The Source of life – Revelation 22:1-5

Previously: I did not see a sanctuary – Revelation 21:22

The scripture

Rev. 22:1 – Then he showed me the river of living water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the broad street of the city. The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His slaves will serve Him. 4 They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. 5 Night will no longer exist, and people will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever. (HCSB)

The Source of life

The first five verses of the final chapter of Revelation describe four prominent objects in the New Jerusalem: (1) the river of living water, (2) the broad street of the city, (3) the tree of life, and (4) the throne of God and of the Lamb. Each of these relates in some fashion to God, who is the Source of life. Let’s take a closer look at these elements.

The river of living water. John describes the living water as “sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the broad street of the city” (vv. 1-2). In Rev. 21:6, the One seated on the throne says, “I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life.” This promise draws deeply from the Old and New Testaments and speaks of eternal life received by God’s grace through faith. We see that promise fulfilled in Revelation 22. The Greek word potamos is translated “river,” “flood,” or “stream” and is used metaphorically in John 7:38 to describe the blessing of eternal peace and satisfaction found in Christ. That same figurative application is used throughout Revelation, pointing us to the Source of eternal life.

The river in Rev. 22:1 calls to mind the river in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10) as well as prophetic references to water flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47. According to Ezek. 47:1-12 (see also Joel 4:18; Zech. 14:8) there will arise in the temple at the time of salvation a mighty river that flows toward the Dead Sea and transforms the desert into fertile land. On both its banks trees grow that bear fresh fruit monthly and sprout leaves with healing effects. John seems to take this prophetic imagery and apply it to the restored Eden in the new heavens and new earth.

“This end-time river is crystal clear (symbolic of purity and holiness) and full of the ‘water of life,’” according to the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times. “Perhaps most significantly, the river flows ‘from the throne of God and of the Lamb,’ indicating the source of the water. Since the water is life or life-giving, the ‘river of life’ primarily signifies the eternal life and fellowship that God gives fully and abundantly to his people” (p. 392).

Many commentators seek to explain the symbolism of these heavenly waters. Some say it speaks of baptism, or of saving knowledge that flows from God and “waters” the restored earth. Others contend it is the grace of God proclaimed through the preaching of the cross. Still other interpreters argue that these waters are God’s peace upon troubled nations, or simply the Oriental image of abounding happiness and plenty.

While there may be value in all of these views, none of them seems to match the intended fullness of John’s vision. A more fitting understanding is that this river, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, is the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, who authors the “words of life” in scripture; regenerates the dead spirits of unbelievers and grants them faith to trust in Jesus; indwells, seals, baptizes, and guides them, ensuring that these children of God grow to full maturity and attain glorification at the resurrection of the just.

Joseph A. Seiss comments: “These waters are called ‘water of life coming forth out of the throne.’ They are the issuing life of the throne, as the city itself is the embodiment of God’s glory. The throne is the throne of the Lamb, in whom is the eternal Godhead. The Father reigns in and through the Son, and this is the reviving and all-animating life and spirit of all this embodiment of Deity in that sublime city. It is the Holy Ghost for that celestial Tabernacle, as God and the Lamb are the Temple of it. It is the divine emanation from the Father and the So which fills and cheers and forever rejoices the dwellers in that place…. It is the Spirit of glory which they drink and embody; and it is for their pleasure and blessedness, as to no other class of the human family” (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, pp. 504-05).

The broad street of the city. John notes that the river of living water flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb “down the middle of the broad street of the city” (v. 2a). Rev. 21:21b tells us, “The broad street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.” The term “broad street” also may be translated “public square,” indicating a place of gathering, fellowship, and worship. Perhaps this public square is what John describes earlier as “[s]omething like a sea of glass, similar to crystal … before the throne” (Rev. 4:6a).

In any case, this broad street or public square accommodates a very large number of people, who stand before the throne of God and enjoy the pure refreshment of the Holy Spirit as He moves in their midst. Few commentators make mention of the broad street, but we should not miss its significance.

First, it is broad, airy, and inviting. The first readers of Revelation are persecuted saints who must worship in secret. The promise of a time and place in which the Lord Jesus may be exalted without fear of retribution is most inviting.

Second, the street is located in the presence of the triune Godhead, before the throne of God and of the Lamb and alongside the life-giving waters that symbolize the Holy Spirit. There is no fear in the presence of God; no shame for past sins now forgiven; no want for food or drink; no dread of night because “the Lord will give them light” (v. 5).

Third, the street is part of the heavenly city. Rome was known for its paved streets that hastened commerce, accommodated its armies, and enabled the empire to maintain more than 200 years of Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. But the broad heavenly street is not for commerce or enforcing peace; it is a paved public square where redeemed people gather to worship the Prince of Peace.

Fourth, the street is pure gold, like transparent glass. While rare metals like gold are precious and highly coveted on earth, they are as common as pavers in heaven. While John may be speaking metaphorically about streets of gold, the idea of purity, accessibility, and value should not be lost to us; we stand on holy ground in the presence of the Almighty.

Finally, the broad street is accessible only to those who come to it by the narrow way. Jesus tells us in  Matt. 7:13-14, “Enter [the kingdom of heaven] through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.” He further tells us in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Only those who entrust their lives to Christ stand on the broad streets of the heavenly city.

The tree of life. We first hear of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9). Adam and Eve may eat freely from this tree until they fall into sin; then they are banished from the garden and the Lord stations cherubim and the “flaming, whirling sword east of the garden of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). The HCSB Study Bible notes, “Since the gift of life was directly tied to obedience, man’s sin meant that the penalty of death must be enforced” (p.14).

Now, however, in Revelation 22, with all things restored in the new heavens and the new earth, the curse of sin is taken away. All redeemed people are returned to sinless innocence. Therefore, they may eat freely once again of the tree of life.

David H. Stern writes, “Like the other phenomena of the new creation [the tree of life] is unlike anything we now know, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a different kind every month. Moreover, the leaves of the tree are for healing the nations – no longer will there be any curses. Here ‘healing’ seems to mean ‘making whole.’ The ‘curses’ are evils that come upon nations – both Israel and the Gentile nations – due to their continued and unrepented sins; most of the biblical prophets pronounced curses at one time or another” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 855).

We should keep in mind that in both Genesis and Revelation the tree of life represents eternal life or immortality. In Genesis, after Adam and Eve disobey God, they are denied access to the tree of life and thus experience both spiritual death (immediately) and physical death (later). The sacrificial system – which God apparently introduces immediately after the fall (see Gen. 3:21; 4:3-5) – enables fallen people to experience atonement for their sins and to maintain fellowship with their Creator.

All of this points to the promised Lamb of God who, being hanged on a tree and becoming a curse for us, takes away our sins and enables us to enjoy an unbreakable, intimate, and everlasting covenant relationship with God. In Rev. 2:7 the Spirit tells the church at Ephesus, and in effect all redeemed people, “I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise.” Finally, in Revelation 22, at the culmination of history, God’s redeemed people are once again in the garden, enjoying God’s presence.

The Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times notes that the river “waters the tree of life, stressing the connection between the powerful presence of God and human immortality. Also, note that the tree of life stands on both sides of the river. Not only has this tree increased from one to many (probably an entire grove), but John stresses how plentiful and available the fruit will be. Even the leaves are valuable, providing healing for the nations (probably a reference to salvation). Access to this tree will provide eternal life for all God’s people” (pp. 450-51).

Sometimes the question is raised, “Will we eat in our glorified state?” It seems clear that we do  eat, although not necessarily to sustain life. In the Old Testament, the Lord eats Sarah’s cakes and Abraham’s dressed calf (Gen. 18:6-8). In the New Testament, when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, He tells the apostles He will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the day when He drinks it in a new way in His Father’s kingdom with them (Matt. 26:29). After His resurrection, Jesus eats with His disciples (Luke 24:41-43). And Rev. 19:6-10 describes the marriage feast of the Lamb.

As Joseph A. Seiss points out, “There is also much that is moral and spiritual in eating. It was by eating that the fall and all its consequences came into the world. All the holy appointments of God in the old economy had eating connected with them. The highest impartation of Christ and his salvation to his people on earth is done in connection with a sacred eating and drinking. The Saviour several times refers to eating and drinking in the kingdom of glory. He again and again likens the whole provision of grace to a banquet, a feast” (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 506).

Seiss goes on to remind us that eating of the fruit of the tree of life in the first paradise is the “sacrament of fellowship with life, a commemoration, pledge, support, and participation of life eternal, for soul and body. Hence sin cut off man from it; and all the ordinances and ministries of grace since that time are meant for his recovery and readmission to that Tree…. Like the golden table of showbread which ever stood in the ancient Tabernacle and Temple for the priests to eat, so the Tree of Life stands in all the golden streets of the New Jerusalem, with its monthly fruit for the immortal king-priests of heaven” (pp. 506-07).

One final note: John tells us that the leaves of the tree of life are for “healing the nations” (v. 2b). Some commentators suggest that the fruit of the tree is for the saints in heaven while the leaves are for sustaining life on earth, but this seems to miss the point that John is describing a restored creation in which heaven is brought to earth and the throne of God – in fact, God Himself – is the focal point of it all. Further, the curse on creation is removed and all things are made new; therefore, there is no longer sickness or death that requires attention. Perhaps a better understanding of this passage is that the leaves are always present on the tree, a reminder of God’s faithfulness, of eternal life, and of the assurance that fruit will be produced continuously. Leaves tell us a lot about the health of a tree, in addition to adding beauty and form. Further, as leaves are used today as nutrients, health supplements, and even medicines, the leaves of the tree of life assure us of continued physical and spiritual health throughout eternity. As Matthew Henry writes, “This tree is never empty, never barren; there is always fruit upon it. In heaven there is not only a variety of pure and satisfying pleasures, but a continuance of them, and always fresh. The fruit is not only pleasant, but wholesome. The presence of God in heaven is the health and happiness of the saints; there they find in him a remedy for all their former maladies, and are preserved by him in the most healthful and vigorous state” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Logos Bible Software).

The throne of God and of the Lamb. Twice in the first three verses of this chapter John tells us about “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” The river of living water flows from this throne (v. 1), which is located in the midst of the city (v. 3). Revelation mentions the heavenly throne about 40 times. As the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times notes, “The centrality of the throne [in chapters 4-5] signifies God’s sovereign rule as the centerpiece of ultimate reality around which everything else revolves. All subsequent visions in the book emerge from these introductory visions of God’s sovereignty. The faithful witness and suffering of believers, the rebellion and punishment of unbelievers, and the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem his people and live among them are all under God’s control. Because only God is supreme over his creation, he alone is worthy of worship” (pp. 444-45).

Some commentators argue that there is no literal throne in heaven, for God is eternal Spirit and does not occupy a physical space; rather, they say, this is anthropomorphic language drawn from ancient eastern royal court imagery to illustrate God’s sovereignty. However, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became flesh. Even after His physical resurrection and ascension into heaven He maintained His physical body, in which He has promised to return one day. Certainly if a member of the Godhead chooses to appear to human beings in a burning bush, or a pillar of cloud and fire, or as the Angel of the Lord, or as the Son of Man, He can make Himself visible to redeemed humanity on a throne in heaven – especially since all judgment has been given to the Son (John 5:22) who, after He returns in the flesh, will “sit on the throne of His glory” to judge the nations (Matt. 25:31-46). No doubt, the throne John sees in Revelation 22 signifies God’s sovereignty over all creation, but it does not limit God if He chooses to execute judgment and rule over His people from a literal throne as He comes down from heaven to a restored earth.

Thrones in heaven

One other note: Some interpreters believe there are many different thrones in heaven, from the high and lofty throne of Isa. 6:1ff., to the dazzling rainbow-shrouded throne in Revelation 4-5, to the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10), to the throne on which Jesus judges the nations (Matt. 25:31-46), to the great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15), to the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1-3). Other commentators see a single throne from which God rules and executes judgment during different phases of human history.

The manner in which these thrones appear and are experienced reflects the purpose for which God meets with people. The throne in Revelation 4-5, for example, shows God in the midst of heavenly creatures and 24 elders as the Lamb approaches the throne and takes the scroll, from which judgments subsequently are pronounced upon the earth. In Revelation 14, the Lamb and the 144,000 stand on Mount Zion, and the redeemed sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. And in Rev. 20:11-15, the great white throne by comparison seems stark and void of heavenly creatures, with only unbelievers summoned to give an account of their lives as books are opened, resulting in their being banished to the lake of fire.

Whatever view is correct, we should keep in mind that God is always sovereign over His creation, is always in control, is always just in His words and deeds, and promises believers that we will serve Him and reign with Him as He sits upon the throne of His glory throughout all eternity.

In Rev. 22:1-3, John sees servants of God around the throne. These servants see His face, serve Him in the never-ending light of His glorious presence, and reign with Him forever. John also notes that these servants bear God’s name on their foreheads, just as the 144,000 bear the name of Jesus and of the Father on their foreheads.

This likely does not mean that God has physically branded His people. Rather, it seems to signify at least two truths: (1) God knows His people and has marked them by His Spirit as His own; and (2) they know God and joyfully keep Him forever at the forefront of their minds. God’s people “shall see and know Him with intuitive knowledge of Him, even as they are known by Him … and face to face. Compare 1 Tim. 6:16, with John 14:9. God the Father can only be seen in Christ” (R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, D. Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Rev. 22:4).

Jurgen Roloff comments, “What was denied to Moses himself (Exod. 33:20-23) is granted to them (cf. Matt. 5:8; 2 Cor. 3:18), for they bear his name on their forehead and are thereby shown to be God’s possession (cf. 14:1). God’s clarity gives them direction and orientation for all time (cf. 21:11, 23). Above all, however, God’s servants may participate in his dominion forever. The promise, already applicable in the present for members of the church, that they are made a royal domain and priests through Christ for God (cf. 1:6) is finally fulfilled now in real corporeality” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 247).

Long ago, Fanny Crosby wrong a hymn entitled, “My Saviour First of All.” Included are these words, which describe the blessedness believers experience when they pass through the portals of heaven:

When my life work is ended, and I cross the swelling tide,

When the bright and glorious morning I shall see;

I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,

And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

Thro’ the gates to the city in a robe of spotless white,

He will lead me where no tears shall ever fall;

In the glad song of ages I shall mingle with delight,

But I long to meet my Saviour first of all.

Next: The time is near – Revelation 22:6-7