Certain syllables, ordinary in themselves, become sacred by repetition and familiarity. For generations, devout Christians at worship have sung "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know" and "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds." Charismatic believers with hands uplifted have been known to repeat the name "Jesus" a dozen times or more as a prayer, without elaboration or specific petition. No sound, no word, no name is more sacred to Christians than "Jesus."
On only two occasions in the Bible does Jesus identify himself by that sacred name. To Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5; also 22:8; 26:15). At the end of the book of Revelation he announces, I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches (v. 16). These words continue without a break the speech of Jesus that began with the promise, "Behold, I am coming soon" (vv. 12-15). They are Jesus' own restatement of the words of the long title at the book's beginning (1:1-2) and of John's words in 22:6: "The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place."
The "angel" mentioned in these passages is probably not to be limited to the angel present in any particular context (for example, the angel of 21:9—22:6 or of 17:1—19:10). Rather, John's Revelation comes to him through a variety of angelic figures and voices—from the humanlike figure of chapter 1 who turned out to be Jesus himself, to the "mighty angel" of 5:2, 10:1 and 18:21, to the seven angels who completed the harvest of chapter 14, to the angels with the seven last plagues in chapters 15-16. In some sense, when Jesus claims to have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches, he means all these and more, even though in the present context the angel most immediately in mind is the one that showed John the holy city.
Throughout this last chapter the reader encounters great difficulty in determining who the speaker is. A good rule to follow is that the one speaking remains the same unless there is a clear signal to the contrary. Verses 16-19 are best understood as a continuous speech of the risen Jesus to John and his "brothers the prophets" (see v. 9), entrusting them with the whole book of Revelation (Greek tauta, literally "these things") as a testimony to deliver to the churches (the seven in Asia above all, but probably a wider circle as well). Having identified himself by name, Jesus further claims for himself the title of the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star (v. 16), implying, first, that he is the Jewish Messiah from David's line (compare 5:5) and, second, that his coming will mark the dawn of a new day (compare 2:28) and a new creation. The emphatic pronoun "I" (Greek ego) punctuates the whole of Jesus' concluding brief discourse: I, Jesus (v. 16), I am the Root and the Offspring of David (v. 16), and I warn everyone (v. 18). And although the "I" is not repeated in verse 17, there is no evident change of speaker.
Contrary to all modern translations, therefore, Jesus, not John, is the one quoting what the Spirit and the bride are saying, and inviting the thirsty to take the free gift of the water of life (v. 17). This is appropriate because only God or Jesus has the authority to give such an invitation to life (compare 21:6; also Jn 4:14; 6:35; 7:37-38). But are the explicit invitations to come (Greek erchou) directed to Jesus (as in v. 20, Come, Lord Jesus) or to whoever is thirsty? Are they prayers for Jesus' future coming, or invitations to the unbeliever to come and be saved?
The ambiguity divides commentators, but it is traceable to the imagery of the wedding supper. Verse 17 should be understood against the background of 19:7, "for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready," and 19:9, "blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb." Come is the bride's word summoning her bridegroom, the Lamb, and at the same time a call to any who would be guests at the wedding. Instead of describing the actual banquet, Jesus limits himself to the simple metaphor of taking the free gift of the water of life (compare 21:6 and 22:1). Because the marriage metaphor is never expanded into a full-fledged parable or allegory (in the manner of Mt 22:1-14 or 25:1-13), the heralded "wedding of the Lamb" is nowhere described. The joy of the wedding gives way to the immeasurable joy of an abundant stream of water for those who are dying of thirst, in the tradition of Isaiah 55:1: "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."
The joyous summons to life is in keeping with the fact that the gates of the holy city are always open (21:25) and the leaves of the tree of life are "for the healing of the nations" (22:2). It is also in keeping with Jesus' plea at the end of the seven messages to the churches: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (3:20). Jesus' concluding invitation to come and take the free gift of the water of life is similarly directed to anyone. The only exception is those who are truly "outside" (v. 15)—in the lake of fire (20:15; 21:8, 27). Just as in the parables of Jesus (above all in Mt 22:1-14), there is an unmistakable tension between the universal offer of life and the rejection of those who have not prepared themselves to receive life. This tension pervades the entire book of Revelation, in fact, the entire Christian religion. Christianity preaches a universal gospel of salvation, but not a gospel of universal salvation. All are invited to come, but not all do come. God respects human freedom to the extent that evil never disappears, even though it is defeated.
We are reminded of this once more in the next two verses. The I who bears testimony in verses 18 and 19 is clearly Jesus, not John (see Mounce 1977:396). By omitting quotation marks, most English translations give the mistaken impression that this is John solemnly testifying to the truth of the book he has just written. The Revised English Bible goes so far as to translate the beginning of verse 18 as "I, John, give this warning to everyone who is listening to the words of prophecy in this book." But the name "John" is not in the text, and verse 20 (even in the REB) makes such an interpretation nearly impossible: "He who gives this testimony says, `Yes, I am coming soon!'" (REB). Clearly Jesus, not John, is the one who is coming soon, and just as clearly Jesus, not John, is the one with the authority to lay down the severe sanctions about adding to someone the plagues described in this book (v. 18) or taking away someone's share in the tree of life and in the holy city (v. 19).
The warning stands in the tradition of Moses' speeches to the people of Israel (Deut 4:2, "Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you"; see also Deut 12:32). Like the warnings of Moses, this warning is directed "to the hearer . . . before whom the book is read in the congregation, not to a copyist" (Beckwith 1922:778-79). Robert Mounce agrees: "It is addressed not to future scribes who might be tempted to tamper with the text (nor to textual critics who must decide between shorter and longer variants!) but to `every man that heareth,' that is, to members of the seven churches of Asia where the book was to be read aloud. The warning is against willful distortion of the message" (1977:395). Jesus goes beyond Moses by invoking a stern sanction heightened by a play on words: if anyone adds anything to the Revelation, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book, not only the "three plagues" of 9:18 or the "seven last plagues" of 15:1, but all the plagues. If anyone takes away anything, God will take away that person's share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (vv. 18-19). The closest New Testament parallel to Jesus' grim play on words here is the sanction attached to his own commands in the Sermon on the Mount: whoever breaks one of the least of "these commandments" and teaches others to do so will be called least in "the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:19). The warning in Matthew appears to be a deliberate understatement, the real point being that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:20). This one at the end of Revelation is less subtle and even harsher. It amounts virtually to a curse.
We who presume to write commentaries on the book of Revelation—or any other book of the Bible, for that matter—are assuming a serious, even frightening responsibility. The same is true of those who teach the Bible in the church or preach it from the pulpit. Few can say what the apostle Paul said to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27 RSV). Yet the burden is not limited to the commentator, the pastor or the teacher. The point of the "curse" at the end of the book of Revelation (thus at the end of the whole Bible) is that the same responsibility rests on every reader or hearer of the word of God.
Not everything in the Bible is to be "kept" or "obeyed"; much of it is purely descriptive, and the reader's or hearer's responsibility is to pay attention, follow the story and give thanks for what God has done. But every book of the Bible has imperatives as well as indicatives. What God has done demands a moral response, and in every book, including Revelation, there is something to "keep" and something to "obey." The hearers cannot pick and choose what to obey and what to ignore, or they do so at their peril. That is the thrust of Jesus' last warning. To restate the warning positively, as a benediction, we need only go back to the beginning: "Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near" (1:3).
Jesus' final words, Yes, I am coming soon (v. 20) reaffirm the earlier pronouncement, "Behold, I am coming soon!" (v. 12). Children brought up in fundamentalist or evangelical homes sometimes have nightmares about the Second Coming of Jesus. These nightmares result from sermons or Sunday school lessons that pose the question, Where will you be when Jesus comes, in the Lord's house or in some den of iniquity? Christians are taught to pray "Thy kingdom come" and "Come, O Lord!" (1 Cor 16:22). But sometimes we are not so sure that we really want the Lord to come, either because life on earth has so much to offer or because of childhood fears.
To be honest, there is some ground for our childhood fears and bad dreams, painful though they may have been to us psychologically. Through much of the book of Revelation, the coming of Jesus is as much a threat as a promise. "If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place" (2:5). "Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (2:16). "But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you" (3:3). "Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed" (16:15). At the end of the Old Testament in the Christian canon, the coming of God himself is a threat, not a blessed promise. Malachi prophesies the coming of Elijah, who "will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Mal 4:6).
At the very end of the New Testament, however, the coming of God is the coming of Jesus, and its meaning is at last transformed. Yes, I am coming soon is no longer a threat, but a promise. The bad dream is over. "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." There is both curse and blessing in the book of Revelation, but blessing has the last word. As the reader makes peace with the coming of Jesus, the long letter comes to a close. In the manner of the letters of Paul, John ends with the closing salutation, The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen (v. 22).