Revelation 22:18-19 and the Perfect Preservation of Scripture
God promised a wonderful blessing to those who would read or hear the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:3):
Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
This verse has several interesting features. It is the first of seven blessings in Revelation. No accident there—Revelation completes God’s special revelation to mankind. The blessing is for people engaged in three activities. They are three present participles, continuous action—“readeth,” “hear,” and “keep.” Those describe what you would do in a church service—Scripture is read, then preached, and finally practiced. What is read, heard, and then practiced? “Words . . . which are written therein.” Those who try to turn “words” into concepts, ideas, teachings, or just oral speaking will have a hard time doing that here. There is an assumption here right away that we will have the words necessary for reading and hearing, the ones “which are written therein.” You don’t read oral teachings—you read only written words that are in either a scroll or book.
We vault forward to the last chapter of Revelation. The Greek term translated “words” in Revelation 1:3 is logos. In Revelation 22 that term is used repeatedly and it is either translated “sayings” or “words.” You find it in vv. 6-7:
And he said unto me, These sayings [logos] are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings [logos] of the prophecy of this book.
You find it in vv. 9-10:
Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings [logos] of this book: worship God. And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings [logos] of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.
You find it in vv. 18-19:
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words [logos] of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words [logos] of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
So the “words” of 1:3 are the “sayings” of 22:6-7 and 22:9-10 and the “words” of 22:18-19. They are words in a book, written Words. So here we shouldn’t be getting the common anti-preservation-of-scripture criticism of “these words could be talking about all the words that God ever spoke that aren’t even recorded in scripture—do we even know what those words are?” These have to be the very words that were written down in the original manuscripts. And “that are written” in 22:18 translates a perfect participle, so we see the words to be written at a point in the past with the results ongoing. That alone speaks of the preservation of the words.
In Revelation 22:18-19 God through the Apostle John gives us a warning. The first part of the warning is in v. 18 and it is about adding words, that is, including extra written words in the book. If someone, upon those words being written in the original manuscripts, shall add to those words, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book. The words are written in the book. And there is a play on words here obviously. If someone were to add words to the book, he would have added to him the plagues in the book, that is, this person must be an unbeliever. You will notice in the book of Revelation that the plagues come upon unbelievers.
The second part of the warning is in v. 19 and it is about taking away words of the book. If someone were to take away words from the book—another play on words—God would take away his part out of the book of life and out of the holy city. It doesn’t say that God would take someone’s already recorded name out of a book, but his part. Someone can’t have his name removed from the actual book anymore than he can have his person removed out of the holy city. His “part” is what he would have had in the book of life if he had not been a person who would tamper with scripture. Anyone who is saved wouldn’t show the Bible this kind of disrespect. Parallel with the adding, this part of the warning about taking away judges the person to be an unbeliever.
These warnings are commands against any alteration of the words of this book. Not one word should be changed. “Add” and “take away” speak of additions and deletions. What is written in Revelation would have been and continues to be very unpopular. Some of the audience of those letters to the churches would receive it with anger. So a strong warning is given. Doctrine can rise and fall on one word, even one letter. God doesn’t want any changes to the words written in the book.
An ironic point for v. 19 is that there are differences in the very verse itself between the critical text (CT) and the textus receptus (TR) “Shall take away” is present tense (aphaire) in the TR and aorist tense (aphele) in the CT. The former denotes continuous action and the latter speaks of point action. The former indicates a habitual or characteristic activity and the latter a one time act. The TR warns against a lifestyle of taking away from the words of the book and the CT warns against taking away from the words of the book even one time. The meaning of the verse changes with this change in the tense of the verb.
Is the warning against altering the words of only the book of Revelation or of any Scripture period? This is the only such warning in the New Testament. No other New Testament book ends with this warning. It ends Revelation in major part because Revelation is the last book of the Bible. No words should be added or taken away from scripture. The canon of Scripture closes with Revelation. This is the last of God’s special revelation.
Instruction about Preservation
The teaching of Revelation 22:18-19 doesn’t seem to be that difficult. What those two verses say looks to be very straightforward. They start to get muddled when someone doesn’t like what they say or if what they say clashes with a doctrine that a person already holds. Revelation 22:18-19 teaches that every Word of God is important to Him. He does not want one Word added or taken away from the Words written in the Bible. It is very serious if someone adds or takes away even one Word from the Book. The Words matter, not just the message.
These two verses say nothing about taking away from the teaching of the book. They talk about adding or taking away from the Words. This isn’t a warning about trying to change the doctrine of the book. That would be bad, to twist what the book means. However, it very clearly forbids the adding or taking away from the Words. To not get that, you have to read something into the verse that isn’t there. If you do change the Words, you are changing the teaching, but altering of the Words is what 22:18-19 talk about.
Revelation 22:18-19 assumes a settled text. You can’t take away or add to a body of words that is unsure. If you aren’t sure what a book is to begin with, you can’t know if you made any changes that did surely add or take away from the Words. You can’t disobey a prohibition against adding or taking away words when those words are uncertain to begin with. So the warning itself here in 22:18-19 establishes a settled text of Scripture.
I have found that people, who don’t know what God’s Words are, have to come up with some different meaning to Revelation 22:18-19 other than adding and taking away Words. They know what that meaning does to the uncertainty of the text found in eclecticism. So they make “words” to mean “teaching” in the face of a plain reading of the two verses. If that doesn’t work, then they say that it’s only adding or taking away from the book of Revelation, not the whole Bible. But even that latter position still leaves them with all their textual variants in Revelation itself, including in v. 19. There really isn’t a way to understand Revelation 22:18-19 without the perfect preservation of Scripture.