The purpose of the covenantal preamble was to proclaim the lordship of the king by declaring his transcendence and presence and to make it clear from the start that his will was to be obeyed by his servants (Meredith G. Kline, “Treaty of the Great King”, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eredmans Publishing Co., 1963), p.30). These factors are at play in the opening passage of Revelation. The Godhead is revealed as the Almighty and the Ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5, 8), and His servants are reminded that they should heed the words of the covenant (Rev 1:3).
In addition to standard covenants, Biblical covenants set forth the transcendence and presence of God by describing His acts of creation, redemption or revelation. The latter two of these divine acts are used in Revelation 1 to remind readers of the greatness of the covenant-maker. Divine revelation is stressed in verses 1 and 9. Redemption is woven throughout the chapter in images of the suffering Christ and Christ the heavenly priest (Rev1:5, 7, 12-16).
TITLE AND BENEDICTION (Rev 1:1-3)
1. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His servants, the things which must shortly take place, and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, 2. who bore witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things that are written in it, for the time is near.
The word ‘revelation’ means to reveal, to make plain and obvious. Revelation is not meant to be a book full of mysteries. If we adopt the view that the purpose of the book is to reveal Jesus Christ, not what will take place at the end of history, our job becomes much easier. Revelation is about Jesus: i.e. His current position, His authority, His dealings with the nations of that time, His justice and His Covenant judgments.
The timeframe for these events is spelt out plainly enough. They must shortly take place, in case the point is missed the first time, it is repeated at the end of verse 3 with the statement: “the time is near”. This emphasis is also repeated four times in the final chapter of Revelation. Every other New Testament book was written to the people of the first century about issues that vitally affected them personally, and today we glean spiritual insights from them. Revelation is no different, it was written to Christ’s first century bond-servants to show them what would soon be unfolding before their eyes, and for them to take comfort in the fact that Christ was in ultimate control.
The use of the word communicated is ‘semaino’ in the original Greek language, which means to ‘signify’. Its use is very important, as it tells us that the book is not to be taken literally because it is a book of signs and symbols. We are not about to get photographs from heaven when embarking on a journey through Revelation. What we see are allusions from the Old Testament, which is where the reader needs to look if he or she wants an accurate understanding of the book.
The reading of the prophecy mentioned here is within the context of the weekly worship service. It was to be read and listened to in the local church. As a companion book to Ezekiel, the early Church regarded Revelation as a liturgical reader. Revelation has a lot to teach us about correct form in church worship, as it spends much time describing the heavenly worship service that unfolds before the throne of God. By showing us how God’s will is carried out in heavenly worship, John reveals how the Church is to perform its earthly worship.
John now bears witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus, even to all that he saw. John, as a prophet and spiritual lawyer, is about to deliver a legal covenant document in a cosmic court of law. He is delivering legal testimony, he is a court witness.
Concerning this legal document, the readers were admonished to heed the things written in it. The emphasis for heed in the original Greek word ‘tereo’ is to keep, follow, fulfill and obey what is written. This is typical of scripture but a point often lost concerning the book of Revelation. The goal of the book is not to tickle our ears with prophetic insights. The Bible’s foundation is obedience to God’s covenant stipulations, to heed the message of scripture is central to the purpose of giving it. Samuel told Saul that obedience was superior to sacrifice (Isa 16:22) and Jesus had already told His disciples that to love Him was to keep His commandments (Jn 14:15). Here, God is telling His infant church that the purpose of the book will be lost unless we appropriate it to our own lives and change our lives in the areas where they do not conform to its standards.
GREETING AND DOXOLOGY (Rev 1:4-6)
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 First-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood, 6. and has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7. BEHOLD HE IS COMING WITH THE CLOUDS, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. Even so, 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”.
John’s prophecy had a distinctly contemporary focus. The message was personally applicable to the life and near-future experiences of seven real, first-century churches. The notion recently popularised by C.I. Scofield that these represent seven eras of church history is a mere fiction (“The Scofield Reference Bible” (Oxford University Press, 1909), notes on Revelation 1:20.). Nowhere does the text speak of any such idea. John simply says that the prophecy covers things that must shortly take place.
Scofield also held to the view that defeat and apostasy would characterise the church at the end of history. This is also at odds with the teaching of scripture, as will be seen when we examine the last few chapters of Revelation. Scripture clearly teaches the historical victory of the church (Ge 12:3, Ps 2, 22:27-28, 110, Isa 2:1-5, 11:1-10, Da 2:45, Mt 28:18-20, Lk 13:18, 1Co 15:24-25, Eph 1:20-22, Heb 2:14-15, Rev 7:9-10, 11:15, 19:11-16).
A third point that Scofield popularised is that we, the 20th-century church, are living in the last age of the church, the Laodicean age. This is a very time-centric view of history. Unfortunately, church history is overflowing with past examples of leaders and groups who thought that they were living at the climax of history. The prophecies of the glorious condition of the church before the return of Christ mentioned above are far from complete. We probably have thousands of years to go before their fulfillment, so there is a lot of work still to be done!
Grace to you and peace: the two most beautiful words in the Christian vocabulary. They are the fitting summary of all that God has done for mere mortals. Grace is God’s absolutely undeserved favour given to us rebels, conveyed through the vehicle of Christ on the cross and leading to the re-establishment of peaceful relations between God and mankind. Grace is the means, and peace with God is the result.
These blessings, says John, come from each member of the Godhead, listed here in an unusual order: Father, Spirit and Son. This is the same order we find them represented in the tabernacle: Father: the holy of holies, Spirit: the seven-pronged lamp stand in the holy place, Son: the sacrificial altar in the courtyard. We are being told about the road to the heavenly throne, it is through Christ’s sacrifice, followed by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The throne and our access to it are important themes in the book of Revelation. The ‘word’ throne occurs 46 times in Revelation, the other book that comes closest to that number is Matthew, with five references. Revelation is about rule and ultimate authority, both of which belong to the Ruler of the kings of the earth. Because Christ is the ultimate authority and universal King, all opposition to His rule is doomed to ultimate failure, as Psalm 2 so succinctly conveys.
Because Christ is presently ruling the kings of the earth, then the kingdom is already on earth as a present reality. As John says in verse 6, Christ has made us to be a kingdom. In Matthew 12:28, Christ declared the kingdom a legal reality on earth. We do not have to wait for Christ’s second coming for His kingdom to be established on earth, as some teach. The kingdom is here now, and it is the job of the church to preach about the kingdom and facilitate its growth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We are told to pray for the complete fulfillment of the kingdom on earth so that God’s will shall be obeyed in the same way it is obeyed in heaven (Mt 6:10). As with a number of Biblical concepts, this kingdom has three phases of fulfillment: legal, expressive and final. Christ legally established the kingdom. The kingdom now grows and expands. At the Second Coming, it reaches its ultimate expression and perfection. (As a further example, salvation involves the same process: We were legally saved on the cross, we grow and mature in our salvation as we walk daily with Christ, and finally our salvation will be complete on the day of Jesus Christ’s return).
John also declares us to be priests to His God and Father. The ancient Jewish believers who read the statement as it tumbles out of verse 6 would have been impressed. To be a priest throughout the previous 1400 years was a privilege held only by those born into the tribe of Levi. Only one member of that tribe had the ultimate privilege of entering God’s presence in the holy of holies, and that was but once a year (Leviticus 16). Christ came to break the barrier of separation between God and man, and in doing so, He declared every believer to have the permanent privilege of access to the real Holy of Holies in the heavenlies (Heb 7-10). The arrival of a new type of priesthood meant there was no need for the old Levitical system, so it—along with Jerusalem, was about to be destroyed in the cataclysmic events of 70AD (Mt 24:1-2).
John writes that Christ is coming with the clouds. Many people think that this statement is a reference to the second coming of Christ. However, the student of Revelation must always look to the meaning of the word as given in the Old Testament before coming to any conclusions about its meaning in John’s prophecy. In Jesus’ day, “the cloud” was already a well developed theological concept. God appeared to the wandering Israelites as a cloud by day and a fire by night (Ex 14:24). Moses entered the cloud to receive the 10 Commandments (Ex 19:9). Ezekiel entered the cloud to receive many prophecies of pending judgment on Israel and its surrounding neighbours (Eze 1:4). David suggested that God rode the clouds like a chariot (Ps 18:7-14). Isaiah saw God riding on a swift cloud bringing judgment to Egypt (Isa 19:1-4). Ezekiel declares that “Even the day of the lord is near. It will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Eze 30:1-4). Nahum 1:3 echoes a similar message. Psalm 18:10, Ezekiel 1:1-28, and Daniel 7:9-10 suggest that this term ‘cloud’ is an earthly picture of the millions of angels that envelope the throne of heaven. These hosts of heaven are symbolised by the two cherubim over the mercy/ judgment seat in the tabernacle, and are spoken of again in Revelation 5:11.
When these images are added together, we see a picture emerging of the clouds being much richer in symbolism than that of Jesus floating on a little, white, fluffy lump of water vapour. In Ezekiel 30:1-4, the clouds meant judgment, in time and in history, upon rebellious nations. This is what Jesus was talking about in Mark 14:62, when He said to the High Priest: “And you shall see the SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.” The High Priest was going to be alive to see the coming judgment of God upon apostate Israel! Revelation 1:7 makes essentially the same statement but this time John tells us that as well as the High Priest being alive, those that pierced Christ (nailed Him to the cross) would also be alive to receive their judgment.
The next phrase tells us that all the tribes of the earth will mourn at this judgment. This is a direct repeat of the phrase from Matthew 24:30 describing the end of first-century Jerusalem. The original Greek for Matthew 24:30 when transliterated becomes: “Then will wail all the tribes of the land” (Jay P. Green (Ed), “Pocket Interlinear New Testament”, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1979), p64). Identical Greek is used in Revelation. As a continuation of the statement just made that those who pierced Christ would be alive to see His judgment, Christ continues by saying that the whole nation of Israel—all 12 tribes of the land—will mourn over their impending cloud judgment. The tribes of the land of Israel would regret the day they strung up God incarnate to a tree. A nation cannot kill God without bringing down a judgment equal to the crime they have just committed. Israel would be annihilated in a few short years. The great tribulation was about to begin.
Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Omega was the final letter. In describing Himself that way, God is telling us He is the A and Z of all things. He is the Almighty, the one who has all power and rules over everything. He is the origin and consummation of things material and spiritual. He is awesome.
JESUS CHRIST, TRANSCENDENT AND IMMINENT (Rev 1:9-16)
9. I, John, your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, 11. saying: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12. And I turned to see the Voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, 13. and in the middle of the seven lamp stands one like a Son of Man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His breast with a golden girdle. 14. And His head and His hair were white like wool, like snow, and His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15. and His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace, and His Voice, was like the sound of many waters. 16. And in His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
Suffering was widespread in the early church. It was their normal Christian experience at the hands of the Romans, Jews and rank pagans. A large measure of their suffering was due to the fact that they preached the present kingship of Christ over all the nations. They were in a war, fighting for the victory of the kingdom of God. Not too many people wanted to hear such a message, they still don’t. Many Christians today would much rather keep Christ as lord of their heart than make Him the LORD of their business, their marriage, their finances, careers and political preferences. An uncompromising Gospel will produce uncompromising opposition that was the type of gospel John preached, so the Romans sent him on long-service leave to Patmos. Suffering was his physical experience. The kingdom was his spiritual privilege.
Biblical visions do not take place in the head. John actually saw into the spiritual realm that is very real and present all around, but invisible to us. When we enter glory, we will see the things John was about to describe. John tells us his vision took place on the Lord’s Day: Sunday. John was in worship and that prepared him for his participation in the heavenly worship service described in chapters 4 and 5. This is actually what happens when we, the Church, gather in worship. Our worship reaches into the throne room of God. We are on earth but our worship is in heaven. When we finally enter glory, we will be involved, with the angels, in the most amazing worship service imaginable.
The imagery used here is taken from the tabernacle, another indication that the tabernacle is a copy of the real throne room in heaven. The seven-pronged lamp stand of the tabernacle is replaced here with seven lamp stands connected to Christ, as He is in the middle of them. Verse 20 explains the mystery. The seven lamp stands are the seven churches just mentioned. Christ is therefore with His church and He is the very centre of His church. He is the head, the foundation stone, the capstone. The light that we shine to the world comes from Him. Here we see the tabernacle, the church and heaven connected. The church is an earthly heaven in which God dwells and walks about. Please consider that thought the next time you attend fellowship.
Christ is then described in identical terms to the High Priest because He is dressed in the official dress of the High Priest (Ex 28:4, Lev 16:4). The Hebrew tabernacle was a copy of the heavenly throne, so the person ministering in it also wore a copy of the heavenly vestments of the second member of the Godhead. Here we see the original. We also see Christ dressed in this fashion in the book of Daniel (10:4-5) when the prophet saw Christ after a three-week fast. The same sight was again encountered by Peter, James and John on the mount of transfiguration (Mt 17:1-2). The description given by John is full of images of blazing light: “His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace. His face was like the sun shining in its strength.” Christ’s appearance is as a flashing, brilliant blaze of glory that is so spectacular it makes grown men wish they were dead (Rev 1:17). Christ is the Sovereign master of the universe, the most powerful sight imaginable. John describes Christ as he really is, so our image of Christ as a man walking the shores of Galilee is no longer relevant.
In His right hand, Christ held seven stars. Verse 20 tells us these are the seven angels of the seven churches. From Christ’s mouth comes a double-edged sword. The sword is a potent symbol for the word of God (Heb 4:12). Christ and His word are one and it is His word that is the standard by which all mankind will receive either mercy or judgment. That is why the sword is double-edged (Heb 4:13). We have been told to disciple the nations in terms of Christ’s word (Mt 28:20), and as we do, so the imagery in Revelation 1:16 and 19:15 comes into focus: out of his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. The message is clear. The Word, with its uncompromising stand on salvation and standards for life in all its spheres, is the most powerful weapon on earth. The laboratory of history amply shows this to be true. The great armies have come and gone but Christianity keeps growing in numbers and influence. The nations are being struck down one by one and discipled. This is as it should be. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6:10).
The reference to seven churches is the first of four references to groups of seven judgment s throughout the book. To follow will be seven seals, seven trumpets and seven golden bowls. This division of four sets of seven judgment s is copied from the book of Leviticus, chapter 26. In following the formal structure of the covenantal curse in Leviticus, John is highlighting the nature of his prophecy as a declaration of covenant judgment against Jerusalem.
JOHN’S COMMISSION (Rev: 17-20)
17. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as a dead man. And he laid his right hand upon me saying, “Do not be afraid, I am the first and the last, 18. and the living one, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. 19. “Write, therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things. 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 lamp stands are the seven churches.
John responds in a similar way to Daniel when he saw Christ while standing on the banks of the Tigris River. Daniel even admits he went as weak as jelly and his face went a ghostly white (Da 10:8). If this is how righteous men react to the glorious presence of Christ, how will it be for the rebels on the day when they face their maker?
One of the first names God used to reveal Himself to Moses at the burning bush was I AM (Ex 3: 13-14). Here we see Christ use this same term for Himself, as He also did when on earth (Jn 6:35, 8:12, 9:5, 10:9). Christ also appropriates another two titles of God at this point: the First and the Last (Isa 44:6) and, the living One (Josh 3:10, Jer 10:10). Christ is telling John that He is equal to God and that He is God. He is describing Himself as the self-existent, independent, all-powerful one who has utterly defeated death and now controls both death and hell. This is the very foundation of Christian faith.
The ultimate earthly power is the power over life and death. The Romans thought they had this ultimate power and they were quick to show anyone who disagreed. They were so wrong. The suffering Christians could take great comfort in the fact that, though they were dragged off and murdered at the hands of the state, their times were in God’s hands. Not only did Christ claim this ultimate earthly power, He also claimed the ultimate spiritual power, the keys of death and of Hades. This was the divine right to send rebels to hell. This was not a new claim, for He had already said to His disciples in Luke 12:5 that they should fear the one who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Paul agreed by saying It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31).
Christ explains the symbolism of the stars thus: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. There could very well have been seven guardian angels protecting the seven churches but this is a letter addressed to real people in real churches. The word ‘angel’ means messenger, as we see in the word ‘evangelism’. The word is used extensively throughout the New Testament to describe people who bring a message (Mt 11:10, 24:31, Lk 7:24, 9:52). It is also used extensively throughout the Old Testament to refer to rulers (Isa 14:12, 13:1, 9-11, Da 8:9-11, Eze 32:7-8). The angel of each church being described here was probably the messenger in authority in each church, that is, the overseer/bishop/head elder. These seven leaders are said to be held in the right hand of Christ (Rev 1:16, 20). This is an image of Christ personally upholding the leadership of each local church in His hand. He looks after what belongs to Him.
The imagery of the lamp stands has another message for us beside that already mentioned. The original lamp stand (Ex 25:31-40) was a stylised tree with a trunk and seven branches. It was designed that way to remind the Israelites of the tree of life from the garden temple of Eden. Christ has now become our tree of life (Jn 1:4, 5:26, 10:10, 11:25, 14:6, Ro 5:21), and it is entirely appropriate that He be now pictured by John as the centre of the lamp stands. But the lamp stands are now seven not one. This is to tell us that the church is no longer tied to one location as was the temple. The church is now geographically and nationally decentralized, with Christ, not Jerusalem and the temple, as the unifying factor.