The River of Life
Revelation 22:1, 2 says,
1 Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 in the middle of the street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
First, the KJV reads “pure river of water of life,” but the Greek texts do not include the word “pure.” Of course, this does not mean that the water is impure. It is a matter of correcting the translation as the NASB above has done.
Secondly, because the original Greek text had no punctuation and did not separate the words into verses, the KJV of verse 2 should read: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river was there the tree of life.” This is a strange contradiction, because it seems to say that the tree of life was in the middle of the street as well as on both sides of the river.
The NASB puts the period at the end of “street,” making it say that the water of life was flowing from the throne down the middle of the street. (See above.) Punctuation makes a difference in how we read and understand the passage, and this seems to make more sense.
Twelve Kinds of Fruit
The tree of life brings forth twelve kinds of fruit. The New Testament speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, nine of which are listed in Gal. 5:22, 23,
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Along with goodness, two more kinds of fruit are listed in Eph. 5:9,
9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth.
In this verse, “goodness” is a repeat from Gal. 5:22, so this makes eleven kinds of fruit. The final kind of fruit is sanctification (or holiness), found in Rom. 6:22 (KJV). This makes a total of twelve kinds of fruit, listed in the New Testament, that we are to exhibit to the world.
The Tree of Life
The Bible begins with the Tree of Life in the book of Genesis and ends with it as well. Its most obvious feature (as indicated by its name) is that it is the source of immortality, or life. This function would be quite meaningless if we were to consider everyone to be already immortal. In fact, Adam and Eve were cut off from this Tree in Gen. 3:22-24 in order to prevent them from being immortal in their sinful state.
Likewise, in Rev. 21:27 and 22:14 it is clear that only the righteous are to have access to this Tree of Life. Speaking of Christ, Paul says in 1 Tim. 6:16 that He “alone possesses immortality.” The clear implication is that the unrighteous do not have immortality. Immortality is an issue pertaining to the soul and body, not one’s spirit per se. To attain immortality is to reverse the full effects of the curse of death that plague all men on account of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12).
The Water of Life in Ezekiel
John’s vision of the water of life in Revelation 21 is similar to the one found in Ezekiel 47. Only by comparing the two can we get a better picture of this scene. Ezekiel 47:1 says,
1 Then He brought me back to the door of the house; and behold, water was flowing from under the threshold of the house toward the east, for the house faced east. And the water was flowing down from under the right side of the house from south of the altar.
The “house” is the temple, or “the House of the Lord.” Many have interpreted Ezekiel’s visions in chapters 40-48 in a carnal manner, as if to say that the Jews will soon build a temple on the old site in Jerusalem, where Jesus will live and reign on earth, much like a human monarch. Such people assume that the New Jerusalem is simply the old Jerusalem restored on the old location, a building made with wood, stones, and gold decorations.
But as we have already shown, John tells us in Rev. 21:22 that this city has no need for such a temple, because the people themselves serve as its temple. Ezekiel writes about the New Jerusalem while using Old Covenant pictures. But this does not mean that his words must be interpreted through Old Covenant eyes, as so many do. If it had been built in Ezekiel’s time, it would indeed have been a carnal structure as described. But the new temple must be viewed in the same light as our view of the new Jerusalem and new Mount Zion (Sion).
It is from this new temple that the river flows, according to Rev. 22:1. Ezekiel’s vision came to him in an Old Covenant context that the people would understand, with a river flowing from Jerusalem’s temple to the Dead Sea. Flowing water was a vital commodity in the desert landscape, so no doubt the people of that day interpreted his vision in quite literal terms. They could not yet know the greater plan of God.
And yet Ezekiel’s river is miraculous in another way. The river is said to be only ankle deep at its source but becomes deeper as it flows across the desert, until it is so deep and swift that it cannot be forded (47:5). This is, of course, the opposite of natural rivers, unless other tributaries flow into it along the way. But the prophet says nothing of other rivers, nor did any such rivers exist between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. So this surely provides people with a clue that this is no ordinary river.
The Tree of Life
Ezekiel 47:7 says,
7 Now when I had returned, behold, on the bank of the river there were very many trees on the one side and on the other.
In John’s vision in Revelation 22, there is only one tree, the Tree of Life, on both sides of the river. In Ezekiel 47, there appear to be “very many trees” on both sides of the river.
Whether the trees are all one tree or whether we are to view this as a “forest” having many trees is a matter of prophetic perspective. Spiritual things are often pictured as physical objects, but spirit is not subject to the same physical rules. Spiritual objects do not take up space, nor are they subject to time. But because our carnal minds cannot comprehend spiritual things, we need earthly metaphors to understand them. When we get different metaphors from different prophets, we should not interpret them as contradictory.
It seems to me that John’s description of twelve kinds of fruit indicates many types of trees—all of which are collectively a Tree of Life. In Ezekiel 47:12 we read,
12 And by the river on its bank, on one side and on the other, will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear every month because their water flows from the sanctuary, and their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.
The “healing” is non-specific in this verse, but verses 8-10 make it clear that its primary purpose is to heal the Dead Sea and make it habitable for fish. Swarms of fish are a biblical symbol for life itself.
The Dead Sea
Probably the most important factor is that while Ezekiel sees the land of Canaan from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, John interprets it more universally. Ezekiel sees the river healing the Dead Sea, while John sees it healing the nations by means of the fruit-bearing trees.
In other words, the lifeless Dead Sea represents the nations, the dead sea of humanity. All are dead, even as they walk the earth, because Adam’s sin made all men mortal. When the living water flows into this Dead Sea, fish can live there. If the Dead Sea represents the nations, then the fish represent the people of all nations. The swarms of fish that are to be seen in the formerly “Dead” Sea now make it a Living Sea.
By understanding the prophecy of the Dead Sea, we should also note that Ezekiel saw this as a process, not as an instantaneous event. We ought, then, to link this Dead Sea with the Lake of Fire, where the people remain under judgment as they learn righteousness until the Creation Jubilee. The purpose of divine judgment is to reverse the curse of death upon mankind that came through Adam’s sin, even as John says in Rev. 22:3,
3 And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him.
The Nations and the Overcomers
God will maintain a distinction between the “bond-servants” of God and the “nations” who are healed and brought to life as swarms of fish. Of those bondservants, we read in Rev. 22:4 and 5,
4 and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. 5 . . . and they shall reign for the ages of the ages [aionas ton aionian].
The overcomers are part of the temple of God and the New Jerusalem, where God saw fit to place His name after forsaking the old Jerusalem’s temple as Shiloh (Jer. 7:12-14). The New Temple is alive, because it is built of living stones upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ being the Chief Cornerstone (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:5).
The place where God writes His name has changed over the centuries. God told the Israelites to “go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first” (Jer. 7:12). He then spoke of the temple in Jerusalem, saying, “Therefore, I will do the house which is called by My name… as I did to Shiloh” (Jer. 7:14). In other words, God’s name had been removed from Shiloh and placed in Jerusalem. Yet because Jerusalem had become more corrupt than Shiloh had been, God was about to remove His name from that location as well.
The final location for His name is on the foreheads of those who are sealed—marked with God’s signature. This is the location of His new house. Although the people are pictured in terms of a temple, it does not mean that God intends to put His name on a stone structure in Jerusalem, as He did in past years.
Revelation 21:5 says,
5 And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever [aionas ton aionian, “the ages of the ages”].
These who have the mark (name) of God on their foreheads will have light within themselves and will need no external light sources. Their bodies will be transfigured to resemble Jesus’ body when He was transfigured on the mount in Matt. 17:2. This is, of course, the reward of the saints, the purpose of the feast of Tabernacles, and the goal of history. They will reign for the ages of the ages, teaching and training the rest of humanity in the ways of God until all are fully restored and God is all in all.
Rev. 22:5 is the proper end of the revelation given to John. It ends with the great revelation of the river of life flowing out to all. The tree of life is finally available for all, after being guarded by cherubim that were assigned to restrict man’s access to immortality since Gen. 3:24. The nations are healed by the leaves of the tree of life, and its fruit sustain them. The curse is removed from the earth (Rev. 22:3), which had been imposed since Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17).
God lays claim to (and owns) all, for “His name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4). Further, the full light of the knowledge of Christ shines throughout the earth, as the New Covenant promise is fulfilled, “for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Heb. 8:11). The climactic statement in Rev. 22:5 is “and they shall reign for the ages of the ages.”