Studying Revelation 22 10-21

This week’s lesson includes what is at least one of the top ten greatest verses in the Bible:

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come!’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let everyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Revelation 22:17

If I had been making the canon, I would have kept the book of Revelation in the Bible because of that verse alone. We are studying a few more verses, though, for Sunday, August 28; our text is Revelation 22:10-21, the epilogue of the book of Revelation. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

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 BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the last of four weeks we’ve spent on the book of Revelation. By now we’re familiar with the larger context of the book: a late first century CE composition, by a visionary named “John” whose more specific identity is something of a question, composed as a vision report, in the genre of apocalyptic prophecy, and making lots of references to Ezekiel and Daniel and the Temple in Jerusalem with its priestly system, as well as to the system of sacred numbers known from Jewish tradition.

This week, we’ve reached the end of the text. Everything has been seen, and the author reverts back to the form of an ancient letter for the purposes of signing off to his audience, the membership of the “seven churches in Asia.”

Let’s remember that ancient texts were written without punctuation. How we choose to read “who’s speaking” in these closing verses matters; the decisions made by the translators of our English versions might work, but they don’t seem to be the only options. So we might want to consider how different decisions about how to assign “speakership” would affect the meaning of the text.

Most of these verses are one of the lectionary’s options for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (C), so we might have heard them in church at one time or other.

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CLOSER READING: If we glance back to v8, we’ll hear from John, who attests to his honest reportage, and then reports what seems to be one last exchange with his angelic tour guide. The angel identifies John as one of the prophets, and John’s audience – “the ones who keep the words of this book” – as fellow servants of God.

Most commentators mention the difference between the instruction in v10, not to “seal up” the book, with the opposite instruction in Daniel 8:26. The rationale in both cases is the imminence, or not, of the envisioned events. The “time” that is near, in the case of the book of Revelation, is the kairos kind of time, not chronos time. The difference is that between “clock time” (chronos) and the kind of time determined by events or processes (kairos). “Time to get up” is chronos, most mornings. “A time to be born and a time to die” is kairos.

In v11, both the “evildoer” (the one doing unrighteousness/injustice) and the “righteous” (the one doing righteousness/justice) are verb forms. More like labels of behavior, less like adjectives. The point of the statement seems [to me] to be: people are going to keep doing what they’re doing … for now.

The angel seems to be the speaker in vv10-11.

Verses 12, 13, and 16 seem like they have to be ascribed to Jesus. Why we wouldn’t just think Jesus is the speaker of vv14-15, then, might be an interesting question.

In v12, people translate as “soon” a word that often means “quickly.” A repeated term, which comes up again in v20. Either way, God’s timing is enormously different from people’s. The word translated “reward” often shows up as “wages,” and it’s not clear that it really means anything different from that here. The servants will be paid.

In v13, we can understand that Jesus begins and finishes, opens and closes everything; in the case of the alphabet (alpha and omega), that he encompasses everything that can be [said or written], all the possibilities. The “end” is the telos kind of end, that is, the envisioned or developmental purpose or final completion, the point of it all, as opposed to just “the end of the line.”

In v14, “the ones who wash their robes” are doing that activity at present; it would be fair to say “the ones washing.” “The right” to the tree of life always sounds a little jarring to me, as if we’ve suddenly time-traveled to the Enlightenment. It’s a word that usually means “authority,” in other contexts; it seems to me “be entitled to” captures the idea, and would be less anachronistic. [Or, how about “be authorized to”? That would work, it wouldn’t be too clunky, and would keep the root idea of the source word, too. A thought, added 08/26/22.] Maybe I’m over-sensitive, or have taken too much political science. Either way, the point seems to be that clean robes will be a condition for having access to the tree of life and entering the city by the gates.

Robe-washing instructions were given in Revelation 7:14.

The list of “outsiders” in v15 might seem to contain disparate categories. The inclusion of “dogs” surely refers to some ancient animal stereotype, and presumably not the “man’s best friend” one. I haven’t been able to track it down, but I suspect negative dog attributes like “greedy” or “shameless” or possibly “vicious” play a role. I also assume it means human metaphorical dogs, not our cherished literal pets, though Thomas Aquinas might disagree. “Sorcerers,” according to the lexicon, use magic to delude their victims into believing lies. The “sexually immoral” seem to be specifically prostitutes, which involves a different kind of dishonesty, possibly with pagan ritual associations. We would undoubtedly agree that murderers are a bad lot. Assuming “all who practice falsehood” is a kind of general summation, we might have a hard time figuring out how murder is falsehood. Unless it has to do with the false valuation of human life, or with playing God, or … All in all, to me, this list is fascinating but also curious.

The root probably refers back to Isaiah 11:10;  the descendant of David to recurrent references to the promise that David’s dynasty will go on forever, that the “anointed one”/Messiah will be from the Davidic line, etc. In Isaiah 14:12, the king of Babylon is referred to as the “Morning Star,” presumably a title that personage had claimed. 2 Peter 1:19 makes a different reference to the “morning star,” more as a light of faith. The image may simply be of the harbinger of dawn and full light. (Things are about to happen; they haven’t all happened yet.)

In v17, we have choices for how to read the exclamations of the speakers. The Spirit and the bride could be saying “Come!” to Jesus – it would fit. So could those hearing. But … they could also be saying “Come!” to the one who is thirsting, who is being exhorted, with an imperative verb, to come, and take the water of life as a gift. The Spirit and the bride might want to say both of those things!!

We don’t want to be the people adding to or taking away from the words of this book, according to vv18-19. Which is, we think, the book of Revelation, not the entire canon of Scripture. To me, the author seems to be the speaker in vv18-21, and to be reprising or reiterating in v20 the statement made directly by Jesus in v12 – “I am coming soon [quickly].” This is on the strength of the “I warn,” but “God will add / take away” language in those verses. If God or Jesus were speaking, presumably they would say “I will add / take away.”

So, the author then adds his individual “Come!” to the plea of the Spirit and the bride, and his closing benediction.

Amen. Maranatha.

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Images: “Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” N.Goncharova, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Revelation 22:17 illustrated, Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-1896), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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