24 December 2018

The Prologue (Revelation 1:1-8)

John on Patmos
          The first paragraph introduces the key subjects and characters of the book. It also tells the reader how it communicates.
           These first verses identify the book’s purpose (to reveal), protagonists (God, Jesus, angel, John), nature (prophecy), source (God), target audience (God’s servants), contents (what things must come to pass), chronological perspective (soon), method of communication (signified), and provide an example of how it applies scripture. Disciples who heed the prophecy are pronounced “blessed.”
          Revelation is a single document addressed in its entirety to the same audience (1:4; 1:11; 1:20; 13:7-10; 22:16). The book is comprised of a prologue (1:1-8), the visions (1:9-22:7), and an epilogue (22:8-21). The book is a “revelation” or apokalypsis of Jesus Christ, the Greek term denotes “revelation, disclosure, unveiling.” The intent is to disclose not conceal.
  • (Revelation 1:1-3) - “Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what things must come to pass soon: and he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John; who bare witness of the word of God, and of the witness of Jesus Christ, even of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that reads and they that hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things that are written therein, for the season is at hand.”
            “Revelation” is not the book’s title but a designation of what it is. This first word, “Revelation”, is singular, for it is not a collection of loosely connected visions but a singular disclosure.
          It is a revelation “of Jesus Christ.” The genitive construction can mean it is an unveiling about Jesus or one that belongs to him. Which sense is meant is not certain, though the fact that God “gave” it to Christ may favor the latter one. The book does reveal critical information about the identity and role of Jesus, so perhaps both senses are present. God “gave” it to Jesus who “gave” it to his angel to show his servants imminent events. The stress is on Christ’s possession and control of the revelation. Events in the subsequent visions unfold as he unveils them to his servant John.
          The book’s contents are the “Word of God” and the “witness of Jesus.” The latter term is repeated several times in Revelation to stress his faithful witness in his sacrificial death (1:18-19; 5:5-12; 12:11). “Witness” is also applied to saints who faithfully endure persecution, even when death is inevitable (6:9; 12:11; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4).
          The objective is “to show” God’s servants “what things must come to pass soon,” a phrase summarizing the book’s contents. The events disclosed are imminent. “Soon” translates a prepositional phrase, en tachei, literally, “with speed.” The same clause is used elsewhere for something expected in the near future (Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; 25:4; Romans 16:20; 1 Timothy 3:14).
          The first verse uses words and a key phrase from Daniel 2:28. This is John’s first use of the Old Testament. There is no citation formula, no “as it is written.” John does not quote the Old Testament but folds phrases from it into his narrative. He uses texts from the Greek Septuagint version rather than the Hebrew Old Testament and does this consistently. Note the first verse compared to the passage from Daniel:

  • (Revelation 1:1) - “Revelation (apokalupsis) of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what things must come to pass (ha dei genesthai) soon.”(Daniel 2:28) - “There is a God in heaven that reveals mysteries, and made known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what things must come to pass (ha dei genesthai) in later days.”
          The key difference is that what for Daniel would not occur until “latter days” will now occur “soon.” The book is also “the prophecy,” again applying a singular noun to the entire book. It unveils what was previously veiled. It is also called “the prophecy of this book” in Revelation 22:7, again in the singular.
          All this is because “the season is near” (1:3). The events disclosed are imminent from the perspective of the book’s original audience. This proximity will be reiterated in the book’s conclusion (22:10). The phrase is another verbal allusion from Daniel and used in the same way as the first one in verse 1. Note the comparison:

  • (Revelation 1:3) - “Blessed is he that reads and they that hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things that are written in it, for the season (kairos) is at hand."
  • (Daniel 12:4) - “Shut up the words and seal the book, even until the season (kairou) of the end.”
        The same point is made as with the previous allusion. What was in Daniel’s day far off, “in later days,” is now imminent. Daniel was told to seal up the book until the “season of the end,” whereas Jesus declares a blessing on all who read and heed this book, for “the season is at hand.” This understanding is confirmed in Revelation 22:7 where the allusion to Daniel 12:4 is clearer: “Seal not the words of the prophecy of this book, for the season is at hand.”
          Jesus “signified” to his servants, which translates a Greek verb (sémainō) related to the noun for “sign” or sémeion (Mark 8:11; John 2:11; Acts 2:19; 2:43; Revelation 12:1; 12:3; 13:13; 15:1; 16:14; 19:20). It means to “indicate, show by sign, to signify.” In warfare, it referred to “signals” used to order advance, retreat or attack. This points to the symbolic nature of Revelation’s visions; they communicate by means of symbols.
          The book’s audience is comprised of “servants” of Jesus (doulos, “slave, servant”), a term applied to Christians in the New Testament (Luke 12:37; Acts 2:18; 4:29; 1 Peter 2:16; Revelation 2:20; 7:3; 19:2; 22:3).
          “Blessed is the one who reads and they who hear”: This statement reflects a real-life situation. Books were expensive and commoners were often illiterate. The practice was to have a document read aloud to the assembly by a designated reader, thus here “one who reads” and “they who hear.”
          Revelation discloses how God’s kingdom achieves final victory, the role of the servants of Jesus in His plan, and what all this means for the marginalized churches of Asia. What Daniel anticipated in a veiled form in a remote future is now being implemented by Jesus on behalf of his saints; the time of fulfillment has arrived.
  • (Revelation 1:4-8) - “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 before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loves us and loosed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us a kingdom, priests for his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he comes with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him. Even so, Amen. I am the Alpha and the Omega, declares the Lord God, who is and who was and who is coming, the Almighty.”
          The book of Revelation is addressed in its entirety to seven first-century churches located in the Roman province of Asia. The salutation sends greetings to them from God, Jesus and the “Seven Spirits of God,” and it emphasizes the present reign of Jesus over the political powers of the earth. Further, it bases that reign on his past death and resurrection.
          The addressees are identified: the seven churches or “assemblies” of Asia. They were located in the Roman proconsular province in western Asia Minor. They are identified by name in verse 11.
           God is the one “who is and who was and who is coming.” This expands on God’s self-designation given to Moses, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). This phrase will occur three more times in the book (4:8; 11:17; 16:5).
           Like Moses, John received his commission while in exile separated from God’s people. Just as God removed His people from Egypt to the wilderness to make them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:4-5), so Jesus “loosed” his people and constituted them a “kingdom, priests.” The application of terms and images originally used for Israel but now to churches is consistent throughout Revelation. The Exodus motif will reappear in several of the visions of Revelation.
          The term “Seven Spirits” occurs nowhere in scripture outside of Revelation (3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Its significance is not worked out at this point, though the spirits are linked to God’s throne. But the image is derived from a passage in Zechariah where “the seven eyes of Yahweh go about all the earth” ( Zechariah 4:10. cp. Revelation 5:6).
          “From Jesus Christ, the Faithful Witness, Firstborn of the Dead, Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.” “Faithful Witness” refers to his obedience unto death, “Firstborn of the Dead” to his resurrection (cp. Acts 26:23; 1 Corinthians 15:20; Colossians 1:18).
          “Ruler of the kings of the earth” is Christ’s present status. The verbal allusions is from two Old Testament verses; first, Psalm 2:2-9 (“The kings of the earth set themselves against Yahweh and his anointed one” [cp. Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15]); and second, Psalm 89:27, (“I will make him higher than the kings of the earth”). The same Psalm is also the source of the other two messianic titles (“I will make him my Firstborn…His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established forever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven”). “Kings of the earth” provides a verbal link to connect Psalm 89:27 and Psalm 2:2-9.
          Christ’s sovereignty over the earth’s political powers is a repeated theme in Revelation (11:15; 12:10; 17:14; 19:16; 20:4). His reign is not a future promise but a present reality; his elevation to the throne accomplished by his past death and resurrection.
          “To him who loves us and by his blood loosed us from our sins.” Christ’s sacrificial death redeemed his churches and demonstrated his love for them. “Loosed” is a literal rendering of a Greek verb that has the connotation “freed.” The point is not the forgiveness of sin but liberation from bondage.
          “He made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” “Made” is in the aorist tense and refers to a past event, in this case, Christ’s death. This priestly role is a present calling to which the churches are appointed; what Israel was called to do has now fallen to the churches (Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:5-10; Revelation 5:10; 20:6). “Kings, Priests” signifies what kind of kingdom this is and how churches participate in it.
          “To him be the glory and the dominion unto the ages of the ages.” The doxology reiterates the theme of God’s kingdom rule and alludes to Daniel 4:34-35: “I, Nebuchadnezzar uplifted my eyes and I blessed the Most High and glorified him who lives forever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom lasts from generation to generation.” This phrase is reiterated several times (5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 13:7; 14:6; 18:4).
          This bold claim is announced to the suffering churches of Asia. God reigns supreme through his appointed heir, regardless of appearances or the persecuting activities of hostile forces.
           “He is coming with the clouds.” This alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 where a human figure “like a son of man” was seen “coming with the clouds of the heavens to approach the Ancient of days.” The verb tense from Daniel is changed from an imperfect (“he was coming”) to a present one (“he is coming”); what was promised is now coming to fruition in the lives of the churches (cp. Revelation 1:13; 11:15; 14:14).
          “Every eye will see him, whoever pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over him.” “Every eye” includes the churches of Asia and hints at a broader group. The tribes mourn not over their doom but because the Son of Man was pierced on their behalf. Elsewhere “tribe” refers positively to redeemed men and women (5:9; 7:9). The ones from “every tribe” mourn when they see the one who was pierced, "to loose them from their sins.”
         In verse 7, Revelation combines clauses from Daniel 7:13-14 and Zechariah 12:10. Both refer to “tribes,” which links them. In Zechariah 12:10 God poured out the spirit of supplication on the house of David, so they mourned when they saw the “one whom they pierced…So shall the land wail tribe by tribe apart.” It is not the hostile nations that mourn, but the tribes of Israel rescued from the assault. Note well that “every eye” of Judah from Zechariah is changed to “all the tribes of the earth.” A prophecy originally given to national Israel is now universalized and applied to the churches.
          “I am Alpha and the Omega…the Almighty.” The one now speaking is “the Lord God who is and who was and who is coming.” God’s voice is heard in Revelation only here and Revelation 21:5-8. No other scripture refers to God as “Alpha and Omega.” ‘Alpha’ is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, ‘Omega’ the last (‘Α,’ ‘Ω’). God is the beginning and end, the first and the last; the one who begins things and brings them to His intended ends.
          “Almighty” represents the Greek noun pantokratōr, which signifies one with might or sovereignty over others. Pantokratōr is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew term for “hosts” (e.g., “Yahweh of hosts”).
           Verse 8 is a fitting end to the salutation. The reference to God’s might reassures His churches in Asia. The same God who transcends time and history (“He who is, who was and who is coming”), completes what He starts (“Alpha and Omega”), and possesses the power to do so (“Almighty”), now speaks to His churches in the cities of Asia.
          The salutation contains key themes that are expanded in the book’s visions. This includes Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, his present reign, its universal extent, the participation of believers in that reign, and his sovereignty over contemporary political powers. Christ’s exaltation is the result of his faithful obedience unto death; his reign and authority are anchored in his past death and resurrection.
          This same Jesus will return to consummate all things already set in motion by his death. God speaks directly to the churches to reassure them He has more than sufficient power to achieve His purposes.
          Throughout the salutation the seven churches of Asia remain in view; its themes set the tone for the rest of the book and encourage Christians that live in the midst of a hostile society.
          As will become even more apparent in the first vision, the book of Revelation from its very start is addressed to and concerned with Christian congregations, not national Israel. Interpretations that insist the focus is on ethnic Israel fail to heed “the words of this prophecy and to keep the things written in it.”

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