Ted Grimsrud—October 2011
Most scholars place the writing of Revelation in the final decade of the first century, during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Despite ancient traditions that have linked the “John” of Revelation with John the Apostle, the recent consensus has concluded that Revelation’s John is almost surely an otherwise unknown preacher/prophet. Since this John thus has little authorial authority, our estimation of his skill and insight must be based totally on the contents of the book itself.
Not only our estimation of John’s authority, but also our sense of the broader context of the book pretty much completely rests on references within the book itself. So we will need to be attentive to those references as we go along.
The other standard issue of introduction has more to do with hermeneutics. How are we to read Revelation? What do we expect to find herein? Should we mine Revelation for predictions concerning future events? Should, instead, we mainly look at Revelation as an important historical source for first-century apocalypticism? Or, as a third option, should we engage Revelation as “churchly” literatures, writings born out of faith and speaking with continuing relevance to people of similar convictions concerning Jesus’ lordship and Christians’ call to follow his way in a traumatic world?
Again, how we answer these expectations questions will be determined as we move along and consider the contents of the book.
1:1-8—Introduction and Salutation
The first few words of the book already puts the cards on the table in relation to our reading strategy of Revelation. We can think of three distinct options that highlight different terms and motifs at the beginning—and that as a consequence of their distinctive emphases go on to read the book as a whole in significantly divergent ways.
One stand picks up on the first word, “Revelation.” The Greek is Apocalypsie, the source for our word “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” This emphasis places the priority on Revelation as apocalyptic writing, part of a distinctive genre of literature that flourished in the ancient near east in the generations prior to and following after Jesus’ time. In this approach, Revelation is read first of all in relation to other apocalyptic literature, with an emphasis placed on its distinctiveness among the biblical writings.
A second strand emphasizes the phrase, “to show his servants what must soon take place.” For those with this emphasis, Revelation is read first of all as predictive literature, providing insights into future events.
A third approach, characteristic of this study, places the emphasis on the second and third words of the book, “Jesus Christ.” Revelation may (I would say, should) be read in the context of the New Testament and broader biblical story of salvation that culminates in the life and teaching of Jesus.
When we place the priority of the “Jesus Christ” emphasis, and decide to read this reference to Jesus Christ as a signal that this book is self-consciously placing itself within the Gospel story of Jesus’ disclosure of God among human beings, we will assume Revelation is best read in continuity with Jesus’ message.
The linking of “revelation” (apocalypse) with Jesus Christ leads us to a more mundane understanding of this term. As an “apocalypse,” what follows intends to provide insight and clarity into the meaning of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection. We are talking here about “revelation” as illumination and insight, not as future predictions or as esoteric visions meant to provide otherwise unavailable information concerning catastrophic judgment and the ending of history.
“What must soon take place,” then, serves to alert John’s readers that the visions to follow speak directly to their reality—with prophetic insight. “What must soon take place” does not signal literal predictions of the future. As with ancient Israel’s prophets, this phrase means a call to attentiveness. Be aware and listen to John’s message about the meaning of life, especially meaning of what God has shown the world in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
God is the source of this “revelation.” God gave the revelation to Jesus to show Jesus’ followers (“servants”), which could be read as an inclusive population—all who seek to follow Jesus throughout time and geography. We will see that this book has a specific context; however, in speaking directly to that context God reveals the reality of Jesus’ message in a way that speaks to all who would follow Jesus.
God makes this revelation known to Jesus’ followers through two mediators. God uses God’s “angel” (which should understand as a “messenger” about whom we know nothing else, the point being simply that God uses this messenger to convey the revelation to John; we are given no sense that this “messenger” has agency). All we know about the human recipient and mediator of this revelation is that his name is “John,” he is God’s “servant” too, and he shares with Jesus and Jesus’ servants the experience of persecution (1:9).
With both the angel and with John, the role is simply to be channels for the revelation. Neither plays an active role in generating or interpreting the message conveyed in the revelation.
Though the reference here speaks of John testifying (both of “the word of God” and “testimony of Jesus”—presumably two allusions to one basic message, one of a number places where Revelation links Jesus and God closely together; here clearly the close connection specifically has to do with unity in the message of Jesus with the will of God more than the metaphysical unity of later christological dogma) “to all that he saw,” we will find as the visions unfold that they do not actually give literal pictures but are more “literary” visions that are impossible to imagine visually. So, what John “saw” actually refers more to what he read, heard, and imagined than to literal sight.
The blessing the book begins with goes to those who “read aloud” and “hear” the words of the “prophecy.” That is, this book is meant to be heard, and heard as we will learn by the entire church of Jesus Christ. What will be heard are words of “prophecy.” If we read Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we will be inclined to understand “prophecy” in line with earlier prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. That is, biblical prophecy speaks to present faithfulness. It is very different than predictive sooth-saying, which is condemned many times.
“For the time is near” (1:3) echoes “what must soon take place” in calling for attention from the readers and listeners. It should not be understood as a futuristic prediction about the soon end of history, but rather as a call to be aware of the presence of the kingdom of God and its demands in the world right now. This ethical sense is reinforced with the promise of blessing to those who “keep what is written” in the prophecy. Keeping what is written matters because, as Jesus taught, the kingdom of God is at hand, present among us, demanding our allegiance over against human kingdoms.
After this preface identifying this book as a “revelation” and a “prophecy” given by God through an angel to “John,” John himself enters the picture as the author of what is to follow. John addresses the prophecy to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). He packages what follows as a letter to those seven churches. We are likely meant to understand “the seven churches” in two senses. These clearly are seven actual churches in the Roman province of “Asia Minor” in the northeast section of the Mediterranean region. We will learn in chapters two and three more about these congregations, enough to realize that John means to speak to real people in real churches facing real issues. At the same time that we recognize the need to keep the actual context for this prophecy always in mind, we also are encouraged to think in broader terms as well.
Clearly, that there are seven churches spoken of (and portrayed in chapters two and three) has significance. We know that numerous other congregations existed in the area of the seven that are mentioned. So John has something in mind in only addressing seven. From the use of this number elsewhere in Revelation, we can be pretty confident that at least part of what John had in mind was that in addressing these seven churches, he is also addressing the church more broadly. The number seven here encourages us to read Revelation in anticipation of broader application of what is contained here than would be relevant only to the specific churches mentions.
Like with much of the rest of the Bible, we do well to place close attention to the contextual clues we may find in the book in our efforts to interpret and apply its message. We should be assuming that John has particular issues in mind that connect with the needs of the seven churches he consciously addressed. However, with the intentional limiting of the message to seven churches (seven being the number for completeness), John also aims his message at the broader church.
John again links God and Jesus closely together. This time, he also adds an allusion to the Holy Spirit in what is, at least in a loose sense, a clearly Trinitarian allusion (1:4-5). John offers salutation to these churches from God (“him who is and who was and who is to come”), the Holy Spirit (“the seven spirits who are before his throne”), and Jesus Christ (“the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”). The key point here also seems to be the oneness of the message, the unity of these three sources of grace and peace.
For what follows, since this book is a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” the description of Jesus here merits close attention. “The faithful witness” refers to his life of persevering love culminating in his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. “Witness” translates the Greek word martys (“martyr”) making a clear connection between Jesus’ life and his death. While Revelation emphasizes throughout both Jesus’ close link with God and Jesus’ exalted status, these elements of Jesus’ identity remain inextricably linked with his life of vulnerable, persevering love. His faithfulness to the point of martyrdom provided the bases for his exaltation.
“The firstborn of the dead” refers to how God vindicated Jesus’ faithfulness by raising him from the dead following his execution. The term “firstborn” implies that others are to follow. Later, Revelation makes clear that the promise of vindication through resurrection is also made to all those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” Just as Jesus as faithful martyr merits vindication, so too with his followers. The link is clear: the resurrection and the faithfulness go together. This reality of vindication underscores the book’s optimism that those who follow the Lamb are on the winning side of history, even if for the present they suffer.
The phrase “the ruler of the kings of the earth” at this point emphasizes a paradox. The martyr is ruler! How can this be? The meaning of this description will only be ascertained as we study the rest of Revelation. At this point, we may note that John makes extraordinary claims about Jesus’ ultimate power, his role in the social and political events of the world, and the nature of the world’s rulers.
When held together, this threefold pattern of Jesus sets the stage for the revelation of Jesus Christ that is to come in this book. We will see more of how Jesus’ life led to his martyrdom, of how God vindicated this life, and the relevance of these acts of Jesus and God for the politics of the world.
John continues in his salutation to the churches by elaborating more on the meaning of this Jesus Christ he has brought before us. Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (1:5b). All three components of this sentence must be held together: Jesus’ love, Jesus acts of providing for freedom, and the role of Jesus’ “blood” in this freeing.
The love stems from the love of the Creator for the creation, even in its brokenness and alienation. The underlying motivation for God that fuels “what must soon take place” is God’s love. We have only a few markers in the course of Revelation to remind of this fundamental reality, so it is important to take note of John’s beginning emphasis here.
The work of love that Jesus embodies has as its goal the setting free of enslaved creation, especially of enslaved humanity. The visions that follow will drive home in powerful ways the identity of the agents and the consequences of this enslavement. John emphasizes clearly right away that everything Jesus does as God’s agent in our world stems from love and has as its purpose the freeing of humanity from all that enslaves us. The “sins” that are mentioned here are likely a general reality more than any particular acts. The fundamental sin in the Bible is idolatry, trusting in things rather than in God. The consequence of idolatry is enslavement, wherein the idol seduces and controls the idolater.
Freedom from the control of sin, from enslavement to the principalities and powers that seduce humanity into idolatry, comes through Jesus “blood.” As with elsewhere in the Bible, the term “blood” is used without explanation of what precisely is meant by the term. In the context of the rest of the Bible and of what is to come in Revelation, we may hypothesize for now that by “blood” John has in mind the overall life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is, it is not Jesus’ literal blood that frees but what the blood symbolizes—Jesus’ life of freedom from the powers and idolatry and sin, lived to the end in faithfulness even in face of violence and the most devastating kind of execution. God’s vindication in making Jesus “first born of the dead” reveals to the cosmos that God’s love survives the worst blood-letting that the powers are capable of.
The freedom Jesus provides is certain a “freedom from”: freedom from the powers and from idolatry and from sin, all the aspects of life that lead to enslavement. However, Jesus’ freedom is even more a “freedom for.” Jesus frees those who follow him so that they might be “a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father” (1:6). We must remember that “kingdom” is a political term, spoken of here in the present tense. The freedom-for is a freedom here and now to live as communities that embody the way of the Lamb and display to the cosmos that Jesus indeed is the ruler of the kings of the earth.
What follows in Revelation will be visions directly concerned with a struggle between two present and demanding kingdoms. The Roman Empire is a “kingdom,” too. When John speaks of Jesus “making us a kingdom” he means to say that followers of Jesus have chosen to enter his kingdom and, in a genuine sense, to exit Rome’s kingdom. The book will conclude with a clear juxtaposition of this choice, one of the fundamental choices energizing John’s visions. Babylon or New Jerusalem? These are the two rival kingdoms. John’s burden is to present those in the churches with a much thicker sense of the realities and demands of God’s kingdom. Those who are the “priests” who serve Jesus’ God do so through their embodied love and their resistance to the loyalty demanded by the kingdom that directly competes with God’s.
The implications with the “priest” reference link with the earlier reference to Jesus as ruler of the “kings of the earth.” Though Revelation portrays the Lamb demanding a high level of commitment from his followers, reflecting the loyalty demanded of citizens of the Lamb’s kingdom, the purposes of this commitment include the responsibility to witness to the kings of the earth and contribute to their transformation. As we follow the references of the “kings of the earth” throughout the book, we will see that for all is polarities and extreme drama, Revelation means to convey the reality of a social transformation, where the glory of the nations enters New Jerusalem and contributes to the worship of God and the Lamb. The witness of John’s readers will play a major role in this transformation.
John follows his doxology with a proclamation. Jesus is “coming with the clouds” (1:7). This alludes to Daniel 7:13-14: “I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven….To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
From Daniel, we have a reference to the “son of man” becoming king of all nations. This vision clearly fits well with John’s comments here, more as a reiteration of John’s points than adding any new content. We will learn from the rest of the book the nature of the “kingship” of John’s “Son of Man” (the term Jesus uses of himself in the Gospels).
The actual “coming in the clouds” with Jesus is not a literal return so much as a rhetorical device emphasizing the universality and inevitability of Jesus’ way of ruling as the engine that ultimately drives history to its healing conclusion. “Every eye will see him,” as well, rhetorically emphasizes the universality of Jesus’ message. We will have to complete to book to get a clear sense of in what sense “those who pierced him” will see him—and in what sense “all the tribes of the earth will wail” (1:7). For now, we may remind ourselves to hold on tight to the opening words: this is a “revelation” of Jesus Christ. We have already heard the first of several “revelations” of Jesus as the “faithful martyr,” and his practice of love and freedom giving has been proclaimed.
The affirmation of God as “Alpha and Omega” joins with several other images scattered throughout the book that highlight God’s universality and ultimate supremacy. If we hold on tight to the close connection John confesses between God and the Lamb, and the confession of God’s love, we will see these images of God’s supremacy as reminders that the ultimate and victorious power of the universe is the power of persevering love.
1:9-20—A Vision of Christ
John gives us as much information about himself in 1:9 as he will in the book. He calls himself the “brother” of the people in the “seven churches that in Asia” (1:4). By calling himself their “brother,” John implies that he does not have a formal role in relation to these congregations but is more their peer. He does make it clear in the book that he does see himself as a “prophet” (see especially chapter ten when he imitates Ezekiel by eating the “little scroll”). However, his authority in writing this book is based on the vision he is conveying, not on his personal status.
He shares with his readers “in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance,” terms that evoke the earlier pattern of Jesus (faithful witness, first-born of the death, ruler of the kings of the earth). As evidence, John mentions that he is “on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). About the significance of Patmos no more is known than about John’s identity itself. Traditionally, Patmos has been seen as a prison island, but we have no direct evidence that that was the case. It certainly makes sense that John did suffer the fate of being imprisoned due to his witness to Jesus, but that must remain an inference at the most.
The opening vision begins with “a loud voice like a trumpet” that commissions John to write what he sees. In this way, John makes it clear that he presents these visions as God’s initiative, not simply his own imaginative creation. John is describe these visions “in a book” and to send the book “to the seven churches….” (1:11). We again may see in this list of churches both a particular context (more on that in chapters two and three) and a sense of John’s visions speaking to all churches (the significance of the number “seven”).
In 1:11-12 we have the first of several cases where John first hears a message then looks to see what the message involves. The contrast between the hearing and seeing will be much more important in chapters five and seven. Here, the main contrast seems to be between hearing “churches” and seeing “lampstands.”
Amidst the lampstands John sees a vision of a person he clearly understands to be the Jesus he has already mentioned as the content of the “revelation” this book witnesses to. This is the first of a number of visions, all part of the one “revelation of Jesus Christ.” The description of Jesus draws on a wealth of biblical images. In interpreting this vision and all the ones to follow, we best seek to hold together the original content of the biblical images with the distinctive picture being created by the allusions to those images in this book.
John is not a slave to his sources. In fact, even with his extraordinarily various allusions to scripture (surely reflecting deep knowledge), John rarely if ever directly quotes from the Bible. What we have is a new creation of imagery drawing creatively on remembered old images but with new purpose in some sense free from the original references(what British theologian Austin Farrer famously called “a rebirth of images”). John is not writing a research paper with an open Bible before him; rather, he “sees” and “hears” this revelation of Jesus Christ and finds himself drawing on the store of images he had internalized over his years of reading the Bible.
Johns sees “one like the Son of Man” (1:13), evoking both Daniel’s vision and the self-identification Jesus used in the Gospels. That Daniel’s vision might especially have been in mind is supported by a second use of this term in Revelation 14:14 in a judgment scene. However, John clearly does have Jesus in mind here, so the Gospel allusion must also be kept in mind.
The key point John makes here is Jesus’ presence with the churches—a presence we will learn would have had both comforting and confrontive connotations for the seven congregations. The imagery of the golden lampstands evokes the golden menorahs that burn continually before God in ancient Israel’s sanctuary (Ex 27:20-21; Lev 24:2-4). This image underscores how seriously God takes the vocation of these (and all other) Christian congregations.
The general sense of the description of Jesus here emphasizes his majesty, power, and might. In fact, the image of him with “head and hair…white as white wool, white as snow” evokes the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9. This is another of many places where Jesus’ close identification with God (“the one on the throne”) is emphasized.
However, we should take care not to overemphasize the one side of the human/divine, faithful witness/exalted ruler dynamic. John certainly sees Jesus as identified with the One on the Throne. However, in the end, we will see that this identification should inform our sense of the One on the Throne as least as much as our sense of Jesus. This is why we need to take seriously the connotation with the “Son of Man” metaphor of Jesus’ own earthly life and his emphasis in his own teaching on his humanity. The statement by this character here that he “was dead” (1:18), especially in the context of the link throughout the book between Jesus’ faithful life of persevering love, points us to the life that Jesus lived that led directly to his persecution and execution by the very same forces who will bedevil the followers of the Lamb throughout Revelation.
This “one like the Son of Man” has a “sharp, two-edged sword” coming from his mouth (1:16). This image draws on biblical references to the word of God and to God’s judgment (Isa 49:2; Wis 18:15-16; 2 Thes 2:8; Heb 4:12). As with the message of Jesus throughout Revelation, here we should think of prophetic words that convey the truth of God, truth both comforting and terrible depending upon prepared one is to hear them. It is crucial to recognize that this “sword” is the main weapon Jesus wields in this book (see also 2:12,16; 19:15). It is clearly a “weapon” of proclamation, not a literal sword. We will see that Jesus himself wielded this weapon most decisively in facing death in unalterable witness to God’s love—this is how he “conquered” the powers of evil; this is how his blood set people free (1:5).
John responds to this “Son of Man” by falling prostrate at his feet. Jesus’ response is a kind of call to resurrection: “Do not be afraid” (1:17); get up and “write what you have seen” (1:19). Jesus commissions John to service based on the reality that “I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). God’s vindication of Jesus’ faithfulness provides the basis for faithful discipleship with its implicit promise that God will likewise vindicate John and his readers. And, crucially for what comes, Jesus holds power over Death and Hades (and all those Powers serving Death and Hades) before the rest of the book’s visions are seen.
John sees “seven stars” being held by Jesus. Jesus tells him that the “seven stars” symbolize “the angels of the seven churches” (1:20). More than being specific beings with their own separate existence, we probably better understand the reference to the “angels” as a way of talking about each church’s inner, spiritual reality. Jesus will address the “angels” of each of the seven churches in chapters two and three in a way that makes it clear that he speaks to each church’s essence. The congregations each have an existence of their own as a collective of their members, reflecting not only the group personality but also the social context of the congregations in how each congregation in some sense is deeply shaped by the cities and broader environment of which they are part. When Jesus speaks to the “angels,” then, the point is not that we have discrete personal beings who mediate Jesus’ message. Rather, it is that Jesus is speaking directly to the heart and soul of each congregation.