Revelation 20:1-3: In a way that does not reduce personal human responsibility, Satan has been pictured throughout Revelation as the transcendent cause of human evil and misery (People’s New Testament Commentary). When evil ends and God triumphs, one cause of human evil must also be locked away. He will be locked away for a great while, symbolically represented by 1,000 years. Satan is pictured not only as one who deceived individuals, but also nations. Evil is not simply an individual phenomenon, it is also systemic – think of racism, slavery, the Holocaust. People participated in these evils sometimes without thinking that anything was wrong. They were just going with the flow. One of the major functions of the prophetic revelation of the power of Satan behind the scenes was to disclose to the Asian Christians that their real enemy was not the Jews and Romans who were harassing and even imprisoning and killing them, but the power of evil of which, they, too, were the victims (People’s New Testament Commentary) John’s apocalyptic framework is basically either/or, but even with that the more complex reality of the world sneaks in. Evil is persistent and pernicious, and sometimes sneaks back in, even when it seems contained.
Revelation 20:4-6: The time of 1,000 years comes into play again, this time not as a time when Satan is bound up, but as a time when a special group is given privileged status. The martyrs rule with Christ for 1,000 years on earth. Like many of the pictures in chapters 19-20, this one seems very partial. The prophets and seers of the Old Testament had developed basically two different pictures to express the triumph of God at the end of history, which may be called the “prophetic” and the “apocalyptic.” In the “prophetic’ view, the world’s evil would be overcome and life would come into its own as it was intended to be in God’s good creation. Prophetic eschatology understood salvation in continuity with this world and its history; this world would be the setting for eschatological bliss. In contrast, apocalyptic eschatology saw this world as already too overwhelmed with evil for redemption to occur from within it. The present world must pass away to make way for eschatological fulfillment in the setting of new heavens and a new earth. In this frame of reference, the Messiah was not thought of as a this-worldly royal figure empowered by God, but as a transcendent figure who brings salvation from the other world. In apocalyptic eschatology, the final kingdom of God does not grow out of this world, but breaks into it from the beyond. By John’s time, these two views had already been combined into a scheme in which a this-worldly messiah brought this-worldly salvation during a transitional kingdom, which was then superseded by eternal apocalyptic salvation in the new world. (People’s New Testament Commentary) While John makes use of both traditions of his time, he does not easily harmonize them. One of the messages of this picture of the triumph of God is that the earth itself is an arena for the reign of Christ. Another message is an encouragement, once again, to remain faithful no matter the cost. “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection.” Those who share in this resurrection are those who have lost their lives for their faith. To call them blessed has a certain irony. John makes use of this to offer hope to beleaguered Christians.
Revelation 20:7-10: In the fifth picture of the triumph of God and God’s dream for the world, evil has reared its ugly head again. This picture builds on the previous two – John is weaving together various traditions of his time. In Ezekial 38-39, Gog was a prince and Magog a land, but John uses them both as names for personal beings. In chapter 19, the armies of the earth had already been defeated, or so it seems. This is another picture, and the armies here may have a more mythological status. In any event, as this large army was approaching the camp of the saints, they are defeated by a fire from heaven. Not much of a battle for those who look to Revelation for battle scenes. The devil is thrown into the same lake of fire as were the beast and the beast’s prophet. The tormenting day and night seems like an excessive touch, but remember that these are beings cast in mythological roles and a mythic destruction seems appropriate even if the language is harsh.
Revelation 20:11-15: The sixth picture is a picture of a final judgment. A great throne descends. The presence is such that heaven and earth as they currently exist cannot stand in this one’s presence. How we might imagine that is difficult. All the dead appear to be judged according to their works, according to what they had done. At the same time there is a book of life. John does not clearly meld his pictures here. The book of life seems a document of God’s grace and love, and it is this which finally saves. What then of being judged by deeds? John seems to think both grace and works have a role to play in being God’s people. Perhaps the book of life functioned to remind those who were concerned about their ability to remain faithful that they were already in that book and that their job was to hold on. It might have been a way to reduce fear. Unfortunately in the history of the church that same image has been used to induce fear – “do you know if your name is written in the book of life?” Metaphors and images are multivalent, they speak a multiplicity of languages. That is wonderful, but it also means that images can be misused and to use the image of the book of life to induce fear is to misuse it, I think. Heaven and earth have fled. Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire as are those who are not found in the book of life. While this lake of fire seems to be the same lake of fire and sulfur where the devil and the beast are, there is no mention here of eternal torment. A better translation of verse 14 is “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life…” This is an even more hopeful possibility.
In the end, we leave final judgment up to God. For most of us, our lives are a mixture of good and evil, truth and lies, moments of grace and beauty and goodness, and moments we wish we could take back because we have hurt someone, been rude or angry or hateful. For most of humanity, the balance is probably in favor of the good, but trying to keep track of that is crazy-making. God does not desire to make us crazy, but rather to free us for goodness. To have the assurance that you are already in God’s book of life, an assurance John gives his readers, is to be free to love, to do justice, to make peace, to live the lamb-like life. Our deeds may still become fully comprehended some day, and they already are, by God. At that time we will understand more fully where we have done good and where we have failed, but in the end, God’s love and life will redeem our lives. That is the Christian hope John portrays here.
Revelation 21:1-8: We begin with the final vision of what the triumph of God and of God’s dream for the world will look like. This vision is by far the longest and most hopeful. Evil barely makes an appearance here. In the end, God’s love and justice will make evil look small and pale by comparison, unlike in the heaven and earth that we know only too well.
When God’s dream for the world finally prevails, it will be a new heaven and a new earth. There will be a new city. Remember the lengthy description of Babylon/Rome in chapter 18, and how its lights and music were going out. Here, in this new city, there will be lights and music and feasting – but with justice, not created on the backs of the poor and oppressed. All will find a place in the new city, not just the privileged few. Unlike an oppressive emperor God will reign as one who wipes away tears from eyes. All things will be made new. The thirsty will be given water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who have courage in the midst of trials and tribulations will inhabit the city. In a negative word of encouragement, John tells the readers that the cowardly and faithless will not be found in the new city. There will not be murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and so on – probably references to John’s view of the nature of the Roman empire.
Revelation 21:9-27: Here we seem to have vision 7b, another angle on the holy city. The bride of the Lamb is portrayed both as a people and as a new community, a new city. The vision is of a city of spectacular wealth, with imagery that makes little literal sense -“pure gold, transparent as glass” (v. 21)? The city will have no place to worship, because God will be powerfully present everywhere. They will be the light for the city. There is an openness and inclusiveness to this vision of the city – nations and kings will come to it. To ask “What nations, what kings – haven’t they all been destroyed?” is to begin to realize that this is not some map of a particular future but the future painted with a wonderfully creative theological brush. Again, a note that nothing unclean will enter in, but here it is not clear what has happened to the unclean. Are they outside the city, but not in a lake of fire? Yet again, we are pushed to see poetry here. “Each picture has its own message, and each warns against taking the other with exclusive literalism” (People’s New Testament Commentary)
Revelation 22:1-7: Vision seven has yet a third element. If length of writing is any indication, we would do well to pay more attention to chapters 1-3, 18 and 21-22 than much of the rest of the book. Here we have a stark contrast between two cities – Babylon/Rome and the New Jerusalem. John is interpreting the world he lives in compared to God’s dream for the world and asking his hearers to continue to choose God’s dream. I can imagine the excitement that might be generated when this work was read aloud from beginning to end in the context of worship. These chapters would light fires in the hearts and minds of their hearers.
In the midst of the city is a river, the river of the water of life. Along the banks of the river is the tree of life, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. God’s dream for the world is not just the salvation of individual persons, it is a reconstituted human community. God is light and life and healing, and God’s people will be full participants in God’s dream for the world.
John proclaims that his words are trustworthy and true, a needed word given the dire straits of the communities to which he writes. He ends with a word of great hope and encouragement. “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” God’s dream is on its way, hold on.
Revelation 22:8-21: The visionary sequence has run its course, and we are left to hear from “I, John.” John has a few remaining words of hope and encouragement to offer, and he offers them straight up. Worship God (verse 9). “Let the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (verse 11). Wash your robes (verse 14) – a metaphor for receiving forgiveness and living in holiness.
And the liturgical chant begins – The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. One can almost imagine an altar call of some sort, an invitation to communion. As people come forward they also hope for the coming of Christ and of God’s dream for the world.
John cautions against amending his work, and we have seen how the various visions play off each other. In a real sense we need them all, for this is a highly creative work.
The letter ends with words of benediction.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen.
How can I add to John’s words? The New Testament ends beautifully, with a fervent prayer for a better world, the coming of God’s dream for that world as we know it in the Christ whose story we have been following since Matthew 1:1. And before God’s dream for the world arrives, we still hope Christ comes into our lives and our churches to comfort us and to shake us up. God’s grace in Christ is meant to do that – embrace us, comfort us, challenge us, move us, transform us. One of the ways Christ and God’s grace come to us is as we read the Scriptures together. I hope this has been a labor of love, a work of grace in your lives as we have read together. I know it has been for me. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.