Some people see the epilogue of Revelation, the final words of the Bible itself, as a grab bag of stuff that gets tossed in as an afterthought. But there is a method to the author John’s madness. He brings together images that he used earlier in the book, such as “Alpha and Omega” (v. 13, 1:8), the washing of robes (v. 14, 7:14), the morning star (v. 16, 2:28), among many others.
Something about our passage that I find interesting is what the lectionary compilers left out. This often happens with the “problematic” verses. When I see stuff that gets deleted, I just have to include it. Verses 18 and 19, in which John cautions about messing around with the words in his book, are skipped over.
But before that, there’s verse 15, which is the flip side to the blessing which has just been pronounced on “those who wash their robes” (v. 14). These are the ones granted access to the tree of life and entry to the city. That is God’s new city, the new Jerusalem.
Here’s the sentence that gets the ax: “Outside [that is, outside the city gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Saving the rest of the verse for later, it’s that last part—everyone who loves and practices falsehood—that jumps out at me. The New Jerusalem Bible reads “everyone of false speech and false life.” False speech and false life.
Let me tell a story I think might go along with that.
In November 1987, I was a student at Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida. (It’s an Assemblies of God school; it’s now Southeastern University.) Anyway, on most Friday nights, a group of us would go to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa—at the time, it wasn’t exactly the most upscale part of town. What we students did was street evangelism.
The night after Thanksgiving was my very first time going with the group to Tampa. I doubt that I’d been on the street for more than five minutes when I encountered a man, maybe in his fifties, dressed in shabby clothes. I walked right up to him and said, “Jesus loves you.” Just like that.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. We were Pentecostal students; I suppose we expected to see some dramatic changes every time we went there. But with my very first person on my very first night, I did see something.
Upon hearing the name “Jesus,” the man started crying. And as he sobbed, he poured out his heart. He said that he’d once been a rich man; he’d had a job as a manager in some corporation. Due to various things, in particular a drinking problem, he just frittered it all away. But worse than losing his career, worse than losing all his money, was the fact that he had lost his family. He told me that he wasn’t even sure where they were. And he wondered if he could ever be forgiven—if he could ever be pardoned for living a false life, so to speak.
With an almost knee-jerk reaction, I said, “Jesus does forgive you.” There, that ought to do it! That ought to take care of him! But for some reason, it didn’t. My magic words failed to produce the intended effect! I expected him to say, “Thank you” or “Get lost” or something like that. But he said something very different.
“Do you forgive me?” He was directing the question to me! Somewhat taken aback, I was determined to provide what I considered to be a theologically correct response. “Jesus forgives you.”
“No, no, no,” he groaned through his tears. “Do you forgive me?” To my anonymous friend, in that deserted parking lot on the evening after millions of Americans had gobbled turkey in the comfort of their homes, my talk of Jesus was an abstraction. He needed a flesh-and-blood word. So I said, “I forgive you.” And with that, he turned and shuffled away into the night.
When we hear the words a “false life,” the poor fellow I met in Tampa may come to mind. Or we may imagine those who haven’t wound up on the street: say, employers who abuse their employees and the environment. Perhaps “false speech and false life” conjures up images of slick-talking salesmen, corrupt politicians, or that romantic interest of your youth who gave you hope—and then said, “I just want to be friends”!
Our friend John gives us examples of what he’s talking about. In verse 15, he starts off with “dogs.” Jews sometimes described Gentiles that way. That may or may not be the way John is using it. In any event, calling someone a dog is hardly a compliment.
The next word on the list, “sorcerers,” would seem to be a concern to those who don’t like Harry Potter! The word in the Greek, φαρμακοι (pharmakoi), sheds a little more light. Pharmakoi is the origin of our word “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.” So John’s reference to “sorcerers” is also a reference to “drugs.” There’s always been a link between drugs and sorcery.
Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for taking drugs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Americans are probably the most overmedicated people in the world. Still, that kind of dependency contributes to the “falsity” that our scripture points to.
And then next on the list is “fornicators,” coming from the Greek word πορνοι (pornoi), which is the source of our word “pornography.” We dehumanize each other in plenty of ways, and this is definitely one way it happens.
And then, with “murderers and idolaters,” we can think of the folks who physically do that. Or, going a bit deeper, we can examine the presence of murder and idolatry within ourselves. In John’s first letter, these are his final words: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). Hint: he isn’t talking about images of stone! Idolatry is very much a part of the human condition.
In reality, we’re in danger of holding on to some, or all, of the qualities in verse 15. There’s the intolerance and bigotry shown by the use of the word “dogs.” Like sorcerers, we often try to manipulate God and others, with or without drugs. We can be controlled by lusts of the body, motivated by grudges, and love the creation more than the Creator.
We all have the qualities that I’ve mentioned within us. We might try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist. We begin to live a false life; a life which may seem healthy on the outside, but is sick on the inside. We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive each other.
In what’s sometimes called a “preview” of Pentecost, or the “first” Pentecost, Jesus gives power to his disciples. In John 20, he breathes on them, and then says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (vv. 22-23).” Maybe that’s what I was doing that night in Tampa!
By forgiving each other, we welcome the power of Christ. We act on the words of that familiar prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Or substitute words to fit other versions.) Some might say, “I’m not in debt to anybody here.” To which, I would say: sorry, but yes you are! In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that we owe each other love (vv. 8-10).
We’ve taken a look at what a false life could mean for us as individual persons. How could a false life apply to a congregation?
There are a number of ways to approach this, but here’s an example. My wife Banu and I attended a week-long retreat on interim pastor training. We watched a video of the late Edwin Friedman. He was talking about overcoming barriers to effective leadership, both clergy and lay leadership.
One of his comments was on the fallacy of expertise, which is an overemphasis on information and technique. We can become paralyzed by incessantly gathering information before we take any meaningful action.
Friedman spoke of another barrier to effective leadership: what he calls the fallacy of empathy, the ability to feel what others do. Clearly, empathy itself is a good quality. The problem comes when there’s an overemphasis on how people feel. The hard truth is that not everyone is going to be happy with you, even if you’re doing your very best. (Often it turns out, especially if you’re doing your very best!)
One way this is seen is when the most dependent members, the ones who have the least amount of self-regulation—the least amount of self-control—are the ones who are setting the agenda. He made an interesting comment: organisms that lack self-regulation don’t learn from experience. They don’t learn from their mistakes, their patterns of behavior, if they are constantly being enabled.
Friedman had an observation about American society. A key thing that is lacking, he said, is maturity. And sadly, maturity is a quality often lacking in the church. When we violate proper boundaries, we display a lack of maturity. When we intrude on someone’s personal space, we display a lack of maturity.
Developing maturity is what we allow God to do in us through spiritual formation.
Prayer is a vital component of spiritual formation. But guess what? We are being spiritually formed all of the time. It doesn’t just happen through what are often thought of as “spiritual” practices: like prayer, scripture reading, peacefully meditating.
We are also spiritually formed in the very “real world” activities in how we treat each other and how we work through issues. Board meetings, committee meetings, are perfect places for spiritual formation. We are spiritually formed in how we deal with conflict, which inevitably arises.
Conflict, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. We can deal with it in good and healthy ways—or in bad and destructive ways.
Hear verse 17: “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.”
God gives us the gift of love that helps us deal with false speech and false life. Of course, by its very nature, love cannot be compelled. It must be both freely offered and freely received.
So here’s a question: what do we do with that love? Do we let it remain abstract, the way I was with the man on the street in Tampa? Do we find ways to make it flesh-and-blood, praying for strength and courage, even in those board meetings, and beyond that, even when it seems like everything is lost?
That is what motivates John and his sisters and brothers with their faithful, hopeful, and joyful cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Come, lead us from false life into true.