Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1-20)
The book of Revelation opens with the words, “Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him.” If John did not see the visions related in this book while on the island of Patmos (1:9), the messages would have no greater value to Christians than any other ancient apocalyptic writings.
If, however, God is the ultimate source of the uncovering or unveiling, the information in the book of Revelation is his word. Furthermore, when conveying the revelation to John through an angel, Jesus Christ provided his testimony to what he had received from his Father, and John, when faithfully reporting what he saw and heard in a series of visions, added his testimony. Therefore, anyone ignoring this message or “word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” would miss out on the promised happiness, an enviable spiritual prosperity that promotes an inner sense of well-being from having the assurance of the Father’s and the Son’s care, aid, and guidance when faced with trials. (1:2) There is an element of immediacy and an assurance of certainty in the words “must occur shortly.” (1:1)
To enjoy the enviable state of being Christ’s servants and blessed by his Father, believers would need to hear with understanding and act on the words that were recorded centuries ago. The information is for all of Christ’s slaves or servants, not just a select few. (1:3) The visions relate to past, then-existing, and future developments. (1:19) They would be of particular significance to those who, like John, experienced tribulation or distress because of being disciples of God’s Son. (1:9)
The manner in which the revelation was presented is indicated by the Greek word semaíno, which indicates that it was conveyed by signs or symbols, for the related nouns semá and semeíon mean “sign.” (1:1) This does pose a problem, for it is necessary to determine what a particular sign or symbol means. For a meaning to have reasonable validity, it should be verifiable on the basis of other biblical texts, harmonize with the message of the Scriptures as a whole, and be in full harmony with the context. When this is not the case, divine revelation is distorted and displaced by imaginative explanations that may impress others but provide nothing of substance. The recorded interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams in the time of Joseph and those of dreams and visions in the book of Daniel illustrate that explanations should focus on the basic message the imagery conveys and not on minute details. Furthermore, the recorded explanations made good sense to those who initially heard them, and they were accepted as valid without hesitation. (Genesis 41:17-27, 38, 39; Daniel 2:31-47; 4:10-17, 20-26; 7:2-27; 8:3-14; 20-26) Therefore, any explanations of the visions of Revelation that would make people uncomfortable if discussed with persons outside their particular religious movement are highly questionable.
“Favor,” “unmerited kindness,” or “grace” would include all the divine blessings that children of God enjoy. “Peace” is the inner sense of calmness and tranquility that stems from having divine approval, which assures the possessors of receiving aid and guidance. Apart from the Father, the operation of holy spirit (in guiding, strengthening, and sustaining believers) and the Son, Christians would not be able to enjoy “favor and peace.” (1:4)
The Father is identified as “the One who is [Greek, ho ón] and who was and who is coming.” (1:4) This description may serve to convey the significance of the divine name (YHWH). As suggested by the words of Exodus 3:14, the divine name appears to be drawn from the Hebrew verb “to be.” The translators of the Septuagint rendered the Hebrew ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh as egó eimi ho ón (“I am the One who is”). In Hebrew, ’ehyéh is in the imperfect state, and the expression ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh could be rendered “I will be who I will be,” suggesting that the Almighty would prove to be who he has declared himself to be. In the light of Exodus 3:14, the identifying expression “the One who is and who was and who is coming” indicates that the Most High would never be someone other than he is, was, or has stated he would be. He is the same One he was and will continue to be as the One who is to come, evidently to render judgment. (1:8; 4:8) He and his word are deserving of the utmost trust.
The Almighty additionally identified himself as “the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8). Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and omega is the last letter. This suggests that the Almighty is the One who brings all that he starts to a successful conclusion.
On account of the operation of God’s spirit upon him, John was enabled to see visions. (1:10; see the Notes section for comments about the Lord’s day.) In the imagery of the book of Revelation, the “seven spirits” are portrayed as “seven lamps of fire” before God’s throne. (1:3; 4:5) The numbers in this book repeatedly serve as symbols, and the number “seven” may be regarded as a number of completeness. Accordingly, the “seven spirits” would represent the holy spirit in the totality or completeness of its operation. Being before the “throne of God,” this powerful force is always at his disposal and under his control for the accomplishment of his will. (Compare Luke 1:35, where “holy spirit” is, in the parallel expression, called the “power of the Most High.”)
While there are and have been individuals and groups of individuals representing various movements saying or implying that they are specially guided by the spirit and appointed expounders of Revelation, an examination of their writings and history reveals that their claims amount to nothing more than self-promotion. Instead of stressing Christ’s role, they repeatedly try to impress others with their professed role as his appointees and thus diminish the truth that there is no salvation apart from Christ. Their attitude contrasts sharply with the opening chapter of Revelation, which leaves no doubt about the greatness of God’s Son and his unique role in the divine arrangement for salvation. Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one whose testimony is always trustworthy. (1:5)
His being the “firstborn of the dead” could signify that he was the first to be raised to immortal life or that he occupies the position of firstborn with reference to the dead. The fact that sovereignty is highlighted when identifying Jesus Christ as the “ruler of the kings of the earth” would seem to favor understanding the expression “firstborn of the dead” to relate to his position respecting the dead. (1:5) This would agree with Romans 14:9, where Christ is identified as the Lord of the dead and the living.
As ruler of the kings of the earth, his authority is far greater than theirs. Even the most powerful rulers on the earthly scene are inferior to the Lord Jesus Christ. This clear identification of God’s Son as then being the “ruler of the kings of the earth” harmonizes with his statement prior to his ascension, “All authority has been given me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18) The possession of “all authority” left nothing to be added at a later time.
Although so highly exalted, Jesus Christ continues to have deep love for all who willingly accept him as their head. As John wrote regarding the Son, “to him that loves us.” (1:5) The verb for “love” (agapáo) is in the present tense, indicating that his love is of an abiding nature. That love guarantees that in times of trial or distress his helping hand will never fail to be available.
The superlative expression of Jesus’ love was the laying down of his life in sacrifice to effect a marvelous liberation from sin. According to the evidence of the most ancient Greek manuscripts, Jesus Christ “loosed us from our sins.” Under the control and condemnation of sin, individuals find themselves in the state of bound prisoners. Their situation is comparable to having every part of their body shackled so that they are unable to do the good that they, at heart, may really wish to do. It is a state of slavery that holds no promise of a release and a better future. Regardless of how hard a person may try to do what is right, kind, and noble, there is a painful awareness of falling short and of having hurt and disappointed others. Only when individuals suppress the inner voice of conscience do they become blind to their helpless state as slaves of sin, and their complete inability to live a life that is consistently pure in attitude, word, and action. Jesus Christ, however, loosed believers, effecting their liberation by his shed blood. By accepting his sacrifice in their behalf, they are no longer helplessly bound by sin but have righteousness imputed to them. (1:5; also see the comments in the Notes section.)
Collectively, believers constitute a royal realm or kingdom under their Lord Jesus Christ and, individually, they are priests to “his God and Father.” Anyone claiming to have a spiritual authority over believers thus would be denying their identity as priests, an identity which has been granted them by their Lord, “to whom be the glory and might for eternity.” (1:6)
Additionally, the opening chapter of Revelation points to Jesus’ return in glory. This event and its profound effect would not escape the notice of anyone then living on earth. (1:7) For those who failed to respond in faith to God’s Son, the event would lead to wailing.
John heard a voice like that of a trumpet directing him to write to the congregations of believers in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Everything about the personage who spoke to John (someone like “a son of man” or a man) reflected exceedingly great splendor. He wore a long robe, with a golden girdle at the breasts. This was not working attire. The high girding gave evidence of exceptional dignity. Snow-white hair and eyes that shown like flames of fire complemented the countenance of matchless brilliance. His feet glowed like copper or a similar metal or alloy in the fire of a furnace. As he spoke, apparently a flash resembling the blade of a two-edged sword proceeded from his mouth, and the impressive voice resounded like abundant waters in motion. His countenance beamed with greater radiance than the sun at its zenith. Overawed, John fell as dead at his feet. (1:10-17)
The speaker placed his right hand on John and reassured him with the words, “Fear not.” He then identified himself as the first and the last, the living one, and the one who had died but now lived. As the possessor of immortal life, he also had the power to restore others to life, for he had the “keys of death and of Hades.” (1:17, 18) In the ultimate sense, the Father is “the first and the last.” His unique Son, the one through whom all things came into existence and through whom all things are brought to their completion, could rightly thus also identify himself. (Compare Ephesians 1:3-12 and Colossians 1:15-20.)
In the vision, John saw seven lampstands and, in the right hand of the glorious personage, seven stars. These seven lampstands represented the seven congregations and the seven stars stood for the seven angels or messengers of these congregations. (1:12, 13, 16, 20) As believers are to let their light shine before others by maintaining laudable conduct and proclaiming the glad tidings that focus on Christ, a lampstand would be a fitting symbol. Early believers would have known whether the messenger of a congregation referred collectively to its elders or to the one person who originally received the recorded message that was to be read to all.
For pictures of and comments about the island of Patmos, see holylandphotos.org.
In 1:1, the expression “revelation of Jesus Christ” does not relate to his revealing himself in glory but probably to his doing the unveiling or uncovering. It could also mean a “revelation about Jesus Christ,” but this is less likely (as a considerable portion of the book of Revelation concerns judgments and, in an indirect sense only, could this aspect be regarded as pertaining to him).
The one doing the reading (1:3) would apparently do so when a group of believers (those hearing) were assembled. In this verse, fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and a number of later manuscripts have the singular “word,” but the majority of manuscripts read “words.”
In 1:5, third-century P18, fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, and fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus and a number of later manuscripts read lysanti (“loosed”), whereas many later manuscripts say loúsanti (“washed”).
The designation kyriaké heméra (“Lord’s day”) is only found in Revelation 1:9. The term kyriaké is an adjective in the feminine gender and not the noun for “Lord” (kyrios) in the genitive case, as in the expression heméra kyríou (“day of the Lord”) appearing in a context denoting a future time of judgment. (2 Peter 3:10) Therefore, the “Lord’s day” appears to be a day linked to Jesus Christ in the same way that the adjective form of the word for “Lord” is used in the designation “Lord’s supper” (kyriakón deípnon) in 1 Corinthians 11:20. That “supper” is one pertaining to him and what he accomplished through his death. Similarly, the Lord’s day apparently is a day that uniquely relates to him. For many centuries down to the present time, that day has commonly been understood to mean the first day of the week, as it was on that day Jesus rose from the dead.
The prophet Ezekiel often dated his visions, including the day of the week. (Ezekiel 1:1, 2; 8:1; 24:1; 29:1; 31:1; 32:1; 40:1) So it could not be considered unusual for John to refer to being “in spirit in the Lord’s day” or in the spirit on the first day of the week. Jerome (who lived in the third and fourth century), in his homily (94), dealt with the objection that the first day of the week was significant to pagans. He wrote: “The Lord has made all days, of course, but other days may belong as well to the Jews, and heretics too; they may even belong to the heathens. The Lord’s day, however, the day of the resurrection, the day of Christians, is our day. It is called the Lord’s day because on this day the Lord ascended to the Father as victor.”
It may be noted that Jerome considered the first day to have been the day of Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension to heaven. In The New American Bible, this is also the view expressed in a footnote on John 20:17 regarding Jesus’ statement that he had not yet ascended. “Therefore his ascension takes place immediately after he has talked to Mary. In such a view, the ascension after forty days described in Acts 1, 1-11 would be simply a termination of earthly appearances or, perhaps better, an introduction to the conferral of the Spirit upon the early church, modeled on Elisha’s being able to have a (double) share in the spirit of Elijah if he saw him being taken up (same verb as ascending) into heaven (2 Kgs 2, 9-12).”
The scenes in the book of Revelation often do not follow a chronological sequence. At times, different aspects of the same event are portrayed later in the book or an early occurrence is presented after happenings that would take place later. The birth of the male child destined to rule is an early event (12:1-5) but is portrayed after scenes depicting later developments. Aspects about the effect on those facing the wrath of God and of the Lamb (6:12-17) are, in different imagery, revealed in later visions (14:18-20; 19:11-21). Revelation 14:8 reports the angelic announcement about the fall of Babylon the great, whereas Revelation 17:2-18:24 provides more detail about this harlot and her doom.