Revelation 1:1-8: The book begins by telling us what it is, “the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” Let me elaborate on two parts of this phrase. The Greek word for what Revelation “shows” or “makes known” in the very first verse of the book is the same verb for “sign” as the signs in John’s Gospel and in Revelation 12. This verse tells us that the whole book is intended not as a slavishly literal kind of showing, but a deeper sign-level. We are invited to go with John on the apocalyptic journey, to experience the book’s transformative power. In order to go on that journey we have to let go of the literalist fixation, and come instead to Revelation with all our senses ready for God’s voice…. Think of Revelation’s imagery like that of a three-dimensional Magic Eye picture. The picture appears to be just flat rows of tiny, patterned shapes on the page. Only if you let go of a literalist fixation on each of those shapes and allow your eyes to blur does a deeper, three-dimensional picture come into view. (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 96-97). Again, this is a helpful word about this wonderful and strange book.
“What must soon take place” – – – what does the writer mean by this? The Book of Revelation begins and ends with the announcement that the risen Christ will return soon to bring history to an end and establish the universal rule of God…. The longest period before the end mentioned in Revelation is this span of time described variously as 42 months, 1,260 days, or “a time, times, and half a time”…. This period became a traditional apocalyptic time frame. The period is not meant literally, but still represents only a short time. Present-day readers should not force John’s apocalyptic understanding into a modern chronological framework, as though he actually foresaw a long period of history…. Other NT authors began the reinterpretation of the earliest church’s near-expectation of the end in these (and other) ways, but John sees the events of his own time as the occasion to reassert the earliest Christian expectation that the end was, indeed, near. John expressed his faith in the thought forms of his day, one of which was the apocalyptic hope of the near parousia (return of Christ). History has shown that this form of the Christian hope was mistaken and should not continue to be repeated. Just as modern Christians can reinterpret John’s mistaken understanding of the shape of the world without thereby rejecting his message, so also modern Christians can take seriously John’s message of hope expressed in the apocalyptic form, which included the near expectation of the end, without continuing to repeat it in his terms. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)
What both these extended commentaries assert is that Revelation needs to be read more on its own terms, and understood for what it is – poetic, artistic apocalyptic literature. When we view a traditional cowboy movie in the United States, we expect the good guys and bad guys to be pretty clearly distinguished, and we expect the good guys to win in the end, though not necessarily easily. Cowboy movies can communicate messages even as they follow this format, sometimes altering it slightly so as to emphasize a certain message – for instance Grace Kelly in High Noon is a rather untraditional cowboy movie character, but within that traditional movie her actions communicate a message – one’s principles are fine, but they may have to be modified when life is in danger. John used a traditional form to express his faith and his readers would have had certain expectations of the form – a near end, the good and bad easily distinguished. What is most important is how John used this form to communicate important messages about Christian faith. To understand these messages, we may need to see through the form to beyond it.
The message John shares is a message from God, through Jesus Christ delivered by an angel. It was a work intended to be read aloud, so it could be heard and its teachings followed. To do so makes one blessed. The need to read the work is emphasized in verse 4, where the author couches the revelation in the form of a letter, a form gaining widespread acceptance in the early church.
John writes from Patmos (v. 9) to churches in Asia (what is now eastern Turkey). The work is to be seen in this context, however, there were certainly more than seven churches in Asia. Seven is a significant number in Revelation. Seven represents completeness. It represents divine order. It is used fifty-five times in the book and is a major structural principle in the work, indicating that the author carefully composed this work. John continues on in letter format, offering a blessing, a word of thanksgiving. “Grace to you and peace from him who is and was and is to come.” This way of identifying God has an echo with the Book of Exodus where God is identified as the one who is who God is, or the one who will be who God will be. “The seven spirits” is difficult to understand but may simply be the writer’s way of speaking of God’s Spirit. It may also reflect first-century Judaism where seven principle angelic spirits were understood to carry out God’s purposes in the world. Jesus is identified as “Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These are references to the story of his life and death, resurrection, and exaltation. The last statement would have been directly contradictory to the claims of Rome, where the emperor was seen as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Revelation will often challenge the imperial claims of Rome.
But this Jesus is not just a witness or a significant living presence, Jesus cares. Jesus loves us and in that love freed us. “By his blood” both echoes Israelite sacrificial religious practice and can be seen as another way of saying “through his life.” Jesus’ freeing love was present in his life, a life which ended in a dramatic death. There are any number of ways Christian theologians have described the dynamic of how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus free us from our sins, our self-destructive and other-destructive ways of living. The basic message is that in Jesus’ love we have been set free, and set free to be a new community, a different kingdom – a kingdom of priests. For those who don’t really gravitate toward the idea of being a priest, remember how important priests were in the religious systems of the time. Priests were the ones who experienced God directly, who had access to God and God’s beauty and holiness. Others participated in the religious life more vicariously. In this new economy of God in Jesus, all draw close to God, to the God who is the beginning and the end. God in Christ is coming again soon. Imagine how powerfully hopeful these words would have been to a besieged religious minority – you are important people in the kingdom of God, you are priests. What words might we use today to tell people that they are important because they are loved by God?
Revelation 1:9-20: John has alternated between writing about himself, sharing a blessing with his readers, and meditating on the reality of the God who the church knows in Jesus Christ. After a celebration of God and Jesus Christ, he returns briefly to sharing some of himself – exiled on the island of Patmos, a brother who shares with his readers persecution – but also the kingdom and patient endurance. It is not always easy to be part of God’s people, sometimes it brings persecution and the need for patient endurance. So much for a simple “prosperity gospel” which asserts that faith in Jesus Christ leads to material well-being and “the good life” understood in those terms. Patient endurance “connotes not mere passivity, but the tough-minded resistance to cultural pressures to conform that can be exercised by those who know that ‘the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’” (19:6) (New Interpreters Study Bible).
John asserts that he was in God’s Spirit, a reference not simply to a subjective religious experience so much as an assertion that this work comes not simply from the author’s imagination but from the imagination as inspired by God’s Spirit. He was in God’s Spirit on the Lord’s Day – the day of worship, and worship permeates this work. John hears a voice “like a trumpet.” The voice tells him to write what he sees and send it to the seven churches in Asia.
Now the visions begin. Turning to find the source of the voice he sees a heavenly, regal figure, and it is clear from the words the figure uses about himself – the living one who was dead but now is alive forevermore – that this is Jesus. Jesus is standing amidst seven golden lampstands. These represent the churches, but also evoke the Temple. The lights of the lamps in the Temple were representative of God’s presence. He is “one like the Son of Man” – a phrase taken from another visionary Biblical book, Daniel (7:13). This is a vision of “a human-like transcendent being of cosmic proportions” (New Interpreters Study Bible). John’s imagery is not merely a journalistic account of what he saw, but is expressed in the language of his Bible, combining features from the heavenly beings of Ezekiel, Daniel, and the description of the Ancient One in Daniel (7:9) (New Interpreters Study Bible). The seven stars were images borrowed from the empire; they are imperial symbolism. The sharp sword coming from the mouth reflects Isaiah 49:2, and the shining face evokes Judges 5:31. This language is not literal, but evocative. It cannot be represented graphically, but only in words that disorient the mind in its effort to picture them. The same cosmic hand that holds the stars is in the next sentence the personal hand placed upon John. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
The vision causes John to fall as though he were dead – a Jewish tradition was that to encounter God in such a way would lead to death. But the voice speaks a caring word, a powerful word that will be important throughout (a word we find with great frequency in the New Testament), “Do not be afraid.” It is a word based in the reality of the one who speaks it – the one who is first and last, the one who has overcome death and Hades (the world of the dead). When such a one as this tells you to write, you write!