Diego Velazquez, Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos (1619-1620)
I have struggled with how to begin this since this has seemed like a Herculean task to approach a book which has given rise to any number of wild and disparate interpretations both recently and throughout the history of the church. If the brief survey of the history of interpretation of Revelation I wrote and my own study of church history and biblical interpretation has shown me anything it is that any reading of scripture is a provisional reading that is informed by the time and position of the interpreter—and yet scripture in its own living way continues to speak across the millennia. So, it is in a sense of humility that I begin this reading of Revelation. This is a reading of one pastor who comes to this strange book with a sense of wonder and awe as we enter into the mysteries that John the Seer relates to us in his recording of this vision. I begin having some sense of where this is going because I’ve been working through the book as a whole as I attempt this beginning, so here are some aspects that inform this reading:
- This reading is canonical in the dual sense that I am beginning with the belief that Revelation is both a part of the broader canon that Christians consider the scripture and that its placement within that canon also shapes the way we hear Revelation. The same God, the same Jesus who is witnessed to throughout the rest of the scriptures is who we encounter in Revelation. There will be portions of Revelation that can only be clear in hearing it in dialogue with the rest of scripture.
- It is intertextual in the sense that I will often refer back to other places throughout scripture where Revelation’s images resonate. Revelation is a much clearer and richer document when one listens closely to Ezekiel, Daniel, Exodus, Psalms, Deuteronomy and the gospels and Paul’s letters. John the Seer was either a Jewish Christian or a gentile extremely well steeped in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) since it is rare when Revelation does not subtly echo these scriptures.
- That the God of Revelation is the loving God we encounter in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This is about a God who does love the world as John 3: 16 reminds us. This is about a God who is the creator who does care about this world God created. In that sense it will be an ecological reading. It will also be a gracious reading. My work with Jeremiah and Exodus has given me some empathy for the way God’s involvement with humanity comes at a cost: God becomes brokenhearted about the state of the world and the state of God’s people.
- The God of Revelation chooses sides and is not the unmoved mover of deist and philosophical thought. This is not a new thing in scripture. The story of the Exodus is a story of a God who chooses those who are oppressed and weak and intervenes. The book of Revelation is a similar story. Like in the book of the Exodus, we will also see God use an incredible amount of restraint allowing time and space for repentance and renewal. The cry of the saints, “How long Lord” which echoes the words of the Psalmist, indicate the cost of God’s patience and yet God will not ultimately allow the forces that work against God’s will for the world to prevail.
- The violent language of the book of Revelation has often been a source of discomfort for interpreters, much like the more violent portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. In some ways we will see some of this language has been misinterpreted but I do think we need to wrestle with the violence that is a part of this book. Much more on this as we proceed into the images of Revelation.
- Revelation is a profoundly anti-imperial book. Specifically, the empire of this time is the Roman empire. This also is nothing new for the scriptures. From the book of Genesis onward there has always been a suspicion of the claims of nations, kings and empires. The story of the Exodus, which is the foundational story for the Jewish people, is a story of God taking a people out of the empire of the day and creating a way for them to be a different kind of society. Revelation with its calls to ‘flee from Babylon’ stands within this tradition. In this sense it is a work that gives us a lens to understand our own interactions within our own societies, nations and world. Revelation is not the only voice within the scripture which addresses how people of faith live and work within the empire, but it is also not a lone or outlying voice in the broader scriptures.
1 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, 2 who testified 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 the 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 the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. 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.
Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse from the Greek title of the book, gets its title from the opening line which declares it is a revelation of Jesus Christ. Without entering into a long conversation about ‘apocalyptic literature’ I think perhaps a good place to start is with the meaning of the word Revelation or apocalypse. An apocalypse, in the way we normally use this term, typically means something like an event involving destruction on a catastrophic scale or something that involves the final destruction of the world. But the translation of apocalypse to revelation is telling. Revelation means something which is revealed or disclosed and that is what this book claims to be. While the book of Revelation does point to a conflict between the forces that are at work destroying the world and God’s unwillingness, as world’s Creator, to let these forces of death and destruction continue to exercise power and dominion forever it is more concerned with disclosing the images seen than anything else. The book is a book of hope filled with powerful images that continue to resonate thousands of years later. John, the named author of Revelation, writes down these visions to disclose them to church of his time and by extension to the church of our time.
The John of Revelation is probably not the same John who wrote the gospel of John and the letters of John. Ever since Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) showed that the two works could not come from the same person because of writing style and content the position of Revelation has been questioned. Dionysius and eventually the church accepted Revelation as a part of the canon but without apostolic authorship there would continue to be questions about the authority of Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 34) Yet, Revelation is a part of the collection of works we consider as our scriptures and regardless of the apostolicity of the author has been valued throughout the church’s life. John, or John the Seer as I will sometimes refer to him, attempts to put into words that which seems to defy description. His language is the language of the scriptures, what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or ELCA, the denomination I am a part of) in its Book of Faith initiative would refer to the first language of faith.
John considers this a prophesy and the language of this first chapter resonates strongly with the call scenes of the prophets into service to testify to the word of the Lord (see for example Isaiah 6: 1-13; Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Ezekiel 1:1-3:11). John’s self-understanding is probably that of a prophet, one who has been called to deliver a message on behalf of God. The prophets point to a different way of understanding the world in light of God’s revelation to them. They often are unpopular with those in authority since they are calling their hearers back to God’s alternative way of living in the world. John’s message to the church should be heard in this light. This will become clearer as we approach the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three.
John also, like Paul and other writers of the Christian epistles, is writing a letter and this first chapter holds many similarities to letters like the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, etc. While John is addressing the seven churches in Asia (modern day Turkey) who we will encounter in the following chapters we will find the number seven is significant in the book of Revelation since it denotes completion or wholeness and so while this is a letter to seven specific churches it is also a letter or book to the larger church. Like the letters that Paul writes these introductions can densely packed with language that articulate key points of the author’s faith. These key affirmations include:
- ‘from him who is and who was and who is to come’ this way of referring to God probably goes back to the divine name, “YHWH” that God gives Moses in Exodus 3: 13-22. The circular way of naming God without actually saying the name of God probably also reflects the desire not to violate the commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5: 11)
- ‘Seven spirits before the throne’ as mentioned above seven will appear continually throughout Revelation to denote completion or wholeness. Below we will see seven stars and seven lampstands and the seven spirits may well be connected to the seven eyes for the lamb or the seven churches.
- Jesus Christ as ‘faithful witness,’ ‘first born of the dead’ and the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ uses several titles to refer to Jesus which each can be unpacked briefly. Jesus as faithful witness becomes the model or icon that the readers of Revelation are to emulate. The word for witness is the word which ‘martyr’ comes from and that is an important concept for Revelation. While being a faithful witness does not require death or suffering in a society that is established in a manner that is counter to God’s will it will often be uncomfortable and involve persecution. ‘First born of the dead’ resonates strongly with the Pauline language used to describe the impact of Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1: 15,18). ‘Ruler of the kings of the earth’ also resonates with Pauline language for who Christ ultimately is, even though the powers and principalities seem to exercise power they will also bow with everything on heaven and earth to the resurrected Christ (ex. Philippians 2: 9-11)
- ‘to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood’ again reflects the language of places like Romans 3:25 where Paul can use sacrificial language in relation to Jesus’ death on the cross. This will also be important in the gospel of John in particular in its way of describing Jesus’ death. In this light the image of Jesus as the sacrificed lamb throughout Revelation expands this image.
- ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’ these words are a particularly audacious claim made early in the book which refers back to Exodus 19: 5-6 and point to what the role of the church is for the book of Revelation. The church is now joined to the vocation and calling of Israel, and in many ways the church becomes Israel. This is an audacious claim and yet it also points to the critical roll that John identifies for these churches receiving this message.
John then transitions into their shared hope of Christ’s return which every eye will see. Those who witnessed faithfully and those who opposed Christ will see and be confronted with the kingship of Jesus. It will be an event that impacts all the people of the earth, not only Israel or the church. Much like the closing of the book these initial confessions end like a prayer.
Finally, in this opening is the first use of ‘Alpha and Omega’ and another reference to the one ‘who is and was and who is to come.’ This is significant because in this revelation of Jesus Christ we will soon see this language paralleled in the description of Jesus and this will become one of the several places where the New Testament points to a close correlation between Jesus and the LORD the God of Israel. In the Christological controversies of the early church where they attempted to find language to talk about Jesus the New Testament’s way of using titles reserved for God for Jesus would prove decisive as the early Christians began to understand the Jesus was a revelation of the God of Israel.
Revelation 1: 9-11
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, 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 a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
John indicates his connection with the churches receiving the letter. He is one of them who shares in their struggles who live in the time in between the resurrection and Christ’s return. In this time the powers and principalities continue to call for allegiance and at times worship and yet as followers of the resurrected Christ and the LORD the God of Israel they are called to have only one God, one Lord. John is on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea about forty miles southwest of Miletus and Ephesus on the sea route to Corinth and Athens. John may have been sent to Patmos by regional authorities because of his testimony but he is also the only person we have a witness of being sent to Patmos and there is no evidence it was a prison colony. Yet, John is isolated from these seven communities he is writing to on that day he receives the vision. Like the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians he is, “in the spirit” most likely on a Sunday (the day of the Lord’s resurrection) but possibly on a Saturday (the Sabbath). The voice like a loud trumpet resembles the language of Exodus 19:16 and 20:18 where God speaks to the people. Yet the voice like a trumpet is hearable as language and instructs John to write what he sees and send it on to the seven churches.
Revelation 1: 12-20
Goslar, Friedhof Hildersheimer Strasse, Grabmonument aus dem 19. Jahrhundert, Christusdarstellun nach Offenbarung
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 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 lampstands are the seven churches.
John turns toward the voice mentioned above and the begins to write what he sees in the book we have. The vision is full of symbolism and echoes of the scriptures. ‘One like the Son of Man,’ is an image that goes back to Daniel 7:13-14, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” This is what is referred to when Jesus uses the ‘Son of Man’ title in the gospels. Because of this usage by Jesus in the gospels we shouldn’t be surprised that the speaker is Jesus. Yet, Jesus also has the traits of the Ancient one (God) spoken of immediately prior to the ‘Son of Man’ quotation from Daniel “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; his throne was like fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7: 9-10) We begin to see the ways in which Revelation links Jesus to the Lord the God of Israel, something that will continue throughout this initial vision. The initial description of the resurrected Christ appearing to John is an awesome and fear inducing sight for the seer.
The sharp two-edged sword which comes out of his mouth will be a recurring image in Revelation. On the one hand, it does refer to speech as in Isaiah 49:2 when the servant of the Lord’s mouth is like a sharp sword. On the other hand, it is also the force by which Christ defeats evil, how truth overcomes the lies. The word of God is never a tame thing that should be wielded carelessly, it can cut both the church and the nations as it will here in Revelation.
John, overwhelmed by the image, falls down at the feet of the risen Christ, and unlike later when he bows down to another messenger he is not corrected. Falling at the feet of the risen Christ is an acceptable response and John is met with encouragement. “Do not be afraid” is a frequent instruction upon hearing from God or receiving God’s message. Now Jesus uses words for himself that are patterned after the words the Lord God uses, he is the ‘first and last’ paralleled to ‘Alpha and Omega’ and ‘the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever;” paralleled to ‘him who is and who was and who is to come.’
Jesus now holds the keys to Death and Hades. Even though in this time the forces of destruction can kill the faithful and send them to the realm of Death and Hades the book of Revelation looks towards that time when Christ claims this power and opens the realm of Death and Hades causing them to surrender those held there. Death remains real for the followers of the risen Christ, but it is not the final reality. As Paul could say, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6: 5)
The image of seven stars and the seven lampstands is one of the few explained images in the book of Revelation itself. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches themselves. This image takes on an additional resonance when one realizes that the lampstands in the image is like the lampstand for the tabernacle and later temple (Exodus 25: 17-22). This is another place where Revelation makes an audacious connection between the churches and Israel. As mentioned above when discussing Revelation 1:6 when the calling of Israel is used now the imagery of Israel also gets linked to the churches.