Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Revelation 22: 12-17

12 And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. 13 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. 14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. 15 For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. 16 I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. 17 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is a-thirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.


Verse 12: Stresses the immediacy of consequences or "reward" in relation to "work" or deeds. I like the exclamatory "See" of the NRSV. For a modern audience, it better links the idea of coming-to-awareness (looking and understanding) with the forms of expression (words, writing, etc) that the alphabetical analogy in the next verse invokes. It’s a link by which personal rewards find their meaning (as holiness) when they are folded into relation.

Verse 13: "Alpha and Omega" brings the immediacy of consequences into the divine order. It also repeats the thematic connection developed throughout the book, linking letters (the rudiments of expression and history, the parts of speech by which words/worlds are made) to divine temporal and spacial orders or sets (beginning and end, first and last).

Verse 14: In the KJV rendering, blessedness is the consequence of mindful enactment of the law (those who "do his commandments") which as Leviticus teaches, culminates in the conditions of freedom (I discuss this in more detail below). This blessedness – this mindful extension of freedom – underscores the right to the tree of life, and grants passage into the New Jerusalem.

The NRSV, relying on different authority, begins the verse with "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life . . ." This alternative suggests a cleansing, a renewal -- entering the city and eating the fruit of the tree of life is no casual event, but highly ceremonial. Acknowledging the many ways we might read the ordinance of baptism onto this verse, I instead take a different but related turn. In fact, I’d like to wind the KJV and NRSV together via the ideal of jubilee outlined in Leviticus.

By way of prelude, let’s begin with the ten commandments: Israel is invited to be free by means of a divine law without which, and left to themselves, would result in their falling back to the habit of slavery. Herbert McCabe has called the Mosaic law the "charter of liberation," beginning with God explaining, "I have brought you out of slavery . . ." and following with the manner by which to avoid various modes of future enslavement (modes far more subtle and common and easy than their experience under the Egyptians, and therefore more dangerous and immediately destructive).

Similarly, in his first recorded sermon, Jesus quotes Isaiah (who quoted Leviticus), saying that he has come to "proclaim release to the captives . . . ., to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour." He is referring to the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25: 8-55) when debts are forgiven, slaves released, and everyone begins anew in freedom. It was an ideal that stood as the antithesis of worldly cities where entire social, economic, and political systems (and for John, think Rome) rested upon domination of the poor by the rich, the weak by the strong, the humble by those who set themselves up as gods. I am always taken aback (being a child of U.S. capitalism) at just how delightfully radical the concept of jubilee is. But more importantly for my point here is that it was also called the day of Atonement, an extended sabbath for the people, and the land, and "unto the Lord."

In short, we might read the KJV’s "do his commandments" as synonymous with the NRSV’s "wash their robes" -- both are forms of ceremonial readiness for the New Jerusalem, for preparing for the sabbath, for the jubilation of atonement, and the celebration of God’s liberation.

Verse 15: Those that restrict true freedom are "without" the city -- in English, there is the double possibility of meaning both "outside the parameters of" and also "without benefit of" the freedoms offered by the city. The English translation suggests that there are, on the one hand, those who intentionally seek to limit the forms of divine freedom God has offered to humanity. Yet on the other hand, there seem to be those who are stymied by the paradox of ignorance: preparatory knowledge is required to enter the city, but the knowledge required is contingent on obedience to the laws of which these actors stand without benefit. The latter sense makes the invitation in verse 17 particularly poignant.

Verse 16: Jesus ratifies the symbolic iterations of the angelic messenger. The elision between "to you" and "in the churches" (KJV) makes explicit the public orientation of the prophetic/visionary content – this is not a private revelation, but revelatory poetics meant to provoke and inspire the community of the saints. Having repeated the theme of word/world, Jesus winds around it another theme that has been prominent throughout Revelation, that of the "root." Somehow, the architecture of the city is bound up with a specific orientation towards his role as creator: he is not merely the manufacturer of things (objects), but the "root" of ancestry, and the city is to be conceived of in these terms.

Jesus is also the "offspring," and if we want to link this to Adam’s point about divine deferral, we might take this to mean that while he typifies Divine power, that power is re-typified when others follow the law (and again, I am using law in the sense of actions that create the conditions for freedom and holiness). Being both root (tree) and offspring (fruit), Jesus anchors the actual world and its history to the transforming potential of holy capabilities. As D. Tutu and others have suggested, the miracle of repentance and forgiveness is that they transform the past. The facts of the past don’t change, but the meaning of the past – its formative effects in the lives of real people – does.

Verse 17: Spirit and Bride give a welcoming greeting; those that listen and seek and desire are singled out and especially welcomed. Freedom is again stressed, even celebrated, as the appropriate mode for dipping into the water of life. Of special note: the musicality of this verse creates a beautiful swelling of welcome – it begins with the duet of "Come!" by the Spirit and the Bride, and it gathers power as a chorus of "everyone who hears" sings "Come." And then, in a significant shift, the "let everyone who is thirsty come" – now heard as the dynamic harmony of Spirit, Bride, and Hearers – crescendos with the final line, "Let anyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift." A gift. The city, the tree of life, the fruits of holiness, words and worlds, the water of life – all, a gift. This is why I hear the echoes of the year of jubilee throughout Revelation.


  1. I love the "wash their robes" reading in v. 14. That is rich with symbolism from an LDS perspective.

  2. Thank you for this post. I particularly like the links that you make to Leviticus. If I think about Leviticus while reading this passage, I am struck by the phrase "and may enter in through the gates into the city" because so much of Leviticus concerns who is worthy to enter in to which part of the temple at what time. And here the invitation is extended not just to the ritually pure and not just to the Israelite and not just the priest or the high priest, but to all people who choose to keep the commandments.


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