1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his 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 the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. 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 firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and 6 made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and 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 tribes of the earth will wail on account of 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.”
The author begins with a prologue describing the nature of the book, identifying its author, and pronouncing a blessing on the one who reads and those who hear. This tells us the revelation is to be understood within a congregational setting where the Revelation is read aloud. John alerts his audience to important recurring, themes, ideas, and pictures the congregation will encounter throughout the Revelation in order to interpret and understand the vision that he will deliver.
Verse 1 The book is the “revelation (apokalypsis; αποκάλυψις) of Jesus Christ.” Revelation or apocalypse means to expose, uncover, or bring to light what has been hidden or obscured. In the NT this word occurs exclusively in the religious sense of a divine disclosure.
It may refer to either some present or future aspect of God’s will (Lk 2:32; Ro 16:25; Eph 3:5) or to persons (Ro 8:19) or especially to the future unveiling of Jesus Christ at his return in glory (2Th 1:7; 1Pe 1:7, 13) (A. Johnson, Revelation, 20).
However, in John’s Revelation or Apocalypse, the reader is shown “the things that must soon take place,” which have been given to Jesus Christ by God, and written down by John. All of this is communicated to John through the agency of a messenger or angel (angelou: ἀγγέλου ) of Christ.John communicates the revelation to the servants of God: the churches (Revelation 1:17-3:21). “Thus there are five links in the chain of authorship: God, Christ, his angel, his servant John, and the servants in the churches” (A. Johnson, Revelation, 20).
“The things that must soon take place” implies that what follows are descriptions of events that are future. At the same time, these future events take place “soon.” Some have concluded that all of Revelation has been fulfilled with most of the events taking place in the first century. This is the preterist view. Others would hold to a kind of partial preterism in which some events have taken place and others remain in the future. Futurism sees many, if not most, of the events described in Revelation as yet to come.
In apocalyptic literature, the future is considered to be imminent or soon with the caveat that there may be delays or steps to fulfillment along the way. John’s Apocalypse implies this delayed imminence throughout:
In ch. 6 we hear the cry of the martyred saints: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you . . . avenge our blood?” They are told to “wait a little longer” (vv. 10-11). Therefore, “soonness” means imminency in eschatological terms. (A. Johnson, Revelation, 20&21)
Christians over time and throughout the world have looked eagerly for the Lord’s return and the consummation of all things. We live in the tension between the imminent and future return of Christ separated by events may already be fulfilled or have yet to take place. This apparent conflict between the past/present/future in Revelation presents a challenge to the reader and has resulted in numerous approaches to interpreting the text. Yet, all agree that “the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know.” (Matthew 24:50 ESV)
All these things were made known “by sending his angel to his servant John.” The role of angels in revealing and executing God’s plan is significant in this work and they are a common feature in the visions of prophets and apocalyptic writers. Reference is made to angels sixty-seven times in the Revelation. John is the servant the Lord has chosen to reveal these things, in order to make them known to his fellow-servants.
Verse 2 “Bearing witness,” the “testimony of Jesus Christ,” and “the word of God” are terms that figure prominently in the Revelation. The “word of God” places John in the line of the Old Testament prophets and the apostles; those agents through whom God speaks to His people. Jesus is identified with the name “the Word of God” in Chapter 1 of John’s gospel and that identity is personified in Hebrews 1:1 & 2. But, here in the Apocalypse the word of God is the vehicle through which He reveals His promises and acts of deliverance that are realized through the testimony of Christ the Word. Jesus testifies or bears witness that God is faithful and His word is true both in hat He says and by what He does, recorded in this book. While it’s possible that “the testimony of Jesus” can certainly mean John’s testimony about Jesus, it probably refers to the testimony that Jesus himself bears. God’s Word flows from John’s pen to the church, as he presents those things he “saw” in the visions that unfolded to him. So, John bears testimony that what he writes is the very Word of God, revealing the “testimony of Jesus Christ” and His redemptive work.
3 In the early church, the followers of Jesus would gather together to hear the Scriptures read on the Lord’s Day. The prologue (1:1-3), taken as an inclusio or bracket with the epilogue (22:7-21), forming a unit, suggests the Revelation was to be read or heard in a single sitting and understood as a complete, coherent, and unified message. The Revelation is presented in the form of a letter and the setting is the weekly assembly or gathering when one would read the Scriptures while the congregation listened to the Word of God.
While it is a letter or epistolary in some ways, it is also an apocalyptic and prophetic work. (Revelation 10:11, 19:10, 22:7, 9-10, 18). Biblical prophecy contains exhortations, warnings, and blessings, as well as the foretelling of future events. By pronouncing a blessing on the one who reads aloud this prophecy, John is placing himself beyond his contemporary apocalyptic writers and on par with the prophets of the Old Testament.
The blessing or happiness is pronounced on the reader and hearers convey the importance of this prophetic letter communicated through angelic visions and the very words of Jesus Christ. This is the first of seven beatitudes or blessings in the Revelation. (Revelation 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 20:6, 22:7 & 14). The number seven is a significant feature within the structure and purpose of John’s tome, suggesting completeness or wholeness to the reader.
They are blessed “who keep what is written, “for the time is near.” The blessedness or happiness is linked to the anticipation of Christ’s return. This raises questions for the contemporary interpreter or hearer. In these last days following Christ’s ascension, the time of His return has been imminent and eagerly anticipated down through the ages by “all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8 NIV) The Apocalypse reveals events leading up to and surrounding the day of His return. (Revelation 1:7 & 21:8) That event is drawing nearer and nearer with each passing day. (Acts 1:11 & Revelation 22:10)
Following the prologue, John addresses the recipients of his book: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia.” (Revelation 1:11 & 2:1-3:22). He follows the form of a contemporary letter with a greeting to his hearers. This is an extraordinary Trinitarian greeting flowing into a doxology to Christ (vv.5b-6), followed by a crescendo heralding the return of Christ to the world (v. 7). The greeting ends as it began with the Father’s assurance to His people that He is sovereign.
4 The epistolary form of John’s prophecy distinguishes it from all other Jewish apocalyptic works. The author addresses his apocalypse to actual churches in the same way we see other letters are addressed in the New Testament. These historical churches existed in the Roman province of Asia, parts of which are located in western Turkey today. There were other churches in Asia when John wrote the book, but he only addresses seven of them.
Various theories attempt to explain why these seven churches have been singled out, since there is no explicit reason given in the text. However, there are features throughout the book that provide valuable clues within its historical, geographical, and cultural setting.
The order of churches in v. 1:11 follows an ancient postal road or circuit that begins at Ephesus and terminates at Laodicea. These seven churches were likely chosen and arranged, following John’s use of that number, to convey some manner or picture of completeness. Taken together as a composite, these seven are representative of churches everywhere and in every age. The examples of both obedience and disobedience identified in these various assemblies, speak to all Christians everywhere down through the ages until Christ returns. Each one provides a timely message of warning, exhortation, and assurance.
Some see these churches as prophetic descriptions of distinct church ages, presented in a succession to provide the reader with a kind of program or timetable leading to the climax of history. However, there is no indication of this intent from the text, itself. It is difficult to see how the features peculiar to each of these ancient local churches could characterize the diverse expressions of the universal church in all places over a particular age lasting hundreds of years.
“Grace to you and peace” are typical features of NT letters, particularly from the apostle Paul’s pen. 1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:2, 2 John 3 all begin with this same greeting that links the traditional Greek salutation “grace” with the familiar Hebrew shalom or peace. This revelation is universal in its scope and so, is addressed to all Christians everywhere, both Jew and Greek.
As mentioned earlier, numbers figure significantly into John’s recounting of what he has seen and heard adding emphasis, highlighting significant features of the visions, and marking transitions between sections or parts. Here we see that:
The source of blessing is described by employing an elaborate triadic, Trinitarian formula [NIV]:
- “From him who is, and who was, and who is to come,” i.e., the Father;
- “From the seven spirits before his throne,” i.e., the Holy Spirit;
- “From Jesus Christ,” i.e., the Son (v. 5).
Similarly there follows a threefold reference to the identity and function of Christ: “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”; and three indications of his saving work: “who loves us and has freed us from our sins . . . and has made us to be a kingdom and priests.” (A. Johnson, Revelation, 20)
John’s Apocalypse employs hundreds of allusions to the Old Testament and we see here, as well as three other places in Revelation, an expressive name of the Father that occurs nowhere else in Scripture (4:8; cf. 11:17; 16:5). “From him who is, and who was, and who is to come” is a paraphrase of the divine name, which describes the Lord throughout the Old Testament as the “I am” and the one “who is to come.” The name parallels “the Lord God” in verse 8 “‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” forming an inclusio, which brackets the “triadic formula.” The tenses assure the reader and hearers that the covenant God of Israel has been faithful in the past continues to be trustworthy, and is eternally committed to the shalom or well-being of His people. This would be a welcome reminder to Christians in crisis or tribulation, who see no end in sight.
“And from the seven spirits who are before his throne” or “from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne” (NLT and NIV note) is an allusion to Zechariah 4 and the lampstand with the seven bowls, filled with oil from two olive trees. This imagery, along with the lampstands in verse 20, links the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. The “seven spirits” represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit in revealing the risen Christ to the seven churches, who will maintain their faithful witness and overcome the world “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6 ESV) Seven times John records the words of Jesus: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 2:7 ESV)
5 The third and final greeting issues forth from the Son, “from Jesus Christ,” and is quickly followed by three attributes giving rise to doxology.
First, Jesus is the “faithful witness” as evinced by his life of obedience, His death on the cross, His post-resurrection appearances, and His ascension to the right hand of the Father. The Son functions as a pioneer or forerunner to the churches who are to remain devoted to him through tribulation, in imprisonment, and to the point of death (2:10).
Christ is “the firstborn of the dead” because the Father has vindicated Him and raised Him from the dead to become the first of many to follow. In Paul and the letter to the Hebrews the “firstborn” is prominent, but this is the only occurrence in the writings of John. In those other references, “firstborn” carries the sense of “beginning” and “head.” It denotes the supremacy of Christ in and over all things. As “the firstborn of all creation,” the source or origin and sovereign over creation. Christ as the “firstborn” of the dead conveys the sense that Jesus reigns over all: the dead, as well as the living. This allusion to Psalm 89 forms a bridge to the final characteristic of Jesus Christ in the threefold doxology: “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”(Psalms 89:27 ESV)
The Son is “the ruler of kings on earth.” “The kings of the earth” stand in opposition to God and the Son, a theme that is repeated throughout the Apocalypse. Who or what are these “kings of the earth” and in what sense does Jesus Christ rule over them? Alan Johnson arrives at three possibilities:
John could mean emperors such as Nero and Domitian, territorial rulers such as Pilate and Herod, and their successors. In that case John was affirming that even though Jesus is not physically present and the earthly monarchs appear to rule, in reality it is he, not they, who rules over all (6:15; 17:2). Another approach holds that Jesus rules over the defeated foes of believers, e.g., Satan, the dragon, sin, and death (1:18). A third possibility sees believers as “the kings of the earth” (2:26-27; 3:21; cf. 11:6). Support for this view comes from the reference to Christ’s redeeming activity in the immediate context as well as by the reference to believers in v. 6 as a “kingdom.” All three ideas are true; so it is difficult to decide which was uppermost in John’s mind. (A. Johnson, Revelation, 25 & 26)
In the Revelation, God is the Father of Jesus Christ, but He is never called the Father of believers. This is not to say that the faithful are not sons and daughters of God. Rather, the emphasis in the Apocalypse is on the unique relationship between the Son and God in redemption.
6 With all that has gone before concerning Jesus Christ, John follows with an effusion of praise “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins.” This doxology also serves to remind the reader and the hearer that the blood of God’s Son has set them free from sin’s dominion and transferred them to a place of honor and prestige in His future kingdom. Until He comes “with the clouds” and is beheld by “every eye,” they remain in his loving care, while a time of mourning awaits “those who pierced him” and persecuted His people. Israel was promised they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The saints of both old and new covenants are the people of God, one nation of kings and priests, redeemed by the blood of Christ, on exodus out of this present age, and into the age of God’s glory and dominion. Moses delivered God’s covenant people from slavery in Egypt and the second redeemer, the Messiah, delivers the people of God from sin and death through the new covenant in His blood.
The Church does not replace Israel nor does Israel enjoy primacy in God’s kingdom. Rather, those who placed faith in the Messiah who was yet to come and those who receive the Gospel that “Christ died for [their] sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3b & 4) share an inheritance in God’s kingdom. Here, John echoes Peter:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:9–12 ESV)
7 This shout, “behold, he is coming with the clouds,“ forms an inclusio with three similar exclamations by Christ, Himself, in Revelation 22. Indeed, “this verse may be regarded as providing the motto of the book (Bousset). Its theme is that of the whole prophecy.” (Beasley-Murray, Revelation 58)
“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book”… “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”… “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star”… “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:7–20 ESV)
The Revelation begins and ends in Christ’s appearance. Our attention is swept upward from the promises of verse 6 to their realization in His return. We are reminded of the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel:
And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:27–28 ESV)
The reader’s share in the messianic kingdom is brought into tension with events “on the ground” that appear to call into question God’s faithfulness toward His people and set the stage for Christ’s address to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. The promise of Christ’s return, given by the Father, is met with an appropriate response by John and his audience; “Even so, Amen” or “So shall it be (NIV) !” Daniel’s prophecy provides a touchstone for John and “there are no fewer than thirty-one allusions to it” in the Apocalypse (A. Johnson, Revelation, 26). Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 join to recall familiar OT Messianic themes that converge in the Son, Jesus Christ:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man (Daniel 7:13 ESV)
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child (Zechariah 12:10 ESV)
Christ comes “with the clouds.” He descends from heaven in a spectacular, supernatural display of power and majesty. While it is not entirely clear, the Son will be seen by all those living, as well as those who took part in His crucifixion in the past. This would certainly mean the Roman and Jewish authorities but may include others. Even so, the mourning will not be limited to those in or around Jerusalem but all the tribes of the earth will lament, as all are implicated in Christ’s death because of their sins. This will be a spectacular, universal event.
Whether or not the mourning of mankind for the sin against the Christ signifies an acceptable repentance or an unavailing remorse is not easily decided. In light of such a passage as Revelation 15:3-4, which celebrates the turning and the worship of the nations, the former is not impossible. (Beasley-Murray, Revelation 58 & 59)
8 As He did at the Transfiguration, the Father has the final word. The Almighty God sets His seal to John’s testimony and Christ’s “Amen” at the close of this prologue, guaranteeing the promise of Christ’s return. The names of God remind the reader that God brings about this future event. First, He is the “Alpha and Omega” or the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is the beginning and end of human history, which has it’s beginning at creation and finds its terminus in the new creation. The “Alpha and Omega” appears nowhere else in Scripture. He is also the Lord God, harkening back to Yahweh Elohim, the God of Israel Who is known to His people by name. He is not one of a pantheon or one of the many tribal gods. He is the One true God. He is the I am of the old covenant; the one “who is and who was and who is to come,” the eternal God Who has no beginning, Who is present among His people in the present, and will welcome them into their inheritance. (4) He is the Almighty, literally “the one who has his hand on everything.” (A. Johnson, Revelation, 27)
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw — that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Revelation 1:1 & 2
When studying Revelation, it doesn’t take long before we find diverging opinions. I think Alan Johnson has some good advice for us here:
What do the imagery and visions mean? Another problem involves chronology: When do the things spoken of occur… what is symbolic and what is literal? Answers to such questions will determine the interpreter’s approach. Since few of these questions are capable of dogmatic answers, there is a need for tolerance of divergent approaches in the hope that the Spirit may use open-minded discussion to bring us further into the meaning of the Apocalypse.
In chapter 1, verse 1, we are told that what follows must soon take place. How soon is soon and how does the answer to that question affect our approach to the rest of Revelation? This is how Robert Mounce deals with the question:
That more than 1900 years of church history have passed and the end is not yet poses a problem for some. One solution is to understand “shortly” in the sense of suddenly, or without delay once the appointed time arrives… The most satisfying solution is to take the word in a straightforward sense, remembering that in the prophetic outlook the end is always imminent. This perspective is common to the entire NT. Jesus taught that God would vindicate his elect without delay (LK 18:8), and Paul wrote to the Romans that God would soon crush Satan under their feet (Rom 16:20).
I might add that the end is always imminent in apocalyptic, which is so prevalent in Revelation. Greg Beale, an amillennialist, takes soon or shortly in the literal sense as we would expect — that the events in Revelation would take place in the very near future. However, he has a unique take on what is taking place:
John’s substitution of en tachei implies his expectation that the final tribulation, the defeat of evil, and establishment of the kingdom, which Daniel expected to occur distantly “in the latter days,” would begin in his own generation, and indeed, that it had already begun to happen (for the idea of tribulation preceding the divine kingdom see Daniel 7, which is a parallel prophecy to Daniel 2).
Yet, he goes on to point out:
Indeed what follows shows that the beginning of fulfillment and not final fulfillment is the focus [Daniel’s prophecy of the latter days].
I suppose this is an example of the “already” – “not yet” approach to Revelation.