The Blessings of the New Jerusalem
The first five verses of Revelation 22 continue the description of the new Jerusalem from the previous chapter. But there is a difference. While chapter 21 described the city itself — the materials it is made of, its size, its protection, etc., our present tense examines the multitude of blessings that God bestows upon the inhabitants of the city. The city, as we have said many times before, is not a literal city. Rather, it symbolizes the church both as it now is in principle and as it will be in glory.
In constructing this elaborate picture for us, John made use of numerous passages of Scripture. But two of them seem to be of particular importance: Genesis 2, which describes Adam’s residence before the fall, and Ezekiel 40–48, which gives us another perspective of the ideal temple of God.
The River of the Water of Life
The first blessing that we meet with in this chapter is a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb (v. 1).
Genesis 2:10 says that a river went out of Eden to water the garden. Because Adam and Eve received their sustenance from the trees of the garden, which were watered by this river, there is a sense in which this river was also a river of the water of life. And it was more than that. As it went out from Eden, it divided into four heads, which passed through places that later would become very important either because of their resources (gold, bdellium and onyx) or because of the civilizations they reared. Thus, even after the fall, this river continued to be a source of life to many people.
Yet, the river in Revelation 22 is even greater. It’s a pure river …clear as crystal, and it flows from the very throne of God himself. This shows that the blessings that we now have as a result of the finished work of Christ far exceed the blessings of Adam enjoyed before the fall. Christ did not merely restore us to man’s original state. He lifted us up far above it. Even if Adam had not fallen, he could never have transported us to the new Jerusalem with its crystal clear river of life.
There are three separate Old Testament prophecies that provide us with a similar picture. Joel 3:18 says, And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth of the house of the LORD, and shall water the valley of Shittim. This river can be seen again in Ezekiel 47. As the prophet moved farther and farther from the source of the river, it became deeper and deeper. It seemed to grow on its own. That’s because it wasn’t a literal river. And the third prophesy is Zechariah 14:8–9. The prophet wrote, And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be. And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one. This is clearly a picture of the worldwide success of the gospel following the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of the world (cf. Zech. 14:1–7 and 16–21).
But to fully appreciate this imagery, we must also turn to the words of Jesus in John 7:37–39. On the last day of the feast of tabernacles, probably as the water from the pool of Siloam was being transported to the altar for the morning sacrifice commemorating God’s provision of water from a rock during the exodus, the Lord stood up among the people and invited them to come to him. He said, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Not only does this show that the rivers of living water are a present blessing to believers, it also teaches that these waters are to be used in the cause of Christ. We are to drink these waters so that they can flow out of us. Well, what then are these waters? John answered this for us when he wrote, But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive. That is, the Spirit of God is the one through whom the blessings of the gospel era are given. He is himself the living water.
This adds one more dimension to Revelation 22. Several commentators make the connection between the rivers of living water and the Holy Spirit, but only one of them notes that the rivers of living water proceed out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. If this is correct, then Revelation 22:1 confirms the filique clause of the Nicene Creed, i.e., that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and not just from the Father alone. In particular, he applies the benefits of God the Son to those who have been chosen by God the Father.
The Tree of Life
Next we come to the tree of life in verse 2. Genesis 2:9 says places this tree in the center of the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were permitted to eat from this tree, but after they sinned this was no longer so. In fact, God expelled them from the garden and placed a cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every direction at the eastern end of the garden to prevent their return.
Revelation 22, on the other hand, places the tree of life in the middle of the city. Verse 2 says that it is both in the middle of the street and on either side of the river. Commentators offer two opinions on this. Some say that the river runs down the middle of the street with the trees growing along the edges of the road. Others believe that the street runs to the river on both sides of it and that the trees are growing on the bank of the river between the river and road. But since these things are obviously figurative, the exact arrangement is probably not particularly significant.
What is important is that the river of the water of life nourishes the tree of life, making it extremely fruitful, and that the river proceeds from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The picture here comes from Ezekiel 47:12, which says, And by the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow all trees for meat, whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine. In other words, the Holy Spirit (represented here by the river) proceeds from the Father and the Son (represented by the throne in Revelation and the sanctuary in Ezekiel) makes the church of Jesus Christ productive in its service, so that, like the tree of life, its leaves never fade, it bears fruit all throughout the year, and it bears many kinds of fruit.
Proverbs 11:30 says, The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise. It also says that wisdom is a tree of life (3:18), as well as fulfilled hope (13:12) and a wholesome tongue (15:4). Revelation 22:14 brings all of these ideas together when it reminds us that those who keep God’s commandments have a right to the tree of life. Jesus wrote to the church in Ephesus, To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Rev. 2:7).
Note here that the tree of life not only produces fruit in the believer, but it also reaches outside the believer to others. Specifically, the leaves of the tree, according to the end of verse 2, are for the healing of the nations. In fact, this has been a recurring theme in Revelation. The new song of God’s people, according to Revelation 5:9, is that Christ has redeemed us to God out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation. Two chapters later, John saw exactly that: a great multitude drawn from every nation, kindred and people praising the Lamb of God (7:9). The destruction of the temple in chapter 11 signaled not only that Christ owns the land of Palestine, but that the kingdoms of this world are his and he will reign over them for ever and ever (v. 15; cf. v. 18). In chapter 12 we read that he rules all nations with a rod of iron (v. 5). Although power was given to the sea-beast to over come the nations (13:7), which drank of the wine of the harlot’s fornication (18:3), Christ nonetheless smites the nations with the sword that comes out of his mouth (19:15). The devil himself was cast into prison for a thousand years, i.e., during the gospel era, to prevent him from deceiving the nations any more (ch. 20:3).
Here the nations are healed through the leaves of the tree of life. The sins of those who believe have been forgiven, and those who were once not God’s people have been brought nigh by the blood of Christ.
As far as we know, there was only one tree of life in Adam’s garden. Ezekiel, in the passage quoted earlier, says that trees (plural) will grow along the bank of the river. And many trees seem to be assumed in our text. The KJV says that the tree was on either side of the river. The Greek more literally says that it was “on this side of the river and on that side” (ἐντεῦθεν καὶ ἐκεῖθεν). This only makes sense if there is more than one tree.
So, again, we see that the blessings that we have in Christ are greater than the blessings that Adam lost in the fall. These amazing blessings apply universally to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ regardless of age, gender, race, family and nationality.
No More Curse
The third verse announces the end of the curse. Some commentators believe that the curse to which reference is here made is the curse on national Israel for its covenant infidelity in the first century. But with the references to creation and the fulfillment of God’s purposes among the gentiles, it’s more likely the curse that God pronounced on the world when Adam sinned. God cursed every man, woman and child. He increased the woman’s sorrow in conceiving and bearing children, and the toil of man’s work to provide the simple necessities of life for his family. The Lord even cursed the ground, so that thorns and thistles are a constant annoyance.
But the curse is no more. Instead, God’s people can now see the very throne of God and of the Lamb. Our eyes can be dazzled by the glory of God himself. And we also serve this glorious monarch. We serve him, according to verse 5, by reigning with him for ever and ever.
Verse 4 adds that we’ll see God’s face. In Scripture, God’s face often symbolizes his favor. He shows us his face when we enjoy his favor. Psalm 80:3 says, Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pronounced those the pure in heart blessed, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8). But the Lord also hides his face from us when he withholds his favor. We see this in Isaiah 59:2, where God said, But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.
On the other hand, there is also a sense in which believers will see God. The closest and most likely antecedent for the pronoun his is the Lamb of the previous verse. Because Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is fully man, we not only see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, as Paul wrote in II Cor. 4:6 (cf. Rev. 21:11, 23; 22;5), but we also behold the Father through him (John 14:9). That’s because, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9). Although God is essentially spirit and has no body, when we look upon the Lord Jesus Christ with the eyes of faith we “see” everything that can be seen of God. And therefore, Thomas, once the Spirit of God opened his heart to the truth of the Lord’s resurrection, exclaimed, My Lord and my God (John 20:28).
To have the name of Christ on our forehead (figuratively, of course) is a blessing of unparalleled magnitude. It means that we his servants, but we are more than servants. We are his people whom he has loved from all eternity. It was for us that the Son of God humbled himself, took upon himself our nature with all of its infirmities except sin and died.