John and the Angel (22:6-15)

The angel's conclusion, these words are trustworthy and true (v. 6), recalls a similar statement by the angel at the end of the vision of Babylon and her destiny ("these are the true words of God," 19:9). It also repeats word for word the pronouncement of the one "seated on the throne" in 21:5. Both previous passages were accompanied by commands to "write this," referring to something John was being told. This time there is no explicit command to write, but there are three clear references to this book (vv. 7, 9, 10), the book John was told to write in his very first vision (1:11) and is now bringing to completion.

What words are meant when the angel says, These words are trustworthy and true (v. 6)? The angel's own words? Not unless they were left unrecorded. The angel has said nothing to John between 21:9 and 22:6. John has been "shown" a great deal (21:9; 22:1), but as far as we know has heard no words spoken (contrast the vision of Babylon in 17:1—19:10; also the vision of the new creation in 21:1-8). Therefore the pronouncement these words are trustworthy and true must have a wider reference—probably to the entire book of Revelation, which is now drawing to a close. This is supported by the fact that what immediately follows in verse 6, The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place, echoes a number of phrases from the book's title (notably "to show his servants," "what soon must take place" and "by sending his angel," 1:1).

At this point John, speaking as a prophet in Jesus' name, delivers words from Jesus reinforcing the notion that Jesus' coming will be soon. Then he pronounces a blessing on whoever keeps the words of the prophecy in this book (v. 7; compare 1:3). John identifies himself by name for the first time since 1:9 when he says, I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things (v. 8). The reference to hearing as well as seeing (reiterated in the next clause, when I had heard and seen them) suggests once again that the visions and voices of the entire book are in view, not merely the wordless vision of 21:9—22:5. Although these things (Greek tauta) must include the things the angel has just shown John, ultimately (like these words in v. 6) they encompass everything John has seen and heard (and written down) from the beginning of his series of visions until now.

Verses 8-9 are a reenactment of 19:9-10, where John tried to worship the angel and was told in no uncertain terms to back off, to worship God alone. Here he seems to have forgotten that the incident ever took place. As we have seen, the repetition is for the sake of the reader. For the second time we (as well as John) are commanded, "Worship God!" (v. 9; compare 19:10). There is a finality to verses 8-9 that was not evident in 19:9-10. The concluding imperative of the book of Revelation is to worship God (and Jesus the Lamb) now, not waiting until that wonderful future time (soon though it may be) when we will "serve him" and "see his face" in the new Jerusalem (vv. 3-4).

Whether the worship of angels was a specific problem or a danger in the seven congregations of Asia is difficult to say (see Col 2:18; also perhaps the effort to put angels in their place in Heb 1:4-14). Certainly the view of angels here is similar to the conclusion reached by the author of Hebrews: "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Heb 1:14). The angel tells John (again) that he is John's fellow servant, but instead of associating John with "your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus" (19:10), the angel speaks here of your brothers the prophets, together with all who keep the words of this book (v. 9). The meaning is the same, for in 19:10 the angel had added, "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." Yet the concluding reference to the words of this book and those who take its words to heart reminds us that John's book is now virtually complete. The angel's words acquire a solemnity and a finality they did not have before (compare 1:3 with its solemn blessing on the reader and the hearers of the written prophecy).

In keeping with this finality, the angel adds, Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near (v. 10). The contrast with the book of Daniel appears to be deliberate. "Go your way, Daniel," that prophet was told, "because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end. . . . You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance" (Dan 12:9, 13). There is no such waiting period in the book of Revelation. The announcement made at the very beginning (1:3) is repeated word for word: the time is near (v. 10). The difficulty for us living at the end of the twentieth century is that we have learned that the time was not near, at least not as we customarily measure time. The book of Revelation is to us what the book of Daniel must have been to John and his contemporaries: a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened. Reading it awakens the giant and puts us at the threshold of the coming of Jesus: Behold, I am coming soon (vv. 7; 12).

What is the angel's message to those who stand at the threshold of Jesus' coming? Not what we might have expected: Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy (v. 11). Throughout the New Testament, starting with the proclamation of John the Baptist and Jesus, the nearness of God's kingdom and the end of the age serves as an incentive for repentance or moral reform: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 3:2; 4:17; compare Mk 1:15; Rom 13:11-13; Jas 5:8; 1 Pet 4:7). Here, by contrast, no such possibility is in view. The moral condition of good and bad alike seems fixed and unlikely to change. To some extent this picture is consistent with the book of Revelation as a whole. The wicked do not as a rule repent of their idolatry or immorality (9:20-21; 16:11). Most often, those called to repentance are those who already belong to communities assumed to be "righteous" or "holy" (2:4, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19). For them to "repent" is simply to become what they already are.

But is this the correct interpretation of the angel's pronouncement? Do these words in fact have anything to do with individual repentance? Probably not. The point is rather that good and evil are never transcended. The dualism so evident to John in Roman society between the godly and the wicked is not going to change in the short time that remains before Christ's coming. Individuals may change (in either direction), but two groups will continue forever—those who do wrong, or the vile, on one side, and those who do right, or are holy, on the other. One group's names are inscribed in the book of life; the other's are not. In the words of Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew's Gospel, "Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn" (Mt 13:30). In the end, as we have seen, certain things will be "no more" (Greek ouk . . . eti) for the wrongdoers (18:21-23), and other things will be "no more" (ouk . . . eti) for the righteous (21:1, 4, 25; 22:3, 5). But the wrongdoers and the righteous themselves, the vile and the holy, will not similarly disappear. They will continue as two distinct groups "still" or "evermore" (Greek eti), the wrongdoers in the lake of fire (20:15; 21:8), the righteous and holy, appropriately enough, in the holy city.

The angel's self-identification as fellow servant to Christian prophets (v. 9) implies that the angel shares the prophetic function of delivering messages from God or the risen Jesus to Christian congregations. In verses 12-15 the angel begins speaking prophetically in Jesus' name, Behold, I am coming soon, (v. 12), just as John did in verse 7. Whether the voice belongs to a human prophet or an angel makes no difference, for in either case the real speaker is Jesus, who identifies himself with the words, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (v. 13). Within the pronouncement, the solemn promise, My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done (v. 12), reinforces the dualism of verse 11. There are two kinds of people in the world, and there always will be. Each group goes to its fitting reward. Here as in 21:6-8, an Alpha and Omega saying (v. 13) introduces a brief description of two contrasting destinies (vv. 14-15). The righteous will have access to the holy city and the tree of life, while the fate of the wicked is simply to be outside (Greek exo). The grim understatement reminds us once again that the ungodly will end up in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, or second death (21:8).

Mark Twain's Huck Finn, on reading John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, commented, "It was interesting, but tough." In a similar way the book of Revelation is "tough" for believers and unbelievers alike, and it is at least as tough today as it was in the first century. Twain is also supposed to have said, "I don't worry about the parts of the Bible I can't understand. I have enough trouble with the parts I can understand." Among the most difficult passages in Revelation are some whose meaning is actually quite clear—the warnings of eternal punishment.

It is not fashionable today, nor popular, to scare people into the kingdom of God, least of all from the pulpit. Church is a place people go to find comfort and reassurance. Yet four sections in the latter part of John's prophecy end on the same note of stern warning (20:15; 21:8, 27; 22:15). Ironically, John's vision of evil Babylon ended with a cry of triumph on behalf of the people of God (19:6-10), while his vision of blessed Jerusalem ends with a solemn picture of those outside. Despite all the glories of the holy city, we cannot feel comfortable or complacent. Instead, we must ask ourselves the same question we posed when reading the seven messages of chapters 2-3: Which side am I on? Where will I be found?

There is a place for fear in Christian ministry and Christian experience, and yet fear cannot be the last word. As John Newton wrote, "`Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved." In the book of Revelation, fear is the next-to-last word, not the last. The last word is a word of hope and expectation, the "Amazing Grace" that Newton celebrated.

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