The final “then the angel showed me” allows John to see the ultimate contents of the scroll that the Lamb gained the ability to open through his faithful witness. John sees a vision that evokes the very beginning of the human project in the Garden of Eden in Genesis two. However, now at the culmination, this garden is in the middle of a city.
The centerpiece of the vision is the “river of the water of life” that flows from the “throne of God and the Lamb.” This river is flanked on each side by “the tree of life” with its fruit and leaves that are “for the healing of the nations” (22:1-3). It is difficult to imagine a clearer statement of the message of the book of Revelation—and this vision serves as a powerful denouement to the Christian Bible. What is it all about? Life-giving power comes directly from God’s throne in order to heal the nations.
The vision of the tree of life gives a final point of emphasis to counter notions that the God of the Bible is a punitive God or that sinful human beings have removed themselves from the reach of God’s healing love. “The nations” in Revelation, and actually throughout the Bible, are usually human beings organized in opposition to God and God’s people. In Revelation, the city of Babylon links closely with the nations. To have this final allusion to the healing of the nations makes the point that indeed God loves God’s enemies (Romans 5) and purposes that the final word will be a healing, not a punitive word.
This final vision also underscores that the Lamb reveals to us God’s very character. The throne here is not a throne with two distinct seats, as it were. We are not dealing here with two distinct characters with different wills—God and the Lamb. There is no hint here that Jesus represents God’s loving mercy and “God the Father” represents God’s holiness and punitive wrath. The close identification between the Lamb and the One on the throne emphasizes that they are one; the Lamb reveals the one will of God. If we want to know what God is like we look at the faithful witness of the Lamb—who Revelation one asserts, rules “the kings of the earth.” The rule of the Lamb, though, is a rule of healing, not a rule of domination. As ruler, that is as “king,” that is as “Christ,” the Lamb reveals the nature of God’s rule over all creation.
Right after the picture of the nations being healed, John reiterates the point from the prior chapter that, though the “nations” are present, “nothing accursed will be found there any more” (22:3). Earlier, he wrote, “nothing unclean will enter [New Jerusalem]” (21:27). This assertion does not stand in tension with the expressions of healing mercy. It is not that John now wants to emphasize those who are excluded. Rather, that “nothing accursed” will be present emphasizes that the nations truly are healed. This is a word of assurance. New Jerusalem as a place of wholeness is an invitation and a promise—if you want, you will be healed.
A radical theological reorientation lies behind the promise that the Lamb’s “servants” (meaning the countless multitude of chapter seven) will “see God’s face” (22:4). This underscores the identification of God with the Lamb. God is present to God’s people as a face who can be seen. This contrasts with earlier notions of God as unseen (Ex 33:20 and Dt 4:12). God, in the end, is not the unknowable and inscrutable Other. God is known in the Lamb—the author of healing, persevering love.
Not only will they see God’s face, they will also be given light that empowers them to “reign forever and ever” (22:5). The work of God that Revelation recounts has as its goal social transformation. The nature of the “city” that provides humanity’s home is transformed—from Babylon’s domination and definition of “reign” as power-over to New Jerusalem’s servanthood as embodied by the Lamb where “reign” now means power-with.
That these visions relate to “what must soon take place” and that God is “coming soon!” (22:6-7) does not mean that Revelation is predicting a near end to human history (which, of course, did not happen). Rather, the point is that this message is urgent and is for today. John and his readers can (and must) embody New Jerusalem immediately, “soon.”
The book concludes with a variety of exhortations that underscore the importance and immediacy of John’s message. The angel tells John, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (22:10). That is, we need the message of this book now; it is not for some distant future time (contrary to the way present-day future prophecy interpretation understands Revelation). As a book of ethical exhortation, Revelation spoke first of all to the late first century when it was written. With such a focus, then, it speaks to future generations through the perennial value of the message about the late first century.
The emphasis on “the time is near” is to say that this message is for now. The time to learn from and embody the message is in the present. John has made it clear throughout Revelation that its message is for the long haul. He has no sense that the “three and a half years” will be a brief time; the call he makes is not hang in there for this brief time before history ends. To the contrary, he calls for persevering love. What is at hand is the “end” in the sense of purpose and meaningfulness of life lived in the Lamb’s way—not “the end” in the sense of the ending of time and history.
The closing section of Revelation contains numerous elements of the letter style of communication, as does the opening section. One effect of this beginning and end is to underscore that the message the book contains is first of all intended for actual people in actual congregations in the present of John’s life, a letter of exhortation. Also, the structure underscores the importance of reading Revelation as a whole. It has a beginning and then a middle that moves toward the conclusion.