Commentary on Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
The reading today appears to be a random collection of statements attached to the climactic vision of Revelation 21:9-22:5.
A closer look, however, reveals that they work together in a way similar to the closing sections of the evangelistic sermons commonplace in my youth in the 1950s and 1960s. A purpose of Revelation 22:8-22 is to compel the listener to choose to accept the vision of the Book of Revelation and to respond accordingly. For some hearers, this decision is reaffirmation. “I will continue to endure.” For others, the decision is to repent, to stop accommodating to the Empire, and to join the eschatological community as it awaits and witnesses to the cosmic transformation.
While the elements of the lection work together (per above), each section has its own nuances. A sermon could make homiletical sense of all three parts of the reading (verses 12-14, 16-17, 21-22). Or a sermon might focus on one element, incorporating the other motifs as needed. For example, the preacher might gather the sermon around the beatitude of Revelation 22:14. What does it mean for the congregation today to “wash our robes” to have “the right to the tree of life?”
Revelation 22:12 puts the listener on notice that the time to choose for or against the vision in Revelation is here: Jesus is returning soon. While John does not — like some contemporary Pre-millenialists — specify the date of the apocalypse, John has indicated throughout the Book that the deconstruction of the Roman Empire is already underway. The return of Jesus is imminent, if undated.
When Jesus says he will repay “according to everyone’s work,” the reference is not to works righteousness but to faithful or unfaithful behavior. John pushes listeners to respond to the question, “On the far side of the final judgment, would I rather live in the new Jerusalem or the lake of fire?”
John underlines the authority behind this statement by describing Jesus in the same language first used of God: Alpha and Omega. These designations indicate that the sovereign power of history is at work through the ministry of Jesus. The Empire lays claim to ultimacy but they are penultimate, and, therefore, must account for their idolatry and brutality.
To be blessed is to be aware of having a place in the movement towards the holy city (Revelation 22:14). Amid the struggles of the last days, a blessed person has the confidence of being embraced by the Realm. The “washed robes” is a figure for faithful witness: repenting, coming out of the Empire, and enduring. The references to having a right to the tree of life and to entering by the gate are figures for having a place in the new Jerusalem. A person is blessed who makes the choices that lead to struggle in the short run but that result in a place in the new city.
In Revelation 22:16a, the risen Jesus returns to the issue of authority, explaining that he sent the angel who revealed the Revelation for the churches. It is as if John says, “I did not make up the Book of Revelation. Jesus gave it to me through an angel. So, congregation: believe it.”
When Jesus identifies himself as root and descendent of David in Revelation 22:16b, the point is that the revelation of God through Jesus is not a new work but is an extension of God’s work through Israel. The apocalyptic apex towards which Jesus leads the cosmos is the fulfillment of the promises God made to the people Israel, represented by the promise to David.
Jesus is the bright, morning star. Preachers could use this image alone as the center of a sermon, provided they treat the image in its function in the Book of Revelation, and do not simply let their exegetically undisciplined imaginations take over. Jesus — not a Roman astral deity — is the morning star. This star signals that the threats of the night have ended. It confirms that the new day is beginning. It orients the community. Its appearance indicates that the time for fruitful activity is beginning. In short, the work of Christ revealed in the Book of Revelation is the morning star.
Revelation 22:17 is a briar patch for interpreters. Who is saying “Come” to whom? I think more scholars settle at this point than at others: the Spirit and the bride (the church), and others who may hear the Book of Revelation plead for Jesus to return, as if they say, “The situation of the world is desperate. Come quickly!” (Revelation 22:17ab)
Revelation 22:17cd invites people to continue in (or to become part of) the community on the way to the new heaven and the new earth. In the Book of Revelation, the thirsty are those who are thirsty for the Realm of God (Revelation 21:7). John sees the martyrs drinking from the springs of the water of life (Revelation 7:16-17). John has a special interest in these groups throughout the Book. In this climactic section, the prophet gives them a special invitation into the new Jerusalem. By doing so, the prophet implies an invitation to the non-repentant to join these groups on the way to the Realm
The letter closes with the assertion that Jesus himself guarantees that he is returning, soon. John responds with an expostulation that is almost liturgical: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” The church originally heard the Book of Revelation in worship. Hearing and reading the Book in other settings can re-invoke the sense of worship.
As we noted in connection the reading on the Second Sunday of Easter, Revelation 1:4-8, John frames the book as a Greek letter. Revelation 22:21 is in the form of the closing of a Greek letter. John expresses the hope that receiving and hearing the Book of Revelation will be an experience of grace for the congregation.
As I have lead Bible studies in congregations since 1974, I have found lay people (and clergy) to have less and less working knowledgeable about the Bible. A preacher could take advantage of the last passage in the Bible to overview the story of the Bible that culminates here. Of course, the sermon could only touch on key moments in the biblical drama. I wager the sermon would be the first time many people have heard a single telling of the biblical story, even in highlight form.