The Book of Revelation 1:1-20
John on Patmos Receives a Revelation of Jesus Christ
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.
The book of Revelation was written in the form of a letter to churches to communicate to them the revelation of Jesus Christ. The author probably intended these opening words to be the title and content of the vision that he saw. Note that "Revelation" is singular and its subject and its source is Jesus Christ. It is not intended as a timetable of future events.
The Greek word for revelation is apocalypsis, from which we get the English words apocalypse and apocalyptic. Apocalyptic writings, such as Revelation, were prevalent among Jewish and then Christian circles for about 400 years, from about 200 BC to AD 200. These were times of crisis for the Jewish people and for Christians. The Old Testament book of Daniel, which many scholars believe was written or reached its final form during the Maccabean crisis shortly after 200 BC, has apocalyptic content in the second half of the book. In the time of the Maccabees the Jewish people were forced by the Greek Seleucid rulers to abandon their faith and worship Greek gods. The Maccabean family resisted the Seleucids and eventually won the struggle against them even though they were killed as martyrs. The book of Revelation has strong echoes of the book of Daniel as well as apocalyptic parts of other Old Testament books such as Ezekiel and Zechariah. Some parts of New Testament books are also apocalyptic in form (for example, Mark 13 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke). All of that to say that even though Revelation is the only New Testament book that is apocalyptic in its entirety, it is by no means the only example in the Bible.
John, the author of Revelation, anticipates that what he saw in his vision on Patmos must soon take place. Later, in verse 3, he says that the time is near. He does not specify what it is that will take place soon or in what sense the time is near. Rather than reading into these statements our own ideas or even elements from other New Testament writings such as end of the world, the second coming of Christ, rapture, and so on, let’s wait and see how John is going to unpack in the rest of the book what he means. After all, the first hearers did not have the New Testament books that we have. Even the word translated time (Greek kairos) is significant. He does not use the other Greek word chronos, which implies duration of time that can be measured in days, weeks, months, years, centuries, or millennia. Kairos means quality of time, a momentous occasion, a crucial period in history.
God made it known by sending his angel to John. The Greek verb for made known means to signify, to intimate, or to portray something that is enigmatic and puzzling. The book of Revelation employs many signs, symbols, and images that paint a graphic picture. Although given in vivid color, what John will describe is a vision rather than a concrete, precise, factual description. In fact, the first hearers of this writing were expected to catch the overall message as it was being read to them without the luxury of sitting down at a desk and analyzing the symbolic meaning of all the details in the picture. We must therefore resist the temptation to give each image, sign or symbol a precise and literal meaning. For example, a little later in this chapter, John says that Jesus was holding seven stars in his right hand, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword (v. 16). Surely this is intended as highly symbolic rather than strictly literal. But more on that later.
The author names himself as his servant John. There have been many debates whether or not this was the apostle John. The writer describes himself as servant and prophet (10:11), but never as apostle. It is not likely that the author of Revelation was the same as the author of the Gospel of John because the Greek grammar of the Gospel of John is flawless whereas the grammar in Revelation has many impurities. John’s mother tongue may have been Aramaic, but he may have learned Greek as a second language. Even with the Gospel of John, the apostle John may have been responsible only for the initial oral or written traditions rather than all the stages of composition of the Gospel as we have it now.
With regard to John the Revelator, it is more likely that he was a Christian prophet or leader in the Roman province of Asia (the western part of modern Turkey). He repeatedly describes his writing as prophecy (1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Let’s be reminded, however, that in both the Old and New testaments, prophecy was not so much prediction but revelation, witness, and proclamation. In fact, these opening verses clearly show that what John was writing was not a matter of predicting future events but testifying to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ. The blessing that he pronounces is for those who hear and who keep what is written in it, not for those who can figure out the when, where and how of future events. John is calling the churches under his care to faithfulness to God and Jesus Christ.
The blessing in verse 3 is for the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and … those who hear and who keep what is written in it. John intended his writing to be an oral performance in the context of Christian worship. He sent this letter to the seven churches by the hand of a courier who was instructed to convene the Christians in each city and read the letter aloud in the hearing of the gathered church. It was to be a liturgical act that affirmed, defined, and reinforced what the church was called to be in the critical time of the last decade of the first century.
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.
Before we go any further, let us first note John’s later statement in verse 9. He says that he was writing this letter to the seven churches in Asia to tell them what he saw in a vision on the island of Patmos (see map below). He also says in that verse that he shared with the seven churches in persecution and patient endurance for Jesus’ sake. He was on Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. In other words, Roman authorities had banished him to this island as punishment for his preaching about Christ. Since Rome usually did not crucify but banished high-ranking Roman citizens convicted of a crime, it may be that John was a Roman citizen and had some social standing.
The context from which John was writing this letter is crucial for a proper understanding all the nuances in verses 4-8. What he says in these verses is actually quite subversive. He offers his fellow believers grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come. In the world of the Roman Empire in the first century, Rome boasted of its Pax Romana (Roman peace). It prided itself in the fact that it brought unity and harmony to the world of that day. Never mind that this was done by military conquest, violence and killing of those who resisted Roman presence in the provinces. There were rewards for those who were cooperative and who pledged their allegiance to Rome but ostracism, humiliation and even death for those who defied it. We can then see the irony in John’s words, that grace and peace are not from Rome but from Christ who is and was and is to come. Past, present and future are encompassed in Christ. The Roman Empire boasted of itself as eternal; it was here to stay. But John sees a different picture. He even dares to mention another throne besides that of the Roman emperor.
Though Christ as a faithful witness (Gk. martus, martyr) was crucified by Roman authorities, he is the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Rome thinks it rules the world and its kings, but John sees another King behind the veil. Not only that, but Christ also made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father. The Latin word for kingdom literally means empire. Christ made us an empire. Don’t let Rome hear this!
But why are priests lumped together with empire? In the first century, the idea of separation of church and state that is so important in a democracy was virtually unknown. Political power, economics and religion were intricately woven together to serve the imperial agenda. Roman emperors were thought to be divine. What the emperor said had been sanctioned by the gods. The pagan temples and their priests were part of the propaganda machine of the empire. Homage, honor and worship were offered to the emperor. Incidentally, Rome did not necessarily always have to flex its military muscle to force the people of the provinces and their kings to comply with the Roman agenda. Plenty of people gladly jumped on the Roman bandwagon because, after all, it was the most glorious show in town. The Roman emperor was the supreme patron and benefactor. Faithful clients who honored Rome were richly rewarded with power, prestige and economic wellbeing. Who would not want to serve such a benevolent master? But in case there were crazy people who did not wish to acknowledge Roman dominion, Rome could force submission with threats of violent death by flogging, crucifixion, beheading or vicious beasts in the amphitheater.
To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Rome’s domination of the world through violence will not last because real glory and dominion belong to God.
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.”
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.
Banished on the island of Patmos because of his Christian witness and leadership, John was in the spirit on the Lord's day. John was in the posture of worship. Already by the end of the first century, Christians had begun observing the first day of the week as the Lord’s day, as a day of worship celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Appropriately, the very first vision that John saw was that of the majestic, luminous, resurrected Jesus who is described in language that rivals, and indeed surpasses, that of Roman emperors.
John was totally overcome with fear and collapsed. But the right hand of Jesus, full of seven stars, reached down to John and touched him. People may cower before a Roman emperor, but there is no need to be fearful in the presence of Jesus. Rome might think of itself as the eternal city, but in fact its days are numbered. As mighty empires have fallen, so will the Roman Empire. But this One whom Rome executed is alive for ever and ever. Jesus appeared to John in this awe-inspiring manner to commission him to write to the seven churches a vision of an alternate reality that Rome could not even imagine.
The power of Jesus is not that of military might like Rome’s. Yes, Jesus does have a sharp, two-edged sword, but this sword comes from his mouth. It is the power of his word, the power of his life, the power of truth.
Since John describes his experience on Patmos in the past tense, it may be that he had been released from his exile on the island and was now on the mainland, possibly in Ephesus, when he did the actual writing of Revelation. Roman emperors sometimes released prisoners and exiles that had been taken into custody by the previous emperor. Since Domitian was the emperor from AD 81 to 96, it could be that when Domitian died, the next emperor, Nerva, released John from exile. According to Irenaeus, a second-century church father, John’s vision on Patmos took place at the “end of the rule of Domitian.”
The overarching theme of Revelation, as we will see repeatedly, is true worship. Already here in chapter 1 the major note of worship is sounded. Here is a sample:
To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (v. 6)
So it is to be (literally, Yes!). Amen (v. 7)
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (v. 17)
So the question in Revelation will be: Whom will you worship? The political, economic and religious god of empire, or the true God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ?
1. In reading and studying the book of Revelation, why is it that many Christians expect the book to be a timetable of end-time events rather than a revelation whose subject is Jesus Christ, as the very first verse of the book says?
2. What impressions have shaped your pre-understanding of what Revelation might be trying to say? Consider images from the book that may have become a part of your life, for example, heavenly choirs of angels, hell as issuing smoke and fire, the number 666, and so forth. What feelings do you have about these images?
3. Should we be literalists in reading the images and descriptions in Revelation, or should we allow for a looser and more symbolic significance? Why do some Christians insist on taking the Bible literally? Is literalism a helpful or a harmful way of reading the book of Revelation?
4. Why is true worship so important? Is true worship for our own benefit or for God’s benefit?