[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
(1) How is the book characterized in 1: 1-3?
(2) In what role is John cast?
(3) What is it that must soon take place?
(4) Who are the recipients of this letter (1: 4, 11)? Why these churches?
(5) Why does John cast the Christian community in a priestly role (1: 6)?
(6) Note how God is characterized in 1: 8. Why should God be described this way?
(7) How is the author identified in 1: 9? Where was Patmos located? What is the “testimony of Jesus”?
(8 ) What is the meaning of 1: 10? How are the “seeing” and the “hearning” described in 1: 10-11 to be understood?
(9) Note the elaborate imagery employed in 1: 12-16. From what sources is it drawn? What is the meaning and function of the various images?
(10) What additional understandings of Christ are supplied by 1: 17-20?
(11) What is the most important verse in this vision of Christ? How may this verse influence one’s interpretation of the entire book?
(12) What is the place and function of this vision in the larger structure and message of the book as you understand it?
1: 1-3 Descriptive Introduction
These verses introduce and identify the book. They indicate what it is, where it came from, and what its intent is.
This book is called a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1: 1) and a prophecy (1: 3). The Greek word for “revelation” is apokalypsis. The meanings of apocalypse and of prophecy were discussed above in the introduction. These verses indicate that John is self-consciously placing this book in those categories.
One of the main implications he draws from this is that this books speaks for God. John explicitly makes higher claims for the divine inspiration and authority of his book than any of the other New Testament writers for their books. According to John, this book’s origins are with God, not with human intellect or wisdom.
The intent of the book is to bless those who hear and keep the prophecy it contains (1: 3). John seeks to do this by showing his readers what must soon take place. It is important that John do so because “the time is near.”
The expression “for the time is near” (1: 3) was adapted from Daniel 2: 28 (“in the latter days”). For the early church the latter days were now present with the coming of Jesus (cf. Acts 2: 14-36 where Peter quoted Joel to say that the latter days have come). What must soon take place was the unfolding of the events of these latter days. This included especially the incoming of the Gentiles into God’s people and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and refers to everything from the time of John the Baptist to the end. It is doubtful that Paul or John expected that the latter days would last as long as they have–but years are human time, not God’s time.
That the congregations were to “keep what is written” in this book (1: 3) indicates that John was giving moral instructions to them, not esoteric knowledge or predictions about the far-distant future.
The one “who reads” this book (1: 3) is most likely a reference to a person who would read the book aloud in the church, not a private student. This book is meant for the church.
1: 4-8 Salutation and Doxology
Verse 4 indicates that this book was meant to be seen as a letter from John to the “seven churches that are in Asia.” The letter format is another indication that the intention of the book was pastoral and prophetic in the sense described above. It was addressed to specific people in a specific historical setting and was intended to address their needs.
John was writing to seven concrete, real-life churches. However, the fact that there were precisely seven indicates that the universal church was also meant to receive this message. More than seven churches existed in the area, so it was a conscious choice by John to single out only seven. The number seven is a significant symbolic number in Revelation, as it is throughout the Bible and in extra-biblical Jewish and Christian literature of the ancient world. The number seven in Revelation generally alludes to wholeness and completeness. So, while John is writing to seven specific churches, he is also writing to the whole church. His messages to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 show that he had pastoral concerns unique for each. Nevertheless, as a whole they communicate pastoral concerns that apply to any and all churches.
The “seven spirits” alluded to in verse 4 are probably a reference to the Holy Spirit, equally present in each church. In verse 5, Jesus Christ is given three titles. The first is “faithful witness.” The term faithful is used in Revelation of people who give their lives for God’s sake. Witness translates the Greek word martys, which is also translated as martyr. Jesus Christ was faithful unto death. This kind of faithfulness is the way that God overcomes evil. It serves as an encouragement to those of John’s readers who might be facing the threat of martyrdom. They are following the path of Jesus—the one who went before them.
The second title here is “firstborn of the dead.” This emphasizes his resurrection, his victory over death and evil. The martyr’s death is not the final word. Jesus rose from the dead as the firstborn of many who will follow him in rising from the dead.
The third title for Jesus is the “ruler of kings on earth.” This defies the apparent absolute sovereignty of Rome and its leaders–and of any other political leaders. Jesus Christ is ultimately the sovereign one, though in the present only eyes of faith see that.
These three titles are crucial for understanding the entire book. They reflect the pattern of Jesus: faithfulness leading to suffering and even death, leading to resurrection, leading to exaltation and sovereignty. This pattern of Jesus is strongly held up in this book as the pattern also for those who would follow Jesus.
The tenses of the statement in verse 5 (“who loves us and has freed us”) are significant. The love continues and is a present reality even though the act of redemption happened once and for all in the past.
This imagery of liberation is Exodus imagery. This is a theme throughout the book. The act of redemption has already happened in Jesus Christ’s work, but the journey through the wilderness in this time before the end is full of dangers.
Verse 6 states that Jesus has made us “a kingdom.” This is a politcal term and refers to the true kingdom as opposed to Caesar’s imitation.
Verse 7 tells us that Christ’s return will be decisive for all people–both those who desire it and those who do not. This is a picture of judgment. A question here and throughout the book is whether this judgment is condemnation or purification–or both. It is not clear if the reference to “every one who pierced him” is for certain people or for all of us, who is some sense are each guilty of killing Jesus.
In 1:8 God is called “the Almighty” or “the ruler of the whole world.” This is God’s main title in Revelation (4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 16:14; 19:6; 19:15; 21:22). It emphasizes that the key issue in the book is power–who finally is in control, who has the ultimate power. Is it God or is it Satan and his cohorts?
1:9-11–Occasion for Writing
Verse 9 is important for telling us about John. Like the Hebrew prophets (and unlike the authors of the apocalyptic books), John identifies his own standpoint in his own day. His “words of prophecy” seek to strengthen the congregations in Asia Minor in their severe clash with the anti-God and dehumanizing powers of their society. He gets his authority not only from his prophetic inspiration, but also from his solidarity with the Christians to whom he is writing.
Therefore, he does not introduce himself as prophet or teacher or elder, but as their brother and partner.
He shares in their suffering, as he is exiled on the island of Patmos, which was in the Mediterranean Sea not too far from the city of Ephesus. Patmos conceivably was a place where political prisoners were sent. So John possibly was sent there as punishment for his testimony to Jesus.
John characterizes the Christian life, in 1:9, as “the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance” shared in Jesus. As John sees it, the suffering Jesus’ followers face as a result of their faith is not merely a qualifying test which through which they are required to pass before they can achieve their promised rule with Christ. He sees tribulation and kingdom as two sides of the same coin. Those who endure with Christ also rule with Christ in the very midst of their suffering.
Verse 10 tells us that John was not simply a passive recipient of this revelation. He was actively seeking the Lord when the revelation came.
These verses contain the first vision in the book, a vision of the exalted Christ. The images in the vision are drawn mainly from Old Testament prophets such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. But all are reshaped by John. This indicates that he was not drawing directly on them but rather they they were part of his consciousness and resurfaced during his vision.
The images are impressionistic, not precise. They show lthings such as Jesus’ closeness to the churches (walking in the midst of the candlesticks, 1:13), dignity (wearing a long robe, 1:13), purity (white head and hair, 1:14), power (voice like the sound of many waters, 1:15), and his identification with the discerning word (the two-edged sword coming out of his mouth, 1:16).
The seven golden lampstands (1:12) are seen as the seven churches (1:20), meaning the entire church. The image may come from the golden lampstand with seven lights that stood in the Jewish temple (see Exod. 25:31; Zech. 4:2), implying that the church is the new spiritual temple. Since John was writing after A.D. 70 (when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans), it was especially important to see how the presence of God might be felt in the new situation.
It is significant that the first statement that John makes about the heavenly Christ is that he saw him “among the lamps” (1:13, NEB). The first characteristic of Christ revealed to John in the vision is that Christ is present among the earthly congregations of Christ’s people. This must be remembered as we look at the rest of the book and its various pictures of judgment and destruction that occur on earth.
1:17-20–Effect of Initial Vision on John
The overall effect of these verses can be one of terrifying majesty; John falls down “as though dead” (1:17). Jesus, the Son of Man, is exalted. But he remains the Jesus of the Gospels: “Do not be afraid,” he comforts John.
In 1: 18 we again see the threefold conception of Jesus Christ: he is the living one who gave up his life as the faithful witness; he is the one who rose from the dead and is alive for evermore; and he is the exalted one who holds the keys to Death and Hades. The possession of the “keys of Death and Hades” was, in Jewish thought, the sole prerogative of God. Thus, Jesus is identified as God. Possession of the keys is connected with Jesus’ victory over death.
In 1: 19 John is told to write. This again indicates that he saw himself as God’s servant and that he sees this book as God’s message and not his own. What John sees is a series of visions that are all equally concerned with interpreting the past, present, and future.
This chapter establishes that the book is a prophecy. Prophets are those who see into the realities that lie behind the appearances of this world and set them out, with the consequences they see, so that people may act accordingly. What matters is the truth of the prophet’s vision of God’s nature and will, and of the world in that light. The spiritual gift of the prophet has more to do with interpreting the present than with predicting the future.
This chapter emphasizes that the book is supernaturally given, comes in letter form, contains an urgent message, and proclaims the centrality of Jesus Christ.
From the start, the key motifs are the progression of faithfulness leading to suffering, leading to resurrection, leading to exaltation. This is the pattern of Jesus and is expected of his followers. This is meant as an encouragement and a challenge to them. John is the readers’ brother and partner. He is their peer in many ways. God and Jesus are glorified, not John.
Many Christians see Revelation as a closed book. For instance, John Calvin wrote commentaries on all the books of the New Testament . . . except Revelation. Many of the visions and images in the book seem to make no sense at all, and a surface reading gives one a picture of God which is not very attractive. Few people see Revelation as having much, if any, relevance for our day-to-day lives.
But the book itself seems to have a different idea. “Blessed are those who listen to the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it” (1: 3, my paraphrase). It is important that we have the correct idea of prophecy. Much more than predicting the future, the biblical prophet was one who preached the word of God in the present. The prophet’s job was to challenge people in the present with the claims of God.
The prophecy contained in the book of Revelation has the primary function of challenging Christians with the message that Jesus is the Lord of history and God is working God’s purposes out, even though it may not always be readily apparent how this is being accomplished.
The “blessed” people are those who keep what is written here, who order their lives according to the prophet’s message. Revelation gives us moral instruction, not only abstract knowledge. The message of Jesus and of the rest of the Bible can only be understood as we obey it. Our challenge is not so much to decipher the various visions and images found in this book, but to live according to the light we do see here–and in the gospel in general.
The central focus of the first chapter of Revelation is on Jesus. In 1: 5 we are told three things about Jesus: He is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth.
The Greek word translated here as witness is the same word used for martyr. John, in calling Jesus the faithful witness, is referring to Jesus giving his life for humankind. The world faithful is used four times in Revelation and all four times it refers at least implicitly either to Jesus or his followers being faithful unto death. It is this faithfulness that resulted in Jesus being exalted as Lord and it is in following him that his followers worship him.
For the first readers of Revelation, being martyred was a genuine possibility. But for Jesus himself, the crucifixion was only the final manifestation of a way of life: giving himself to others. not all Christians are called to ultimate martyrdom. But all are called to what one might call figurative martyrdom. By this I mean growing into a way of life in which we are choosing more and more to give to others, in which we are witnessing to the love of Jesus for all people by our love for all people.
The reason that this kind of life is a possibility for Christians is because of Jesus’ resurrection–because he is the “first-born of the dead.” True life for Jesus and his followers comes not with the attempted evasion of death, but by going through death and coming out victorious.
The affirmation throughout Revelation of the value of literal and figurative martyrdom only makes sense because Jesus, the faithful martyr par excellence, conquered death. It is a central element of Christian faith that nothing in all creation–not even death–can separate us from God’s love. The only thing that can separate us from God’s love is our rejection of it. To be killed, to love our lives cannot separate us from God. Jesus has conquered death. But hating others, taking other people’s lives (either literally in warfare or figuratively by neglect or distain) hardens our hearts and keeps us from being united with God’s love.
Jesus shows us the way of love, the way of always seeking the good of his fellow human beings. And his resurrection shows that this is where the true power of the universe lies.
The confession that Jesus is the ruler of kings on earth is another statement of his lordship. I am sure that to John’s readers this at times seemed hard to believe given the power of imperial Rome and the decided anti-Christian character of much of Rome’s activity. Many readers since then have had similar difficulties.
It seems obvious that this rule of Jesus is in some way hidden. But because of his sovereignty, we can know that the kings are not ultimate and they are not free from accountability to God. The ironic thing is that the kings on earth, when they rebelled against God and crucified Jesus, sealed their own doom and brought about the ultimate victory of God’s love.
One of the main themes in the book of Revelation is the conflict between Jesus’ power and rule, and the power and rule of the agents of evil. The latter are variously identified as the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, the harlot, and kings on earth.
The inescapable conclusion of the book is that in this power struggle, Jesus is the victor. The decisive victory has already been won with his death and resurrection. The point, however, is not just that Jesus has defeated evil. It is crucial to see how Jesus won this battle. The kind of power wielded by the kings of the earth has, in the end, proved to be powerless. Jesus’ apparent powerlessness has proved to be true power.
Jesus did not conquer evil by retaliating in kind. When he was taken and crucified, he did not call down twelve legions of angels to do battle against the great crowd that came to arrest him with swords and clubs (Matthew 26:47-56). Jesus conquered evil by the power of defenseless love in which, withstanding all that the powers of sin and death could do to him, Jesus rose alive again.
Jesus’ statement that those who live by the sword die by the sword (Matt. 26:52) is a statement about the meaning of history. Civilizations that have depended on the sword have perished by the sword.
The remarkable history of ancient Israel bears this out. Israel survived not because of the king’s armies but because of the prophetic word. The armies were defeated and the nation-state of Israel destroyed, but the prophetic witness lived on. So did God’s people.
For Western Christians to advocate fighting the evil power of Soviet communism with the equally evil powers of nuclear weaponry and third-world dictatorships is to accept a false definition of power. The sword is actually powerless. It can only destroy. It cannot create.
The book of Revelation is a confession that true power resides in the way of Jesus—in redemptive love, in the following of the faithful martyr. Jesus’ statement in 1:18—“I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades”—is a promise asserting that the way of defenseless love is the way to true life.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) Do you think the early church expected history to end soon? Were they wrong? Do you now expect history to end soon? What might end it? Do you think that would be God’s will? Why or why not?
(2) Do you feel “blessed” in reading the words of revelation (1:3)? Why or why not?
(3) Can you affirm that Jesus is the “ruler of kings on earth” today? What does that mean to you and how you relate to “kings”?
(4) Do the images of Jesus in 1:12-16 make him more or less believable to you? What do you think the role of imagination is in understanding, experiencing, and communicating Christian truth?
(5) What do you make of John’s claim that this book’s origins are with God and not human wisdom? How much, in reality, does this book reflect John’s mind? How much do you think it reflects God’s mind?
(6) How important is it, in your opinion, to study the Bible “in the church” as opposed to studying it individually?
(7) What do you make of the “liberation” motif (as in 1:5 and elsewhere)? What does it mean to you that Jesus has “freed us from our sins”? Personal only? Church only? Social and political? What did it likely mean to John? What kinds of “sins” did he have in mind? (Keep this in mind as the book goes along.)
(8 ) Why do you suppose John was on Patmos? How could one preacher in such a small powerless sect have been a threat to the “powers that be”? Can present-day Christian prophets be threats to the “powers that be”? If so, how? If not, why not? Who might John’s twentieth-century successors be (e.g., Billy Graham, Jim Wallis, Francis Schaeffer, Dorothy Day, Jerry Falwell, Martin Luther King, Jr.)?
(9) Are we called to be prophets? If so, what might that look like?