Commentary on Revelation 1

Notes (NET Translation)

1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, 1:2 who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ.

The Greek word apocalypsis (revelation) gives the book its name (in English the book is known as Revelation or the Apocalypse). The Greek phrase translated “revelation of Jesus Christ” can mean either revelation about Jesus Christ or revelation from Jesus Christ. In this context it means the revelation from Jesus Christ as the next phrase makes clear (cf. 22:16, 20). God gave the revelation to Jesus Christ who in turn gave it to his servants. The “servants” could be prophets (Amos 3:7; Rev 10:7; 11:18) or Christians in general (Rev 7:3; 19:5; 22:3).

The revelation is primarily about “what must happen very soon” (1:3, 19; 2:16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:7, 12, 20). This phrase alludes to Dan 2:28-30, 45-47 but, whereas Daniel refers to the distant future, John refers to the near future. What must happen very soon is the inauguration of prophetic fulfillment and its ongoing aspect, not the consummated fulfillment.

Indeed, what follows shows that the beginning of fulfillment and not final fulfillment is the focus. The references to the imminent eschatological period (v 3b), the fact of Christ’s present kingship over the world’s kings (v 5), the initial form of the saints’ kingdom (vv 6, 9), and the following “Son of man” reference (1:7) and vision (vv 13–15), also indicating initial fulfillment of Daniel 7, point strongly to this focus and to the presence of a Danielic frame of reference. . . . Similarly, the allusion to “seven lampstands,” from Zechariah 4, in vv 12, 20 and the reference to Isa. 49:2 and 11:4 (the sword in the Messiah’s mouth) in v 16 also indicate that the OT prophecies in those texts have begun to be fulfilled. In fact, only one verse in all of Revelation 1 clearly includes reference to Christ’s last advent. And even that verse, 1:7, refers to the progressive nature of the fulfillment of Dan. 7:13 throughout the age, which will be culminated by Christ’s final coming (the end of the age is also included in the names for God in 1:4a and 1:8b and for Christ in v 17). (Beale 182)

The Greek verb (semainein) translated “made it clear” is related to the word for “sign.” “The choice of this verb should alert the reader to be attentive to the symbolic nature of the visions as they unfold” (Boxall 25). John did not use symbols in order to get his message past Roman censors (e.g., the description of Rome in 17:9 is rather obvious). Rather the symbols convey several meanings at once and engage readers in an ongoing process of reflection so that they will remain loyal to God and Christ (Koester 43-44). “When the images move readers to renounce evil and to affirm their loyalty to God and Christ, they are effective in their communication even if readers cannot explain the meaning of each detail” (Koester 44).

The revelation was given to John through an angel. In the patron-client structure of Roman society, John, as a servant/slave of Christ, could function as the agent of his master and possess a representative authority.

John testified to everything he saw by writing this book. The Greek phrase translated “the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ” is difficult to understand.

On the basis of its further occurrences in the book, the first phrase almost certainly means “the word from God” (= the word God spoke), which in this case, and in most instances throughout, primarily comes to John visually. But the second phrase is especially uncertain, since in what follows it can refer to either the testimony that Jesus himself had borne through his life, death, and resurrection or to the testimony that John had borne about Jesus that had brought about John’s exile on Patmos. While either of these is a possible meaning in terms of the narrative that follows, both the abbreviated version that occurs in 6:9 (“the word of God and the testimony they had borne”) and the present emphasis—which is not on the “life of Christ” per se but on John’s witness to that life through this book—suggest that the intent here has to do with John’s own witness that came to him from Christ himself by way of his angel. (Fee 3)

1:3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy aloud, and blessed are those who hear and obey the things written in it, because the time is near!

Verse 3, with its contrast between the one (singular) who reads and those (plural) who hear, suggests that the recipients of this book gathered in groups and read the book aloud publicly (Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13). The proper reaction to hearing the prophecy read is to obey the things written in it (Lk 11:28).

The content of the hearing and obeying is provided by “the words of this prophecy.” Every word in Revelation is further defined as “prophecy.” This tells us that John does not conceive of this writing purely as Jewish apocalyptic (which in the first century did not stem from prophets) but as linked with OT prophetic works. The many allusions to books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel also attest to this. As Ladd has said, Revelation must be characterized not as apocalyptic but as prophetic-apocalyptic. Its purpose is not merely to outline the future intervention of God or to portray the people of God symbolically in light of that divine reality but to call the saints to accountability on that basis. This is a prophetic book of warning as well as comfort to the church. (Osborne 58–59)

What was near for John’s readers was the persecution they would face from the Empire.

1:4 From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 1:5 and from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 1:6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen.

Verses 4-6 share much in common with conventional epistolary openings: the sender (John), the recipients (seven churches), and the greeting (grace and peace). “The author refers to himself simply as John. His close relationship with the seven churches and his intimate knowledge of their affairs make it unnecessary to add any identifying phrase. The authority with which he writes indicates his role as a leader in the Asian church” (Mounce loc. 1232-1233). The number seven was the number of completion or perfection. While the book was written to seven actual Christian communities it is likely that these communities also stand for the church universal (after chapters 2-3 the focus of the book moves to the entire world).  The Roman province of Asia was located in what is now western Turkey.

The salutation combines a religious variation of the normal Hellenistic greeting and the customary Hebrew shalom. This dual salutation is found in all the Pauline letters (with ‘mercy’ added in 1 Tim 1:2 and 2 Tim 1:2). Grace is the divine favor showed to the human race, and peace is that state of spiritual well-being that follows as a result. (Mounce loc. 1244-1248).

“He who is, and who was, and who is still to come” is God (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5). The phrase highlights God’s sovereignty over history.

The identity of the seven spirits before God’s throne is debated. In 3:1 Christ holds the seven spirits of God. In 4:5 the seven flaming torches are said to be the seven spirits of God. In 5:6 the Lamb is described as having seven eyes, “which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” This last reference is an allusion to Zechariah 4:10. In Zechariah 4:6 the Lord says, “Not by strength and not by power, but by my Spirit,” to indicate the means by which his will is done. If John is following Zechariah closely the seven spirits in Revelation should be identified with the sevenfold Holy Spirit, where the number seven represents the Spirit’s completeness or perfection in performing its work. Isa 11:2 LXX mentions seven designations of the Spirit of the Lord (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, godliness, fear of God),  An alternative interpretation, but less likely in my view,  is that the seven spirits are heavenly beings (e.g., angels) of some kind.

Jesus as “faithful witness” introduces a common theme in the book. The idea of “witness” in Revelation is linked to themes of persecution (where it comes close to the later meaning of “martyr”) and perseverance. Jesus is the archetype and paradigm for the believer, who also must stand against evil and idolatry even when it may mean one’s life. The witness theme is just as critical to the Gospel of John as it is to Revelation. In John 5:31–47; 8:13–18; 10:25, Jesus describes the many “witnesses” that prove who he is; and in 8:14 he describes his witness to himself as “valid” because of whence he comes. In Revelation the witness theme centers on Jesus’ witness (1:5; 3:14) as extended to the witness of the saints (1:9; 6:9; 12:11, 17; 17:6; 19:10; 20:4). The idea of “faithfulness” is also an important theme, linked to the central message of perseverance, namely maintaining one’s witness against the powers of evil (17:14) even to the point of death (2:10, 13). (Osborne 62–63)

As the firstborn from the dead Christ is the inaugurator of the new creation. Jesus is king of kings due to his resurrection and exaltation. “This transferal of the language of royalty and power to one who has been slain represents something of a signature tune for the Apocalypse. It calls for a radical reassessment of the nature of power and where it is to be located” (Boxall 32).

Commentators are no doubt right in seeing Ps. 88(89):27, 37 as the designation of Christ as “faithful witness,” “firstborn,” and “ruler of the kings of the earth” since all three phrases occur there. However, the significance of the allusion is usually not discussed. The immediate context of the Psalm speaks of David as an “anointed” king who will reign over all his enemies and whose seed will be established on his throne forever (Ps. 88(89):19–32 LXX; Jewish writings understood Ps. 89:28 messianically [Midr. Rab. Exod. 19.7; perhaps Pesiqta Rabbati 34.2]). John views Jesus as the ideal Davidic king on an escalated eschatological level, whose death and resurrection have resulted in his eternal kingship and in the kingship of his “beloved” children (cf. v 5b), and this idea is developed in v 6. “The faithful witness” is likely also based on Isa. 43:10–13 (see further on 3:14). (Beale 190–191)

With all of the judgment mentioned in the book it is important to note that Christ loves us. Christ freed us from the power of sin through his sacrifice. This mirrors how the Israelites were set free from the Egyptians through the death of the Egyptian firstborn. Christians are a kingdom in the sense that they are under God’s rule instead of Satan’s rule. In fact, the saints participate in God’s rule (2:26; 3:21; 5:10; 20:4, 6). They are priests because they serve as mediators between God and the rest of humanity. In this way they take on the role of true Israel (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9). It is to Christ, not God the Father, that John says “to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever!” The word “amen” means something like “so it is and forever shall be.”

1:7 (Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen.)

It is quite possible that John is drawing on the words of Jesus (Mt 24:30; Jn 19:37), which in turn allude to Dan 7:13 and Zech 12:10-14. In Mt 24:30 the nations mourn over the saving of the elect. In Zech 12:10-14 Israel is called to repentance. It is ambiguous whether the tribes of the earth in Rev 1:7 are mourning because of impending judgment or because they are repenting of their sins. This ambiguity may be intentional since judgment and repentance develop side by side throughout the book. “Those who pierced him” need not refer solely to those who literally pierced Christ but could refer to everyone who is guilty of rejecting him.

1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God – the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come – the All-Powerful!

Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, respectively. God controls the beginning and the end and everything in between (21:6; 22:13). Note that the deity is called the Lord God. This recalls the divine name YHWH (Ex 3:14). The God who speaks is the one and only God who created the universe. He alone is the All-Powerful (or Almighty).

1:9 I, John, your brother and the one who shares with you in the persecution, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony about Jesus.

The opening (“I, John”) of verse 9 mirrors the opening of other apocalyptic prophets (Dan. 7:28; 8:1; 1 En 12.3; 2 Esdr [4 Ezra] 2:33). John identifies himself with his readers and not as an apostle. The “persecution, kingdom, and endurance” are related to each other. Because the readers are part of the kingdom they undergo persecution (tribulation) and exhibit endurance (perseverance).

Patmos is a small island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor. According to Eusebius (HE 3.18-20), John was banished to Patmos in AD 95. The island had a decent-sized population so John was not placed in particularly harsh conditions. He could roam the island freely and was not placed in a prison or dungeon. The emperor Nerva granted amnesty to exiles in AD 96 so it is likely that John returned to Ephesus after a short time. Some take the phrase “because of the word of God and the testimony about [of] Jesus” to mean that John went to Patmos because he was called there by God. But it can also be taken to mean that John was banished to Patmos because of his preaching (Beale argues this is more likely on grammatical grounds). Tradition and John’s statement that he shares in the readers’ persecution favor the latter meaning.

1:10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 1:11 saying: “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches – to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”

The notice that John was “in the Spirit” tells us that the Holy Spirit was the source of his visions (4:2; 17:3; 21:10). The “Lord’s Day” is Sunday (Barn 15:9; Gospel of Peter 35, 50), the day Jesus’ empty tomb was discovered. “As paganism had set aside a day on which to honor their emperor (Sebaste), so Christians chose the first day of each week to honor Christ (kyriake). The Lord’s day should be understood over against the emperor’s day” (Mounce loc. 1420-1421). The loud voice recalls the voice of God at Mount Sinai (Ex 19:16, 19-20; 20:18). The Greek of verse 11 literally refers to a “scroll” (translated “book”).

John then proceeds to enumerate the recipients of this apocalyptic epistle, the seven churches of the province of Asia. . . . The order of the cities is significant, for they form the circular route of a letter carrier beginning at Ephesus and moving first north to Smyrna and to Pergamum, then turning southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east to Philadelphia, and finally southeast to Laodicea. Also, we must ask why these particular cities are chosen. Troas and Colosse were critical NT centers, and Magnesia and Tralles were more important cities than Philadelphia or Thyatira. The best solution is still probably that of William Ramsay, as argued further by Hemer. These seven cities formed a natural center of communication for the rest of the province, since they were in order of sequence on an inner circular route through the territory. There is good reason to suppose that since Pauline times they had become “organizational and distributive centers” from which messages would disseminate to the other churches of the province. DeSilva also points out that these particular cities were chosen partly for their relationship to the imperial cult. All but Thyatira had temples dedicated to the emperors, and all but Philadelphia and Laodicea had imperial priests and altars. I would add one other point. They also represented the problems of the other churches in the area (note how each letter includes “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches”). As we will see, each town had its own particular set of problems but also served as examples for the other churches. (Osborne 85)

1:12 I turned to see whose voice was speaking to me, and when I did so, I saw seven golden lampstands, 1:13 and in the midst of the lampstands was one like a son of man. He was dressed in a robe extending down to his feet and he wore a wide golden belt around his chest.

The lampstands are not candle-holders but rather stands on which lamps were set. They represent the seven churches (1:20). The churches are lights for God in the midst of a hostile world (Mt 5:14-16; Rev 11:1-13). The phrase “one like a son of man” alludes to Dan 7:13 and refers to Jesus the Messiah (1:18). That he is in the midst of the lampstands shows that he is not distant from the churches.

A long robe was associated with the high priest (Ex 28:4; 39:29) but also dignitaries and rulers. The golden belt could refer to the sacred ephod of the high priest (Ex 28:4; 29:5; 39:29) or the figure in Dan 10:5. In Rev 15:6 the angels wear sashes around their chest and there is no priestly imagery. The main point of verse 13b is to depict Christ as an exalted and dignified figure.

1:14 His head and hair were as white as wool, even as white as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame.

The white hair alludes to the description of God in Dan 7:9. In ancient culture it symbolized dignity and wisdom (Lev 19:32; Prov 16:31). The fiery eyes allude to Dan 10:6. This image depicts Christ’s discerning judgment (2:18; 19:12).

1:15 His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

The bronze feet allude to the description of the angel in Dan 10:6 (cf. Ezek 1:7). The image emphasizes Christ’s glory, strength, stability, and purity. The loud voice alludes to Ezek 1:24 and 43:2. It shows Christ’s strength and power.

1:16 He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth. His face shone like the sun shining at full strength.

The seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches (1:20). The right hand symbolized power and authority. To say that the angels are in Christ’s hand is to say that they are under Christ’s control. The sword symbolizes the judgment Christ brings (Isa 11:4; 49:2; Pss Sol 17:23–25; 4 Ez 13:8–11; Heb 4:12; Rev 2:16; 19:15, 21). Christ’s radiant face symbolizes his glory.

1:17 When I saw him I fell down at his feet as though I were dead, but he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, 1:18 and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive – forever and ever – and I hold the keys of death and of Hades!

Falling down before visions of God or angels is common in the Bible (Josh 5:14; Ezek 1:28; Dan 8:17–18; 10:7–9, 15; 1 En 14.14; Mt 17:6; Jn 18:6; Acts 26:14). Note that Jesus, unlike the angels (19:10; 22:8-9), does not rebuke John for taking a posture of worship. That Jesus placed his right hand on John may indicate that Jesus is commissioning John to write this book (Acts 6:6; 8:17–19; 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Heb 6:2). Jesus’ identification of himself as the first and the last links him with God (Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; Rev 1:8). The reference to the resurrection in verse 18 clearly identifies the “son of man” as Jesus. God’s sovereignty is extended to Christ. He has control (the keys) over death itself and the abode of the dead (Hades). “Because Christ has the ‘keys,’ the time and manner of the death of each person are under his control. Therefore his people, who were sometimes threatened with death because of their loyalty to him, need not fear that death will separate them from his love” (Metzger 28).

1:19 Therefore write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things.

The phrase “what you saw” refers to the entirety of John’s vision (1:11). The phrases “what is” and “what will be” refer to the contents of the vision that describe the present and future, respectively. This does not mean the contents of the book are narrated in the chronological order in which they have or will occur.

1:20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

“Mystery,” on the surface, in Rev. 1:20 refers to the hidden meaning of the stars and lampstands, which are about to be interpreted. But “mystery” also carries the connotation of unexpected, end-time fulfillment included in the meaning of the stars and lampstands in the present context. Indeed, μυστήριον (“mystery”) occurs elsewhere in Revelation, as elsewhere in the NT, to indicate fulfillment of prophecy in an unexpected manner (see on 10:7 and 17:5, 7, in addition to Matt. 13:11 par.; Rom. 11:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:3ff.; 2 Thess. 2:7). (Beale 221-222)

The seven letters in chapters 2-3 are addressed to the angels (angeloi, messengers) mentioned in this verse. This has caused disagreement over the identity of the angels. In every other passage in Revelation the term (used about 60 times in Rev) refers to heavenly beings (as opposed to human messengers) so it is most likely the case here and in chapters 2-3 as well. The angels were in charge of the churches but also identified with the churches. “In one sense they were asked to intervene in the spiritual needs of the churches; in another sense they represented the churches” (Osborne 99). R. H. Mounce writes: “the angel of the church was a way of personifying the prevailing spirit of the church. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that all seven letters are addressed to separate angels, a strange phenomenon if they refer to anything but the church since the contents are obviously intended for the congregation as a whole” (loc. 1540-1543).

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.

Brown, Raymond Edward, ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pearson P T R, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

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