The second stage of John's vision begins with the words then the angel showed me (v. 1; compare 21:9, 10). Having seen the holy city, John is now shown the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city (vv. 1-2). The river reflects the crystal-like quality of the city itself (v. 11) or of the glassy "sea" in front of the throne in John's first vision of heaven (4:6). The great street (Greek plateia) is the wide main street of the city, emphasizing the river's centrality to the city as a whole and its visibility to all residents. Ironically, the same broad street or plaza that had been a place of death where the bodies of two martyred prophets lay in public view for three and a half days (11:8-9) is now a place of life, where the river of life irrigates the tree of life for the benefit of the city's inhabitants and the nations that live by its light (v. 2; compare 21:24). Just as the city had twelve gates and twelve foundations, the tree of life yields twelve crops of fruit, corresponding to the twelve montes of the year.
The vision plays on two biblical themes, "the tree of life" in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:9), to which Adam and Eve were denied access after the Fall (Gen 3:24), and Ezekiel's vision of water flowing down from the restored temple in Jerusalem all the way to the Dead Sea (Ezek 47:1-12). That John's interpretation of the Genesis passage is shaped decisively by Ezekiel was recognized already in the eighteenth century by the Oxford scholar Benjamin Kennicott (1747:93-97). John's tree of life is indeed located in a garden (more precisely, it is a garden), but the garden now stands in the heart of a city. In Ezekiel's vision, a river flows eastward from the temple "down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea. When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh. . . . There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. . . . Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing" (Ezek 47:8-9, 12).
The shift from the vision of the river of the water of life (vv. 1-2) to John's interpretation of it (vv. 2-5) is even more abrupt than in the case of the vision of the holy city. John sees the river only within Jerusalem itself, and he links Ezekiel's trees lining the river with the tree of life from Genesis. Instead of "all kinds" of fruit trees, he is shown one kind of tree, the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, presumably for the city's inhabitants. As in Ezekiel, the leaves are for healing, but in John's vision specifically for the healing of the nations (v. 2). The tree of life is the reason why the bruised and battered Gentile nations will walk in the light of the holy city, "and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it" (21:24). Whether or not they "eat from the tree of life" (2:7), they clearly have some kind of a share in its benefits (see 22:14, 19). In their own way they too are redeemed.
The remainder of John's interpretation (vv. 3-5) mainly reinforces what was said earlier. No longer will there be any curse in the city, and no more night (Greek ouk . . . . eti, vv. 3, 5), just as there will be no more death or crying or pain (21:4). The curse is probably concrete rather than abstract. It is not the curse of Gen 3:14 (although the image of the tree of life may have called to mind that universal curse on humanity), but specifically "nothing accursed" (NRSV) or "no accursed thing" (Greek pan katathema). The point is much the same as in 21:27, where "nothing impure" (Greek pan koinon) is to enter the city. In a similar way, no more night (v. 5) echoes the language of 21:25, "there will be no night there."
Having already described the river of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb (v. 1), John now adds, somewhat belatedly, that the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city (v. 3). He stated earlier that God and the Lamb are the city's "temple," or "sanctuary" (Greek naos, 21:22), and now the temple is understood as a throne in the new Jerusalem, just as it was in heaven (see chap. 4). His mention of the throne-as-temple affords John the opportunity to reflect briefly on the relationship between God and the people of God: and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads (vv. 3-4; compare 7:15, "they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple"). For the first time in the entire book, John holds out the possibility of seeing the face of God. Strictly speaking, this was contrary to Jewish belief (see Ex 33:20; also Jn 1:18; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12). Yet there was a strand of Jewish and early Christian piety that allowed such a possibility in a metaphorical sense (for example, Ps 11:7; 17:15; 42:2; also Mt 5:8; 1 Jn 3:2). This is what is meant in the present passage. To see God's face is to belong to God, to have God's name written on the forehead (compare 14:1), and to live in the light of God's presence (compare 21:23).
John's reflection on his vision ends with the declaration that the servants of God in the holy city will reign for ever and ever (v. 5). The prophecy of the twenty-four elders that saints "from every tribe and language and people and nation" would "reign on the earth" (5:9-10) is not exhausted in the thousand-year reign of 20:4-6. Their reign "on the earth" (now a new earth) with God and the Lamb continues forever. The point is not that the redeemed are kings and queens individually, but that just as they participated with the Lamb (rather passively, it seems) in victory over the powers of evil, so they will participate with God and the Lamb in ruling over the new creation. The victory at Armageddon belonged first of all to "the Lord of lords and King of kings" and only secondarily to his followers, and the same is true of the rule of God over the earth. The promise that they will reign for ever and ever cannot be separated from its premise that the Lord God will give them light (v. 5).