The imagery of the Lamb’s Book of Life, blood-washed robes, tree of life, and access to the eternal city presents a wonderful picture of stability, security, and promise.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter
The descent of the New Jerusalem is the last prophetic event of John’s Apocalypse (Rev. 21:1–22:5). The arrival of the holy city gives the fulfillment of all hopes, the answer to all the longings of the world, the quenching of all thirsts (21:6). With its coming, seven of humankind’s enemies are forever removed: the sea, death, mourning, crying, pain, night, and the curse (21:1, 4, 25; 22:3, 4). Everything is made new (21:5). The former painful things that human beings have experienced on earth are forever gone (vs. 4).
The deeply personal and existential nature of this eschatological moment is capsuled in the imagery of God wiping away all tears from every citizen‑saint of this city of light and life. The context suggests that God “accounts for the wounds of the past.”1 This healing is both individual and communal. Here the human family—and all the families of the earth—find both blessing and final reconciliation: for “the leaves of the tree of life heal the breaches of the nations.”2 All national and linguistic barriers and alienation are removed. Humanity is now united in one family, at peace with one another and God. The redeemed not only see God’s face, they also reflect His character. His name is in their forehead. They “share his holiness and righteousness.”3
No greater statement of the end of one kind of moral existence and the beginning of a new one can be found in Scripture. The vision casts an enduring and compelling moral horizon that provides a conceptual canvass on which Revelation’s tacit and explicit moral themes and values are painted. It provides lenses through which we are invited to interpret moral reality and frame ethical discussion. It unfolds a moral/spiritual metaphysical context in which Revelation frames human existence, being, action, and moral responsibility.
The foregoing imagery of God’s gracious consummation of all things draws us into a moral context—a worldview. It tells us who the players are. It tells us what condition human life has been in and is in. It tells us where we are and where we are going. It provides a worldview against which the book’s various moral themes and values are to be considered. It offers an example of Revelation’s many tacit orienting “horizon generating” (worldview) contexts and helps us to maintain the book’s own agenda in our query about its ethics.
Back to the Future
The vision of the New Jerusalem concludes with a few details from the center of the city: throne, river, and tree (Rev. 22:1–5). The nearer one gets to the center of the city, the less like a city it seems and the more like a garden—something surpassing the original Garden of Eden. The allusion to Eden in the original creation is intentional. Revelation transplants the rich soil of the original Garden, envisioning a cosmopolis of paradise, not a garden per se, but a city in which the tree of life stands. Although the Genesis narrative takes up only two early chapters of Scripture (Genesis 2 and 3), the notion of a garden‑like paradise, lost because of the Fall, exerts a strong influence in biblical imagery. The portrait of humankind’s first home in the Garden of Eden is powerful. The paradise home is paradigmatic as is its ethos and ethic.
Just as there was a tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9), so also a tree of life stands in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:2). But whereas in Genesis 3:23, 24, human beings are exiled from the Garden and the way to the tree is guarded by cherubim, in Revelation’s vision of redemptive‑recreation, those who are cleansed from sin “will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates,” (22:14, NRSV), which are always open. A surface read might lead to the conclusion that Revelation is pointing merely to regained access to the tree of life and resultant eternal life. However, the metaphors of the tree of life and entering the city emerge as an icon not only of blessing, but also of moral orientation and choice. This is a city unlike all cities we have known. It will be without sin—righteousness pervades, dwells (2 Peter 3:13). The tree in the garden‑like city is the archetype of blessing, but also blessing’s consummation or goal. Yet such blessing comes with intentional moral nuance and ethical implications.
While Genesis holds up the ephemeral state of Eden for a brief glimpse and then moves its readers back into their real world (of shame, suffering, alienation, domination, and death), Revelation holds up the passing state of the real world (of sea, death, mourning, crying, pain, night, curse, violence, oppression, shame, and alienation from God) and moves its audience back into the shalom of an eternal Eden. Thus, Scripture ends as it begins. The sweep of salvation history and the end of all things (eschatology) is patterned after the beginning—a new creation, that is, redemptive re‑creation. Humanity is again in paradise, enjoying full fellowship with God, at peace with self and others.
Revelation thus posits human moral destiny “back to the future” in the garden. The tree of life, and with it now, the holy city, is at once critical and instructive. They present a paradox of hope and judgment. They provide a moral baseline that eschews moralism. The mode of moral discourse here is primarily that of moral vision—an ethical horizon.
The Tree and Ethics
The last of Revelation’s seven beatitudes highlights the integral ethical role that both the tree of life and the city of life play in Revelation’s moral vision: “‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying’” (22:14, 15, NASB). Here, moral “right” of access and “exclusion” are contrasted. Revelation’s geo‑ethical landscape is outlined. The geography includes not only a sphere of reality—in time, space, and essence—but also the human heart (22:11). It underscores and nuances the book’s “ultimate ethical aim.”4
Revelation’s imagery of “‘the right to the tree of life’” corresponds rather closely, though inversely, to Genesis 3:22 to 24, which narrates the expulsion of humanity from Eden because of the possibility that people might eat from the tree of life and so live forever. Here, the ban that barred people from access to the tree of life and the immortality that it symbolizes has been forever lifted. This allusion to Genesis reminds us that while life is a divine gift, it is ever tied to moral being and doing—to ethics. While life is an act of grace, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge disclose both the character of God’s graciousness and the moral quality of the life, which His grace envisions. There is no cheap grace here. No life free of moral orientation or responsibility is envisioned.5
In the first paradise, the tree of life had a twofold significance. First, the tree of life had the power of giving perpetual, physical earthly life to human beings, even after they sinned, so that it was necessary to bar the way to the tree of life after the Fall (Gen. 3:22).
Second, the tree conveyed “a certain sacramental character.”6 It was the tree of life. More important, though, is that human life is more than mere perpetual physical existence. Even though human life was earthly, nevertheless life for human beings implied favor and fellowship with God as well as moral correspondence with His character and the moral meaning invested in created intelligent life. After all, man and woman were made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26, 27). Together they were appointed stewards of God’s good creation (vs. 28). The tree of life was a sign and seal of God’s favor, an emblem of God’s covenant with human beings.
The moral vision, which the tree of life casts, was not mere physical existence, but life in the true sense. It assumed moral being and action true to life.
Ethics True to Life—The Tree of Life
Within Proverbs’ moral vision, the metaphor of the tree of life is used to refer to anything that enhances and celebrates authentic life in relation to the Creator Lord God. It is related to righteousness (Prov. 11:30), gentle words (15:4), and wisdom (3:18). This includes what Proverbs elsewhere characterizes as “Lady Wisdom” who metaphorically is “a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly” (3:18, NLT). The imagery of embracing her and holding her tightly underscore the personal moral and spiritual quality of identifying with wisdom, and thus experiencing genuine happiness (authentic life). It is as if one eats from the tree of life because such wisdom imparts real life: is in keeping with life’s essence, purpose, meaning, and vitality. This is what is sought—not just life itself, but life free of shame and guilt, life full of honor and innocence, life that finds fullness of joy in fearing God and intimacy with Him. It is life as it was meant to be—in God’s image, reflecting God’s character and being.
This correspondence between ethics and authentic life is further expressed in Proverbs where “personified wisdom” declares “‘For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord. But he who sins against me injures himself; all those who hate me love death’” (8:35, 36, NASB). Here, finding life is linked to the self. What one does with moral spiritual truth goes beyond mere physical existence. It touches one’s being, one’s inner private world of character, values, thought, intent, affections, heart. This is the ethical landscape in which life is found, sinned against, or hated. True life and favor with God are contrasted with injuring self and loving death. True life is experienced only when one lives true to life. Thus, the tree of life—in Eden, wisdom literature, and John’s Apocalypse—reflects a morality true to life as God has ordained human beings created in His image.
Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge
The moral boundaries of living true to life are nuanced in the tension created by the presence of the first garden’s tree of knowledge (Gen. 2:9) and the restored garden’s outsiders (Rev. 22:15). Ethics and the freedom, which ethics assumes, require moral boundaries. No true moral freedom exists without definable limits. No true morality exists without moral choice. The absence of moral boundaries creates non‑order, and non‑order is the end of authentic human life. If one could only do one thing, for example, eat from all the trees, then that would not be true freedom. Freedom must include genuine choice: choice that matters. If God had left the tree of knowledge out of the garden, then there would have been no disobedience, but also there would have been no freedom to choose and no moral capacity, either.
Human beings live within moral spiritual boundaries; and at the same time, they possess the power to cross those boundaries. The tension created by those boundaries highlights the moral quality of life and the call to exercise personal moral freedom to purposefully stay within moral limits. This is the true freedom God offers intelligent beings that He has created.
Interestingly, nothing is really explained about the tree of knowledge (and it is found nowhere else in Scripture). The Genesis narrative, in fact, has no interest in the character of the tree per se. What counts is the fact of prohibition, limitation, and boundary—the authority of the One who speaks and the unqualified expectation of obedience. It’s a powerful reminder that the control of one’s life and the lives of others belongs outside one’s self. Human beings may be free to choose, but they cannot choose the consequences of their moral choices. Their frame of reference for moral right and wrong will ever be external. It will ever be in God’s hands and the intended morality that is consistent with the life He has created and graciously given. While the issue of the tree of knowledge (and thus the tree of life) was spiritual in that it related ultimately to God, it was also moral in that it encompassed human freedom and moral choice that mattered. It also encompassed the moral issues of self in relation to God (another moral being) and, ultimately, to other human beings (Gen. 2:9, 16, 17; 3:1–4:10).
Expulsion from the Garden and the tree of life points to the consequences of choosing a morality inconsistent with the meaning of life (Gen. 3:22–24). Painful spiritual and moral consequences immediately followed humanity’s crossing life’s intrinsic boundaries (Gen. 3:1–4:10). It would have been calamitous had humans continued to live in a perfect environment as sinful beings, especially if they ate of the tree of life and lived on indefinitely in such a condition. “In a distorted and disrupted world, interminable life would be unbearable. In expelling humanity from the garden we experience a God who withholds, but who also provides a tolerable life.”7
It is this distorted and disrupted world that the Apocalypse so graphically portrays—a world of incredible sorrow, violence, oppression, struggle for power and coercion, natural and human calamity, war, suffering, crying, and death. Here is the real world of real people whose heartfelt turmoil either compels them to cry out “‘How long will it be . . .?’” (Rev. 6:10, NRSV) or to yearn for death—which seems never to come (9:6). Such strong imagery of human moral dysfunction, personal and social turmoil, and existential angst imply the existence of a morality true to the meaning and wellbeing of human life. Withholding the tree of life affirms life’s boundaries, as does the promise of extending it anew to those who choose such life by washing their robes in the Lamb’s blood (22:14).
The right to enter the city through its gates, and the description of people excluded from the city, both expand and concretize the moral imagery of the tree of life. The fact that access to the tree of life is mentioned before access to the city (since the tree is in the city) expresses a rhetorical phenomenon that occurs regularly in Revelation—the “last‑first” principle of placing two events in reverse order so that the last event is nuanced by what should have logically been first. Entry into a city by means of the gates was the only legitimate means of access to an ancient city. The phrase “‘may enter through the gates into the city’” (22:14, NKJV) is in antithesis to an earlier statement about the New Jerusalem that declares that “nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27, NRSV).
Insiders and Outsiders
Valid access to the Holy City, and thus the tree of life, assumes moral innocence and honor. The moral implications of having one’s name written in the Lamb’s book of life are likewise unmistakable (Rev. 21:27). Angels posted at the city’s twelve pearl gates (vs. 12) suggest as much the barring entry of anything inconsistent with both the moral/spiritual nature of the city and the character of the life it exemplifies (yet another allusion to Genesis 3) as it does their heartfelt invitation and welcome. Again, Proverb’s “personified wisdom” raises her voice: “Beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud: ‘To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind’” (Prov. 8:3, 4, NIV). The phrase “anything unclean” (Rev. 21:27, NIV) is not used in a literal cultic sense, but rather “metaphorically in a moral sense of people who are immoral.”8 It is a cultic perspective that encompasses a moral sense. People are in view: who they are; how they are oriented morally (Rev. 22:11).
The image of individuals barricaded forever outside the city is reinforced by threefold repetition. Three segments of the New Jerusalem vision describe those excluded from the city: “‘Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood’” (22:15 NIV); “‘but the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death’” (21:8, NIV); “nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27, NIV).
The specific character of the descriptions in these lists of vice highlights the concrete nature of Revelation’s moral vision. In the catalogue sin and sinners are combined. Moral wrong (evil) together with one’s being and doing converge. The envisioned moral life is not lived in the abstract. It never can be. Nor is it merely on the level of moral principles alone. Concrete action, behavior, and deeds are envisioned on the part of individuals who identify themselves with these moral values (vices).
Correspondingly, “each transgression can be balanced antithetically by a positive trait that is to characterize members of the heavenly city.”9 Revelation is permeated with direct and indirect allusions to the commandments of God, affirming their enduring covenant nature (12:17; 14:12).
From a broader perspective, the Apocalypse sets the cosmopolis garden of New Jerusalem in antithesis over against “the great city” Babylon (18:1–24). Babylon is fallen: arrogant, proud, corrupt, exploitive, oppressive, and blasphemous. It is an incredible picture of fallen human civilization. It is religious but independent of God, and it blossoms for one last time as a splendid city. It depicts the complete control of the political, religious, commercial, and cultural apparatus of society by the Satanic power structure (chapters 13, 17, 18). It provides a compelling glimpse of the power of corrupt culture by linking imagery from religion, politics, entertainment, sensuality, immorality, consumerism, and mood-altering substances (18:3, 7, 9, 14). It lives luxuriously and is marked with futile human endeavor. The evocative language points to Babylon culture’s voracious materialistic consumerism, its ruthless pursuit of pleasure, its emphasis on sensuality and sexuality, and a spirituality that is independent of God.
That Babylon traffics in “human lives” (18:13, NRSV) and in her is “‘found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth’” (18:24, NASB) points to the reality that real human beings are envisioned along with the metaphoric great city. This is no abstraction. Real people suffer and are deceived. Real people are exploited, coerced, die—they are deceiving and being deceived, oppressing and being oppressed. This is because human beings embody Babylon’s value system. They have been squeezed into her cultural/moral mold.
This Babylon imagery unfolds a worldview and resultant encapsulating culture—and ethics. Human beings invest their future security and hope in her. They have either bought into or merely outwardly support her moral vision, which includes marked anti‑creational actions that tear at right relationships with God, humanity, and all creation. This brings the chaos-engendering reversal of creation depicted throughout the Apocalypse, but especially at earth’s close. Within the narrative the forces of chaos threatening to undo God’s creation subvert the very principles that promote and protect the life and wellbeing of the community. The anti‑creation forces driving Babylon would be worshiped. They prescribe how that worship is to be (Rev. 13:14–17). There is an ethic resulting from that worship. Babylon thus creates her own worldview, culture, and ethics.
Fallen Babylon is a spiritual/moral frame of reference that both influences and determines concrete human behavior. Thus, coming out of Babylon includes a moral escape—not just theological or doctrinal escape. The invitation to come out of her is both personal and concrete—“‘so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities’” (Rev. 18:4, 5, NASB). It is a strong wake‑up call to break off personal identification with any religious moral political system that is not in line with the Eternal Gospel and the corresponding life it envisions in the New Jerusalem. There will ever always be a personal moral dimension to the theology of Revelation, or it does not fit real human life. Revelation’s moral vision is cast against this backdrop of the proverbial “tale of two cities”10—eschatological Babylon and heaven’s Holy City of Jerusalem.
Right to the Tree of Life
The action of washing one’s robes is clearly “a metaphor for moral and spiritual cleansing or reformation.”11 The present participial form— “those who wash”—indicates continuous activity rather than a once‑for‑all event. While the saving and purifying effect of appropriating the substitutionary death of Christ is in view here (Rev. 7:14; 1:5), it nevertheless marks the personal decision to lead a morally upright life within the context and empowerment of that gracious cleansing. It is also to be understood in the active sense of what a person must do to reform his or her way of living.
Washing one’s garments points to a fundamental moral orientation, purpose, and decision in the context of the Lamb’s atoning work and the sovereign reign of God (Rev. 7:14, 15; 14:1–5). The resulting experience of such divine cleansing deep within the inner being of self and conscience includes the gracious receiving of the moral “right”— not just a right but the right—to partake of the tree of life and to enter the city—to exercise one’s rights over, to have full “power over” the tree of life. Assurance is unequivocal: “He who has the Son has life [eternal]” (1 John 5:11, 12). Only those who experience such gracious opportunity will be able fully grasp its existential implications. It is the stuff of joyful praise and new song (Rev. 14:1–4; 15:1–4).
This right has nothing to do with merit. It is an imparted right. Exousia in the Apocalypse reflects the sovereign Lordship of God in a fallen world in which nothing takes place apart from His authority. The exousia, which other moral beings (including evil entities) might have (or are granted), is based on His Lordship.
While imparted, though, exousia nevertheless suggests a moral and spiritual correspondence between the one possessing (or having been granted) the right or authority or power on the one hand, and the moral/spiritual nature of what that right or authority or power is over, on the other hand. This includes how one acts in the moral/spiritual/political realm of things. At Revelation’s epochal cosmic conflict’s turning point, it is loudly announced: “‘Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority [exousia] of His Christ have come’” (Rev. 12:10, NASB). Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection bring about a new historical reality with corresponding moral authority for Him as the world’s Redeemer. Theodicy implications for the Great Controversy are tacit and illuminative. The point here, though, is that such authority is linked to one’s action in the moral/spiritual realm. It is not devoid of ethics, moral orientation, or action.
This moral and spiritual correspondence between the right to something and over what that right entails is found also in the imagery of the 144,000, who on the one hand “‘have washed their robes . . . in the blood of the Lamb’” (Rev. 7:14, NIV) and on the other hand, as a result of and in keeping with their redemptive experience (14:3, 4), exhibit blameless lives (vss. 4, 5). Theirs is the incredible privilege of standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion (14:1), not their own doing, but nevertheless in heart and mind and choice of life—very much in harmony with what it means morally and spiritually to follow the Lamb (14:4).
This moral/spiritual correspondence is suggested elsewhere in the Apocalypse by the linking of the verbs “to give” and “to overcome”: “‘“To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God”’” (Rev. 2:7, NKJV).
The image of one being “worthy” further nuances this link. “‘You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white’” (Rev. 3:4, 5, NIV). Here the worthiness not only precedes but also culminates with completion of the process of overcoming. Elsewhere in Revelation the notion of “worthiness” is attributed to God (because He is Creator [4:11]), the Lamb (because He was slain and overcame so as to open the scroll and its seven seals [vss. 5, 9, 12]), and in an ironic pun referring to persecutors who are worthy of judgment (“worthy” to drink blood because they poured out the blood of saints and prophets [16:16]). Each expression indicates the sphere in which there is implied moral correspondence.
Washing one’s robes, then, includes an inner moral orientation and a sense of sin. It includes, as well, the conscious choice to claim Christ as one’s righteousness in relation to those realities. The moral agency implied in one having the right to the tree of life and to enter the Holy City through its gates is grounded in God’s grace (Rev 1:4; 22:21). The Lamb’s atonement is the framework for moral being and action. It beckons at one’s deepest level, and at bottom is the reality in which the right of access to Eden restored is ever possible. Moral agency connected with life transforming conversion is implicit. This is the Lamb’s work alone. “‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (7:10, NIV).
Will There Always Be an Outside?
As the moral boundaries are drawn for the redeemed community—drawing a clear line of who is inside and who is outside—one might expect that this would mean that in the end there is no longer an outside. This is not the case, however. The shocking truth is that at the very end of the Apocalypse story, after the battle, after the judgment, after the destruction of evil, after the new heavens and the new earth and the description of the holy city, there is still an outside to the city, still limited access to the tree. This image of a completely sacred space with doors ever open to the outside (Rev. 21:25), where evil lurks, is important for understanding Revelation’s moral vision. It suggests eternity’s enduring moral reality. Moral boundaries still exist as values expressed in God’s character and eternal laws endure. Freedom of choice still exists both now and through eternity. Following the eschaton, however, evil will never again come within the city because no one will either bring it in or invite it in (21:27). Such things will ever be inconsistent with “life.”
Thus, the tree, and the city, appearing as they do in Revelation’s conclusion, are at once critical and instructive. They present a paradox of hope and judgment, a moral baseline that eschews moralism. The tree, together with the city’s spirit—ethos—remains an ever‑present hope for humankind. To return to the Genesis garden—to the land before shame and suffering and alienation and death—involves a moral advancement, not a regression; a reawakening, not a reversion; a transformation, not human endeavor; moral boundaries and choice, not relativity or indifference. Grace and cleansing blood both undergird and empower the entire experience (Rev. 1:4; 22:21; 7:14; 22:14; 12:11).
The Apocalypse thus envisions a morality consistent with human life, which God created in His own image, so much so that physical life itself is not the ultimate value. There are those who will “‘not love their life even when faced with death’” (12:11, NASB). They are willing to be faithful unto death (2:10). Why so? Because there are things about human life (in relation to oneself, to others, and to God), which are both worth living for and dying for. True life is experienced only when one chooses and lives “true to life.” Death is better than the moral alternative.
Taken together, “the” exousia to the tree of life and entry through the gates into the city point to moral correspondence with those realities. It is something that moral agent receives from God via the Lamb’s work, yet which they receive because they value it, avail themselves of it, and allow the Lamb to empower them to live in harmony with it.
Revelation asserts that the gates to the New Jerusalem are always open (Rev. 21:15). So, also, is access to the tree of life. Yet there are categories of people who are outside the gates (22:15) as well as the gracious Holy Spirit’s invitation to partake of that which gives true life (vs. 17). The text affirms that the reader can choose to be either inside or outside the city. Such choice is linked to both existential longing and inner moral orientation. There must be desire and choice. Such choice is ours still.
The imagery of the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27), blood washed-robes (7:14; 22:14), tree of life (22:2, 14) and access to the eternal city (21:3–7; 27; 22:14) present a wonderful picture of stability, security, and promise. The believer is a citizen of heaven, no matter what the forces of evil do. Here is awesome assurance!
Larry L. Lichtenwalter, PhD, is President, Dean of Philosophy and Theology, and the Director of the Adventist Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.
NOTES AND REFERENCES