The end of the image-filled, enigmatic, apocalyptic biblical book of Revelation is replete with urgency.
The text interconnects two matters in order to create this impression. On the one hand, Jesus promises to ‘come’ soon. On the other, by invitation and by direct speech the imagined beneficiaries of his promised arrival agree that his schedule is the appropriate one.
At some length the passage reads as follows:
‘See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’
And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’
‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ 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.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:7–20 NRSV)
Christian readers have for centuries been required to wrestle with the twin realities of Jesus’ promises to come soon and the evident sense of delay as twenty centuries have come and gone. Such hermeneutical and indeed existential challenge ought not to be glibly evaded.
Yet what strikes one in this passage today is not that difficult conundrum but rather the mutuality of the coming that is addressed. Jesus promises to come to those who live in the distressed earth whose fate has been addressed in the chapters of this book. Yet John’s visionary text also invites ‘those who are thirsty’ to come to the waters of life that have been introduced early in the chapter.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations …
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.
The encounter that comes into view is not so much a unilateral arrival as a meeting in Jerusalem Descended.
And then, more obviously, the text has its protagonists virtually cry out in invitation to the one who has promised to come quickly that he should indeed come quickly, as promised!
If the bride is by already developed imagery the bride of this coming one, it is perhaps more surprising that the Spirit—in the Johannine literature necessarily the Spirit of Jesus and of God himself—should also audibly agree with Jesus’ promise.
With such details, the text almost viscerally anticipates Jesus’ presence on the scene. More, it longs for him to appear, to participate, to do his comforting work and to receive a grateful people’s praise.
Unfortunate eschatologies that imagine a whisking away of God’s chosen to another place so that this world might burn have lost their way with the text, opting instead for supra-biblical systems with their own coherence but little organic connection with the book from which they claim to derive.
Instead, Revelation has—with ample biblical precedent—all things becoming new, Jerusalem Descending, a world become what it must be but has failed ingloriously to become.
Those who have suffered most the deep rift between purpose and promise, on the one hand, and fractured, pained reality on the other, are best poised to lean with anticipation into this imagined future and whisper or shout ‘Come!’ with hoarse throats burned dry by the heat of unholy fire. It is they who lap thirstily the waters of life, finding the relief in its coolness to form the words ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ on refreshed lips before dipping their faces to gulp again.