The Revelation: Chapter 22:1-2 (the river of the water of life)

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Reading the Revelation is like watching a 3D movie in Imax sitting on one of the rumbler seats that vibrates with the explosions. It’s fun but overwhelming. It’s sensory overload.

And the good news just keeps on coming. God could have ended John’s vision at the end of chapter 21 and left the readers satisfied. But like the chords at the conclusion to a Beethoven symphony, God just pours on the imagery, poetry, and spectacle. God wants to make a point: It’s going to be worth it all.

[Some take the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to evoke the Creation.]

(Rev. 22:1-2 ESV) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

How does a river flow from the New Jerusalem, situated on the top of a mountain? Well, God is its source.

The angel shows John a sparkling river that flows crystal clear from the heavenly throne. The background seems to be Ezekiel’s vision of the sacred river (47:1–12), which flowed from under the threshold of the temple eastward past the altar and ultimately into the Dead Sea, where it healed the water of its saltiness so that many fish could again live in it. Elsewhere in Revelation we read of “springs of waters of life” (7:17; cf. 21:6 and 22:17) as a significant part of the blessings of the eternal state. Some writers find in the imagery of flowing water a reference to the Holy Spirit. Others find the promise of immortality or a reference to the abundant life that God now gives to his people. All this is true, but the central affirmation of the verse is that in the eternal state the faithful will live at the source of the life-giving stream that proceeds from the very presence of God. In the hot and arid climate of Palestine this figure would hold special appeal.

Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 398.

To a desert people, water was life. Of course, it’s life to everyone, but it was especially precious among those who lived in the arid climate of Palestine and Asia Minor. And for the same reason, water gave abundance. The modern Jews of the state of Israel is said to have “made the desert bloom” (Isa 35:2). How? Water.

The water flows from the “throne of God and of the Lamb.” The picture is a single throne with two occupants. There is no hierarchy. The power represented by the throne is shared. Indeed, the text will soon tell us that the saved will reign with God and Jesus, too. (And this should greatly influence your reading of 1 Cor 11:3.)

In the ancient world, co-regency between a father and son was a common practice, and it is likely that the ancient kings of Israel and Judah routinely anointed their sons as kings to rule with them to assure a secure transfer of power on the father’s death. Obviously, this is not God’s purpose in sharing his throne.

Rather, ironically, the Son’s sacrifice brought him the greatest possible glory —

(Phil. 2:8-11 ESV)  8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus was elevated to the throne of God himself because of his sacrifice. His submission, service, sacrifice, and suffering qualified him to rule the universe — because it revealed Jesus to be like God.

This is, of course, quite the opposite of how we tend to think about leadership and power, but this is how Christians are supposed to understand the world (and politics).

The tree of life

“Tree of life” is obviously a clue that the New Heavens and New Earth re-establish Eden, except better.

In Genesis, there were four rivers flowing from the garden, but in Ezekiel’s new Eden there is only one, and it grows deeper and deeper until it pours itself down the great Judaean escarpment to make even the Dead Sea fresh.

Ezekiel saw in his vision fruit trees on either bank of the river (47:12), with their fruit for food and their leaves for healing. John, in one of the most moving reworkings of biblical imagery in his entire book, sees the river of the water of life flowing, sparkling on its way through the city streets and out into the countryside beyond.

And though it is clear enough in Ezekiel that this is a rebirth of Genesis 2, in John it is even clearer, and more sharply focused. The tree which grows in profusion on either bank of the river is ‘the tree of life’, the tree which was forbidden to Adam and Eve as they were expelled from the garden (it would have been utterly disastrous for them to be made immortal in their sinful state).

And the ‘tree of life’ is not merely there to provide healing for this person, or that, for this Adam or this Eve. The vision of John has always concerned the larger realities, the huge and often hard-to-see social, cultural and political pains and puzzles, the ignorant armies clashing by night and the would-be ‘world leaders’ who turn out to be the blind leading the blind. Now the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The new Jerusalem, too, it seems, is in a sense a project, not a tableau. God establishes the city of his presence in order that the nations may not only come to do homage but may be healed.

Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides, (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 199–200 (paragraphing modified).

What a strange tree? It grows on both sides of the river, so that everyone may drink of it (and so live forever, I would think).

Here we find evocative language of the most potent kind. In the restored Eden all has been reversed: eating of one tree brought the curse—eating of this tree eternal life.

Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 399.

After the brutally horrific visions of the nations at war in the prior visions, we now have a vision of God healing the nations through water that he gives. This water includes eternal life and forgiveness, but surely also the Holy Spirit. It’s a combination of all the water images earlier in the Revelation and in the prophets. It’s a fountain free, the outpoured Spirit, and Ezekiel’s river that transforms even the Dead Sea to fresh water — the place where Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with fire and brimstone. God’s healing reaches back to Abraham and even Adam and Eve.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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