How do you bring an epic story to a close? Writers since the beginning of time have wrestled with this issue, and the struggle continues today. The question of what constitutes a “good” ending to a book, movie or TV show surfaces regularly in public discourse when some piece of popular culture comes to an end.
This last week, the debate has been about the ending of the wildly popular TV (and book) series Game of Thrones. A lot of fans believed that the climax of the series betrayed everything the story had been about all along (no spoilers, promise!). Others, including me, felt like the ending was an inevitable, albeit disheartening, result of the direction the story had been going from the beginning.
Of course, no writer is ever going to make every reader/viewer happy. What makes an ending satisfying varies depends on the expectations of the various audience members. Often the best a writer can hope for is that the ending, even if it is disliked, makes narrative sense and is coherent with all the story that came before it.
Coherence to the previous story is precisely what I see when I look at Rev 22:12-21. This passage is the very last one in the entire Bible. You might wonder why that is significant. After all, didn’t the construction of the biblical canon come about in piecemeal fashion? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that no thought was given to the order of the books and what that order might mean.
Indeed, canonical arrangements other than the one we have now were suggested within the early church. To cite just one example, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries there was some debate as to the appropriate arrangement of the four Gospels. While the order Matthew-Mark-Luke-John was most popular, and eventually won out, there were other suggestions. Some early lists of the Gospels had Matthew and John first, followed by Mark and Luke, because Matthew and John were believed to have been written by actual disciples of Jesus, and therefore were considered more valuable than the other two books, written by later followers who (probably) did not actually know Jesus. So sometimes there is an underlying meaning to sequence.
Although few arguments of substance can be sustained by citing the canonical order of books of the Bible alone, that doesn’t mean the order is insignificant. This brings us to the first and last books of the canon. Genesis and Revelation are arguably the most fittingly placed parts of the Bible. Where else should Scripture begin except with the beginning: the creation of all things, followed by the birth of the Israelite nation? And what better way to end the biblical text than with a book like Revelation, which points forward toward the future redemption and fulfillment of prophecy which Christians at the time longed for?
Our passage today is taken from the end of the end–the very last verses of the book of Revelation. And the content of these verses reflects the passage’s placement. We often think of Revelation as only a book of apocalyptic prophecy, but forget that John’s vision is presented in epistle format. The book begins as a standard epistle would, with a greeting, and an indication of who the letter is from and to (1:4-5). The introduction ends with the following pronouncement: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” (1:8). (Stick a pin in that for a moment; we’ll return to it.)
The book continues with chapters 2-3 presenting the letters to the seven churches. The description of the vision itself then takes up the majority of the book, from chapters 4-22. Our scripture comes from the “epilogue,” which shares some characteristics with the ending of other NT epistles, which often contain admonitions (cf. Rom 16:17-19; I Cor 16:13-14, 21; Phil 4:4-9).
So our passage today is not part of the book’s vision, but rather part of the epistolary ending.
Nevertheless, this section contains elements clearly meant to link it with the beginning of the book, and, indeed, with the beginning of Genesis itself, bringing the biblical text full circle.
This section first connects itself back to the opening passage of Revelation, specifically verse 1:8 (told you we’d get back to it!). One of the very first things in the epilogue is Jesus’ proclamation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:13). Compare this to 1:8, cited above and you see that the first part, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” is exactly the same. The phrases that come after it in each instance are different, but are clearly intended to be parallel in meaning. 1:8 refers to Jesus as the one “who is and who was and who is to come”; 22:13 replaces “who was” with the words “Alpha,” “first,” and “beginning.” Jesus is the one who has been since the very beginning of everything. Then it replaces the phrase “who is to come” with the words “Omega,” “last,” and “end,” the natural opposites of the previous three descriptors.
In addition, this passage makes an obvious connection to the very beginning of the entire Bible: the Genesis creation story itself. In the epilogue we hear Jesus say in v. 17: “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” The “water of life” here echoes back to the passage just prior to the epilogue, in which the author conveys a vision of the New Eden–perfect creation restored (22:1-5). The main image in this vision is “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (v. 1). This image, in turn, echoes Gen 2, which describes Eden as a place where “streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground (Gen 2:6), and where “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden” (2:10). It also is reminiscent of the frequent biblical use of rivers and flowing water as symbols of both physical and spiritual life. This imagery flows throughout the entirety of the Scripture, and therefore serves as a unifying element in a diverse set of texts.
When you bind these discrete elements into a whole, the author could hardly make it clearer that the biblical story has come full circle. The message of the Bible is a coherent, consistent whole. One might expect nothing less from the God who is portrayed consistently as “one” in both the Old and New Testaments. The author’s emphasis on the unanimous voice of Scripture here is enhanced by the connection of God being “the beginning and the end” with God being “one” and “only” (cf. Isa 41:4; 44:6; 46:9-10). God is one, therefore his message is one.
So, how do you end an epic story? If you are the Almighty God, you end it the same way you began it–with emphasis on your singular, unchanging nature, and your unprecedented mission: the restoration of a sin-wrecked creation to the perfect vision it was always meant to be. This idea is perhaps expressed no where better than in these words from the Wesley hymn, Love Divine All Loves Excelling:
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be; End of faith, as its beginning, Set our hearts at liberty.
Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be; Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee; Changed from glory into glory Till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love and praise.