The Final Word
As I begin our message for today, I find it necessary first to say a little bit about the title. It might give you the impression that this will be my last sermon on the book of Revelation. If so, you should disabuse yourself of that notion.
When I began this series, I purposely avoided preaching from chapters 2 and 3 because Pastor West had finished a miniseries on them shortly before. I did not believe it necessary to go over these chapters again. But in recent weeks Pastor West and several others in the congregation have prevailed upon me to revisit them. At first I was somewhat hesitant to do so, but in the end I decided to acquiesce. Further, it seems that there is an advantage to covering these chapters now that I had not previously considered. Many of the symbols and figures of speech that appear in the letters to the seven churches are explained later in the book. Now, that we’ve seen how they are used, these chapters will make more sense.
So, I am planning seven more sermons on the book of Revelation — one on each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. But today’s sermon will conclude chapter 22. It is the final word for the book as a whole.
Christ’s Coming and Judgment
Today’s section begins in verse 12 with Jesus announcing for the fourth time in this chapter that he will come soon. Similar announcements can be found in verses 6, 7 and 10. And, of course, the first chapter of Revelation repeatedly said the same thing as well. So, the reader of the Apocalypse has already been well acquainted with this concept.
Immediately following this announcement, Jesus added that one of the main purposes for his coming is to judge every man according to his works. This, too, is a notion that we have already seen in Revelation. Speaking of the final judgment, Revelation 20:13 says, And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. In fact, this idea occurs frequently in the New Testament. Matthew 16:27 says, for example, For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works (cf. Matt. 25:31ff.; Rom. 2:6; II Cor. 5:10; I Pet. 1:17).
It’s important to note that each of these passages is careful to use the phrase “according to” instead of “based on.” If our judgment were based on our works, so that our final destiny was determined by what we have done, then salvation would be completely impossible. Not only have we failed to do what God has required of us, but we have spurned his law in every way. No matter how we look at it, our account in heaven does not have a zero balance. It is an enormous and insurmountable deficit — far greater than the deficit of our federal government. If we are to be saved, then, our judgment must be based solely on the work of Christ. He alone is our righteousness and wisdom and sanctification before God, as the apostle Paul so clearly wrote.
Of course, God’s judgment of unbelievers will be based on their works. But our judgment will only be according to our works, i.e., our works will be taken into account to determine the degree of reward. There are some, Paul says, who build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ with gold, silver, and other precious things. Such people can expect to receive a great reward. Others, he says, use wood, hay and stubble. Their works will be burned up, and the loss they suffer will be great. They may get to heaven by the proverbial “skin of their teeth,” but that is about all we can say for them, for they will have no reward (I Cor. 3:11–15).
Our Heidelberg Catechism is especially clear on this point. Questions 63 asks, “Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?” The assumption here, which is a biblical assumption, is that God does in fact reward our good works. But the question is, Is the reward based on the work itself? The catechism says, No! To quote: “The reward comes not of merit, but of grace.” That is, the reward is a gift of divine grace and not a wage that we have earned. Thus, the reward is given according to our works, as the verses previously cited affirm, but are not based on our works.
On the other hand, the fact that judgment is connected with the coming of Christ seems to suggest that John had the second coming in view. But this is not necessarily so. It assumes that judgment and the giving of rewards and punishments are completely relegated to Christ’s return. Yet, the Bible teaches that God exercises judgment throughout history. Our catechism, again, reflects this in Questions 10 and 63. According to Question 10, God punishes sin “in time and eternity,” and according to Question 63, he also rewards his people both “in this life and in that which is to come.”
The perfect righteousness of the judgment mentioned here is assured by the character of Christ himself in verse 13. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. This means that he is the source of all things, and that all things ultimately serve his purposes. In the immediate context, it reminds us that Christ is the both omnipresent and omnipotent throughout all history and, therefore, more than qualified to judge the works of all men appropriately.
A Beatitude and a Warning
Verse 14 takes us to the seventh and last beatitude in the book of Revelation. It says that entrance into the church and the enjoyment of everlasting life belongs to those who keep God’s commandments. This promise is very similar to one of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8).
The problem in our text, though, is that this beatitude seems to go against what we just said, viz., that our obedience does not secure us a place in heaven. It seems to say that by doing God’s commandments we earn the right to the tree of life, etc. But this problem disappears if we connect everything after the word commandments with blessed, instead of do. In other words, John is simply telling us what it means to be blessed. It is as if John wrote, “This is the blessing of those who keep God’s commandments: they have a right to tree of life and they will enter through the gates of the city.” Thus, this beatitude has the same structure as the one we just quoted from the Jesus’ sermon.
Here, as elsewhere in the book of Revelation, the tree of life and life in the city are symbols of the covenant fellowship that we have with God now and will continue to enjoy throughout eternity. Of course, not everyone shares in this blessedness. It is a privilege reserved only for those who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Unbelievers exist (we can hardly say that they live) outside the church and outside of eternal life. John here calls them dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. Those whose lives are characterized by such behavior have no fellowship with God either now or ever.
Most of the sins listed in verse 15 need no explanation. Sorcery and idolatry violate the first and second Commandments of God’s law, whoremongering the seventh, murder the sixth, and lying the ninth. Yet, the list begins rather oddly with dogs. There is no specific commandment in the law that forbids dogs. Therefore, we might think that this is sort of a general term for sin that includes sorcerers and whoremongers, etc. This is pretty much how the Jews use the word dog in the first century. To them every non-Jew was a dog (cf. Matt. 15:26–27). But the fact that the word and comes after dogs both in the English and in the Greek speaks against this. The word dogs is not heading for the list, but one item in the list. So, what are these dogs?
There are two possibilities for this.
In the Old Testament homosexuals were called dogs. Deuteronomy 23:18 says, Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God. However, this verse by itself does not tell us what a dog is. Some commentators have assumed that the dog was a pimp or perhaps a john. But the preceding verse makes both of these suggestions unlikely. Verse 17 says, There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel. Here the two crimes are prostitution and sodomy (probably male prostitution, which was common among the pagan nations). Thus, the law explicitly forbids two specific practices regarding sexual misconduct. Verse 17 prohibits the despicable acts of prostitution and sodomy. Verse 18 says that the financial gain of such crimes cannot be used to satisfy a vow made to God.
The New Testament, on the other hand, uses the word dogs in a different sense. In Philippians 3:2, dogs are Judaizers. Paul wrote, Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. These Judaizers, as you know, were especially a problem among the churches of Asia Minor and Syria. Remember that the book of Revelation was written to these very churches. It’s very likely, then, that some of the problems addressed in the letters of chapters 2 and 3 related to this particular error.
So, which meaning of dog should we go with? It might seem that these two meanings of the word dog are so distinct that they could not possibly both be in view here. But I am convinced that that is a reliable assumption. In Revelation 11, the city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judaism, was called a spiritual Sodom (v. 8). In other words, Judaism as a whole had prostituted itself by embracing a system of salvation that was based on the works of men. The Judaizing error that annoyed the church in the first century was an outgrowth of this kind of thinking. In fact, it may have been “converted” priests and/or “converted” Pharisees who introduced to the church. If this is the case, then John’s condemnation of it here is just as caustic as Paul’s in the book of Galatians. Paul pronounced a double anathema on any who would pervert his gospel by teaching works-salvation. John says that those who do so are dogs — guilty of the worst kind of sin — and reside outside the kingdom of God.
In verse 16 Jesus assured the church that both the beatitude and the warning that he had just given, as well as all else that goes with them (i.e., the entire book of Revelation), come from him and are not just the opinions of some self-proclaimed prophet. Jesus sent his angel — in this case John the apostle — to testify in his behalf to the churches.
And to further assure those who read this book, Jesus described himself as the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning Star.
That Jesus was the offspring of David was widely known in the first century. The blind beggars cried out to him, Thou Son of David (Matt. 9:27; 20:30). The people, amazed by his mighty works, asked, Is not this the son of David? (Matt. 12:23). Even the Canaanite woman who sought the Savior’s help for her daughter knew it (Matt. 15:22). As he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday it seemed that nearly everyone exclaimed, Hosanna to the Son of David (Matt. 21:9). The prophecy given to David foretold that one of his descendants would reign upon his throne forever.
But Jesus’ self-description in our text goes beyond that. He says that he is also the root of David. There are basically two interpretations for this. One is that the root here refers to the dry root of Jesse’s stump, from which a unexpected rod would someday burst forth to life. (Isa. 11;1ff.). That rod, of course, was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. But this is not the mostly likely interpretation since the root and the branch are very different things here.. The second interpretation says that Jesus was the root itself, i.e., he was the source of the entire Davidic line, including Jesse. This makes for a much more forceful statement. It’s not just that Jesus was the son promised to David, but that he is the very one who promised David that his line would bring forth the Deliverer. In other words, the entire Davidic line finds its origin, meaning and purpose in Jesus Christ.
In addition to being the root and offspring of David, Jesus is also the bright and morning star. This refers to Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17. We looked at this a few weeks ago, so there’s no need to repeat all that we said again. To make a long story short, Balaam’s fourth prophecy was a prediction of the Messiah arising as star out of Jacob. In Revelation, though, Jesus is not just a star but the bright and morning star, i.e., the sun itself — the brightest star of all! Many passages in scripture speak of Jesus in this way (cf. Luke 1:78; II Pet. 1:19). In the second chapter of Revelation, Jesus even promised to give the morning star (i.e., himself) to the church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:28).
With the assurance that this book comes from Christ, the Spirit and the church unite in calling sinners to repentance in verse 17. The water of life is freely available to all whose ears have been opened to the gospel by the Spirit’s work.
A Warning against Scripture Tampering
With the assurance that the book of Revelation and especially the promises of the immediate context come from Jesus Christ, God warns us in verses 18 and 19 not to add to or subtract from the book of this prophecy.
A similar warning was given in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses wrote, Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you (Deut. 4:2). Both passages caution us not to tamper with divine revelation.
Certain groups like the Mormons tell us not to take these warnings seriously. After all, Moses instructed the people not to add to his words, but that did not keep Joshua, David, Isaiah and the other prophets from tripling the amount of written text in the Old Testament. And if Moses’ word was really intended to be the last word, how can we explain the New Testament? Of course, the Mormons do not want us to take such warnings seriously because they want the liberty to add their own writings to scripture.
There are a couple of things that we can say to this. To begin with, there is a sense in which we can say that Moses had the last word in the Old Testament. He literally laid the foundation for everything that came later. The Psalms and the prophets did little more than explain and apply the Mosaic corpus. Consider how often, for example, the prophets cite the law of Moses as the basis for their proclamations. Further, Moses himself made it clear that the Jews were to look for yet another prophet who would be even greater than Moses was. Since this individual would a greater prophet, it only stands to reason that new revelation would be given in and through him. Hebrews 1:1 says that this final revelation came in the person of God the Son. Chapter 3 of the same book explains how Christ was greater than Moses. The writer provides numerous points of contrast.
On the other hand, we have to keep in mind what this warning really says. It does not prohibit God from adding to his revelation. He is free to send as many prophets as he pleases. But it does prohibit man from adding to scripture by his own initiative. And this is exactly what the Mormons, Muslims, Mary Baker Eddy and others do.
As far as we are concerned, nothing — not the Book of Mormon or the Koran — is to be added to scripture, and nothing — including the book of James — is to be taken away. The penalties are severe for violating this. Those who add to the Bible will have the plagues of the book of Revelation added to themselves. Those who subtract from the Bible effectively remove themselves from the book of life, the holy city and all the blessings promised to believers. These warnings are not idle threats.
I am not a big fan of publishing houses copyrighting translations of the Bible. Although I understand their desire to recuperate the cost of producing the translation, I cannot justify anyone claiming exclusive rights to the Word of God. But what we have in verses 18 and 19 is not man’s copyright notice, but God’s. And it comes with stiffer penalties and the federal government or any other regulatory agency can impose on those who violate copyrights on other printed material.
The warning in our text applies explicitly to the book of Revelation — the words of the prophecy of this book — and not directly to the New Testament or to the Bible as a whole. But this does not give us any greater liberty to add to other books of the Bible. The entire Bible belongs to Jesus Christ just as much as the book of Revelation. And since he is the sovereign Judge of all mankind, a theme frequently found in this book, we know that he has the power to punish those who meddle with his text.
And finally, we come to the last two verses of our text and of the book.
Here, again, for the fifth time in this chapter alone Jesus promised to come quickly. Thankfully, those who insist that the book of Revelation deals only with the future do not generally change the text itself. They misinterpret it, but they do not add to it. But even this teaches us to handle the text with extreme care. It would be very easy to cross that line if we insist that our interpretation is equal to the text itself.
The fact that Jesus promised repeatedly to come quickly keeps us on our toes. It reminds us that he is not the watchmaker-God of natural religion, who simply winds up the world and then leaves it to itself. Rather, he is intimately involved with his creation. He is so intimately involved with the creation, and especially with man, that he will hold us accountable for every idle word that we speak.
Not only does the Lord promise to come quickly, but the church also cries out for his speedy return. It should be the longing and desire of every believer to see Christ execute his purposes throughout the entire history of the world, as well as his great joy to witness Christ come in the glory of his second coming.
This book, like most books in the New Testament, ends with a benediction. Far from a mere formality, these benedictions summon the blessing of God on those who hear, learn, understand and live by his Word. Such blessing belongs to everyone who prizes God’s revelation of his son Jesus Christ above everything else.
Beyond that, all we can do is add our hearty “Amen” to John’s. Amen.