Skip to content

Finding Healing in Revelation

Author David Steinmetz says that when reading a particularly difficult book, you ought to read the last chapter first in order to get the message of the book. “What appeared on first reading to have been an almost random succession of events now”—from the point of view of the ending—“proves to have been nothing of the kind. If one reads the last chapter first, one discovers a complex and intelligible narrative guided unerringly to its destined end by the secret hand of its author.”

Revelation is one of those difficult books. If reading the final chapter is ever justified, this would be a good place to try it. As the reader comes close to the end, the bizarre spectacles, charged imagery, and loaded repetitions sort themselves out. The din of battle dies down and the scenes of destruction fade. At last it is calm and John’s story ends with a vision of healing. Revelation 22:1-2 says, “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 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” 

Vision of Healing

If we think reading the ending first is a trick to leapfrog through difficult text, then we misread Steinmetz’ counsel. The ending does not stand in isolation from the rest of the story. The conclusion shows the reader what the book was up to all along. Re-reading the book with that perspective brings new light to earlier sections that felt unreadable before. For this reason, the most important advice we can give a new reader of Revelation is to read the book again. Upon re-reading, we can see glimpses of healing in all sections of the book like in Revelation 2:7. The reader who finds scant material for healing in the trumpet cycle of Revelation will be reassured when the allusion to Amos discloses its content. Empowered by the ending, the message from God to John is pervasively a vision of healing. Even more important, it shows that the God of Revelation is a healer. 

Vision of Vindication

John’s final vision, as shown in Revelation 22:1-2, is influenced by the life-giving river and trees in Ezekiel’s Old Testament vision. This vision can be found in Ezekiel 47:1-12. His description is worth noting because the river is unpromising at first. But the stream quickly deepens and is uncrossable in no time. The only source that the river has is the temple of God, and through connection, God Himself. A river with no other source should not go deeper downstream than at its source. But this one does.

The healing shown in this story of the river is described as a motion that gathers momentum, despite running into salt-infested land. Ezekiel 47:7 says, “I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other.” It is no less remarkable when the river enters the sea of Arabah, described as the sea of stagnant waters, it will be healed and everything will live where the river goes, (Ezekiel 47: 8-9). This is a healing that is complete and enduring. Why then does John say the tree of life is for healing the nations? Ezekiel says nothing about it in his vision. Interpreters struggle with this. “The allusion is simply mechanical,” says scholar David Aune. For those still skeptical that John says anything for purely “mechanical” reasons, Robert Mounce suggests that “[t]he glory of the age to come is necessarily portrayed by means of imagery belonging to the present age.” Author Ranko Stefanovic suggests that the imagery “refers figuratively to the removal of all national and linguistic barriers and separation.” Expanding on features that describe the plight of present reality, the leaves of the tree of life will heal the wounds of division, differences, and diversity if not bring an end to these differences altogether.

The nations in the picture are a reference to not only the prior state of the world, but to God’s intent toward the nations and God’s mission to them. The most important text of healing in Revelation is one we have not yet referenced. To get this right, we must explore the Old Testament to find the answer. It sits in the figure that stands in the center of Revelation’s cosmic drama. He appears in the middle of the throne as the one to take the scroll and break the seven seals, (Revelation 5:6). Old Testament allusions are a form of verbal compression, calling us to see the whole where there is only a part. Isaiah 11:1 reads, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” What follows is what the figure will accomplish and how he will do it. Just like the river is Ezekiel’s vision, the agent in Isaiah appears to want to achieve things beyond his resources. Nevertheless, when his mission is completed, no one “will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Then, Isaiah brings the nations into the picture as an integral part of the vision. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10).

I would suggest that the nations are Isaianic echoes in Revelation, denoting God’s intent with the nations. God, who has called His servant in righteousness, has appointed him as a covenant to the people and a light to the nations. Though the servant has moments of feeling overwhelmed, God sees it differently. In His eyes, it is a small thing “to rise up the tribes of Jacob” (Isaiah 49:6). The mission is bigger. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). We are told the servant will surprise the human family, but the outcome will be spectacular. Against this background, “the healing of the nations” is a vision of mission and its accomplishment. We might see it less as describing what the nations will be in the world, but rather that they will be there. 

Vision of Vocation

It may seem odd that John chose the phrase “the nations” to resonate in Revelation. But the reason cannot be “mechanical” or an accident of memory. In addition to seeing this phrase as a vision of vindication, it is also of vocation. The visions of healing and vindication presuppose the vision of vocation. Of the three, vocation is more important because John does not belong to the historical prophets who envision certain outcomes irrespective of the choices humans make. His vision of vindication is grounded in his sense of Jesus’ intent in the face of the daunting task. However, the very same text also envisions participation in the adoption of the followers of Jesus. The predicted outcome depends on the execution of the mission, the adoption of the vocation, and sharing Jesus’ determination to bring healing to the nations. 

As an exercise, if we were to echo the vision in Revelation 22:2, how would it sound? Will “the nations” be deleted, muted, or amplified? Will John’s attention to the nations seem as important to us as Isaiah’s view of the nations? Will the nations’ need of healing and Jesus’ determination to bring healing to the nations come together as it did for Isaiah and John?

This may seem contrived, but it is one piece of the ending of Revelation. The book of Revelation isn’t a monologue. It is probably the most interactive book of the entire Canon. The performative mode of communication, the dynamic dialogue, is meant to facilitate appropriation. The notion that we are reading a vision of vocation is not only dependent on a keen ear for Old Testament references. It is complete with a commission to go forth on a mission of healing in the present world. “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Revelation 22:17).  

In this text, healing belonging to the land of the future has broken in on the arid land of the present. To heal the nations is not only what Jesus will do some day. In this book, He speaks to us personally, echoing the vision of healing in Isaiah. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16).

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.