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Revelation 22:1 ESV

Then the angel[a] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb

Seeing that this book is full of imagery and symbolic language how can one understand what the river of water of life signifies or points to

What does the river signify or refer to?

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  • This mystical reference is spiritual and not superficial. I recommend the best treatment I have ever seen of it in John Metcalfe's book The Revelation of Jesus Christ (pages 610-613) in which Metcalfe cross-refers to his own book Creation in regard to the garden of Eden. I prefer not to copy pages of text to an answer and I cannot do it justice in a short space.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 20 at 8:09
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There are possibly two precedents for the "River of the Water of Life" in Rev 22:1 -

1. Eze 47:1-12

The vision of Ezekiel in Eze 47 describes a very similar scene to that in Rev 22 - a river flowing from the throne of God out from the temple.

This idea is also repeated in Joel 3:18 -

“In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the LORD’s house and will water the valley of acacias.

2. John 4:14

Jesus makes a very interesting statement in John 4:14 while speaking with the woman at the well:

But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life.”

Taken together, these suggest that the river in the New Jerusalem represent both the truth of God's saving grace (as per John 4:14) and the fact that even in the New Jerusalem, all living things will still be dependent upon God's sustaining power. This is explicitly stated in Col 1:17 (NLT)

He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.

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As this is an interpretation of spiritual symbology/imagery - all I can really offer here is my own understanding based on study of other scripture and how those symbols are used elsewhere in scripture.

A great piece of advice I have been given when trying to understand symbols like this is that "The bible interprets itself". What this means is when we attempt to perform exegesis on a passage to draw out the meaning of a symbol - generally the symbols used are consistent and repeated not just in the book that you are reading - but the entire way through scripture. In order to understand them we should first look at how that symbol is used elsewhere in the book we are reading and then elsewhere through out scripture as a totality (particularly those with prophetic symbology. That will generally - if not explicitly provide an answer - give greater context and show patterns which indicate the meaning.

So first step: Is the symbol of water or rivers used elsewhere in the book of Revelation? Yes it is - a number of times in fact. Listing out some of them side by side I have highlighted some key words in the verses that help indicate a common meaning.

Revelation 14:2

And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of many waters and the loud rumbling of thunder. And the sound I heard was like harpists strumming their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders.

Here we see "many waters" being associated with a collective sound of a large group singing in Heaven around the throne.

Revelation 12:15

Then from the mouth of the serpent spewed water like a river to overtake the woman and sweep her away in the torrent.

He we see a destructive "water" and "river" being associated with what comes from the mouth of the serpent that is elsewhere explained to be Satan/Devil.

Revelation 1:15

His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.

Here Jesus voice is described as like the "sound of rushing waters"

Already just from these 3 scripture quotes we start to see a consistent pattern emerging of water being associated with "words" or "Speaking/singing". Here we have 2 positive examples of it being associated with "waters from heaven". One from a collection of angelic beings singing and the other from Jesus. And we have one negative example of a destructuve river of water that comes from the mouth of the serpent aiming to destroy the "woman of revelation".

Now if we move onto other scriptures outside Revelation do we find a continuation of this pattern. Lets look at some specific quotes in the NT

Ephesians 5:26 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word

Here we see once again water associated with words. Specifically the words of Jesus which are said to be "cleansing" and have purifed the disciples who heard them. Though not mentioning water specifically this also dovetails with the passage about "cleansing" which Jesus speaks in John 15:3

You are already cleansed because of the words which I have spoken with you

When we look into the OT we see the same pattern with water = words. EG

Psalm 93:3

The floodwaters have risen, O LORD; the rivers have raised their voice; the seas lift up their pounding waves

Here once again the waters, rives and seas are described as having "voices".

We also see the same use of the symbol in Ezekiel 43:2 (which is very similar to revelation 1:15)

and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory.

Also Jeremiah 10:13

When He utters His voice, There is a multitude of waters in the heavens:

Again Gods voice = many waters

We even see another kind of unusual example where Moses is instruted by God to "speak to the rock" to bring forth water. He disobeys God and strikes the rock and is punished by God for this disobedience - because he basically "broke the parable" God was telling through his actions of words bringing forth water.

Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.

Jesus repeats that parable later through his Chief disciple originally called Simon who Jesus later gave the name Peter.

The name Simon in Greek literally means "listen" The name Peter (petros) means "Rock".

So the name of the chief disciple Simon Peter literally means - The "listening Rock"

There are many other examples but all through scripture what we see is a repeated pattern where Water represents "words". And larger flows or bodies of water (rivers, seas) represents either a "powerful" voice or a large collection of voices. (This is relevant if you look at the symbol of the "sea" in revelation). Water is also shown in both positive and negative light. It is shown and described to be "life giving" and "cleansing" when it comes from God\Jesus or heaven but converseyly shown to be destructive as a flood when it comes from accusers such as Satan / the devil or evil people.

Thus the "river of the water of life" is to my understanding symbolic of the "Word of God". This is also why Jesus carries both of these "mantles". With the Book of John referring to him as both the "word made flesh" and the giver of "living water".

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Water symbolizing life is a common theme in the Bible, e.g., Zechariah 14:

8 And on that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it toward the Eastern Sea and the other half toward the Western Sea, in summer and winter alike.

Zechariah speaks of the coming day of the Lord in 14:1 and prophesies eternal living water in the age to come.

When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman, he authoritatively picks up this theme in John 4:

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

Jesus is the one who dispenses this living water. He claims further in 7:

38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

John alludes to this in Revelation 22:

1 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

John shows that not only does Jesus dispenses this living water, but also he is the source of it. Jesus is the dispenser and source of this living water, i.e., eternal life.

What does the river signify or refer to?

Jesus.

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