February 2: Revelation 21:6b-8

Revelation 21:6b-8

The remainder of this introductory section (cf. the previous note on vv. 5-6a) to the vision continues God’s words from verse 6a; it shifts from His self-identification to the relationship He holds with His people. As I have discussed throughout these notes, the motif of the “people of God” is central to the visionary narrative, even though the actual expression really does not occur prior to this final vision. This thematic emphasis is confirmed by two aspects of the symbolism in the book:

    • The scenes depicting a multitude of people surrounding God (His throne) and the exalted Christ (the Lamb), and
    • The various Old Testament imagery, occurring throughout the visions, otherwise related to Israel as the people of God

Like many of the symbols in the book of Revelation, there are both heavenly and earthly aspects to this idea of believers as the people of God. Believers are gathered in heaven (in an exalted state), and, at the same time, are enduring persecution and distress on earth. The clearest blending of this people-of-God imagery, applied to faithful believers in Christ, is found in the two scenes involving the 144,000 in chapters 7 and 14:1-5; this, of course, draws upon the fundamental symbolism of the twelve tribes of Israel, something the final vision will also build upon (vv. 12-14). The point will be discussed further in the next note.

Indeed, it is only here in the climactic vision, centered around the motif of the “new Jerusalem”, that the identity of believers in Christ as the true people of God becomes explicit; cf. the previous note on vv. 3-4, with its allusion to Ezek 37:27; Lev 26:11-12, and many other passages involving the covenantal language of the Old Testament. Now, in addition to this language, we have the idea of believers as the sons (i.e. children) of God, even as Israel had been regarded as His “son” (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Isa 43:6; Jer 31:9; Hos 1:10; 11:1) in the old Covenant. And, as God’s sons/children, faithful believers will receive the divine inheritance that belongs to a true son. This is very much the principal idea here in verses 6b-8:

“I will give (freely) as a gift out of the fountain of the water of life to the (one) thirsting. The (one) being victorious will receive these (thing)s as (his) lot, and I will be God to him and he will be my son.” (vv. 6b-7)

There are three components to his promise of divine/heavenly reward; they are presented in reverse order, in the sense that each statement depends on the one that follows:

    • The believer is related to God as His son/child =>
      • The true/faithful believer will receive the divine/eternal inheritance =>
        • Believers have eternal life, using the symbolism of drinking the “water of life”

This generally corresponds with the promises in the letters of chapters 2-3, which declare that the believer who remains faithful, in the face of the evil and persecution of the end-time period of distress, i.e. is victorious (vb nika/w), he/she will receive the eternal/heavenly reward. The reward of eternal life is expressed through a variety of symbols and images, among which is this motif of drinking from the “water of life”. This particular image is ancient and widespread, based upon the natural life-giving characteristics of water. Of the many Old Testament passages, one may note Psalm 35:10; Prov 13:14; 14:27; Isa 43:20; 44:3; Jer 2:13; 17:13; Zech 14:8; for the specific idea of thirsting after God (and the water He gives), cf. Psalm 42:2; 63:1; Isa 41:17-18; 55:1, etc. The eschatological motif of “living water” coming out of Jerusalem derives primarily from Zechariah 14:8 (cf. also Joel 3:18; Ezek 47:1-12).

In the Old Testament / Near Eastern idiom, the expression “living water” refers to natural flowing water, as from a river, stream, or fountain/spring (phgh/). The latter is in view here, as it also is in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, where the motif of “living water” likewise serves as an image for eternal lifeJn 4:10-14; 7:37-39; cf. also 6:35, 53ff.

“But for the fearful (one)s and (the one)s without trust and (the one)s having made themselves to stink—even murderers and prostitute(-seeker)s and drug-handlers and image-servers, and all th(ose acting) false(ly)—their portion (is) in the lake burning with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” (v. 8)

Believers are contrasted in verse 8 with the wicked, or non-believers. It is easy for modern readers to misunderstand the manner of expression here, for several reasons. The first involves the specific setting of the book of Revelation. Throughout the visions, the focus has been primarily on the coming period of distress, which believers at the time where thought to be entering. During this period, the faith (“trust”, pisto/$) of believers in Christ would be increasingly (and severely) tested. Out of fear of persecution (and death), there was the danger that some might fall away; this is why being “fearful” (deilo/$) is paired here with being “without trust” (a&pisto$), i.e. faithless, without faith in God and Christ.

The second thing to note regarding the narrative context in Revelation is that, during the time of distress, when the forces of evil are especially dominant and active on earth, a turning away from faith means identifying oneself as belonging to the evil powers symbolized by the Dragon and Sea-Creature of chapters 13-14ff. At the pinnacle of the end-time distress, the choice is stark and clear—remain faithful and endure suffering/death, or turn and embrace the evil authority of the Sea-Creature (as manifest in the Roman Empire, etc). The use of the verb bdelu/ssw (indicating a reaction to something that stinks), may be an intentional allusion to the eschatological tradition in Mark 13:14 par (cf. Dan 9:27 LXX) and the related noun bde/lugma (“stinking thing”).

It is also important to understand the rhetorical force of such “vice lists” in the New Testament and early Christianity. They are part of a traditional kind of religious and ethical instruction, with strong parallels in Jewish tradition and in Greco-Roman philosophy as well. The lists are a way of dramatically summarizing the kinds of wickedness that the righteous (i.e. believers) must avoid. Paul uses them rather frequently to emphasize the clear contrast between believers and the wickedness/immorality traditionally associated with non-believers (“the nations”). In 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21 he utilizes the same motif of inheritance, stating bluntly that those who do such things will surely not inherit the Kingdom of God (i.e. receive eternal life).

Readers today might well question how this instruction would relate to non-Christians (non-believers) who generally conduct themselves in an upright and virtuous manner. However, such concerns were quite foreign to the thought-world of early Christianity, where non-believers were more or less identified with immorality and wickedness in a stock manner. We should not, however, assume that this was always taken literally, at face value, especially since “prostitution” and “idolatry” were often used figuratively for a lack of trust in God, even when no actual prostitution or idol-worship took place. Similarly, in Jesus’ teaching, anger and hatred toward others could be equated with “murder”, and so forth (Matthew 5:21-22, 43ff; cp. 1 John 3:11-12ff).

Even so, there is certainly a clear and precise contrast between believer and non-believer here in vv. 6b-8, as may be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

    • Reward: Drinking from the Water of Life
      • Those who are victorious (believers) will inherit
        • Identification of believers as the Sons/Children of God
      • Those who are wicked (non-believers) will have their portion
    • Punishment: Submerged in the Lake of Fire (cf. 19:20; 20:15)
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