Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. (NKJV)
Differences in Bible translations are generally not a problem for readers
because the Holy Spirit can impress hearts with any of them, yet the closer
we come to the original manuscripts, the better we can know the intent
of that Spirit who inspired the writers. This article will demonstrate
that the translation option in the first part of Rev. 22:14 is much more
significant than has been thought. The New King James Version (following
the KJV) read reads “Blessed are those who do His commandments” (. . .
poiountes tas entolas autou) while the clause in other modern versions
is “Blessed are those who wash their robes” (. . . hoi plunontes tas
stolas auton, NIV, RSV, NASB, and others).1 Of course,
this difference comes from a major variance in the manuscripts used. Scholars
recognize two manuscript sources. Most modern translations are based primarily
on the Alexandrian Text while the King James and New King James
are largely from the Textus Receptus or Received Text.2
Both readings of Rev. 22:14 are in harmony with related texts in the Bible and I had felt no special need to argue for one or the other. Then I stumbled across strong evidence that “do His commandments” is correct and “wash their robes” is not. While studying the last of the seven blessings of Revelation, I had decided to see if they might form a chiastic pattern. What I found is very interesting.
Here is the chiastic structure of the seven blessings following the NKJV.
for reading, hearing, and keeping the words of the prophecy. The time is
B1 Blessing for the righteous who die during the time of the three angels (14:13)
B2 Blessing for those who watch and keep their garments. "I come as a thief." (16:15)
C Blessing for those who are called. The words are authentic (19:9)
B1’ Blessing for those [righteous dead] who are raised in the first resurrection. (20:6)
B2’ Blessing for those who keep the words. "I come quickly." (22:7)
A’ Blessing for those doing [keeping] the commandments. They enter the city (22:14)
“Wash their robes” for verse 14 would clearly not match the call to obedience
in 1:3 while “doing keeping the commandments” does . The Received Text
reading must be correct.
I didn't expect a second chiasm involving 22:14 but when examining Jesus' words, "I am coming quickly (erchomai tachu)," in 22:12, I recalled that I had just seen the same words in verse 7. That sent me digging for a possible chiastic pattern.
W1 These words
[about the city] are faithful and true (22:6a)
W2 The God of the prophets sent his angel (6b, 8).
X1 I come quickly (7a)
X2 Blessing for keeping the words of this book (7b)
X3 The apostle and the angel also keep them (9)
Y1 Do not seal the book (10a)
Z The time is at hand (10b)
Y1’ [Human destiny is sealed] Righteous and wicked will remain as they are (11)
X1’ I come quickly with my reward (12, 13)
X2’ Blessing for doing (keeping) the commandments (14)
X3’ Those who have not kept them are outside (15)
W1’ Also outside the city are all who love and make a lie (15b)
W2’ I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify (16)
The reading "wash their robes" in 22:14, would appear in the second X2
line but it finds no match with the first X2 line whereas “do his commandments”
again does.3 The X2 pair announces blessings for faithfulness
– actually the last two of the seven in the previous chiasm. The W2 pair
appears firmer as we remember that prophets are ones who testify. In the
divine names, “God of the prophets” and “Jesus” we may see appeals in the
Old and New Testaments.
Other textual evidence
Although we may see the promise of entry into the city as for all the righteous, the setting and the event are clearly eschatological. Let’s compare obedience to the commandments here to the same obedience elsewhere in the book of Revelation. We find two instances and they are likewise seen in connection with final events.
New International Greek Testament Commentary 6 is
typical of a number of recent commentaries in making no mention of the
variant reading for Rev. 22:14 where “do His commandments” would be the
alternate for “wash their robes.”
David Edward Aune, in the World Biblical Commentary, 7 notes that Rev. 1:3 is “the first of seven blessings or makarisms in Revelation.” He comments that “‘those who wash their robes’ is functionally equivalent to ‘the one who conquers’ in 2:7.”
Henry Barclay Swete,8 in discussing the first of verse 14 (makarori oi plunotes tas stolas auton ktl) remarks that “The reading is not altogether easy to determine.” He adds that “Perhaps it is slightly more probable that PLUNONTESTACCTOLAS arose out of POIOYNTECTACETOLAC than that the reverse occurred. On the other hand, the documentary evidence is decidedly in favour of the former. . . .” He believes that the scribes would have favored poiountes tas entolas (do his commandments).
Bruce M. Metzger explains why “wash their robes” was chosen for The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament 9 for our verse . “Instead of plunotes tas stolas auton . . . the Textus Receptus . . . reads the somewhat similar sounding words poiountes tas enrolas autou. The latter reading appears to be a scribal emendation, for elsewhere the author uses the expression terein tas enrolas (12:17; 14:12). Then he quotes some of Swete’s thoughts which we looked at in the paragraph above. He also cites major sources which support each manuscript family.
Stephen Goranson, in his article, “The Text of Revelation 22:14”10 notes that the popular reading, "wash their robes," is chosen in the USB (United Bible Societies) 4th edition and that most commentators agree. He believes, however, that the original is “the other well-attested reading . . . ‘Blessed are those who do his commandments’ (footnote in RSV.)” He explains that although “manuscript attestation and versional evidence is not decisive” . . . “patristic references, literary analysis, and consistency with the worldview in Revelation” all favor the less popular reading. His analysis of the weakness of the arguments for “wash their robes” in the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament 11 is quite convincing.
For early patristic attestation, Goranson mentions Tertullian,12 Cyprian, “and several commentators on Revelation (including Andrew of Caeserea).” He concludes, “If, as appears probable, the manuscript transmission of these citations by Tertullian and Cyprian is reliable, it is notable that these citations predate any extant manuscript of Rev. 22:14. Though by itself not sufficiently decisive, this would favour the reading suggested here.”
Goranson also notes that “do his commandments” is more in character with the dramatic nature of the book than is “wash their robes.” And he sees the text he prefers as part of a chiastic structure. "Those who do his commandments may enter in to eat of the tree of life, whereas those outside, are various rejects.”
Some may feel that doing the commandments is in conflict with the NT principle of grace. From Paul’s clear statements, salvation is a gift. We cannot earn our right to the tree of life by obedience. However, while we do not deserve salvation by what we do, our obedience is evidence that we have accepted Christ’s character — that when we ask for forgiveness, we are sorry enough to stop the evil behavior by His grace. (Eph. 2:8-10; Rom. 6:23; Isa. 61:10; 1 John 2:3, 4; 1 John 1:9; Prov. 28:13). Of course, we do not earn our right to the tree by washing our own robes either.
I am unaware of anyone’s having outlined the structural pattern in the seven blessings. Also, except for the suggestion by Goranson, I have not seen an argument, based on a literary pattern, for evaluating the choice of a variant reading although such may exist. The two chiasms I have presented for Rev. 22:14 are very clear. The one noted by Goranson could be added for good measure. The choice of “do His commandments” is inescapable.
Entry into the city by those who do the commandments is clearly eschatological. The other two scenes showing commandment keepers in Revelation (12:17 and 14:12) are also associated with the eschaton. This confirms the appropriateness of reading “do his commandments” for those entering the city in 22:14.
The manuscripts used by Erasmus 13 for his Greek text evolved into the Textus Receptus which was followed by the King James translators. Although my conclusions exonerate the Textus Receptus for this verse, we must avoid generalizing to totally reject texts and translations developed from other sources. Without the autographs, we cannot be certain of the original Greek. Westcott and Hort, as other scholars, justifiably tried to get as close as possible to the perfect text. It is interesting that the title they chose for their monumental Greek text of the New Testament seems to imply that they had indeed discovered “the original Greek” although they had not. After we have entered through the gates into the city, the Lord can clarify all we need to know.
In the meantime, we need make no apology for considering what is generally termed the Textus Receptus as “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”14 — and for scholarly study.
The Greek text is similar for the two readings of Rev. 22:14.
hoi poiountes tas entolas autou, “who do his commandments.”
hoi plunontes tas stolas auton, “who wash their robes.”
2 In writing about the older manuscripts including those discovered at the Vatican and at the Sinai monastery, the preface to the NKJV, comments that “. . . in spite of their age, some scholars have reason to doubt their faithfulness to the autographs, since they often disagree with one another and show other signs of unreliability.” The source text for the KJV/NKJV is largely from the Bible used by Greek-speaking churches for many centuries and is “presently known as the Textus Receptus, or Received Text, of the New Testament.” Holy Bible, New King James Version 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, p. vii.
This is true in a broad sense although many NKJV passages are based on other sources, too. Footnotes show the variances. Their translators' choices differ from the Alexandrian or Egyptian type of text as published in the 26th Edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek NT and in the UBS 3rd edition 805 times and from the traditional Majority Text 310 times. Few of these represent differences in the basic Bible message.
The Textus Receptus, is essentially the Greek text developed by Beza which was first published in 1563. It picked up its name from a later publisher’s blurb in Latin where "Textus Receptus" implied that the text was being received by all. The TR is often equated with the Majority Text (a term preferred to "Byzantine Text" by KJV advocates) although there are many differences. "Burgon, who had hoped to produce a new edition of M designated about 150 changes in TR in Matthew alone." On this paragraph, see Harold P. Scalin, "The Majority Text Debate: Recent Developments." The Bible Translator, 36.1, p. 136ff, 1985.
3 We should note that “keeping” the commandments (or words) and “doing” them are represented by different Greek words. In 1:3, 12:17, and 13:12, the word is tereo. Compare 2 Tim. 4:7; Matt. 19:17. In 22:14 it is “doing” from poieo as in Matt. 7:21; 21:31. We “keep” the commandments when we hold them as life principles. “Doing” them is the resultant action. Compare both in one verse, Lev. 22:31.
4 The eschatological nature of 12:17 is seen more clearly when we realize that it pictures the same conflict as in chapter 13. In chapter 12, the dragon spits out water (v.15) then turns to make war with the saints. This is parallel to the earth beast speaking like a dragon (13:11); and initiating an image of the beast for killing or depriving nonconformists (13:14, 15). The “spitting water” or “speaking” of a political or religious power would be metaphors for its making laws. God responds with unmixed wrath (14:9-11).
5 Access to the tree of life is also seen in the blessing promised to the church of Ephesus “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). For overcoming in this verse, one may argue for either or washing robes (as in 7:14) or doing commandments. The text is neutral as far as our argument is concerned.
6 The volume on Revelation is The Book of Revelation, a Commentary on the Greek Text. G. K. Beale. It is part of The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner, Editors. Wm. B Eerdmans, 1999, p. 1139. On our verse, Beale states that the blessing granted to the righteous “for enduring faith” is their authority over (exousia epi) the tree of life and their entry into the city. “This," He says, "is essentially the same as the blessing received by those washing their garments in 7:14-17 as the expansion of this blessing [‘the Lamb . . . will lead them to springs of living water’ (7:17)] with the metaphor of water in 22:17 shows.” The connection seems strained.
7 World Biblical Commentary, pp. 19, 1219. World Books, Dallas, Texas, 1997.
8 The Apocalypse of St. John; the Greek text with introduction, notes and indices. Swete used all caps and no spaces for comparing the two phrases apparently to show his readers how the uncial Greek texts looked to the translators.
9 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition). © 1994 German Bible Society, Stuttgart. p. 690.
10 New Testament Studies, vol. 43, 1997, pp. 154-157.
USBGNT 3rd edition, 1983. He discusses the support given for “plunontes tas stolas” and argues that the additional support noted in the 4th edition did not make their reading worthy of the being upgraded following their quality scale.
11 Goranson cites De Pudicitia 19:9, beati qui ex praeceptis agunt: E. Dekkers, ed., Tertulliani Opera (CC Series Latina, 2,; Turnbolt: Brepols, 1954) 1321.
12 The Greek Testament prepared by Erasmus, “a humanist scholar,” and published in 1516 was based mostly on “two rather inferior manuscripts.” For Revelation he had only one. (Metzker, op. cit., introduction p.8.) His religious stance may have been providential in that he would not have been biased by preconceived doctrines.
13 The Greek Testament prepared by Erasmus, “a humanist scholar,” and published in 1516 was based mostly on “two rather inferior manuscripts.” For Revelation he had only one. (Metzker, op. cit., introduction p.8.) His religious stance may have been providential in that he would not have been biased by preconceived doctrines.
14 B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, 1881.
15 2 Timothy 3:16.