Summary: 1) Pondering of the Words (Revelation 22:18a), 2) Proliferation of the Words (Revelation 22:18b), 3) Purging of the Words (Revelation 22:19)
Suppose that you became a Christian in the second century A.D. You’ve heard the story of a divine being who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Through baptism, you’ve openly identified yourself with his followers. Now, you want to learn more about this deity. Yet you quickly realize that some people who call themselves “Christians” understand Jesus very differently from the Christians in your congregation. In fact, one nearby group that claims the name “Christian” also says that Jesus wasn’t actually a human being—he was a spirit that only seemed human! How would you decide who was right?
As a twenty-first century Christian, the most reasonable reply seems to be, “Read your New Testament!” The problem is, most Christians in the second century couldn’t read. Even if you were one of the privileged few that possessed the capacity to read and write, you wouldn’t personally own a Bible. Your only “Bible” would have been found in an armarion—a specially-constructed cabinet with niched shelves for scrolls and codices—that stayed in the house where your congregation most often gathered. The armarion would likely have sheltered a copy of the Greek Old Testament and perhaps a couple dozen other sacred scrolls or codices. But it’s possible that not all of these texts would have been identical to the twenty-seven books that you find in New Testaments today.
To be sure, the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s letters, and probably John’s first letter would have had a place in the armarion. But the cabinet could lack a few writings that your New Testament includes—the letter to the Hebrews and maybe the second epistle that’s ascribed to Peter, for example, or a couple of John’s letters. A quirky allegory entitled The Shepherd might have made an appearance in your armarion. You might even find a letter or two from a Roman pastor named Clement.
Do you sense the dilemma that faced first- and second-century Christians? How did they maintain a clear and consistent faith in the shadow of so many competing claims? And who decided on the texts that we call the New Testament today?
The answer highlighted in the final book of scripture, Revelation, shows the answer to the question of the legitimate extent of divine inspiration, known as the Canon of Scripture. In Revelation 22:18-19 we can see the 1) Pondering of the Words (Revelation 22:18a), 2) Proliferation of the Words (Revelation 22:18b), 3) Purging of the Words (Revelation 22:19)
1) Pondering of the Words (Revelation 22:18a)
Revelation 22:18a I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: (if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book,) (ESV)
There is debate regarding the speaker, with some thinking it is Jesus (Swete, R. Charles, Schüssler Fiorenza, Mounce, Giesen, Michaels) but others believing it is John (Moffatt, Lohmeyer, Caird, Kraft, Roloff, Krodel). Yet the presence of ἐγώ (egō, I) along with the verb μαρτυρῶ (martyrō, I warn/am testifying) parallels 22:16, where “I, Jesus,” sends the angel “to testify,” as well as 22:20, “The one who testifies regarding these things says, ‘Yes, I am going to come soon.’ ” Since Jesus is the speaker in both verses 16 and 20, it is likely that he is the speaker here as well (Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (p. 794). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.).
The speaker who testifies to the authority and finality of the words of the prophecy of this book is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. v. 20). The question arises about how we received the New Testament? In the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (A.D. 367) we find an undisputed 27-book list that matches our own. Later church councils recognized this canon in official decrees (Hippo Regius, A.D. 393, and Carthage, A.D. 397). But there is a difference between the inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture and recognition. Scripture was seen as authorative and divinely inspired both by the human authors and audiences well before the general affirmation of these facts. (http://thegospelcoalition.org/book-reviews/review/the_question_of_canon)
Scholars speak of the Old and New Testament books as belonging to the canon of Scripture. The word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which referred to a reed or cane used as a measuring rod. The canon is thus the “measuring rod” or standard we use to judge a work’s inspiration, authenticity, and veracity (McDowell, J. (1997). Josh McDowell’s handbook on apologetics (electronic ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.).
Christ’s solemn warning against tampering with Scripture applies first of all to the prophecy of the book of Revelation (cf. 1:3). Its stern rebukes of Jezebel and her followers (2:20–23), those who had embraced the “deep things of Satan” (2:24), and those of the “synagogue of Satan” (3:9) would have prompted them to assault it. Down through the centuries there have been others who have both attacked Revelation and seriously misinterpreted it (Nicolatians). They are applied not to anyone making a clerical error in copying the manuscript but to the one deliberately distorting the text. Copyists who unintentionally made errors of the eye or ear are not addressed. If this were the case, I venture to say that no one would have dared to make a copy of the Apocalypse (Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Vol. 20, p. 594). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.).