This is a study/sermon, aimed at Christians, to help make sense of Revelation 22, particularly verses 10 to 17. It has some Harry Potter plot spoilers. It might be helpful to read from Revelation 22:10 to the end of the chapter before reading this.
The Fantasy and Apocalyptic Genres
What are the Harry Potter books, written by J.K. Rowling, all about?
If you asked a child that question, they would probably say something like this:
“Harry Potter is about a boy, who’s a wizard, and how he and his friends defeat a dark wizard called Lord Voldemort.”
If you asked someone who studied English literature they might say something like this instead:
“Harry Potter is about the quest for virtue.”
(Actually, the C.S. Lewis scholar, Dr Alister McGrath, said words to that effect in April 2013.)
If you asked someone who was more historically and politically minded, they might say something else:
“Harry Potter is J.K. Rowling’s way of saying that, even if there were such a thing as a master race, the Nazis were still wrong.”
(Actually, that should be credited to my husband.)
All three statements have something to be said for them.
One of the things I love about the fantasy genre of literature and films is the way that strong and stark images can be used to portray truths. They spark the imagination, working on multiple layers at a time; so long as you don’t read them too scientifically or factually, but instead read them in the context of their genre, and the traditions they are drawing from and elaborating on, then the unreality of the story allows you to unmask reality.
What has all this got to do with the book of Revelation? Well, if you want to get your head around the text, you need to understand the apocalyptic genre.
“Apocalyptic” comes from “Apocalypse”, which means “unveiling” or, as the book is titled, “revelation”. Apocalyptic writings were written in the first person, traditionally under the pseudonym of a known great historical prophet. Another example in the Bible are the last six chapters of the book of Daniel, for which there is much evidence to suggest that they were written centuries after the historical Daniel lived. Revelation is written from the perspective of the apostle John. As for whether the historical John was the author of Revelation, the debate is still unresolved. The style of writing is very different to John’s gospel – but then it would be, as it’s a very different kind of book.
Like our fantasy genre, the apocalyptic genre uses strong and stark imagery. There are strange beasts and creatures, sometimes with many heads, many horns or many eyes. There is much conflict, blood and death. But, importantly, there is victory, triumph and glory for God and for his persecuted people.
The apocalyptic genre was, after all, used to deliver messages of encouragement to its persecuted hearers, making bold theological and political statements through its complex symbolism.
Revelation chapter 22 comes at the very end of the book, indeed the very end of the Bible. By this point in John’s vision, the great forces of evil have been cast down and utterly defeated. John has seen the beautiful and glorious new heaven and the new earth, God’s dwelling amongst his people, which he describes with imagery of radiant light and precious stones. And, in recognition of the suffering which John has endured, has witnessed, and knows that his hearers have experienced, he describes the river of the water of life and the trees that grow along its banks, which he writes are for the healing of the nations.
Now, as I’ve already noted, apocalyptic writings were usually written under a pseudonym of a historical prophet. Near the end of the vision, the prophet is typically told to seal up the words of their scroll, so that the words can be unsealed at the time of the later generation to whom the scroll is addressed. This is then meant to explain the delay between the time when the great prophet was supposed to have written the scroll and the time when it became available to its readers.
It’s a little like reading the back story of Harry Potter where you learn that the Second World War ended when Dumbledore defeated the dark wizard Grindewald. J.K. Rowling isn’t trying to make a historical statement; rather she is using a tool of the fantasy genre to hold open an illusion of continuity between her unreal narrative and real history.
But in this chapter in Revelation, in verse 10, John is told not to seal up the words of his scroll. This twist on the apocalyptic genre leaves open the possibility that the apostle John did write the book. But it does more than that. Apocalyptic writings were written in the name of an ancient prophet because it was believed that there were no more prophecies. But here, whether apostle or not, John proclaims that God does speak new prophecies. He therefore sees no need to pretend that this book is some ancient relic given to a people whose only encouragement can be found in the past. Their encouragement, their comforter, their paraklete, is with them in the present – the Holy Spirit of Jesus himself.
Persecution and encouragement
As we think about verses 11 to 15, it’s important to remember that encouragement is the key to understanding them.
The angel says to John in verse 11:
Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile. (v11, NIV)
This is not an endorsement of bad behaviour nor a dismissal of it. Neither is this suggesting that salvation is only for a few and we can forget about Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.
The message is rather something like this:
‘These people have inflicted suffering upon you, but you don’t need to take up arms and exact vengeance for it. God will vindicate you. Just continue to walk in God’s ways. In the end, these people who are oppressing you will not inherit the kingdom of God. They will be on the outside of the great and glorious new city, but you will be on the inside.’
Now, the way the text expresses this might sit uncomfortably with us today:
Outside are the dogs, those who practise magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practises falsehood. (v15, NIV)
At first glance, it sits uncomfortably with me because, I find that discussions about who’s in and who’s out tend to be less about discerning ethical behaviours, and much more about power and control through segregation.
But we need to read these words within the context of the book.
In Judeo-Christian thinking, idolatry, sexual immorality and sorcery were the key characteristics that marked out the pagan religions. This statement is therefore not a condemnation of all fantasy stories that contain magical ideas and creatures, such as Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings. (Which is just as well for people like me, who rather like these stories.)
In other words, this is a political statement that continues an established theme: the pagan oppressors of the early church will end up on the outside of God’s kingdom.
This statement is also theological: these practices listed – particularly idolatry and sorcery – were understood as being the practices that blinded people to the work of the Holy Spirit. John is saying that those who cut themselves off from God, will be cut off from God.
Also, this statement is deliberately stark and generalising because it was intended to resonate with its hearers. The details of reality include many more blurred edges. We know, for example, that there were pagans who acknowledged Jesus; for example the centurion at Jesus’ cross.
When we understand the genre, we can understand these verses are about encouraging those who face immense threat.
The great invitation
We then come to verse 17 and some of my favourite words in the whole of the Bible:
The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. (v17, NIV)
The bride is the church. In the power of the Holy Spirit she gives a two-fold invitation: firstly, she invites those who are thirsty to come and drink the water of life; she invites those who are lost to receive the great salvation offered through Jesus.
But she also invites Jesus to come. And he answers in verse 20:
“Yes, I am coming soon.” (v20, NIV)
When I was growing up, one of the songs I heard and loved was a musical setting of Revelation 22 verse 17. It was written by David Loden and sung in Hebrew and the mood of the music was undoubtedly one of excitement and celebration. If you’re curious, you can watch a performance of the song on YouTube:
And yet there’s a question to be asked of us as Christians: when we picture a Christian inviting a person to church, or to come to faith, or even just to talk about faith – what do we imagine that invitation to be like? Do we feel that joy and anticipation?
Or not really?
Life and death
There is a striking image near the end of the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. There’s been a huge battle between Voldemort’s followers and Harry’s friends. Voldemort calls a ceasefire and offers an “invitation” to everyone who has survived so far. He calls out:
Harry Potter is dead. Harry Potter is dead! … From this day forth, you put your faith in me. And now is the time to declare yourself. Come forward and join us. Or die.
I find the mood of it is captured beautifully in this short YouTube compilation:
Sometimes it can be easy to think that when we share the gospel, the great invitation to faith that we make is not an invitation but an ultimatum.
It’s a little like one or more of these: “Confess that Jesus is Lord, or burn in the lake of fire for all eternity.” “Take sides with the God who didn’t prevent your suffering, or face more suffering.” “Forsake everything and everyone you love, or be utterly forsaken.”
Some Christians avoid this difficulty by saying that the gospel is not, really, a matter of life and death. I’ll be honest, I’m not one of them. To me, the Christian faith has always been about life and death.
In the Garden of Eden, the offer was you can eat from the tree of life, or you can eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but if you go for option two, you’ll die. When Moses led the Israelites into the promised land, he said, “This day … I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” (Deuteronomy 30:19). When Jesus met Nicodemus in the middle of the night he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
So I don’t think the book of Revelation is exaggerating in fantastical language when it claims that believing in Jesus is a matter of life and death.
But, having said that, I don’t think it’s helpful to get hung up on what eternal life and death will really look like; Revelation is written in apocalyptic imagery, not scientific analysis. And it’s not helpful to start labelling who is and who isn’t going to inherit life; enough horrors have been committed in the pursuit of this and the New Testament makes it clear that the judgement belongs to Jesus.
So, with that in mind, how can we proclaim Jesus’ invitation to salvation in a way that makes it very clear that this is good news, and not bad news?
Who do you say I am?
There are many things that we can bear in mind as we share the gospel (note: “share”, not “tell”). But the one I’ve kept coming to recently is unnervingly simple: we need to believe that Jesus saves.
Many people have an understanding that Jesus is not a power-hungry, murdering egotist, like Lord Voldemort, who has no understanding of love and friendship, but they don’t believe that Jesus saves.
They’ll see death in the Garden of Eden, but they don’t see the promise of a saviour. They’ll see death in the law of Moses, but they don’t see the promise of a saviour. They’ll see the death of a man crucified on a cross, but they don’t see that he was the promised Saviour.
Jesus doesn’t invite people to put their faith in him because he covets the number one spot in their lives, he asks because he knows he can save us. His offer is not to take away the good that we have, but to restore the good that we should always have had. When people take him up on his invitation, he doesn’t say, “Well, I must say, I had hoped for better.” He says: “My child was dead, but is now alive.”
And I’m not going to pretend that I understand suffering.
There is a department of mysteries in my faith; and right at the centre of it is an instrument of suffering that God chose to use for his symbol of salvation. I don’t understand quite how the cross works or quite why God would choose it, but it does tell me that he understands what it is to suffer. And when I hold in my heart the confidence that God saves, that Jesus saves, it is then that I can share my confidence with people who are suffering. And when we do that, we’re not just doing a good deed, or saying something nice, we’re bringing the salvation of Jesus into the world.
So what is the book of Revelation about?
Revelation is an apocalyptic writing shared with the early church while it was being persecuted under pagan rule.
Revelation is a vision witnessed by the apostle John to show the great and glorious salvation and vindication of God.
Revelation is God’s way of saying, “I sent my Son to you, and though he’s not on the earth now, he will come back; and when he does, he will make all things new.”
I’ve also written elsewhere about what it is to “share” (rather than “tell”) the gospel in a post called “A call to Hope”.