphically explicit.

An example from the Scherenberg Psalter

The twelve kinds of fruit correspond to the other sets of twelve in the new city, the twelve gates, the twelve foundations, and so on. Twelve is a perfect perfect number, and a meaningful one. We might imagine different fruit every month – “in season” fruit – or we might imagine different kinds of fruit all at once, every month. That isn’t the main point, of course, but it always catches my imagination. I always think “I would like one of them to be apricots.” And then I think – I probably don’t know what “good” really is.

“The leaves are for the healing of the nations” – because there are nations, still, as we saw in Revelation 7:9-10 and Revelation 21:24-26. They seem to be able to enter the city freely. And there are unwholesome outsiders, too. (Revelation 22:15) So whether the healing is now complete, or is still ongoing, and which members of the nations it pertains to, does not seem entirely clear. At least, not to me, from this. What’s clear is that the nations are meant to be healed.

In v3, the absence of the “cursed” seems to be another reference to Genesis, this time to Genesis 3. The new Jerusalem undoes the fall and its curse.

In v4, the servants of God will worship God, face to face – like Moses – and bearing God’s name on their foreheads. This might be another priestly reference – there were several of them in earlier verses, too – if we remember that the High Priest (Exodus 28:36-38) wore a badge on his forehead that said “Holy to Adonai” as part of his uniform. All the citizens of the new Jerusalem are effectively priests.

[If that makes any sense. Priests are, by definition, mediators; they are needed by people who cannot themselves come before the presence of God. Who are the people in this envisioned reality who cannot themselves come before the presence of God? This is a lingering question in my mind.]

There is no night – which might also mean, no evil, or no ignorance, or any of the other things “night” represents in this literature. God is Goodness and Truth and Beauty.

In v6, the God of the spirits of the prophets has sent his messenger – angel, but perhaps also prophet – to the churches. We might recall that Revelation 19:10 tells us that

the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

This seems [to me] to make “the God of the spirits of the prophets” also “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And the God from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. [Who is the core witness to Christ, per John 16:4-14.] Nice(ne)ly orthodox, in a prophetic way.

We would do well to keep thinking about what it means to “keep the words of the prophecy of this book” (v7). The word “keep” here is an ordinary one, but it has various senses. It can mean “obey” or “observe,” if we’re talking about commandments; it can mean “hold in custody,” if we’re talking about prisoners, as it is almost always used in the book of Acts; it can mean “store” or “hold in reserve.” About half the uses of this word in the New Testament occur in the book of John, the book of 1 John, and the book of Revelation. That seems … interesting.

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Images: “Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” N.Goncharova, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; “Tree of Life” – illumination in Scherenberg Psalter, Anonymous, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; “Autobahnkirche- BB T-E” (another tree of life), Michael Kauffmann, CC BY 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

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