Lighting Up the Apocalypse 39: Invitation to Worship and Life

Rev 22:8-21; Deut 30:19; Genesis 1-3; Deut 30:19; Daniel 8:26, 12:14

And so we come to the end of this fascinating and daunting book.  In these final verses, we see combined elements that we have noticed throughout the book of Revelation—an assurance of its trustworthiness, a glimpse of the connection between our world and the angelic world, a call to true worship, a warning for those who remain separate from Christ, and an utter concentration upon the One from whom this Apocalypse has come, the LORD himself.  Here is the final passage, Revelation 22:8-21:

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,  but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who hold to the words of this book. Worship God.” And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the unrighteous still act unrighteously, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.  Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you to witness about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.

In this final section of His Revelation, Jesus gives to His people the ultimate compliment—we are treated as agents made in the image of God, with the choice to make concerning life (or death).  Facing even higher stakes than those presented by Moses, who summoned the people before him as they faced the promised land, we too are told, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deut 30:19).  The witness here is not Moses, though, but an angel, and ultimately Jesus Himself.  Before us is no earthly promised land, but the great desire of the ages.  And the choice of blessing or curse is an ultimate one, not simply that of earthly benefits or losses.

The element of choice is one that will perhaps cause a knee-jerk reaction from those with Protestant sensibilities.  After all, Jesus is the Victor, the One who shed His blood, the One who banished Lucifer and his army from heaven, the One who alone has lived the righteous life.  The Book of Revelation knows all this, and puts Him firmly in first place as the slaughtered-standing Lamb, and the One who has done all things for our sake.  Yet, alongside His majesty in this final chapter (as throughout the Apocalypse) we see a call for human involvement.  Jesus himself declares in verse 12 that He will reward us “according to our actions.”  Indeed, the summons to choose well is urgent, for the time, the angel tells us, is now upon John, and so also upon us. No longer are mysteries “sealed,” for the major things have all been revealed in Christ.  This is in great contrast to the other apocalypse in our Scriptures, Daniel, where twice Daniel is told to “seal up” the prophecy because the time is not yet come (Dan 8:26, 12:14).  The time now HAS come, for the final Unveiling, God-in-Christ, has been made known.

This notice, that the mystery is to be left unsealed, is followed up by a rather disturbing statement:  “let the unrighteous remain unrighteous.”  Does the angel really mean to say that God does not want repentance?  Hardly.  That would fly in the face of everything we have heard and seen throughout these visions.  But this is a dramatic way of warning John’s audience, including us today, that the time for decision is nearly up.  It is up to those who hear this “open secret” to align themselves with the righteous or the unrighteous, to “wash their robes,” to worship rightly, to say with the Spirit and the  Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” In the end, human choice and God’s will are to come together, mysteriously showing how  active and godly human beings are made in God’s image, as well as demonstrating God’s sovereign power and heart-breaking goodness.  However, this element of choice means that the possibility of exclusion must remain: outside the Holy City are those who refuse the invitation.  The reader is put in a place of decision: am I among the unrighteous, and will I remain outside, or am I among the holy who desire and drink the water of life?

John is particular about that which will be excluded: “the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  We may not be certain what he means by “the dogs,” since the term is used with various nuances in Biblical times.  It may simply mean “Gentile” (as in Jesus’ exchange with the Syro-Phoenician, or Canaanite woman whose daughter was dying).  However, this cannot be the literal meaning here, since the Holy City is open to the kings of the nations, and many tribes are among the multitudes we have seen in worship.  Sometimes “dogs” was used to refer to those who practice same-sex erotic behavior, but this is unlikely, since the more general term pornoi (those who engage in sexual immorality) comes later in the list, and would include such actions. Most likely, it is a term that is adapted from the Jewish understanding of those outside the community (Gentiles), but applied to any who are not in Christ, and are therefore unclean, not holy.  Thus, it is a catch-all for any who live in an unChristian manner, and as a general term it introduces the more specific descriptions that follow: sorcerers, sexually immoral, and so on. Given the promise of Christ’s cleansing, those who remain in such fallen behavior show themselves to be “beastly,” like dogs, rather than like God’s children. As Jesus Himself said, “Do not give to the dogs what is holy.”  There can be no place for those who try to take spiritual power into their own hands by honoring something or someone other than Christ, for those who continue to defile the body with unholy erotic alliances, for those who kill the innocent, for those who worship other “gods,” for those who love lies. That which separates us from Christ can be spiritual, physical, violently active, ideological, or a matter of distorted reality.  All this must be healed, or there is no entry, for darkness cannot abide in the light. Yet, we have heard, the gates are open, and the invitation remains for all who hear to join in the worship, and in the Church’s call to Jesus, “Come!”

Sometimes in this passage the angel speaks, sometimes John speaks, sometimes Jesus himself speaks. Since the Greek manuscripts don’t have quotation marks, or even punctuation in some cases, it is up to translators and editors to decide where Jesus’ words stop and John’s or the angel’s begin: there are a few debates about that in this section, but that needn’t bother us.  Everyone agrees that Jesus has three major speeches here, that are filled out by the words of the angel and by the comments of John.  The LORD assures us that He is coming soon, confers a blessing, warns and encourages regarding the reward to come, and identifies Himself with evocative  names: Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, first and last, root and son of David, Bright and Morning Star.  Three times He assures us that He is coming quickly—in verse 7, 12, and 20! Every time that the Lord speaks, even when there is a warning, there is also a kind of invitation, for He speaks as the Light of the world, and as the One who is promising to come to us.

For those who respond to His invitation, who “keep” the prophecy, and who join the chorus, there is the tree of life, the water of life, and the holy city—and the Lord Jesus Himself.  That same tree from which Adam and Eve were banned after they sinned is now available to all who believe.  There is no mention here of a second testing tree:  is the time of testing over now, and is humanity ushered gradually not only into life, but into the knowledge of God, as we gaze on Jesus’ face? As the sixth century Latin father Aspringius of Beja says, “Salvation is given without any price and without any barter. Rather, he who desires to be saved, he will enter and will either receive free of charge the regeneration of baptism, or he will receive the remedy of repentance without cost or charge. The prophet [Isaiah] spoke in a similar manner: “All who thirst, come to the waters; and you who have no money, hasten, come, buy and eat.” (Tractate on the Apocalypse 22.17, CCL 107: 9697)  We look to a time of ongoing fullness, complete satisfaction, and unimaginable growth.

Perhaps the repeated word “soon” disturbs us, since the book of Revelation first was given to the Church some 20 centuries ago.  We have already tackled this in commenting on other places of the book:  we must remember that “soon” in the divine plan is different from our human perception, that an urgent waiting for Christ is always indicated, since we do not know if He may come this very day, and that, in any case, He awaits us in the Holy Mysteries, as we taste ahead of time the blessings to come.  That we have before us an unsealed book underscores the assurance in Acts and Hebrews that we are somehow already in the “last days,” for God has given to us His very self: “In these last days God has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:2, cf. Acts 2:17).  The book of Revelation is a graphic and dramatic medium by which God speaks to us through His Son!  He draws us into the visions of His servant John, and shows to our imaginations what we have heard with our ears and understood with our minds regarding His actions on our behalf and His will for our final salvation.

As with the beginning of the book, so too with the ending:  the one who saw these visions, called “John,” is humble regarding his own standing in the Church.  As we saw when we began this study, even in ancient times the authorship of the Apocalypse was debated. Some say he was the apostle.  Others say he was an elder by the same name who knew this apostle.  Even others have suggested an unknown John, but this is very unlikely.  Our “John” here is content not to stress his own authority, but to remind us that the revelations come from Jesus Himself, and have been dignified by angelic messengers.  John’s voice sounds, but only so that we will hear the other voices more clearly.  From him we learn Whom to worship—not an angel, nor the power of society, nor the objects of our passions, but the One who Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, and the Root or Creator of David as well as David’s Son.  He is the First and the Last, and here speaks to us a final word of Scripture, to which we must not add in substance, nor diminish in significance!

It is not important for the canonicity of this book to decide whether the author is the apostle or not.  Luke’s gospel, after all, was written by a companion of the apostles.  The Apocalypse’s authority lies in its very content, and in the discernment of the early Church that it comes from the communion of apostles, has been used by the holy community in many places, and conforms to the rule of faith. (That is, it is “canonical” in substance, and so it becomes part of the corpus that we call “the canon.”) John simply gives a brief mention of himself and his reception of the visions, and then directs us to where he is gazing—towards the LORD Jesus coming in glory, Who has given us grace, and promises to come soon.  Let us join John’s eagerness for this glorious return, and say with the Spirit and the Bride, “Even so, Come, LORD Jesus!”  And as we do so, let’s notice that in the original manuscript, the Aramaic is used for this prayer “Come, LORD Jesus!” linking us with the earliest disciples who spoke that language with Jesus Himself.  This is a solemn moment of solidarity with the past, and with all believers, as when in the Liturgy we sing the “LORD have mercy” not only in English but in the languages of the communities to which we are indebted and with which we are eternally connected.

The details and the cosmic sweep of the book of Revelation come together in these concluding verses. Jesus, the “Morning Star” who signals the general resurrection to come, is giving assurances both to the specific believer, and to the entire Church. As we finish, we are swept up in this book’s concern for history, in its disclosure of events beyond this world which nevertheless make their impact upon us, and in God’s care for each of us personally. We move from spectators, to participants, as we are addressed at the end of John’s visions, told to “come and drink,” and even enfolded into the Church’s action of calling upon Christ.  We are ourselves given a voice as the Bride cries, with the enabling Holy Spirit, “Come!”  He is the God of the great and the small, of humans and of angels, of this world and the next.

May this book continue to be a source of deep grace to us, and not simply a rallying point for debate among those who name Christ. The next installment brings us to the fortieth episode— an apt conclusion for a book that has dealt with holy numbers.  In that final session, we will consider the overall structure of the books the danger of its abuse, and what we can glean concerning its divine purpose.

6 comments:

  1. I’ve just been dipping into these articles, Edith, and I find them most intriguing and helpful. Over the course of the Easter season my wife and I read the whole of the Apocalypse. We shall do so again next year, God willing, but aided by your reflections and insights which are beautiful. Thank you for these pearls. Please say a prayer for me – a very recent convert to the Orthodox faith. God bless you.
    G.P.

  2. Again, I really appreciate your work in finishing this wonderful book. I enjoyed every lesson. If this is your last lesson on this precious book, I look forward to your next study. May our Heavenly Father through Christ our Lord bless you and keep you and may His face shine upon you. david

    1. Thanks!
      Nope, one more (listen to the last paragraph!) I am going to tie it all up in 2 weeks! Then we are going on to the canticles, and how they are influenced by the OT, beginning with the “Song of the Three Youths.”

  3. I have loved following this series!

    Thanks from a Reformed Church minister.
    (And, I believe you are long-ago friends with my not -as-long-ago friend, Bob Seale!)

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