This book opens with the Greek words, Apokalypsis Iesou Christou (The revelation of Jesus Christ). The first word, Apokalypsis (revelation), gives this book its title.
In verses 1 and 4, we learn that the one who received this revelation and wrote this book is John. We don’t know which John. The early church thought of the author as John the apostle—John the son of Zebedee and the brother of James—John, one of the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Today, some scholars believe that it was another John, in part because the language of this book is so different from the language of the Gospel and Epistles of John. However, their arguments are not conclusive—and they offer no consensus with regard to the authorship of this book.
This is NOT “The Revelation of St. John,” as some English-language Bibles have entitled it. It is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things which must happen soon, which he sent and made known by his angel to his servant, John” (v. 1). God is the source of the revelation. God gave it to Jesus Christ, and Jesus made the revelation known by sending his angel to John.
Note further that this is an apocalypse—a revelation. While canonical scriptures include only a few examples of apocalyptic writings (Isaiah 24-27, 33; Daniel 7-12; Mark 13; Revelation), the genre was fairly common during the centuries immediately before and after Jesus’ life on this earth. Other examples include the apocryphal works, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.
We need to take the apocalyptic genre into account when reading and interpreting the book of Revelation. Just as we have learned to respect the differences between Biblical books of history, poetry, and prophecy, we need also to respect the distinctive qualities of apocalyptic writings.
• They are usually dualistic, making a distinction between this age (characterized by sin and evil) and the age to come (during which God will redeem his people and the world).
• They are typically rooted in crisis and foresee the coming judgment of God, the destruction of the present world, and the emergence of a new world in which the righteous will be vindicated and rewarded.
• They therefore have much in common with various prophetic books, and this book is identified as “words of…prophecy” (v. 3).
• They are usually pseudonymous (written under a fictitious name). However, the book of Revelation is not pseudonymous. It identifies John as the author, and no one (to my knowledge) has suggested that John was not the name of the author. We should note that the book of Daniel is not pseudonymous either.
• They also make extensive use of symbolism—often very strange symbolism:
– In the book of Daniel, the king has a dream about a great statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay (Daniel 2)—and Daniel has a dream of four unusual beasts (Daniel 7).
– In the book of Revelation, John has a vision of a Lamb “having seven horns and seven eyes” (5:6).
– He also has a vision of seven angels who have seven trumpets (chapters 8-10). The unusual thing about that vision is what happened when the angels blew their trumpets. For instance, when the first angel blew his/her trumpet, “there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth. One third of the earth was burnt up, and one third of the trees were burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up” (8:7).
This book pronounces a blessing on those who read the book aloud and “and keep the things that are written in it, for the time is at hand” (v. 3). That last phrase, “for the time is at hand,” is typical of apocalyptic writings, which tend to foresee a dramatic change in the near future. The book of Revelation foresees the destruction of Rome as ushering in a new age.
REVELATION 1:4-5a. JOHN TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES IN ASIA
4 John, to the seven assemblies (Greek: ekklesia—churches) that are in Asia: Grace (Greek: charis) to you and peace (Greek: eirene), from God, who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before his throne; 5a and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
“John, to the seven assemblies (ekklesia—churches) that are in Asia” (v. 4a). In verse 11, Jesus will identify these seven churches by name—they are the churches located in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. These seven cities are located in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). In chapters 2 and 3, Jesus sends letters to these churches.
There were other churches in Asia Minor, such as Troas, Colossae, and Hierapolis, but these aren’t mentioned in the book of Revelation. We don’t know why Jesus selects only seven churches to receive letters. It could have to do with the fact that the number seven symbolizes completeness for Jewish people. It could also be that these seven churches embody issues that Jesus particularly wants to address.
“Grace (charis) to you and peace”(eirene) (v. 4b). Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament. Its’ use in the New Testament has roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Greeks often used the word charis to speak of patronage (the support of a patron, such as financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connoted generosity—generosity that demanded loyalty on the part of the recipient. It is easy to understand why New Testament authors would adapt charis to the Gospel. Christian charis (grace) is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. We are the beneficiaries—those who depend on God’s grace.
Peace (eirene) is also a significant word, occurring nearly a hundred times in the New Testament. It has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom, which is used frequently in the Old Testament. The LXX (the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the Greek word eirene to translate the Hebrew word shalom nearly two hundred times.
Both eirene and shalom, as used in the Bible, mean more than the absence of violence—although they can mean that. Both words suggest the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God—the kind of wholeness that comes from having the image of God, once shattered by sin, restored in the believer.
“from God, who is and who was and who is to come“ (v. 4c). The grace and peace that John conveys has three sources. The first is “him who is and who was and who is to come”—God the Father. It seems ironic that John would use three measures of time (“was,” “is,” and “is to come”) to define the one who is eternal—beyond time. However, this threefold measure helps us to visualize the extraordinary scope of the Father’s eternal nature.
“and from the seven Spirits who are before his throne” (v. 4d). The second source of grace and peace is “the seven spirits who are before (the Father’s) throne.” In his letter to Sardis, Jesus will mention “the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars” (3:1—see also 4:5; 5:6). The phrase, “the seven spirits” probably refers to the Holy Spirit, although scholars are divided on this point. Because God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3), the scriptures regard the number seven as a symbol of completeness or fulfillment. If “the seven spirits” in this verse is intended to refer to the Holy Spirit, the number seven would be intended to convey the idea of the Spirit in all its fullness.
“and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5a). The third source of grace and peace is Jesus Christ. This verse tells of three attributes of Jesus Christ.
• Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness”—the one who knows God because he was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:2)—and who is therefore able to bear faithful witness to God. Jesus told his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
• Jesus Christ is “the firstborn of the dead.” This doesn’t mean that Jesus was the first person to be resurrected from the dead. Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24). Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37). A man buried with Elisha, when he touched Elisha’s bones, came to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26)—and the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-15)—and his friend Lazarus (John 11:32-44). However, Jesus’ resurrection was different, because it ushered in a new era with the promise of resurrection for all believers. Jesus is the firstborn of this new era.
• Jesus Christ is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Earthly kings reign for a time, but Jesus Christ reigns for eternity. Earthly kings are mortal, but Jesus Christ is eternal. Earthly kings are human, but Jesus is divine. Not all earthly kings bow before Jesus’ throne, but the day will come when they will be forced to acknowledge his preeminence.
REVELATION 1:5b-8. TO HIM WHO LOVES US
5b To him who loves us, and washed us from our sins by his blood; 6 and he made us to be a Kingdom, priests to his God and Father; to him be the glory (Greek: doxa) and the dominion (Greek:kratos) forever and ever. Amen.
7 Behold (Greek: idou), he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth will mourn over 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.” (Greek: pantokrator)
“To him who loves (present tense) us, and washed (aorist tense) us from our sins by his blood” (v. 5b). The use of the aorist tense emphasizes that Jesus’ action to wash us from our sins is complete. Jesus has already done that once and for all time. However, this verse uses the present tense to speak of Jesus’ love for us, because his love is ongoing—never ceasing.
Jesus told his disciples, “Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9). Then he added, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
“and made us to be a Kingdom“ (v. 6a). The kingdom of which we are part is the kingdom of God. The idea of the kingdom of God has its roots in the Old Testament. Israel understood Yahweh as having dominion over all (2 Chronicles 13:8; Psalm 103:19; 145:11-13; Isaiah 40:18-26; Jeremiah 10:7-16; Daniel 4:17; 5:21; 6:26-27), but saw that other nations worshiped other gods. Israel therefore saw itself as Yahweh’s people and Yahweh’s kingdom on earth—and looked forward to the messiah, who would usher in a more perfect world in which Yahweh would truly reign over all.
John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).Jesus repeated that message (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), and also said, “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). Jesus was saying that his miracles demonstrated his God-given authority over earthly powers. He also pointed to his Second Coming as the time when God’s kingdom would be fully established (Matthew 24-25).
Kingdom living is not something that will begin for us when we die and go to heaven. Kingdom living begins for us now when we acknowledge Christ as king and begin (however, tentatively) living by kingdom rules.
“priests to his God and Father“ (v. 6b). Priests of Israel were descendants of Aaron (Exodus 28:1), charged with responsibility for the religious affairs of the nation. Presiding over religious rituals, to include sacrifices required by Torah law, they served as an intermediary between God and the people.
God told Moses to speak to the Israelites, saying, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation“ (Exodus 19:6, emphasis added). The phrase, “a kingdom of priests,” suggests that there is a sense in which the nation Israel constitutes a priesthood. The question then arises: Why would a nation with a substantial corps of priests need to be ordained to the priesthood as a nation? The answer is that, just as the priests were responsible for helping Israel to continue as a holy nation—so also God ordained the nation of Israel as “a kingdom of priests” to model holy living—to witness to Yahweh’s glory and majesty and power—to draw people from other nations into a saving relationship with Yahweh.
The blessing of other nations appears first in the original covenant between Yahweh and Abram. In that covenant, Yahweh called Abram to leave his father’s house to go where Yahweh would direct him. In return Yahweh promised: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3—emphasis added). The responsibility of the Israelites to Gentiles was emphasized in various places in the Hebrew Scriptures. One example is God’s call to Jonah to witness to the Ninevites.
Exodus 19:6 prepares us, then, to understand that all believers have a priestly responsibility. Other New Testament verses reinforce this idea:
• “You also, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
• “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
• “You…made us kings and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:9b-10).
• “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over these, the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him one thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).
“The use of the term priest to designate a particular class of ordained Christian ministers distinct from the laity is not found in the NT…. It was not until the end of the 2nd century that ministers who presided at the Eucharist were called ‘priests’ and not until the 3rd or 4th century that clergy as such were designated priests in contrast to the laity” (Boring, “Priests in the New Testament,” NIDB, 613).
“to him (Jesus Christ) be the glory (doxa) and the dominion (kratos) forever and ever. Amen“ (v. 6c). Glory (doxa) is characteristic of God, and refers to God’s awe-inspiring majesty. God shared this glory with Jesus. Christ’s glory is revealed in his presence with us, in his salvation work, and in judgment. We saw Jesus’ glory revealed at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) and through his death and resurrection (Luke 24:26).
Dominion (kratos) involves applied power and might—power and might put to use to rule over others. Dominion belongs to God, who created heaven and earth—and who therefore rules over them. God shares this dominion with Jesus Christ. At the parousia (Second Coming), Jesus will return “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Then “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
“Behold, (idou) he is coming with the clouds” (v. 7a). The word idou (Look! or Behold!) alerts us that something important follows. That something is Jesus’ Second Coming. The idea behind Christ’s Second Coming has its roots in the Old Testament understanding of “the Day of Yahweh” or “the Day of the Lord” (Isaiah 13:6, 9; 58:13; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3). That day will bring judgment on the wicked and redemption to the faithful. The New Testament appropriates that idea and uses it in conjunction with Jesus’ Second Coming.
Clouds are associated with the presence of the Lord in both testaments (Exodus 13:21-22; 16:10; 19:9; Mark 9:7). When Israel left Egypt, Yahweh guided them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (13:21). Later, a cloud covered the tabernacle, symbolizing the presence of God (40:33; Numbers 9:15; Deuteronomy 31:14). At the Transfiguration, God spoke from a cloud (Mark 9:7).
“and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth will mourn over him” (v. 7b). The Gospel of John reports a soldier piercing Jesus side with a spear (John 19:34), and then says, “These things happened, that the scripture might be fulfilled…, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:36-37). That alludes to the passage from the prophet Zechariah, who said, “I will pour on the house of David, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they will look to me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and will grieve bitterly for him, as one grieves for his firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).
A Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side initially, but each of us pierces his side when we live unfaithfully. When Jesus comes again, everyone will see him—both the faithful and the unfaithful—both those who believe and those who don’t. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth among the unfaithful and the unbelievers (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50).
“Even so, Amen” (v. 7c). This verse began with the Greek word idou (Behold! or Look!)—a word that signals the coming of something important. It closes with the Greek word nai (Yea! or Verily! or Surely!) and the Hebrew word amen, a word that is often used to introduce a weighty pronouncement. Both of these words (nai and amen) stress the importance of what has been said. So verse 7 begins and ends with words that emphasize the importance of its message.
“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God” (v. 8a). This is the first of three attributes of God that John mentions in this verse. The one speaking here is “the Lord God” (Greek: kurios theos)—God the Father. This attribute will be mentioned twice again in this book—in 21:6 referring to the Father—and in 22:13 referring to the Son.
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is saying, “I am A to Z—first and last—beginning and the end.” Alpha and Omega represent completeness.
“who is and who was and who is to come” (v. 8b). This is the second of three attributes of God that John mentions in this verse. John introduced this wording in verse 4c (above). See above for comments on that verse.
“the Almighty”(pantokrator) (v. 8c). This is the third of three attributes of God that John mentions in this verse.
The word pantokrator combines two Greek words, pan which means all and kratos which means power or strength. While the Roman emperor would have seen himself as all powerful, John says that God is the one who is truly almighty. This would be an important word for the early church to hear—a church under persecution—a church that needs God’s help.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Aune, David E., Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 1-5, Vol 52a (Dallas: Word Books, 1997)
Blevins, James L., Knox Preaching Guides: Revelation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984)
Boring, M. Eugene, “Priests in the NT,” in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Me-R, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009)
Boring, M. Eugene, Interpretation: Revelation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989)
Boxall, Ian, Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Revelation of Saint John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1-11 (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 2000)
Mangina, Joseph L. Brazos Theological Commentary: Revelation (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009)
Metzger, Bruce M., Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Morris, Leon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Revelation, Vol. 20 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1987)
Mounce, Robert H., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Revelation(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977)
Osborne, Grant R., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002)
Palmer, Earl F., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1,2,3, John, Revelation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982)
Patterson, L. Paige, The New American Commentary: Revelation (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2012)
Peterson, Eugene H., Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)
Reddish, Mitchell G., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Revelation (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2001)
Rowland, Christopher C., in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews, James 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, Jude, Revelation, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Thompson, Leonard L., Abingdon New Testament Commentary: Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan