As we begin to study the book of Revelation, we are unfortunately hindered by our limited time together. So I wanted to give you an opportunity to dig some more in your own study. Below is a short verse by verse commentary on the first chapter. My hope is two-fold, First, to do this for as much of the book as I can. Second, since much of our time will be spend looking at the big picture of Revelation, I want to offer you a chance to study Revelation verse by verse. My God bless your study.
1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
The genre of Revelation is what is called “apocalyptic literature.” The word revelation comes from the greek word apokalypsis, or apocalypse as we translate in English. Now when we think of Apocalypse we tend to envision something akin to the destruction of the world, but that isn’t accurate to what John is saying or envisioning in Revelation. The world apocalypse literally means “unveiling” or a revealing of what is really the case in the world. So the purpose of Apocalyptic literature is to inspire faithfulness in the church as its people live in a time of temptation.
Apocalyptic Literature was not unfamiliar to the readers of Revelation. So they likely had the tools to decipher John’s cryptic language. The other major section of apocalyptic literature in the Bible comes in the book of Daniel. Daniel was written in a time when the people of Judah lived in exile in Babylon. One of the primary problems the people of God faced in exile, wasn’t violence or persecution, but it was the the attractiveness of Babylon’s life. As they lived in exile, assimilation into the pagan culture surrounding them was quite easy and very tempting. After a full generation in Babylon, it would be easy to believe that the hope of the previous generation, God, is not the real source of life in the world, but the real source of life in the world is instead the wealth and empire of Babylon.
We can see the lure of assimilation in many stories of Daniel. The strong and bright young men of Judah are tempted to eat at the king’s table. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – seemingly alone – recognize the meaning behind paying homage to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and are thrown into the fiery furnace. And Daniel must either obey the king’s edict regarding prayer or be thrown into the lion’s den. All of these stories are about maintaining the unique faith and practices of being God’s people in the midst of an empire that is attempting to erode that uniqueness. Therefore, Daniel also includes apocalyptic language that helps the faithful be able to have the eyes to see that Babylon is not a nation that is at heart good or by nature eternal. Rather, the apocalypse of Daniel helps the people recognize the coming fall of the empire, the judgment it will face, and the new future God has for his people.
This “revelation” belongs to the Father and the Son and is given to John through a unique heavenly messenger (angelos). The primary point of the message is to reveal or uncover what must soon take place. This line regarding what “must soon take place” has often read as though what is then given to John is a detailed prediction of the immediate (or now distant) future. The weight of biblical scholarship, however, argues that the point of apocalyptic literature is not to give a precise (or even hidden) roadmap to future events so much as it is to reveal the nature of world as it will be discovered in the on-going unrolling of history.
This may seem like a small differentiation, but it is an important one. I often think of apocalyptic literature as less like a roadmap to future events than as a divinely inspired pair of glasses that the faithful put on for a time in order to interpret the world from God’s perspective. Revelation reveals what must take place because it uncovers the truth about the things in which people are tempted to place their trust. For example, Rome may call itself the “Eternal City” but the truth about it is that, like all principalities and powers before and after, it is not eternal but only temporal. Revelation gives the faithful a pair glasses to see the ruins of Rome well before they come into existence. From the perspective of those on earth in the first-century, Rome is a city and empire that is unlike anything the world has ever known. Rome offers people security and wealth, a hope and a future. It purports to be the source of abundant life. But from heaven’s perspective, it is not eternal but incredibly temporal. It’s wealth and power come at the expense of those who get trampled under its weight. It is not the source of life but, more often than not, the purveyor of death. With the right pair of holy, revelatory glasses on, the faithful don’t look at Rome and see the goddess of life, but they instead see a beast that stands under God’s judgment.
This unveiling of the truth shows what “must happen soon.” Revelation reveals the truth of the way things already are under the reign of Christ. From heaven’s perspective Rome already stands under judgment, but soon the curtain will be pulled back and it will be fully revealed.
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
John’s opening summary ends with the first of seven beatitudes interspersed in the book (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7,14). The selection of seven–the perfect number underscores the fullness of blessing that is given to those who hear and keep what is written in the book (Resseguie, 64). There will be a lot of sevens in Revelation since it is the number the of completion. This particular beatitude encourages the reader to put on their listening ears, and this command is two-fold. First it has to do with how this letter was read in the church. Much like pastors, at least I do, when preaching tell you, “this next part is really good so pay attention.” John is reminding those who hear this letter at their church to pay attention. But, not just to hear the words, but the kind of listening that you take to heart and obey. This theme of listening will continue throughout the book of Revelation. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pronounces a series of blessings upon those who “will seek first the kingdom of God.” The blessings are quite contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day. People typically killed their enemies. You don’t hear much about people loving their enemies and turning the other cheek to them. However, these counter-cultural blessings offer the wisdom of God’s unique way of life, which runs quite contrary to the life of the world. This word of blessing, in Revelation, assumes that Revelation will be read in such a way that as people hear and understand its call to radical faithfulness their lives will be uniquely blessed by God. John will make it clearer that this blessing may not, and probably will not, include long life and great wealth. Rather, this blessing will primarily consist of knowing that one’s life is rooted in the eternal treasures of God and cannot be taken away.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Grace and peace we should recognize as a common opening to many of the New Testament letters. Some scholars have suggested the reason letters start that way is because of how it connects both our gentile and jewish connection. The Greek word for Grace, charis, was a familiar phrase for greeting, much like “Hello!” Likewise, the Hebrew word for Peace, shalom, was a familiar Jewish salutation. So grace and peace is a unique merging of the gentile and Jewish culture in the life of the church.
We also can see John’s use of triads, series of three. Grace and Peace comes from three sources. Moreover, Christ also has three characteristics.
Grace to you and peace from
the one who is
and who was
and who is coming
the seven spirits who are before his throne
the faithful witness,
the firstborn of the dead,
and the ruler of the kings of the earth
These titles are twofold for John. Their expansiveness amplifies the sovereign nature of God. For example, “the alpha and the omega…who is and was and who is to come the almighty” emphasizes god’s eternal nature, his omnipotence, and his essential being. From this biblical passage we can draw out our theology about who God is. Not only do they teach us about God, but it also contrasts with the “counterfeit divine” John mentions later, who “once was, now is not, and yet will come” (17:8). So, John is simultaneously teaching us about God, while also helping us see the true God, and the true things of the world, over the counterfeit God’s of the world. What are those counterfeit Gods? Well we don’t have to worry about those just yet, John wants us to focus our attention on the divine things.
The final source of grace and peace, Jesus Christ, has carefully chosen titles for John’s pastoral purpose. He is the “faithful witness,” which refers to his fiathfulness unto death as well as to his public testimony. As a witnes she takes a stand for the truth and against he falsehoods and lies of evil, and this he is a model for the church that is called to be a witness (11:1-13). Second he is “the firstborn of the dead,” a reminder that God’s new creation is a reality in Christ. Jesus is victor over death and the dead-wielding actions of the beast. And third, he is “the ruler of kings of the earth.” Unlike the beast who claims sovereignty, Christ is ruler over the world (Resseguie, 67).
Ultimately, what John is doing here is reminding the people of the purpose they have been called to. Just like God did for his people in the Exodus from Egypt and from Babylon, so too has God, in Christ, demonstrated his love by freeing the first century church from the dominion of Rome. They have been called out and set apart as his people in the world. They have been given that special responsibility as a kingdom of priests to mediate the love of God to all the nations. Christ did not make a kingdom for his people but is making a kingdom in and through his people. As Eugene Boring writes, “As a priestly community the church mediates to the world God’s reconciliation of the world in Jesus, the Sacrificed Priest, and instead of sacrificing to the emperor on the Roman altar, the church sacrifices itself on the true altar of God. As a royal community the church represents and signifies the rule of God as already present in the world” (Boring, 78).
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
This begins a tension we will see throughout Revelation between the “already” and the “not-yet.” What we must come to grips with is how to represent or mediate the “already” reign of Christ to a world that doesn’t yet see it or acknowledge it, while also recognizing the potential challenges and costs that come with living as faithful witnesses to a kingdom that is “not-yet” fully revealed. Nevertheless, the call of the church is to live as those who give glory to the one eternal ruler.
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit[h] on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
John writes from the Isle of Patmos. We can glean from the text that he had been forcibly sent to Patmos. It was a common practice for the empire to banish potential “problems” to a location with a small population. That way there were not enough people for stir up a revolt.
The letter is addressed to the seven churches in Asia. Scholars have pointed out that the seven churches are listed in the order of the most popular trade route through Asia. I imagine something like Interstate 10, starting in Los Angeles California, going through Phoenix, Houston, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Tallahassee, and ending in Jacksonville Florida. We see yet again the number seven. The word comes to John like a trumpet. Revelation is a soft and distant melody. It is a “noisy book” that breaks the comfort of the status quo.
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
As the worshipers of Christ in Asia are invited into the mysterious message of John’s apocalypse they are told from the very beginning that the primary threat the empire has against them is the fear of death. Like Pharaoh who wore a snake on his head to remind the people that he was not only the source of life but that he could at any moment strike out and be the source of their death, the Caesars of Rome will purport to not only be the source of life but also the potential of bringing death. But the church must never forget that the One who walks in each moment amongst the church is the one who has defeated death and holds in his hands the keys of Death and Hades.
This is the amazing journey we are about to be invited by the Revelator to join: the exciting journey of those who live in empires that are called by many names as faithful witness to the One who was, and is, and is to come