Revelation 1

Prologue 1:1-8

1v1-3: We start with classic Johannine doctrine of God (cf. Jn 8v26). The Father has given this revelation to his Son who is to pass it on. And what will follow is revelation. The word implies an “unveiling” of what would otherwise be hidden from us. It should gain our interest. The Son is titled Jesus Christ as his kingly rule from heaven is dominant in the book. He is the promised and anointed one who is calling out a people to serve him. This revelation is for their and our encouragement.
            Declaring this a revelation of what will “soon take place” (v3, “the time is near”) both readies and relieves the reader in the midst of hardship. Trial is to be expected, but ultimate deliverance anticipated. However, the timing of the prophecies is much debated. We will draw conclusions as we go. But two things seem clear. First, we must not neglect the original historical context. The “soon” is with reference to John’s time and his original readers – seven churches in Asia (v4). So we should expect the book’s references to make sense to them. Second, the context of the return of Christ (v7) and affirmation of God as the “alpha and omega” (v8) imply John has a prophetic “soon” and “near” in mind. That is, the predicted events may well span the entire church age, but are constantly imminent because their definitive precursor has taken place in the first coming of Christ (cf. Lk 18v8, Rom 16v20, Matt 24v29-32). They will therefore come without delay in God’s purpose. However, as Jesus himself made so clear, the exact timing of his return is unknown (Mk 13v32).
            John literally says Jesus “signified” the revelation by sending an angel (22v8, 16). The word implies clarification, and not necessarily visual signs (Jn 12v33, 18v32, 21v19) – perhaps as the angel helps John understand what he sees. We also see that the angels are subject to Christ as king – doing his bidding.
            The point is that we can trust what we read as from Christ, and clarified by his angel. This is stressed all the more in verse 2: The revelation is the testimony of Christ to the word of God the Father, and John has himself testified to it in its entirety, so nothing is omitted. This idea of testimony or “witness” is key throughout the book, as the calling of Christians. It denotes a reliable witness to truth or to facts. From its greek form we get the word “martyr” because of what it meant for these first believers to bear testimony to the truth of Christ. In many ways the book is written to encourage them to continue in that no matter what the cost (cf. 6v9).
The note that John is testifying to what he “saw” reminds us this is a visionary book as with much prophecy. So it should not be read literalistically, but in considering the figurative significance of what is recorded (cf. v12-16, 20). This is critically important if we are not to come up with fanciful ideas of what will happen or what to expect – whether in history or heaven.
            Moreover, we should note the book claims John as its author. Although modern scholarship expresses some scepticism, early tradition supports this. Moreover, John locates his vision in an historical time and place (1v9), which is not consistent with later followers writing as if him. And one struggles to conceive how anyone could fabricate the book of Revelation in its dramatic effect, pervasive use of the OT, and profound relevance. Inspiration through an actual vision is the most plausible explanation for its existence.
            Given the book comes from God the Father through God the Son, the declaration of verse 3 follows naturally and stresses its importance. The book is a prophecy – a message revealed from God to his people. And the blessing of joy from God is promised to those who read it – perhaps referring to those who spread its message by reading it to others; and to those who hear it and live in response (cf. Lk 11v28). This is the first of seven “beatitudes” (declarations of blessing) in the book, implying that its purpose, despite its warnings and terrors, is to bring blessing. The reason those who heed it will be blessed is related to the time being near. They are the ones who will endure, be saved and reign with Christ, as the conclusion to the letter to each church in chapters 2 and 3 stresses. And so we see the book’s priority is not with fathoming what will happen in history, but with keeping faith in the knowledge that things will be tough, but the end is always near. There is therefore much in this introduction to warrant our time in the book.
1v4-5a: John immediately grounds his book in historical reality. It is to seven named churches (chs. 2-3) in the Roman province of Asia, which is essentially eastern Turkey. In verse 10 they are listed in geographical order. John could have addressed the book to the church throughout the world, so it is possible he had particular apostolic responsibility for this area. This is supported by his knowledge of their circumstances. However, by choosing seven, the Jewish number denoting perfection or completion, he may be hinting at the universal applicability of what he is passing on. It is also quite possible, they were key cities on the first century postal routes, so chosen for practical reasons in the dissemination of the revelation.
            The usual greeting “grace and peace” should not be passed over. “Grace” refers to God’s free favour in saving and blessing sinners; “peace” to the results of it, one-ness with God and his people. They are to earth from heaven, to the Christians from the triune God. His oneness is seen by these things coming from all three persons. First, the eternality of the father is stressed. The phrase “who is and who was and who is to come” affirms him as the unchanging “I AM” of Exodus 3, who transcends history, giving confidence that his plans cannot be thwarted by the historical events about to be unveiled. Second, the seven spirits or sevenfold Spirit probably refers to the Holy Spirit (perhaps as Is 11v2). This is most clear because one cannot envisage how grace and peace come from angels and in a way that equates with how they come from both Father and Son. Verse 4-5 are triune.  Moreover, elsewhere in Revelation they denote the light of God’s presence and particularly with respect to the sight of Christ (4v5, 5v6, cf. Zech 4v2, 10). The number may be to stress the Spirit is present with the seven churches, which is perhaps hinted at when paralleled to the seven stars or angels of the churches (3v1). No doubt it also stresses God’s universal presence and sight (5v6). Indeed, the Spirit is “before the throne,” expressing the presence and sight of the one who sits there, and the readiness of the Spirit to do his will as his active agent.
It is astonishing, third, to see Jesus’ Christ as the giver of grace and peace with God. This man holds equal status. And we learn what he is to reveal is trustworthy, as he is the “faithful witness” to the truth of God whose witness led to his death (cf. v1). What he promises is also certain, as he is the firstborn from the dead. This implies others will follow his resurrection, but be under his authority as siblings under the firstborn son. Yet his authority is far greater. We hear he rules the kings of the earth. In other words, whether they acknowledge him or not, they are responsible for doing so, and shaping their rule by his will like provincial kings mediating the rule of a high king – or “king of kings” (17v14, 19v16, cf. Ps 89v27). It’s a word to all political leaders. But the ultimate sovereignty of Christ also affirms that all kings and therefore the outworkings of history are subject to his will. It is what he has permitted that takes place. There is much here to encourage Christians going through hardship.
1v5b-6: Christ is now praised. Again, John’s high view of Christ is clear. He is ascribed “glory and power forever” (cf. 5v13) – that is, the glory and power of human beings is to be laid at his feet and used for his good. God alone is worthy of such everlasting tribute. Yet the reason Christ is worthy of this is his redemptive love. Christ loved us as believers, and so went to the cross, freeing us from sin by his blood. It’s an astonishing truth to contemplate - the personal love of Jesus for us.
Sin’s penalty is to be handed over to sin and then experience the judgment it deserves on the last day. As Christ’s death satisfies the justice of God, it not only therefore frees us from fear of future judgment, but releases us from our present slavery to sin itself, so that we can live the life of Christ’s kingdom.
We are therefore “made” a “kingdom of priests” in the sense that we are enabled to actually obey and serve God. The phrase designates the Christian community as in continuity with the Old Testament people of God (Ex 19v5-6). They are called out from the world to be a people who serve and have access to God. We serve now as we offer ourselves to him and proclaim his excellence to others (1 Pet 2v9f). But we will do it in the new creation as we reign over it with Christ, caring for it and using its resources in the development of a society that lives wholly to the glory of God. The note that this is for Christ’s “God and Father” does not imply the Son is less than divine, but only that as the man Jesus Christ he effected this redemption so that his Father would be served. As the perfect son, it was always so that God the Father might “be all in all” (cf. 1 Cor 15v24-28).
1v7-8: Verse 7 combines OT imagery. It calls the reader to look and see Christ “with the clouds” – as the Son of Man in Daniel 7v13. There he ascends to the Ancient of Days where he is given all glory and power (as Rev 1v6), and reigns over an everlasting kingdom that God’s people share in. We will see the book of Daniel is hugely influential to Revelation.
            However, the declaration more probably refers to Christ’s return with the clouds (symbolic of God’s presence), which we are told will be just as he went (Acts 1v11), that will be evident to all and so will bring mourning from all peoples (Matt 24v30). The reference in Zechariah 12v10 to the “pierced” one seems to speak of some who crucified Christ mourning in repentance. Here it is used to stress a different mourning – this one at impending judgment with the wider world. This allusion to Zechariah would shock unbelieving Jews out of any complacency with the affirmation that they have no special privilege. They will be dealt with like everyone else. No doubt this would have encouraged Christians persecuted by Jews and by pagans. One day their persecutors will be in no doubt as to their error, and God’s true people will be vindicated. The declaration ends affirming the certainty of this with its “so shall it be” and its “Amen.”
            The famous title God gives himself in verse 8 stresses his timeless and unchangeable eternality as the great “I AM.” The reason for its insertion here is most likely to further stress the certainty of Christ returning in judgment, as God is the God of all history – alpha and omega referring to him as the beginning and end of everything (21v6). This could be why he stresses he is the “Almighty.” Nothing can hinder his purposes. We should therefore ensure we patiently stick with Jesus even when things are hard.

1v9-20 A vision of Christ

1v9-11: John affirms it is indeed him with the “I.” And he affirms he writes as one who understands. He is one with them both as spiritual “brother” through their common adoption as God’s children, and “companion” – ie. sharer in their experiences. This entails the “suffering” necessary in this present time, both with the general struggle against sin and navigating of life’s troubles, but especially in context with persecution. Such things should not surprise us. And we should not feel alone in having to cope with them. Yet wonderfully, John then moves to a positive: We also share in God’s “kingdom.” We are already members of it. It is extending. And at Christ’s return it will be experienced in its fullness. And this therefore means that as his subjects we can “endure” knowing any trials are only temporary. Indeed, such suffering and endurance is to do as our king did. So these things are all “in Jesus” – which implies they will be the mark of believers not just in John’s day, but until God’s kingdom comes.
            John’s suffering has taken the form of exile. Patmos was an Island in the Aegean used as a Roman penal colony. John has been sent there for preaching “the word of God” which was testified to by Jesus, just as this book is (cf. 1v2). Perhaps this phrasing implies the readers will face persecution for spreading the book’s message too.
            Most likely, “the Lord’s day” refers to a Sunday, rather than a vision of the “day of the Lord.” (see 1 Cor 11v20, where the use refers to the Lord’s Supper). It seems by this time, it was marked out from the rest of the week. There are sabbatical connotations to the phrase. The Sabbath was to be kept as holy “to the Lord” (Deut 5v14). However, we see elsewhere that days are no longer kept in the strict mosaic sense (Rom 14v5-6). Probably, this simply ascribed the day as special in commemorating the resurrection and so new creation (as opposed to the first creation celebrated in the Saturday sabbath), and being the day on which the churches met (Acts 20v7, 1 Cor 16v2). As such, it is a fitting day to receive a vision of the ascended Christ that looks to the new creation. The idea of a day devoted to Christ as Lord was deeply seditious, as the pagan Roman society Revelation critiques had set aside a day for the emperor as Lord.
            John was “in the Spirit” which seems to mean under his particular influence and leading (cf. Acts 2v17-18). This again affirms the trustworthiness of what he saw. And it was in this context that he “heard” the “loud voice like a trumpet.” This must have shocked him, and just as a trumpet heralds a victory or the coming of a king, here it calls him to write down the coming vision of the victory and coming of Christ. Different to the voice of v15, this one is probably that of an angel (cf. 4v1).
            As with prophesy, the vision contains both audible and visual elements. And so in being called to record what he “sees” John is to record all he sees and hears, as when someone might be asked to record what they “see” on TV. We read later that he is able to do this whilst on his visionary state.
       The “scroll” has prophetic connotations (Lk 4v17) as well as those of a king’s edict or historical record, affirming John’s record as scripture with these very elements. It should raise our interest. And it is to be sent to the seven Asian churches that are now named (see discussion of v4).
1v12-16: The clarity of the voice John heard is seen by his turning, only to see another speaker, who we will see is Christ (cf. 4v1). What we learn about him prepares us for his words to the seven churches within which he alludes to this description. Indeed, he is standing amongst seven lampstands. Verse 20 tells us these are the churches. Lampstands signified the temple presence of God (Ex 25v31-37, 1 Kgs 7v49) and were originally crafted as a reminder of the paradise that accompanied it. These churches were not only to shine with his glory in a world of darkness, but were where his temple presence could be found, and where those destined to inherit paradise gathered. Moreover, in the revelation we see them before the sanctuary of God’s heavenly temple presence.
            The one “like” a son of man looks us to Daniel 7v13. He is the one the Ancient of Days has given all authority to. But what’s so striking is that his description resembles that of the Ancient of Days himself (1v14, cf. Dan 7v9) – implying that he is divine. Yet, later we learn that this is Jesus Christ, who died and rose (v17-18). The robe and sash denote his priestly office (Ex 28v4, 29v5), no doubt in bearing sin’s penalty (5v9). The white hair his righteousness and wisdom (Lev 19v32, Prov 16v31); his blazing eye,  the consuming holiness with which he assesses and judges all he sees; and his bronze feet, the strength and absolute purity that this reflects. The rushing water of his voice could imply the life-giving power of his words or in context even judgment, if alluding to the flood.
            The seven stars in his right hand are the “angels” of the seven churches. The word can simply describe spiritual messengers, so could refer to key ministers of the churches or messengers taking the revelation to the churches from John. However, in the immediate context the word is very obviously used of angelic beings (1v1, 3v5) as it is throughout the book. Moreover, a purpose of the book is to reveal how the heavenly realm relates to the earthly. Most like then, these are literal angels who have some responsibility for doing Christ's will in specific or regional churches, just as angels later have “charge” of certain things (14v18, 16v5). A key role of angels is in serving the saints (Heb 1v4), so this may be a more localized supernatural aid akin to that given Israel as the people of God in Daniel (Dan 10v12-14, 12v1). Indeed, elsewhere Paul affirms angels look on the worship of local churches (1 Cor 11v10). This certainly heightens our awareness of what we are doing when we meet. But the point here is perhaps that Jesus’ messages to the angels instruct them on what they should bring about for the churches, depending on the churches' response to what Jesus says (eg. 2v5). As the son of man holds them, the sense is that he sovereignly controls them – ie. they do his will (cf. 2v5).
The theme of judgement continues with the image of a double-edged sword in the son of man’s mouth. In context it denotes how those in the churches will be judged according to Christ’s words, with punishment being executed on evildoers (cf. 2v12, 16). Indeed, every element of the description affirms something about Christ’s judgement. The note that his face shone like the sun reminds us of his appearance on the mount of transfiguration (cf. Mat 17v2). This is the risen, ascended and glorified Christ – in his heavenly splendour. The vision should cause all Christians and churches to consider their faithfulness to Jesus.
1v17-20: John’s response is understandable. Seeing this awesome figure he fell down as though dead. It’s another allusion to Daniel (Dan 8v17). Although John knew Jesus well, Jesus’ glory must have made him unrecognizable or even hard to see. Nevertheless, placing his right hand on John by way of reassurance, and stating that John need not be afraid, this character identified himself. By stating he is “the first and last” he is equating himself with God, the alpha and omega, beginning and end of history (cf. 1v8, Is 44v6). And it should astonish us, that this resplendent and holy God would touch and reassure a sinner like John – and us. Verse 18 tells us why he can. This is indeed God the Son, the Lord Jesus. He is the living one as opposed to dead idols, but also in the sense that he had died, but now lives for ever and ever. And John is encouraged to look and see – perhaps to finally recognize him.
            It is Jesus’ death and resurrection that means that he holds the keys to death and hades – the place of the dead. In other words, he has power to unlock death and raise people to enjoy life with him – “for ever and ever.” And it is because of this, not just because of who he is, that John is commanded to write what he “has seen.” The tense here is strange. It implies he is to record this vision of Christ. But this is immediately developed. “What is now and what will take place later” could refer to what John is currently seeing, and what he will go on to see. But in the light of the wider book, it seems more likely to refer to the nature of the vision. It is of events in John’s day with respect to the seven churches and events in the future.
The details of the book, then, are important because Jesus has power to unlock death. It’s intent, is to keep people persevering with Christ, so that they are eventually raised to enjoy the unending life he alone is able to give.

The chapter ends with Christ explaining the hidden mystery of the stars and lampstands. Leaving this to the end implies these are the key to what follows, looking us to the letters.