If anyone adds to them – Revelation 22:18-21

Previously: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” – Revelation 22:17

The scripture

Rev. 22:18 – I testify to everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book. 19 And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book. 20 He who testifies about these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!  21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. (HCSB)

If anyone adds to them

The Book of Revelation ends with a sobering warning. Verses 18-19 read, “I testify to everyone who hears the prophetic words of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book. And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book.”

It’s doubtful that this passage applies to the entire canon of scripture, which at the time of John’s writing is not yet closed. More likely John is making it clear that the Book of Revelation must be read in its fullness – the foreboding warnings of wrath and the glorious promises of the new heavens and earth – without any tinkering with the text.

The HCSB Study Bible, however, cautions that “the wording does imply that all Scripture should be guarded as sacred, never tampered with. The immediate context in Revelation is of a ‘new Eden’ [vv. 1-5]. Also, in Genesis 3, Eve added to the Word of God [Gen. 3:3] and the Serpent took away from what the Lord had said [Gen. 3:4]. As a result, this ‘biblical bookends’ effect of Rev. 22:18-19 and Gen. 3:3-4 infers that, just as Genesis is the first book in the Bible, Revelation is the last” (p. 2230).

Although the warning of Rev. 22:18-19 is specific to the Book of Revelation, the principle applies to anyone who seeks to intentionally distort God’s Word, according to Got Questions Ministries: “Moses gave a similar warning in Deuteronomy 4:1-2, where he cautioned the Israelites that they must listen to and obey the commandments of the Lord, neither adding to nor taking away from His revealed Word. Proverbs 30:5-6 contains a similar admonition to anyone who would add to God’s words: he will be rebuked and proven a liar…. We must be careful to handle the Bible with care and reverence so as to not distort its message” (gotquestions.org).

Lesser warnings

At the same time, we must not neglect two lesser warnings implied in these verses. The first admonition is against understanding Revelation wrongly. Whether through careless handling of these divine words, or laziness, or reading Revelation against the backdrop of today’s headlines, or imposing our imagination on its apocalyptic imagery, to misrepresent the Word of God, no matter how innocently, is to bring spiritual harm to ourselves and others.

There is an abundance of available commentaries on the Book of Revelation – books, articles, websites, novels, mini-series, sermons, and more – and much of it is poorly done. The authors in some cases simply impose their eschatology on the scriptures, running roughshod over careful hermeneutics. Others take advantage of our desire to have difficult Bible passages explained in simple terms when in fact many passages defy easy understanding. Still others profit on our sincere desire to obey the Lord’s command to always be ready for His return by convincing us we are living in the last days – and while we may not know the day or the hour of our Lord’s return, we can narrow it down to the year, or even the phase of the moon.

Entire ministries are built on the premise that God has granted some people the keys to unlocking the Apocalypse, and these people are happy to share their special knowledge – for a price. This is not to say that Revelation is a Rubik’s Cube that most people will never solve, or that sincere students of the Word cannot mine the depths of the Apocalypse for rich and enduring truths. But it is to say that we should handle all of God’s Word with a great deal of reverence and caution.

The second “lesser” warning implied in Rev. 22:18-19 is against neglect. Perhaps we are tempted to give up too easily, to avoid Revelation because its language and imagery are beyond our understanding, and to limit our study of the scriptures to safer and simpler eyewitness testimonies. This is an equally damaging mistake for several reasons, not the least of which is of which is God’s promise to bless those who read this book, hear the words of this prophecy, and keep what is written (Rev. 1:3; 22:7).

Revelation punctuates a number of biblical doctrines and enables us to see them from a new perspective. In this prophecy John confirms the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the triune Godhead, the finished work of Jesus on the cross, His physical resurrection, salvation by grace through faith, the urgency of the gospel, the imminent return of Jesus, the reality of future resurrection and final judgment, and the promise of new heavens and a new earth in which our Savior reverses the effects of the fall and sets everything right. To avoid studying Revelation is to decline the Lord’s invitation to feast at His banquet table. It is to settle for milk when meat is offered. And it is to deny ourselves the opportunity for spiritual muscle building that only comes when we wrestle with the hard sayings of divine revelation.

Charles Swindoll asks us to consider some subtle ways we might alter God’s word:

  • Disobeying – willfully rebelling against clear commands of Scripture
  • Disregarding – intentionally ignoring what is written
  • Distorting – purposely twisting the true meaning of God’s Word to accommodate our opinions
  • Diluting – adding other traditions, texts, or teachers as ‘authoritative truth’ (Insights on Revelation, p. 294).

Concern over integrity

Some commentators believe John is concerned with copyists who may feel compelled to add their own explanations or delete particularly difficult passages. The integrity of Revelation is of paramount importance to John because these are not his words or the product of his imagination; rather, these are divinely inspired messages with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit actively involved in each word.

“The practice of tampering with books of such a nature must have been somewhat frequent in the region where the Apocalypse was published; otherwise there would be something not perfectly natural in the severity of the interdict before us,” writes H.B. Swete in The Apocalypse of St. John. “It is not uncommon for writers to protect their works by adding a solemn abjuration to the scribes to correct the copies carefully, and in no case to mutilate or interpolate the original” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 504).

The penalties for adding to or taking away from this book are severe. The one who adds to the prophetic words of this book is warned that “God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book.” The one who takes away from the Apocalypse will discover that “God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city.”

Matthew Henry comments: “He that adds to the word of God draws down upon himself all the plagues written in this book; and he who takes any thing away from it cuts himself off from all the promises and privileges of it. This sanction is like a flaming sword, to guard the canon of the scripture from profane hands. Such a fence as this God set about the law (Deu. 4:2), and the whole Old Testament (Mal. 4:4), and now in the most solemn manner about the whole Bible, assuring us that it is a book of the most sacred nature, divine authority, and of the last importance, and therefore the peculiar care of the great God” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Logos Software, 2485).

No doubt some commentators argue that by altering the words of Revelation, redeemed people may lose their salvation and lost people may never be allowed to come to faith in Christ. This seems to go beyond John’s intent, as R.J. Utley notes in Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation: “It is a common literary practice of the OT to put severe warnings addressed to those who might be tempted to tamper with God’s word (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32). This was not meant to be taken literally, but it is a very strong oriental overstatement of the seriousness of altering God’s message. This does not refer to believing interpreters or scribes who pray earnestly and seek God’s will, but according to Ireneaus in his Contra-Heresies, 30:12, it referred to false teachers who add, change, or delete the words of Scripture, which is the thrust of this passage. Remember that we cannot proof-text one verse to establish a doctrine which goes against other clear teachings of Scripture” (152).

Joseph A. Seiss writes, “O, my friends, it is a fearful thing to suppress or stultify the word of God, and above all ‘the words of the prophecy of this Book.’ To put forth for truth what is not the truth, — to denounce as error, condemn, repudiate, or emasculate what God himself hath set his seal to as his mind and purpose, is one of those high crimes, not only against God, but against the souls of men, which cannot go unpunished” (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 527).

Come, Lord Jesus!

We come at last to the close of Revelation, with a promise from Jesus, an eager call for His return, and a gracious farewell. Verse 20 begins, “He who testifies about these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’” There is a great deal in this promise that should encourage us. Jesus reminds us one final time that His return is certain and imminent. Although it has been nearly 2,000 years since our Lord uttered these words, we know His promise is true.

As the eternal Son of God, He is our Savior, and His work on our behalf is not completed until He resurrects us, judges and rewards us, purges the created order of sin and its stain, and creates new heavens and a new earth. As God, Jesus cannot lie; it goes against His very nature. As a gracious and merciful Sovereign who transcends time, His words “quickly” need to be taken in the context of the One to whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and to whom this seeming delay is for the benefit of all who will call on Him while there is yet time (2 Peter 3:8-9).

Lastly, Jesus’ promise assures us that His return is personal. “I am coming quickly,” He says. Not an angel, or an exalted human, or an invisible force, but the same Jesus who ascended physically into heaven after showing Himself alive for 40 days (Acts 1:10-11).

To these promises John rapturously responds, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” We, too, may share in the apostle’s enthusiastic response. As we read His word, meditate on it, and draw fresh illumination from the Holy Spirit, we say, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” As we worship with fellow believers in the community of the local body of Christ, we proclaim, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” As we pray, seeking the heart of God and allowing Him to conform us to His image – even in our deepest despair and most bruising divine discipline – we sigh, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” As we share the gospel with lost friends, defend the faith against those who sully it, give back to God our time and treasure, and walk through this sinful and fallen world as if in a foreign land, we cry, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

John ends this breathtaking Apocalypse in much the same way as he began it. The HCSB Study Bible notes, “The book of Revelation, though made up largely of apocalyptic and prophetic literary forms, begins and ends like a letter. In spite of all the works of the Devil, and the judgment and wrath of God detailed in between, the Apocalypse starts with grace and ends with grace, making a full circle from grace to grace. This is a fitting symmetry for a book that foretells the ultimate victory of ‘the God of all grace’ [1 Peter 5:10]” (p. 2230).

Next: Postscript – God’s seven promises