The River of Life
Topic: New Creation Passage: Revelation 22:1–5
From time to time, political leaders have held out the promise of a “new world order.” Pull out a dollar bill, and on the left seal you’ll find the Latin, Novus Ordo Seclorum, “new order of the ages” was America. One century later, 620,000 people die in civil war. Later, after World War I, Woodrow Wilson also championed a “new world order” under the League of Nations.[i] World War I was “the war to end all wars,” they said. But twenty years later, Hitler and Nazi Germany propose their own “new order.”[ii] World War II kills 40 million more.
Then there was January 1991. After the Cold War, George Bush advocates a “new world order” that includes the United Nations peace-keeping efforts.[iii] In March 2022, Joe Biden spoke to the Business Roundtable, saying, “there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it.”[iv]
Man can promise a new world all he wants. But man will always fail to bring it about—at least in any way that’s just and good and truly healing for all nations. History bears this out. Our own experience bears this out—we don’t have to go beyond the walls of our own home to find disorder. True renewal for the world only comes from outside. It comes by the gracious work of God in Jesus Christ. We’ve been reading about this in Revelation. John emphasizes this again in chapter 22. Only the presence of God in Jesus will transform the world. Listen to God’s word from verse 1…
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
God’s Abundant Life Replaces the Curse
Presence of God; a river flowing; the tree of life; a land without curse; people reigning, having dominion. We know these themes from the opening chapters of the Bible. In Genesis 1, God entrusts man with dominion. In Genesis 2, God prepares man a Garden with a river and tree of life. Man was to serve and enjoy an abundance of life in God’s presence. But man listens to the Serpent. Instead of trusting God’s word, man chooses his own path; and that path leads to death. The Lord curses the ground. God banishes man from his presence. He blocks man’s access to the tree of life. Man’s dominion is corrupted. And ever since that day, life outside the Garden is full of sin and sorrow, suffering and death, thorns and thistles.
But here we find a different day reported. The Bible closes with a new Eden in a new world. But this new world isn’t like the empty promises of politicians. This new world is God’s doing. He is able and trustworthy. So it’s true and it’s coming because God’s will do it in the person of Jesus. Let’s look at it more closely in two parts. We’ll start with God’s abundant life replacing the curse.
We spent time on God’s city last Sunday. New Jerusalem is the true Holy of Holies—God’s presence fills the whole city. Within that city, John now sees “the river of the water of life.” Water gives life—nature teaches us that. Look down from an airplane and you see the lush green trees along rivers. But that also makes water a fitting symbol for spiritual life. God calls himself the Fountain of living water in Jeremiah. Likewise, this river signifies God’s presence bringing life and animating the new creation.
But let’s back up. The story begins in Genesis 2:10-14. Eden was God’s initial dwelling place. And from Eden, it says, “a river flowed…to water the garden.” Right from the start, we get a river flowing from God’s presence to bring life for Eden and beyond. Of course, once Adam and Eve rebel, they don’t experience this life any longer. The ground is cursed. Same happens with Israel in the land of Canaan. They rebel and God shuts off the waters. The point: sin cuts us off from the blessings of God’s life.
But how merciful when God promises his people new life in his presence—new life that’s even symbolized by a new river. In Ezekiel 47, the Lord promises to return to his people; and from his new dwelling place Ezekiel sees a river. At first, it’s just a trickle coming from the new temple. But further out, it gets ankle-deep, then knee deep, then waist-deep. Eventually, it’s deep enough to swim in, until finally no one can pass through it. Ezekiel gets back to the riverbank in his vision. And when he looks out over what was a cursed land, suddenly he sees life. The river from God’s presence transforms the desert into a lush garden. Then it flows into the Dead Sea and turns the waters fresh. He sees many trees—“their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary [i.e., from God’s presence]. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
The imagery is beautiful. It pictures the day when life in God’s presence reverses the curse and transforms the land into paradise. Zechariah 14:8 builds on the same imagery, only he takes it a step further. “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem…” Not just the temple but the whole city has become God’s sanctuary. Joel 3:18 advances it further: “…a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley of Shittim.” Shittim means “acacias”; and several places in Scripture associate these more desolate areas where the acacias grow with the land of Moab. In other words, the waters will renew the nations, not just Israel.
All these threads come together in John’s vision. He’s seeing their ultimate fulfillment in New Jerusalem. God’s presence brings life to everything in the city. He makes all things beautiful and whole. But there’s something else John sees that Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Joel didn’t get to see. The Lamb—the river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. God and the Lamb share the one, single throne, making them both the one source of the river of life.[v]
But this also reminds us of a larger pattern in Scripture: any access to life in God’s presence comes by the sacrifice of the Lamb. That was true in the tabernacle and the temple; and it’s true here. Only this Lamb is no longer dead. He was once slaughtered. But he is risen and enthroned to give life. 7:17 pictures the Lamb guiding his people to drink from the “springs of living water.” Only through the Lamb do we have any access to life in God’s presence.
Adding to the picture, John also sees the tree of life on either side of the river. That could mean the tree’s root system spans the river, or the tree’s canopy reaches both sides. Some have said this is a collective noun—the one tree represents many. But the point stays the same: we’re seeing the total reversal of man’s condition in New Jerusalem. In Genesis 2:9, we first see the tree of life in the Garden. Not much is said there about the tree. We can speculate. But Proverbs compares the tree of life to wisdom (Prov 3:18), to the behavior of a righteous person (Prov 11:30), to a satisfied desire (Prov 13:12), and to a gentle tongue (Prov 15:4). So, you get the impression that whatever the tree’s makeup, to eat from that tree shows a deep satisfaction with God’s word and how those words order and bless our relationships.
Had Adam found his satisfaction there, this would’ve been man’s condition forever in God’s eternal rest. Instead, Adam eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, contrary to God’s word. Basically, this was Adam and Eve’s way of determining good from evil without God and in place of God. So, God bans them from the tree of life. Genesis 3:24, “[God] drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” Sin means we no longer have access to eternal life; and in Adam, that’s all our story. We’re still outside the Garden.
But for those in New Jerusalem—when that city comes down—God opens the way to the tree of life again. From all sides, the people take and eat. It bears twelve fruits, according to each month. Point being that it’s bounty never ceases. In the Lord’s presence, we will always be satisfied. Also, like the trees that Ezekiel saw, the leaves of this tree bring healing. But whereas Ezekiel saw them healing only Israel, John sees the leaves healing the nations. You could ask, “Healed in what sense? Physically, spiritually, relationally?” I think the answer is “D. All the above.” The life emanating from God’s presence restores everything and everyone in every way.
First half of verse 3 makes the same point but states it negatively: “No longer will there be anything accursed.” Or “all cursed things will be no more”—that’s another way to translate it. Meaning, cursed because of sin. Like when God cursed the ground in Genesis 3:17, and since then all creation groans in futility. Or when God curses the lawbreakers in Deuteronomy 27, and how those curses play out in Israel’s history. But for those in New Jerusalem, all curses are gone because sin is totally gone. No more thorns and thistles. No more exile. No more international conflict. Sin won’t even be a possibility in the New Jerusalem, which makes it better than Eden.
Now, you might say, “Wait. A minute ago, you said the Lord banned Adam from the tree of life—and since Adam, no one has access to that tree. Everyone stands cursed after Genesis 3. How does anyone get to experience the tree of Revelation 22?” To that I would say, you need to remember another tree, the tree of Galatians 3:13. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the [nations]…” Jesus hung on a tree—the tree of Calvary, the bloody cross of Golgotha—and he hung there to take away your curse and secure your access to God’s abundant life in New Jerusalem. That’s the good news.
If you trust that Jesus did this for you, you will know God’s abundant life in New Jerusalem. Psalm 46—there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, and you will drink from that river and eat from his tree of life because of the Lamb.
God’s Kingdom of Priests Enjoy His Presence
The other piece to this picture is God’s kingdom of priests enjoying his presence. Notice how verse 4 describes the people of New Jerusalem: “his name will be on their foreheads.” That reaches back to the priest’s turban in Exodus. The priests had the words, “Holy to Yahweh” written across the forehead. That’s how John sees the redeemed. Then at the end of verse 5 he says, “and they will reign forever and ever.” Reigning is what kings do. Back in January, we looked at Genesis 1 and how God created us to rule. Ruling creation rightly is one way we image God. God is the true King; but he created us to reflect his rule as lesser kings. Sin corrupted that dominion. But here it’s restored. Forever in their state of glorification, God’s people reign.
Once again, the Lamb accomplished this. 1:5, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” 5:9, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Jesus makes us God’s kingdom of priests, and because of his blood we will get to enjoy God’s presence.
Notice where they are. They’re before the throne. Verse 3, “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it.” Same throne as chapter 4—wrapped in rainbow-like emerald beauty, with jasper and carnelian decorating the royal majesty. Glory so brilliant there’s no need for lamp or sun, verse 5 says. But most significantly, verse 4 adds, “and they will see his face.” They will see God’s face. What does that include?
It includes true knowledge of God. 1 Corinthians 13:12, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Seeing God’s face has to do with knowing him truly as he is. It also includes blessing. Not to have God’s face was like death. Psalm 143:7, “Hide not your face lest I be like those who go down to the pit.” But for God’s face to shine on you—that meant grace and peace and blessing.
Of course, one of the greatest blessings was the splendor of God’s glory itself. Sometimes God reveals aspects of his glory to the prophets. When he does, it’s partial. It’s mediated by angels, hidden by dark clouds, only his back side shows, and so on. But even what the prophets do see—the glory pushes well beyond what language can capture: “such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.”*
Thomas Boston once described what seeing God must be like—when finite saints try to behold the infinite. “They may touch the mountain but cannot grasp it in their arms. They cannot with one glance of their eye behold what grows on every side. But the divine perfections will be an unbounded field, in which the glorified shall walk eternally, seeing more and more of God—since they can never come to the end of that which is infinite. They may bring their vessels to this ocean every moment and fill them with new waters. What a ravishing sight would it be, to see all the perfections and lovely qualities that are scattered here and there among the creatures, gathered…into one! But even such a sight would be infinitely below this blissful sight the saints shall have in heaven.”[vi]
Knowledge, blessing, splendor—one more layer to seeing God’s face. You will see him unashamed. What happens when you’ve done wrong and you confess to another person? Do you struggle to look them in the face? It’s even harder when your sin was against that person. Shame keeps you from lifting your face to meet their eyes. How much more is this the case with God. At one point Ezra cries, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you…for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). But what does it mean when, in New Jerusalem, you shall see his face? It means there’s no longer any shame. God has taken away all shame. There’s no more hiding. You will look on God’s face with unhindered openness, because of the Lamb. I love God. What great love he has shown us!
Living with New Creation Hope
That closes John’s vision of New Jerusalem. Question is, what will we do with this vision? How should we respond to its message? First, we should worship God as Trinity. Trinity isn’t a Bible word, but it describes how God reveals himself in the Bible: one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Notice again how there’s only one throne, but it’s the one throne of God [the Father] and of the Lamb [God the Son]. Also notice the end of verse 3: “his servants will worship him” (singular). Are they worshiping God the Father or the Lamb? Yes! We saw the same worship in chapters 4-5. The Lamb receives worship without compromising true worship. He is God.
We haven’t yet spoken of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus does compare the Holy Spirit to a river of living water in John 7:38. So, the new creation is a work of God as Trinity. True thoughts about God will always square with God as Trinity—if they do not square with God as Trinity, they are not true thoughts. Likewise with our worship.
Second, this vision motivates our endurance in love. Jesus gave this prophecy in the form of a letter. So we must ask, “How does this vision function within the letter?” Sure enough, the last place the tree of life gets mentioned is 2:7—his message to the church in Ephesus. They were hard-working, morally resilient, and doctrinally orthodox. But they had abandoned love—a necessary virtue to the life of a true church.
Jesus calls them to repent and to return the works of love. But then he gives a negative and positive incentive. The negative? Jesus warns that he will remove their lampstand. The positive? Jesus promises the tree of life: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Why would the tree of life come up as a motive for persevering in love? Because the path of love is costly and often exhausting. Love might even lead you to lose your life for another’s sake. We don’t need to go beyond the cross to learn that. Love requires great sacrifice.
But every sacrifice—every ounce of energy, every emotional strain, every relational tear you experience, because people want nothing to do with Jesus—it will be rewarded with an eternity of satisfaction in God’s presence. God promises eternal refreshment for you beneath the tree of life. The Lamb will guide you to springs of living water, 7:17 says. So, keep enduring in love.
Also, draw near to the Lamb now for living water. Living waters will flow from the Lamb’s presence in final Jerusalem. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect coming to Jesus now. In John 4, why does Jesus offer the Samaritan woman living water? “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Then in John 7:38, why does Jesus say that anyone who believes in him, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,” referring to the Holy Spirit. Why?
Because the blessings of the new age have broken into this world in the person of Jesus. We don’t have to wait till the end to begin experiencing his eternal life. He offers it now through the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is it that finally transforms the world? It’s the presence of God. God’s presence has been the centerpiece of chapters 21 and 22. It’s the whole point of New Jerusalem. When you trust in Jesus, the presence of God dwells in you by the Spirit. If he will re-make the world this way, imagine what he can do in your life today! Don’t wait for the end. Draw near to the Lamb now. Seek his face in prayer. Listen to his word. Walk with him day by day.
Listen to this from Paul Tripp. He’s addressing regrets that spouses often experience in marriage, but it can apply to other areas of life as well. He says, “Perhaps the brightest, most wonderful commitment of the Redeemer is captured in these words from Revelation 21:5: “Behold, I am making all things new.” New is the operative word for what God is seeking to do in you and in your marriage. You are not stuck. You are not committed to the mistakes of the past. You are not cursed to pay forever for your errors. God’s work is in the work of renewal. He sent his Son to earth in order to make real and lasting change possible. God has made fresh starts and new beginnings possible. Reconciliation can take place. Restoration really does happen. What was broken can be healed. The weeds of the old way can die, and flowers of a new, better way can grow in their place…As we face regret, we bask in forgiveness and then turn to live in a new way, embracing the power that is ours as children of God.”[vii]
If the Lamb can and will do all of this at the end for his people—if God’s presence turns wastelands into paradise—think of what he can do in your life now? 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If the new has begun, there’s hope for change. There’s hope for reconciliation. There’s hope for forgiveness. There’s hope for growth.
Further, let this vision shape the way you think about the pursuit of holiness and purity. Many of you were here when Ben was preaching through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:8 says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” 1 John 3:2, “we know that when [Jesus] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” Repeatedly, the apostles connect holiness with seeing God.
But what this vision helps us understand is that the pursuit of holiness is part of the much larger theme of enjoying God’s presence. Holiness and purity are not bare commands, but part of God’s larger trajectory to restore us to paradise where we walk with God again. It’s what he made you for originally, and it’s where he’s taking you in Christ. So, seek that purity now. Give yourself wholly to God’s will now as it holds out the promise of enjoying God fully on the last day.
Finally, rest assured that God will bring a new world. Politicians and world leaders will continue making promises, many of which they cannot keep. Even the promises more aligned with the truth will often not be executed properly, or resources will run out and lead to disappointment. But God’s vision for the new world will not prove empty. Verse 6 goes on to say, “These words are trustworthy and true.” Set your hopes in God’s new creation. His kingdom will bring true healing for the nations. His presence will make all things beautiful again, and we will forever be satisfied.
[i] Erin Allen, “A New World Order,” Library of Congress (April 5, 2017), accessed at https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2017/04/world-war-i-a-new-world-order-woodrow-wilsons-first-draft-of-the-league-of-nations-covenant/.
[ii] Adolf Hitler, “Speech,” Jewish Virtual Library (January 30, 1941), accessed at https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hitler-speech-at-the-berlin-sports-palace-january-30-1941.
[iii] George H. W. Bush, “Address,” U. S. Government Publishing Office (March 6, 1991), accessed at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PPP-1991-book1/html/PPP-1991-book1-doc-pg218-3.htm.
[iv] Joe Biden, “Remarks,” The White House (March 21, 2022), accessed at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/03/21/remarks-by-president-biden-before-business-roundtables-ceo-quarterly-meeting/.
[v] Cf. Rev 3:21; 5:11, 13; 7:17; 22:3.
[vi] Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State, 309.
[vii] Paul Tripp, What Did You Expect.