To some the Revelation to John is the most important book of the Bible while to others it’s the most ignored. To most Re is the most misunderstood book and yet to some it’s the key that unlocks all of scripture, the capstone that gives unity and meaning to the great diversity of biblical writings (something everyone in the early church understood Re to be!). Still, Re has incredibly influenced the church’s liturgy and hymnody, its music, art and its architecture, as has no other of the 66 books in our Bible. Throughout the whole of Christian history Re has offered comfort and given strength to Christians of all ages in times of distress and persecution. When God’s people fear that the world is raging out of control, they see here in Re that God is always in control of history. However, the list of those who have contributed generously to the history of misinterpretation of the book of Re through the centuries is also endless.
Ever since a few centuries following the early church people have been, unfortunately, coming to goofy conclusions based on their reading and understanding of Re, this most wonderful of biblical documents. In fact, only twelve years ago as we neared the year 2000, fundamentalist sensationalizers and televangelists – and others – were busy making predictions about the coming “end of the world.” Of course, these types claim their predictions are based on their interpretations of the prophecies that we have here in Re. And, as you all well-know, none of these predictions have ever come-to-pass. Hmmm. They obviously have been missing the point of Re for a long, long time.
In this class we will study the legitimate interpretive approaches to the Revelation to John. We, of course, will not have to wait another thousand years to hear more of these sensational claims of biblical prophecy made popular by the various wacky premillennial and fundamentalist approaches. History tells us otherwise. They walk among us as we speak. While their abiblical approaches make for popular presentations on the History Channel, other TV programs and in “literature,” they still pathetically and very unfortunately grossly miss the message of Re.
The fact of the matter is that until recently books on NT theology often minimized, marginalized or otherwise ignored Re. However, these past three decades or so have seen more of a positive valuation of the John of Patmos (of Re) as a theologian. In fact, noted theologian Richard Bauckham has even pronounced that Re is “one of the great theological achievements of early Christianity.” That is what I hope to help each of you see and understand in this class – that Re is the same biblical story being told in the whole of the Old and New Testaments. It’s just that it’s being told by a different author, at a different time to a different audience, and that it’s being told in a new key, the key of apocalyptic literature.
Above all, Re is a Christocentric theological vision of God’s ultimate triumph over evil. This Revelation to John is centered on the person, life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the Davidic Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, YHWH in the flesh who would fulfill long-held and believed scriptures in his very own life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God where he now reigns glorified as King of his Kingdom and from where he will one day return to resurrect the dead – some to mercy and others to judgment. When he returns he will also consummate the kingdom of God and fully reverse the “fall” of Ge 3. In other words, Jesus will renew, restore and transform his good creation once marred by human sin. When Jesus returns evil, sin, suffering and death will be no more and for those found in the faith, there will be life everlasting in the full-time presence of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Importantly, Re begins and ends with the claim that these things must soon take place – something we are to take most seriously.
1 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,
22 6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
Note: These lecture notes are being forwarded to many different people around the country, all of whom, I believe, are Christian, although of various persuasions. I’m a Christian, a Lutheran Christian, and when push comes to shove, that’s where my hermeneutical approach will be found. That said, everything I’ve included in this class is what scholars of all Christian persuasions will agree to. That is, no matter in which Christian denomination you were raised or now find yourself – Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, everything I provide here includes the general understanding of Re by the top scholars of all of these Christian persuasions. Further, if it’s material having specifically to do with being Lutheran, I’ll point that out.
Also, and necessarily, there will be repetition of certain aspects, certain theologies, certain whatever as we move through this course. When I first talk about certain topics, for instance, I won’t be able to tell you everything that you need to know about that topic but I’ll tell you enough so that we can move along. You’ll need additional background in other areas before I can return to some topics and put more meat on the bone. That is, if I introduce a subject, I’ll tell you what you need to know about it at that point in the discussion. As we move along in the course, as you get deeper and deeper into your understanding of Re and its theology, themes, etc., I may raise certain topics again to further enlarge on them for you.
So without further ado, let’s begin with a short, although quite telling, discussion of Father Martin’s prefaces to his commentary on Re.
Luther’s first Preface
It is instructive to first of all briefly review what Luther had to say about the book of Revelation and to note that it wasn’t pretty the first time around! In his Preface to his translation of the NT of 1522 regarding Re Luther bluntly stated: “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.” He also stated, “I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. … Some have even brewed it into many stupid things out of their own heads.”
Luther rarely minced words! You knew from where he was coming! (And sometimes this got him into trouble … as it does all of us.)
Luther declared that he did not wish to bind anyone else to his judgment, and he left it to each person to judge the book as they saw fit. Further, he relegated Re – along with He, Ja, and Ju – as a sort of appendix to the Bible! He did not count these documents as important as the other NT documents, and he gave his reasons for so doing. The reasons for Re were chiefly two, one substantive and one formal.
The substantive reason Luther expressed as follows:
“For me it is reason enough for not esteeming it highly that in it Christ is neither taught nor recognized, which is, above all, an apostle’s business, as He (Jesus) says Ac 1 8: You shall be my witnesses. Therefore I stay with the books which proffer Christ to me clearly and purely.” [Christ is neither taught nor recognized? Ouch! Remember, however, this is Luther in 1522. Remember also how Luther’s understandings “grew” and “matured” through the course of his very long ministry. See below how he later understood Re.]
The formal reason expressed in 1522 was:
“I say what I feel. I have more than one reason for declining to consider this book either apostolic or prophetic. First and foremost, the apostles do not occupy themselves with visions but prophesy with clear, crisp words, as Peter, Paul, and Christ in the gospels also do; for it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly, without image and without visions of Christ and His work.” [In other words Luther was saying that Re isn’t clear and crisp – along with some other things – so it can’t be as important as those biblical books that obviously are clear and crisp! So there!]
Before we come down too hard on Luther we should note that he was not the first to have difficulty with the last book of the Bible. Luther himself noted that “many of the fathers rejected the book of old, though St. Jerome uses high language and says that it is above all praise.” Dionysius of Alexandria in the third century, for example, noted that before his time some had completely rejected the book as unclear, lacking in clear connection, and even heretical. Dionysius did not reject the book but confessed that he could make nothing of it and was content to admire it reverently from a distance, as it were. Nor has Luther been the last to come down so hard on Re.
Re has always had its admirers and even its fanatical devotees. Further, Re has left its mark indelibly on the art and song of the church. Still, Re has remained (although wrongly) for many a puzzling, cryptic sort of writing, not clearly or closely related to the central Gospel of the NT – that is, at least in the minds of some. Reactions to Re still range all the way from a respectful reserve all the way to distaste and allbutrejection of it, practically, if not in principle. [We see this in the teaching and preaching of Re – or, more properly, the overwhelming absence of such teaching and preaching.] Still, whether one chooses to reject or embrace Re, one would do well to at least consider the questions raised by Luther about the Revelation to John which is what we will do in this class. In so doing we will gain a genuine understanding of the book, and, in the end, we’ll grow to better appreciate the central importance of Re and therefore the reason for its inclusion in the biblical canon … and as the very last book of the biblical canon, no less! The more you learn about Re the more you will begin to better appreciate Re’s position at the end of the canon as being most thematically appropriate.
The following two questions, in essence, one substantive and one formal, are what were raised by Luther.
1. Is Re, in substance, so remote from the heart of the NT Gospel that it is practically irrelevant for the church of today and tomorrow?
2. Is Re, in form, so strange, bizarre, and undisciplined that we can find no real access to it? For instance, as Luther put it in his Preface: “They are to be blessed who keep what is written therein [1 3], and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of being able to keep it; so that it amounts to the same thing as not having at all what is in the book.” [Luther was known to be just a little bit sarcastic when he thought it called for!] Nevertheless, in the course of discussing this wonderful last book of the Bible, we will address these questions and more, and, when the dust settles, we’ll all find ourselves wonderfully enriched by the absolute wonder of Re.
Luther’s second Preface
Importantly, later in 1545 Luther wrote another Preface to Re. In those 23 years since his first Preface that we noted above, Luther’s judgment had moderated and he held a warmer appreciation for Re. In those intervening years Luther’s “experience” had grown for an understanding and appreciation of this prophetic word and for the inherent vitality of the prophetic word itself. This grew so much upon Luther that he not only radically revised his Preface to his commentary on Re but he was also moved by it to write a hymn on a theme found in Re 12 – “Sie ist mir lieb, die werte Magd, … “. [This first verse of Luther’s hymn is translated as she is dear to me, worth the maid, and all of its three verses are about the apocalyptic woman found in Re 12.]
On the very first occasion when someone stood up in public to tell people about Jesus, he made it very clear: this message is for everyone. It was a great day sometimes called the birthday of the church. The great wind of God’s spirit had swept through Jesus’ followers and filled them with a new joy and a sense of God’s presence and power. Their leader, Peter, who only a few weeks before had been crying like a baby because he’d lied, cursed and denied even knowing Jesus, found himself on his feet explaining to a huge crowd that something had happened which had changed the world for ever. What God had done for Peter, he was beginning to do for the whole world: new life, forgiveness, new hope and power were opening up like spring flowers after a long winter. A new age had begun in which the living God was going to do new things in the world beginning then and there with the individuals who were listening to him. Ac 2 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him. It wasn’t just for the person standing next to you. It was for everyone.
Within a remarkably short time this came true to such an extent that the young movement spread throughout much of the known world. One way in which the “everyone” promise worked out was through the writings of the early Christian leaders. These short works mostly letters and stories about Jesus were widely circulated and eagerly read. They were never intended for either a religious or intellectual elite. From the very beginning they were meant for everyone.
That is as true today as it was then. Of course, it matters that some people give time and care to the historical evidence, to the meaning of the original words (because our Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), and to the exact and particular force of what different writers were saying about God, Jesus, the world and themselves. The point of it all then, as now, was that the message could get out to everyone, especially to people most of whom could not even read.
Many people today regard Re as the most difficult book in the NT to understand. Re is full of strange, lurid and sometimes bizarre and violent imagery. In fact, many who are quite at home in the gospels, Ac and Paul’s letters find themselves tiptoeing around Re with a sense that they don’t really belong there. However, this book in fact offers one of the clearest and sharpest visions of God’s ultimate purpose for the whole creation. It also offers the way in which the powerful forces of evil, at work in a thousand ways but not least in idolatrous and tyrannous political systems, can be and are being overthrown through the victory of Jesus the Messiah and the consequent costly victory of his followers. The world we live in today is no less complex and dangerous than the world of the late first century when this book was written, and we owe it to ourselves to get our heads and our hearts around John’s glorious pictures as we attempt to be faithful witnesses to God’s love in a world of violence, hatred and suspicion.
The whole book of Re is often thought to speak of the end of the world which is erroneous in that Re talks about the coming judgment and the renewal of creation as opposed to the end of the world.
However you see it, Re has always figured very importantly in Christian understanding of the end time. There are many events that you can point to in Re but the climactic events, those most crucial for most people’s ideas about how the end times will unfold, take place in Re 20-21.
Most scholars have accepted the view that the author John accepted the apocalyptic idea that the end of history was literally coming soon – but that, of course, he was mistaken in this idea. Most scholars further agree that this first century framework for the way John articulated his faith does not necessarily vitiate (impair, injure or invalidate) his affirmation of the faith itself. When we allow John to be a first century apocalyptist who has other ideas of cosmology and chronology that we do here in modern times, we facilitate a fresh encounter with his message of the book on its own terms.
[Cosmology is the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the origin, evolution and general structure of the universe, its parts, elements and laws, especially with such characteristics as space, time, causality and freedom.]
In fact, Jewish readers of John’s time would have particularly recognized Re for what it was – a comforting book of encouragement during their (and our) times of trouble and persecution (which they were increasingly experiencing at this time). At the time Re was revealed to John those of (Christian) faith were being tempted to fall away from or otherwise compromise their faith (just as it has always been in all times and places). Re was just the “book” of the Bible called for under such circumstances, and, as you shall learn, it remains so to this very day.
Three presuppositions to consider when reading Re would include:
1. Take seriously what John said happened. He said he heard certain words and had a series of visions. [There will be much more on these visions as we proceed.] Re does not consist of a collection of pious musings put together by John; instead Re originates in the command of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the book’s ground and authority.
2. John used language which symbolized things beyond the power of ordinary words to describe – apocalyptic language. Just because he uses symbolic language does not mean that what he is saying is any less true that it would be had it been written literalistically. For example, a picture of a soldier standing at attention in front of a flag requires no caption saying “Patriot.” Those who look at it all can understand its meaning. Therefore, using symbolic expressions allow John to convey what otherwise might well be beyond the power of human language to express and describe. Later, as we move through our exegesis (interpretation) of the actual text, I will point out specific examples of this for you. Some symbols John explains and others he does not. [for instance, see the discussion of the number “seven” below.]
3. The order in which John received or wrote down his visions does not have to be the order in which the content of the several visions must be fulfilled. For instance, later in Re 12 we find a vision that takes us back to the time of the birth of Jesus. Re is not an almanac or timetable of the last days based on the sequence of the visions that John experienced. John, just as does any good teacher, uses repetition to teach. Therefore, he will repeat his visions using different formats and he will come at them from different points of view. Stick with what I will teach you about Re and you will in the end find that you will be understanding this book like never before. Unfortunately, we’ll have time to “but scratch the surface” but in the end you will find it was a most worthwhile endeavor.
Interpretive Methods for Re
Before going further and in the interest of being complete I must first summarize the four, main, basic and very different methods that “scholars” have offered for interpreting Re. Each of these is based on different assumptions as to the purpose and message of the book. I mention the first three in passing only just so you know what else is out there (and I really do mean “out there”).
By far and away the fourth method listed is the only method accepted and used by theologians operating out of the Christian theological paradigm, and that’s the method I’ll use when teaching this course.
[Remember from “the story behind the Story” class that the Christian theological paradigm is that in which your hermeneutics (the method of interpretation ) begins with a precommitment to Christ and his teaching through his apostles. The Christian theological paradigm exists over against the post-Enlightenment paradigm for interpretation which begins not with a pre-commitment to Jesus and his teachings through his apostles but with a precommitment to ideological/ theological starting points outside scripture – points which differ so much such that they are all over the map, for example: process theology, feminist theology, historicism, liberation theology, queer theology, post-colonial theology, etc.]
1. The first view, known as the “preterist” view, sees the events of the book happening entirely in the past, specifically in the time of John. [Preterism is a Christian eschatological view that interprets prophecies of the Bible, especially of Dn and Re, as events that have already happened in first century AD. They believe that much if not all of biblical prophecy was fulfilled by 70 AD.]
2. The second view, the “futurist” view, sees the entire book, except for the first three chapters, as lying in the future, the events not taking place until immediately before the return of Christ. One form of this is the (wacky) “dispensational” view, which divides the history of the world into seven “dispensations,” with God dealing with humanity in a different way in each age. In this view Re is understood to cover the last part of the sixth age and the seventh age.
3. A third view is the “idealist” view, which sees the book speaking symbolically of such timeless truths as the victory of good over evil.
4. The preferred, fourth view is the “historical” view in which Re presents in a symbolic manner the entire history of creation, from God’s good creation through the inaugurated kingdom of God and on into the consummated kingdom of God with Christ’s return when he will resurrect the dead, proclaim the final judgment, renew / restore of all creation and begin everlasting life in that new creation long-promised in scripture into eternity. In this understanding, the seven visions in Re each cover the same period of time – the entire age of the church with each vision describing the same events from a different perspective and adding a little more to what was presented in the earlier visions.
This historical understanding is to be preferred because it uses proper methods of interpreting the Scriptures. It uses the clear passages of the rest of the Scriptures to interpret a book – Re – which by its very nature is unclear. The historical method, therefore, does not reduce Re to either a historical curiosity or a moralistic treatise, as the preterist and idealist views do, or by using Re to interpret the rest of Scripture, as the futurist method does.
We will discuss further this historical method as we exegetically move through the text itself.
How are we to worship (according to Re)?
To begin with, apocalyptic literature presents God not as absent from his creation but as being very much involved in it. It calls for us to worship God and God alone. However, the author of Re had serious differences with other “Christians” regarding the proper style of Christian witness which we’ll later see in our discussions of the improper worship of the Nicolaitans 2 6, 15, the followers of Balaam 2 14-16 and the followers of Jezebel 2 20-23.
At the center of John’s understanding of witness is the term martyr. Martyr comes from the Greek word ma,rtuj which originally meant “a witness in a court of law.” [We’ll discuss this important word and its cognates in greater depth once we get to the actual text discussions.] During John’s ministry Christians were increasingly being arrested and called on in courts of law to deny that they were Christians. They had to give their witness, both as those testifying in court and as those testifying to Jesus. Hence, increasingly the church applied to its members the word witness which derives from the Greek term ma,rtuj.
As more Christians were killed for their faith, the word began to have a more limited meaning similar to our current use of the term – a martyr is someone who witnesses all the way to death. [Unfortunately, in our lifetimes the term martyr has now taken on a more broad, less exclusive, meaning which detracts from the Christian meaning of the word martyr, for instance: “She’s such a martyr” or “He plays the martyr to the hilt.”] Suffice it to say that for John, every Christian was a martyr, a witness who needed to be ready to tell God’s story, a witness (noun) who needed to be ready to witness (verb) God’s story. John’s approach still applies to us this day: We must all be ready to tell others about Jesus.
Throughout the course of God’s Revelation to John, we learn that Christians are to witness in the following ways: 1. through worshipping; 2. through testifying to the Word; 3. by separating from society and 4. through suffering and enduring.
One of the major themes of Re is the worship of God (5 1114). Over against worship of the beast (all forces that claim God’s place, 13 18, 1115), John calls for worship of the true God – the one “who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14 7). Two parallel scenes underline John’s concern. When John on two occasions falls to his knees to worship an angel, the angel recoils in horror. “You must not do that! … Worship God!” (19 910; 22 89). No one and no thing is to be worshiped other than God.
Christians witness by worshiping. It is no accident that hymns abound in Re (4 11; 5 910, 11, 13; 7 12; 11 1618; 19 13, 68). Nor is it an accident that more than seventy hymns in Lutheran hymnals are drawn from Re and that much of our liturgical language comes from the book (for example, “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain”). Scholars have suggested that Re was written to be read during a worship service, most likely as part of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, notice the themes concerning Holy Communion in 2 7, 17; 3 20; 7 1617; 19 9, 17; 21 6; 22 1, 17, 20.
Testifying to the word
We are also to worship through testifying to the Word.
John “testified to the word of God” (1 2); he was on Patmos “because of the word of God” (1 9); Christians have been “slaughtered for the word of God” (6 9; also 12 11 and 20 4). “Word of God” refers to Jesus himself (19 13), to the revelation given to John and to the message about Jesus.
Separating from society
We are to worship by separating from society.
John advises his readers, “Come out of her, my people” (18 4). “Her” refers to Rome which is pictured in Re 18 with language borrowed from OT descriptions of Babylon. John does not mean that Christians should move out of Rome. Rather, he means that they are to reorient themselves internally away from “the city of this world.” Unlike his opponents John calls for spiritual separation from society and its false standards.
Suffering and enduring
We are to worship through suffering and enduring.
The result of such witnessing is suffering and death (2 13; 6 9). The church will be persecuted in this world (12 1318). That’s where endurance comes in. The call to endure is seen above all in Re 13-14 where the threat of the Godopposing beast is outlined (13 10; 14 12; see also 2 23, 19; 3 10).
The foundation for Christian witness:
What, therefore, keeps Christians going given this suffering and enduring? We see in Re four answers to this question about Christian witness: 1. a vision of God; 2. a vision of Jesus; 3. a vision of the end of the present evil age and 4. a vision of the wedding feast of Is 25 6-9.
1. Vision of God
In 1 8 we read. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (also 4 8; 11 17; 16 5; 21 6; 22 13). Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet; omega is the last (more on this later). God is the beginning and end. Moreover, God is. God is a presenttense, today God. God also was. That is, God acted in the past. And God is the one who is to come, which means that God will act in the future. And all of that is sure, for the God of Re is the Almighty ( pantokra,twr in the Greek). “Almighty” is this book’s mostused title for God (4 8; 11 17; 15 3; 16 7, 14; 19 6, 15; 21 22), a well-chosen word presented in opposition to the Roman emperor, who also claimed to be allmighty. The truly almighty God is present today – as yesterday and as tomorrow – to strengthen Christian witnesses.
2. Vision of Jesus
In the opening greeting, John speaks of “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth“ (1 5). Witness is once more the Greek word ma,rtuj. Jesus is the one who gave his witness all the way to death (also in 3 14). John and his people are likewise called to witness. They can do that because their Lord has already given his witness. Jesus is also the firstborn of the dead which is a very important understanding of Jesus for people who may be called on to give up their lives (2 10; 12 11). “Ruler of the kings of the earth” (1 5) also gives Jesus a title claimed by the Roman emperor.
But Jesus is far more. He is the one “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood” (1 5). The risen Jesus is still always the Lamb who was slain (5 6, 9, 12; 13 8), and he’s the one whose death has won the victory (5 914; 19 13). Re 5 is especially instructive. In a vision of heaven, John sees a scroll rolled up, sealed with seven wax or clay seals. If the seals remain unbroken, the end-time events cannot occur. John is understandably distressed when no one can be found worthy enough to break them. When he begins to cry, an elder says to him, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5 5).
We’ll, of course, discuss this in greater depth later in the course.
Along with John, the reader turns to see this conquering, mighty lion but instead John – and we – see “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered (slain)” (5 6). In God’s plan this so-called “conquering” appears to the world to be defeat. However, in fact, we will see that in the end salvation comes from suffering.
3. Vision of the end
John further encourages his readers by depicting for them the destruction of evil and chaos. The monstrous reality of evil in this world is indicated by the repeated theme of its destruction that we see in Re. We see it in the woes connected with the seals, trumpets, and bowls; we see it in the defeat of Babylon/Rome; and we see it in the final visions of judgment and victory. The bottom line of all these visions is the same: God will conquer evil.
But God will do even more. God will create a new reality. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (21 1). The word new means new in quality – renewed, restored, transformed, not merely new in time. The sea, which for the nonseafaring people of Israel symbolized chaos, was no more. All evil had been destroyed. John also saw “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21 2). Once more God comes to humanity but this time God comes to stay. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (21 3).
The heart of the new Jerusalem is God’s presence with God’s people. In this vision, John pictures not so much something as Someone. There is “no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21 22). God’s people will need no temple – as they did in “the time of Israel,” for they will be in God’s immediate presence – in the time of the consummated kingdom of God. The city, in fact, is a perfect cube (21 1521), which reminds us of the Holy of Holies in ancient Israel. God was understood to dwell, on earth, in the Holy of Holies, which was a perfect cube (1 Ki 6 20; 2 Chr 3 89). Now the entire new creation is the Holy of Holies.
This view of heaven is similar to Paul’s in 1 Th 4 17, when he concludes his discussion of resurrection with the words, “and so we will be with the Lord forever.” The consummated kingdom of God is being with God. John gives glimpses of that heaven in the interludes (especially 7 917 and 14 15). Such glimpses encourage Christians to endure to the end.
4. Vision of the marriage feast
The final way in which John encourages his people is by giving them a foretaste, in the present, of full life with God in the future. That foretaste is the Lord’s Supper. This is, in part, why the celebration of the Supper is so very important in certain Christian persuasions. Jesus says to the church, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3 20). The meal to be eaten is, in John’s symbolic language, the marriage feast of the Lamb and his bride – which is the church (19 7, 9). There is going to be a wedding party! It isn’t time yet for that party, but we can in a very real way take part in it now. And so John can say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (22 20) the very same words we say today in our Lord’s Supper service. God feeds us for our witnessing task. Cf Mt 22 1-14 and Lk 14 15-24.
Re: the last book of the Bible
So how is it that Re was chosen to be the last book of our NT?
Re is a fitting conclusion to the Bible, as in many ways it sums up the entire biblical witness as we see with such things as: the eternity of God who alone is worthy of worship; the saving death of Jesus; the creation of a new people; the new creation and so on. Another way in which it does that summing up is by its constant use of the OT (Intertextuality: Echoes and allusions are all over the place.).
John never specifically quotes from the OT but he alludes to it more than 500 times in 404 verses. Thus the final woes (8 6 9 12; 16 221) have as their model the 10 plagues in Exodus (7 14 12 32). Jesus as the slaughtered Lamb recalls the Passover lamb (Ex 12 113). The serpent of Re 12 takes us back to Ge 3. John tries to show, by his use of OT material, that his witness to God is understood properly only when viewed as part of that ongoing, centurieslong witness of God’s people.
That witness has continued in the centuries since John wrote, and that witness continues today. The need for such witness is great. The temptations to worship false gods are every bit as present in our day-and-age as they were in ancient Israel – perhaps even more so. But the witness and the witnesses go on. And we go on, strengthened by the Lamb’s marriage feast, strengthened by God’s promise to go with us as God’s witnesses, strengthened by our sense of unity with previous witnesses, strengthened to issue the invitation, “Come.” “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’And let everyone who is thirsty come.”‘ (22 17). “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (22 20)
The Old and New Testaments are composed of many different types of literature. For example, in our day-and-age we easily shift between different types of literary products without even thinking of it. We easily move from newspaper ads, to feature stories, to sports stories, to tables and charts, to editorials, to comic strips and so on. Other literature venues include narratives and poetry and so on. Our Bibles contain poetry, narrative, theological history, gospels, letters, apocalyptic literature and so on. In other words, our Bible offers a very diverse literary spectrum.
Apocalyptic literature are writings that appear from around 200 BC to 300 AD. Apocalyptic literature was usually marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroyed the ruling powers of evil and raised the righteous to life in a some sort of messianic kingdom. Apocalyptic literature is viewed as a prophetic revelation. Our Re is just one of the apocalyptic writings from that era.
Pseudonymity means these documents are normally written under an assumed or fictitious name. The name given as the author is normally fictitious. This is not the case with Re because the author tells you his name – John.
All religions – including Judaism and Christianity – during that time frame used the apocalyptic genre. Some of these writings from other religions, in fact, help us better understand the meanings of our NT apocalyptic material. For example, if a particular Greek word is used only once in literature – almost as though the word was made up – it makes it difficult to translate. In this case, if this word is used in other apocalyptic literature, that helps us to make sense of our own NT apocalyptic documents all the more. In fact, some of the other writings are Jewish or Christian and that makes them an even closer connection which, in turn, helps us better understand our own apocalyptic NT writings.
These concerns regarding apocalyptic literature are revealed to a religious community through a seer. A seer is another chief characteristic of the apocalyptic community. For Re the seer is John.
Being apocalyptic means that Re was meant for the community. It was never meant to be just read alone, just by itself, although that is certainly permissible. Re, however, was meant to be read together in the community and recited aloud. So whoever was leading communion in the early church that day would recite the whole book. Yes, the entire book would be read aloud.
The seer is the one who receives a message from someone divine and who then passes it along to a community. The seer usually writes under the name of a famous person from an earlier time and thus gives a summary of history depicted as a future event and casts the conflict as a conflict between good and evil. That is, the seer is writing about current events, but casting them in the light of this cosmic struggle between good and evil and then using the name of someone famous from years ago so that it will look like a projection of the future.
As an example of this, someone could write a treatise about the our withdrawal from Afghanistan and write it as it were being written by George Washington. So they would be writing in someone else’s name about something happening today but they would write it as though it was written centuries ago – as a prediction.
A very real example of this would be Dn which was written in 165 BC during the persecution of the Jews, but it was dated as if written in a much earlier time. Unless you know how to read Dn, as you read it you are thinking “400 years ago they were prophesying that this was going to happen.” However, that’s not what happened. Dn was being written as if commenting on their present day. The reason they did that was to protect the writer – because remember – they were being persecuted.
Apocalyptic authors wrote about what was happening right then, in their present day, but the apocalyptic writer wrote it in such a way that it looked as though it was written several hundred years before that time by a famous writer. To later generations looking in on this, it looks as though it was a prediction, that this is what was being predicted to happen. But it was actually written concurrently with the history it was reporting.
Apocalyptic literature came about because there was a certain climate present in the world. Apocalyptic is seen as crisis literature which resulted when two things came together: theodicy and persecution of good people. That is, apocalyptic thought developed when God’s people faced the destruction of all that had given their lives meaning. Apocalyptic developed out of the deep, intense spiritual struggle that people went through as the result of theodicy.
Theodicy = defense of 1. God’s goodness and 2. God’s omnipotence in view of the existence of evil. Theodicy addresses the problem of how evil, sin, suffering and death are allowed to occur, but most especially how those who deny God can prosper while those who are faithful and pious can suffer. That’s the problem that theodicy addresses. How can the presence of evil, sin, suffering and death be reconciled with an all-powerful God? How can that be reconciled with the God who knows everything? How can that be reconciled with the God who understands everything? If the God of Israel is YHWH, what does all our suffering mean?
This is a question with which each and every one of us has to address. At one time or another all of us have wondered how someone young who had a beautiful life ahead of them could have been killed in a car accident. We have wondered about the death of an unborn life in the womb as the result of abortion or for some other reason. That’s the question of theodicy. How and why does God let this happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad people prosper?
Then , when the question of theodicy is combined with persecution, you had the development of apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature witnesses to the God of Israel who is actively engaged in combat with the forces of evil. Make no mistake about it – the God of Israel will prevail. Readers of apocalyptic are called on to worship God and God alone. Confidence is to be placed in God – not in human armies or institutions. It is impossible in apocalyptic thought to confuse the kingdom of God with human activity. The larger framework of confidence in God enables believers to hold on during periods of outwardly hopeless persecution. Suffering will come, but God has not abandoned God’s people. God’s power reaches even beyond death. Apocalyptic thinking is a message of hope in an unfriendly, dangerous world.
For example, the first large body of apocalyptic literature in Judaism is found in Dn. Dn grew out of the time when the pious Jews of Palestine were occupied by the Seleucids in the 2nd century BC. Then, in 165 BC the Seleucids made it illegal to have copy of the Torah, the most holy of the Hebrew Scriptures. The pious Jews were overwhelmed by evil, and they were being persecuted. That’s the seed bed of apocalyptic. Dn developed out of those circumstances. Later, for instance, the writings of Qumran [the Dead Sea Scrolls], Re and pockets of NT apocalyptic come from the fact that the Romans were persecuting the Jews and Christians. The pious were being persecuted.
All of this means that apocalyptic is best understood as crisis literature. It comes about at a time when this minority group – who is pious and being persecuted – is at odds with their government. It comes at a time of alienation from the prevailing power structure.
For instance, in our own time David Koresh felt he was being persecuted by the government! Koresh, who lived the book of Re – even though he grossly and fatally misunderstood it – made the next logical step (for him) when he was confronted by governmental authority. Koresh misapplied the Apocalypse (discussed below) which resulted in the deaths of scores of innocent people as well as four federal agents. The Apocalypse in the wrong hands is a very dangerous thing. Koresh essentially did what the Jews did at Masada when they were confronted by Roman authority. Unfortunately, Koresh completely misunderstood Re; he didn’t have a clue as to what it really meant. If the people deceived by Koresh had been schooled in the approach this class will take toward Re, they would have rejected his demagoguery outright and still be alive today.
Still, Re has stood the test of time. Facing the same basic issues then that the human race still faces today, Re offers both a warning of doom as well as a promise of hope. The double judgment. It sees in the human race an infinite value which is worth the sacrifice of an infinite God. We can, therefore, learn from John who faced an imminent end and yet faced it with a confidence that many Christians or our day-and-age have lost.
What is this crisis stuff all about?
VERY BRIEFLY … Re was written in 95-96 AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian of Rome, but it is also important to understand the times leading up to Domitian’s reign so that we might better understand this book and the crisis it addresses.
Until 70 AD Judaism was the one legal religion in the Roman Empire that was not required to worship the emperor. When we say “worship” this should be understood not so much as “worship” the way that we mean it today on Sunday morning but much closer to what we think of as political allegiance. To “worship” the emperor was to ‘pledge’ allegiance to him. Further, the Romans didn’t care if people had other religions or gods as long as they also ‘worshiped’ (ie, showed political allegiance to) the emperor and paid their taxes.
But Rome had seen already how stubborn and rebellious the Jews were if you tried to make them do “emperor worship” so they gave the Jews an exempt legal status (religio licita = permitted religion). So as long as the Jews were paying their taxes and not causing an uprising, the Romans essentially left them alone and did not require the Jews to declare political allegiance to the empire.
After Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, his followers stayed within the temple and synagogues – not only because they still considered themselves Jewish – but also because of the safety afforded there. Followers of Jesus continued worshiping in the temple and synagogues with the understanding that Jesus was Lord and that Jesus was raised from the dead, and they included the Eucharist in their worship. This explains why Paul always preached first in the synagogues in what ever city he was in; he had legal safety there!
Shortly before 70 at the council of Jamnia (70-90) the Jews set their “canon” to include only the books of the current OT. They also kicked Christians out of the synagogue and temple and said they couldn’t return. [Once kicked out of the synagogues Christianity became an impermissible religion religio illicita in the Roman Empire.] In addition, they made it a regulation to speak against and curse the followers of Jesus in every gathering of the synagogue and the temple.
To some, this date of 70, rather than PENTECOST, is to be considered the founding of the church. Pentecost is the founding of the Jesus’ movement within Judaism, but the Church, to them, doesn’t really become ‘church’ until it gets kicked out of Judaism, until they separated from the Jews and become their own entity. Whatever …
The important matter here is that the chief reason Christians were kicked out of the synagogue is because they insisted on communion every time they met because Jesus had promised to be with them in the Eucharist. [Understand real presence here.] Christians said that it was Jesus’ gift of his real presence and they, therefore, refused to stop attending synagogue and celebrating the Eucharist there. For the early church the Eucharist was so important that Christians were willing to give up their lives rather than to give up the sharing of the communion which they did every time they gathered. The Jews wouldn’t allow communion, and the Christians would not stop doing communion.
Following 70 the Pharisees far outnumbered the Christian Jews so they were able to force the Christians out of the synagogues. As soon as the Christians got kicked out of the synagogue, they became subject to having to worship the emperor – something which they refused to do. The Romans no longer considered them exempt, and they therefore became open for persecution.
It’s also at this time that the office of bishop became prominent, not as administrators but as “centers” (sees or seat) of Christian activity. The church, no longer able to gather at the synagogues, would gather around the bishop for worship. The bishop always communed first which is how Roman infiltrators knew whom to arrest. Bishops were later the first to die in the persecution. Bishops knew they would be the first to go. [Perhaps the pastor should have been the first to take communion in a time of persecution because of this but because the bishop went first gave sustenance to the early church.
At first the Christians’ refusal to worship the Emperor was answered with economic and social reprisals, such as being unable to buy food in the public markets and being unable to use public facilities. Persecution later became more intense.
But by the time of Nero, when Nero needed a scapegoat for the fire of Rome, Christians were the most convenient to blame. Persecution began in earnest at that time. Under Nero, Peter and Paul and probably most of the 12 died. There was a pretty organized persecution of the leadership of the church at this time which died away until the beginning of the second century.
Then, in late 70, the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and Jews were exiled from Jerusalem. This business between the Christians and the Jews was so disruptive to the Pax Romana that it ended up getting the Christians persecuted and the Jews kicked out of Jerusalem.
It was at that time that the Greek word for witness came to take on its current meaning. Witness in Greek is the word transliterated as ‘martyria’. As a result of the persecutions, martyria came to mean ‘to die for your witness’. From that time on ‘martyrs’ were not just those who died but those who died for the sake of their witness!
After Nero’s time there was a short period of relative quiet and persecution ebbed significantly according to available records. Then, Emperor Domitian came along in 81 AD. He was not actively pursuing an out and out persecution, but the threat was ever present. Still, Domitian was a cruel man, and he did consider Christianity to be a “capital crime”. However, he only pursued it when a complaint was made. If someone turned a Christian in over anything, the Christian could either deny Jesus or die. Some were killed. In addition, not all cities were allowed to do capital punishment for anything (which is why Paul had earlier been sent to Rome for trial and later execution).
As a part of everything going on at his time, John was exiled from Asia Minor to Patmos. Imagine this. If it were possible for someone to knock on your door in the night and drag you out of bed, even if it wasn’t happening every day, how precarious your life would feel. This was the church to whom John was writing – people who got up every day wondering if this would be the day they were going to be arrested and publicly humiliated, executed or exiled.
a word about context
With any literature it is important to understand the context in which it is being written and applied. With apocalyptic literature in general – and with Re itself more specifically, it is even more important to place this document within its proper context from the get go. In fact, unless we take the historical context of Re seriously, the book will become nothing more than symbolic and therefore far more open to false interpretation and gross misunderstandings, the very same thing that has already, in fact, happened over these past two thousand years with Re. We must first understand the context in which it was written in order that we might understand its meaning. Those who fail take its context seriously will far more often than not make Re say the exact opposite of what was intended. For instance, symbols mean different things to different people and symbols can be used destructively unless they are connected to their original context. Remember also that the meaning of language and symbols change over time.
As an example of this point we all know that there is more than one way to use the Christian symbol of the cross. Unless we know the context of its use, we really don’t really know what it means. For instance, the cross could be linked to Jesus, in which case it has a very Christian context, or the cross could be linked to the KKK. When the KKK uses the cross to burn, the context is very anti-Christian. Therefore, to link the cross to other than Jesus can be terribly destructive. You can see from this example that for certain people the cross means something totally different than it does for us.
Therefore, most of the worst misunderstandings of Re have come about as a result of the fact that the text was read without paying attention to its historical meaning. It was taken out of context and it came to be applied to anything. Also, the Re text is not straightforward for OUR times. Hence, if we understand Re in the time in which it was written, we will better know and understand how it was meant for the people then and thus how it might apply to us now.
First, what did it mean and how was it applied THEN.
Second, what does it now mean, if different, and how is it to be applied NOW.
Of course, the entire Bible is a library, containing many different types of books. Different types of literature make their appeal to the reader in different ways.
For example, the Psalms of David touch one’s emotions: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name” (Ps 103 1).
The Bible also contains books of law that involve commands: “Do this!” “Don’t do that! ” Such books speak to our will, requiring us to respond positively or negatively.
Other biblical writings, such as Paul’s Letter to the Romans, appeal primarily to our intellect. We need to think carefully and patiently as we seek to follow Paul’s theological reasoning.
The whole of Re affirms Christianity’s original hope for a future transformation of the world; it assures the faithful that God’s prearranged plan – including Christ’s universal reign and the destruction of evil once and for all – is about to be accomplished.
Re is unique in appealing primarily to a disciplined (not free-wheeling) imagination, using a form of literature called apocalyptic literature. [We’ll discuss apocalyptic literature in greater depth below.] This book contains a series of word pictures; it’s as though a number of slides were being shown upon a great screen. As we watch we allow ourselves to be carried along by impressions created by these pictures. In fact, one can view Re as this picture book, and we are to respond to the imagery the author uses to convey these deep truths. Many of the details of the pictures are intended to contribute to the total impression and are not to be isolated and interpreted with wooden literalism as many unfortunately do.
Still, a major development of the past thirty-five years of biblical studies has been the increasing awareness that biblical texts are always interpreted by particular readers, and that, therefore, the social “location” of readers is important in what they see in the texts. As such, scholarly study of Re has greatly benefited from the awareness that Re – as do other NT texts – looks different when read through the eyes of the poor and oppressed. Therefore, the more one can use their Jewish ears, eyes and brains, the more they will get out of the text.
Re presents an unveiling of unseen realities, both in heaven as it is now as well as on earth as it will be in the future. Re conveys its message of hope using the cryptic, apocalyptic language of metaphor and symbol.
So it is that in apocalyptic literature like Re we see such a menagerie of creatures – giant bugs, flying horses, dragons, beasts with ten horns but only seven heads, monsters rising from the deep. We see furniture made of gems, lakes of fire and rivers of blood, angels blowing trumpets, and what is this?! – a lion looking like a lamb?! Huh! And it’s in all sorts of shocking colors, fantastic visions, secret numbers and strange songs that we don’t normally see in other parts of our Bibles. How is all this even possible? Well, folks, it is within apocalyptic literature – and then some.
Further, each and every one of these beings, images or whatever is telling us, in its own way, the very same story we read in the rest of the Bible. This very same story is the story of Jesus, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God, YHWH in the flesh who suffered and died on a cross but who was raised from the dead and who forty days later rose to the right hand of God where he now reigns as King in his kingdom and from where he will one day come back to earth to raise all from the dead, where he will pronounce the final judgment – the consummation of the double judgment – when he will consummate the kingdom of God once and for all time and do away with all evil, sin, suffering and death forever and ever. Amen. Again, it’s the very same story being told here in Re as in the rest of our Bible.
In Re we see Jesus as thee most major character, an all-powerful heavenly Jesus, reigning at the right hand of God, and thereby providing a nice counterweight to the gospels’ portrayal of the human Jesus’ earthly career. In Re Jesus is no longer Mk’s suffering servant or Jn’s embodiment of divine wisdom. All of that has been finally consummated. The Jesus of Re is the Messiah of popular expectations, a conquering warrior-king who slays his enemies and proves beyond all doubt his right to universal rule.
Basically, there are 2 kinds of prophecy in scripture: OT and apocalyptic.
OT prophecy existed before Dn. Apocalyptic developed after OT prophecy – out of OT prophecy in general, after the prophetic tradition – so it’s in line with the OT prophets. Dn was the first apocalyptic text of our OT.
OT prophecy and the apocalyptic prophecy are the same in that they both learned God’s will through visions.
OT prophecy and the apocalyptic prophecy are different in that we have the following four shifts.
First, there is a gradual shift in emphasis from this world to the heavenly world when moving from OT prophecy to apocalyptic prophecy. Therefore, if you are back in Jeremiah, the whole reality is the Exile. However, by the time you get to Re every reality is really the heavenly reality.
True, when moving along chronologically (as we did in the story behind the Story class), we’re always dealing with types (foreshadows or the partial reality) and anti-types (the fulfillment or the full reality) – ontologically-speaking, that is.
Second, there is a second shift from address to whole nation to the individual when moving from OT prophecy to apocalyptic prophecy. For example, according to most theologians prior to apocalyptic literature we individually could not even think of us having a relationship with God. That would have been outside of our ability to even consider because no one gave that a thought. It was the whole nation who got saved. In other words, if you were going to be saved, it was because you were part of a nation that God was favoring.
You can see in this thinking how the Jews developed such a strong sense of nationhood. It was kind of a bulk salvation thought process. It did not really matter what the individual did. If we are the nation Israel and God finds favor for us, this whole nation is saved in spite of any ‘bad apples’. If there were too many bad apples, then God would punish everybody. That’s how they understood it all.
Remember the story when Abraham is talking with God about Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham ‘negotiates with God.’ It shows that God is not static, that he was willing to make change. Before Dn there was this idea that salvation – or not salvation – was corporate. In other words, salvation was to be received as a part of the whole nation.
Prior to apocalyptic literature there was nothing like an individual relationship with God. True, there was individual piety, but that related to and was understood within the confines of the group.
Third, there was a third shift in the understanding of what it meant to suffer. Prior to apocalyptic, you suffered because you were a part of something that was unfaithful. You – especially the community – had done something wrong was the manner in which it was understood. The community had been unfaithful. So there was this OT picture that because you had done something wrong, you suffered.
In line with this remember what Jesus asked when the tower fell and killed the people in Lk 13 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on themdo you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? In other words, was it something they did or something their family did? This question comes from their evolving understanding of what it meant to suffer. There was still a remnant of people who felt in this old way, that suffering was caused by unfaithfulness.
On the other hand, apocalyptic thinking becomes something quite different. Within apocalyptic suffering becomes a part of faithfulness, and, in fact, you suffer because you are faithful! (Think of the martyrs.) So what is Jesus’ answer? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” In other words, ‘Neither they nor their parents but for the glory of God.’ So you can see this shift from corporate suffering to individual suffering.
So let’s say you are a pious person living in the time before Jesus, and you have a copy of the Torah. The Seleucids put you to death for that. Why have you suffered? Because you did something wrong? No! You suffered because you were righteous!
Now we can begin to better understand how the followers of Jesus can say that and how it can be understood that He suffered on the cross even though He was righteous. But, from the apocalyptic point of view, He suffered because He was righteous. So we can rejoice in our sufferings.
Paul also makes that leap, that we can actually rejoice because it’s a sign of our faithfulness. Paul is making the apocalyptic leap that you suffer because you are faithful. If you weren’t faithful, it would not have mattered. Look around you! Is it just the bad that suffer? It is a part of what we see in our world. It is an understanding then that does not just come with Jesus, but Jesus certainly was very much and in every way an apocalyptic thinker. We could not have the Gospel were it not for apocalyptic thinking. But the glory that God gets from this (when Jesus says that these ones were killed in the glory of God discussed above) is God’s glory of the victory over death which begins in the resurrection of Jesus. So everything now is centered on the resurrection. The resurrection is an apocalyptic event.
Also, Jesus then takes it one step further and warns the disciples that “if you follow me, you will be persecuted.” In other words, although how the rest of the world treats you may not be so nice, everything will be just right with you spiritually if Jesus is in your life.
Fourth, there is a fourth shift in how we are to understand the end time.
During the time of the prophets there was the understanding of Sheol. Sheol is an underworld where according to Hebrew belief the dead have a shadowy existence. It was the shadowy place where all the dead went. Sheol was segregated into 4 different areas.
1. the righteous who’d had bad done to them;
2. the good people who’d had good done to them;
3. bad people who’d had good done to them; and
4. bad people who’d had bad done to them.
There was nothing punishing about this. It was just segregation. The bad people weren’t really being punished. They were just sort of in the shadows. Remember the Psalmist says that ‘God goes even there’. God is even present in Sheol.
Then, when you get into apocalyptic thinking, you no longer have this concept of one general place where all the dead go. Instead, you now have the dead being separated for punishment or reward. Punishment and reward comes into it for the first time. Negro spirituals are a perfect example. “It’s bad here, but it’s going to be better there.”
end of excursus
Purposes of Apocalyptic Literature
The first and foremost purpose is to give hope, comfort and encouragement to these people who are being persecuted. It is not intended to be used to scare anyone. Instead, it gives hope and comfort so that the community will be able to continue in its struggle against evil. In Re that community would always find a sense of hope and comfort, no matter how bad the circumstances. That’s what God intends to give in Re and in all other apocalyptic literature. It was to remember God’s presence with them in the struggle.
Jewish readers of Re in particular would have recognizing Re for what it was – a book of encouragement in time of trouble, a time when the temptation to fall away from the faith or to compromise the faith would have been very great.
For example, during WWII the confessional (non-state) churches were infiltrated by the SS. Instead of preaching they read the book of Re. Why? To a persecuted community Re represents hope and comfort! The listeners knew they were being told “Hang on. God’s in charge. God cannot be defeated no matter how bad it looks right now. God will not be defeated.” That’s why Re cannot be rightly used to scare and terrify people.
apocalyptic is literature in which the divine:
1. confronts the oppressor and comforts the oppressed [like a good sermon afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted]; and
2. promises that we cannot be cut off from the divine, even in death! Not even death can separate us from this One Who is in charge.
Can you see the connection to Jesus’ ministry in this? Who is it that Jesus goes around and comforts? the oppressed. Jesus constantly confronts those who would keep those who are on the outside on the outside. When you start to draw the line to keep other people out, you keep discovering that Jesus is on the other side of the line! The reality is that God is in charge and God decides who is in and who is out, and God loves you.
The second purpose of apocalyptic is to recognize and take seriously the magnitude of the struggle against evil.
What is lost when we fail to see the power of evil in our world? vigilance. We become indifferent and callous to it. When we fail to take seriously the presence of evil in our world, we adapt to it, and it becomes commonplace. It becomes the norm. We become more indifferent. The “trajectory” has changed through our indifference, through our bystanding.
Using another WWII example, how do you suppose that it was possible for Hitler to convince an entire country that it was acceptable to exterminate an entire race? Were they all just so evil? If we don’t take evil seriously, we are much more easily won over to that side. Hitler convinced the others that the Jews were the enemies. The Nazis pictured Jesus as looking non-Jew, dehumanizing Him. They even rewrote entire sections of Scripture. Politicians in our own day-and-age do the same thing: they try to convince the electorate that “certain people” are their enemies. They demonize “groups” and try to convince their followers that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is evil. Sad, but true. They did it before Hitler and they’re still doing it.
The third purpose is to inspire the faith regardless of what is going on in your life. We use this in those times in our life when everything is going so badly that we feel we cannot possibly have faith anymore. The purpose of apocalyptic is to come in at that moment and say “your faith makes a difference”. Apocalyptic literature is for that moment, the moment in which you feel you are most likely to lose your faith! This moment is different for every person. It may be in bad times; it may be in great times, that is, when things are ‘going too darn well’. Apocalyptic literature comes and says ‘no’. The purpose of faith is to always know that God is in charge – even when everything does not seem like it.
The fourth purpose of apocalyptic literature is to affirm God’s reign even when it seems as though evil is winning. For example, the Civil War must have given many people that sense. Apocalyptic literature comes in at that moment and says “I know what it looks like. It looks like evil is in charge, or that illness is in charge, or whatever is in charge, but God real is the one in charge. It will prove to be so.” That’s the point of apocalyptic literature.
The fifth purpose of apocalyptic literature is worship; it is centered on worship; it is an instrument of worship. Worship should provide us with hope and comfort and a sense of what evil is and how destructive it can be in our lives. Worship should provide us with inspiration for our faith. Worship reinforces that God is still really in charge, and that God will win no matter what else is going on or how it looks right. Why do we gather? to worship! Worship is the crucial tool for doing apocalyptic literature, and that’s exactly how the book of Re was used. It was used for worship.
The need for worship is so built into us, the need for all these things that we get from worship is so built into us that when we can’t find the real God we will worship darn near anything, even a pile of earrings [from the OT]! The way this should work for us is that the worse things are for us, the more we should worship. It is most crucial to worship when things are going the worst for us. What are some of those “earrings” that we worship? money, power, sex. What does it mean to worship power? Power is often the alternative god for the church. Churches quite often don’t get hung up on money, but they really want to have the power over someone else. When the church uses this power thing is exactly when these things in Re that are to provide hope and comfort become tools of threat.
So how do we get back to real God then? If we are hooked on some kind of a false god, how do we get back to real God? by taking good and evil seriously! by participating in the apocalyptic community.
What will see in Re is that it is a constant proclamation that Jesus is raised and that changes everything.
So can we worship God when things are going bad? That is possibly the most crucial time for worshiping God! It may be the easier time for worshipping also. It also is the time when some who have been away from the church return to the church.
[There are two kinds of people who are coming to churches newly again. One is the kind who as always been faithful and is looking for some place to express that. Two is the one who, for whatever reason, is now broken.] Why is it when things are good that we fail to worship? We become our own god. We become disinterested in God. Statistics have shown that 86% of those who will ever be Christians have exposure to Christ before their 18th birthday. We must give them the grounding in Christ as parents. Then when they leave the church in their late teens, they may soon come to realize that there is something missing in their life that they had as a member of the community. Worship draws us back in. We must keep the children a part of the worship and draw them in.
visions in general
Apocalyptic literature takes the form of visions; these visions transcend the events of history. [By transcend I here mean these visions occur above and independent of the physical universe. God is transcendent. Think of it this way: God is over, apart from and beyond the created order and superior to it in every way.] These (apocalyptic) visions go above and beyond the present (time) we live in. These visions take into account the whole linearity of history, from God’s good creation to the consummation of the kingdom of God (to come). Importantly, these visions are meant to clearly show and demonstrate that God is in control of history.
In fact in this Revelation to John Jesus reveals himself – using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – as the Alpha and the Omega in Re 1 8 which is to show that everything from beginning to the end is under God’s control. We’ll discuss this in greater depth below.
Apocalyptic literature concerns itself with the renewal of faith and the reordering of life. So in that sense it’s no different than our other biblical documents. It’s just that apocalyptic literature brings these concerns to us in a different key – apocalyptic. The same story is being told; it’s being told using a different genre of literature.
Our faith life is to concern itself with the renewal of our faith, to take a new look at our lives and see how our lives can be seen and lived differently. Same story; same direction. These concerns are usually addressed on the basis of a heavenly vision. In other words, someone envisions something going on in heaven and that’s how they are going to understand their faith – that’s how they are going to reorder their life.
So this heavenly vision is meant to build your faith and to reorder your life. In that heavenly vision the current reality, that is, what you are living in today, is revised according to divine reality. In other words, everything we are experiencing is somehow not quite reality, and, on the other hand, whatever God is doing is the divine reality.
What the apocalyptic writers wanted us to understand is that all of the reality we are experiencing isn’t quite real. No matter how realistic we think we are, God has something else to say about the environment in which we live. So, the best reality you can understand isn’t really quite what God has intended. God’s thinking is just a little bit beyond our ability to understand. Get it?! God is God and we are not!
Within apocalyptic literature it’s like God is making this tapestry. From God’s side it all looks very orderly. But if you look at the back side of a tapestry, it’s not as clear cut. It seems very real to us but it’s not quite real. It is still a big step away from reality.
More than even that, this divine reality is pointed out in an eschatological event. An eschatological event is just what is going to happen in the end time, in the last days. That event cannot be hastened nor thwarted by human efforts. Nothing you can do will change it, and we cannot hurry God along. We can’t pray a prayer that says “Come on! Let’s get this whole thing on the road!” This is going to unfold but it will do so in God’s time. It is seen as an unfolding. The heavenly vision indicates what is going to unfold in God’s own time and by God’s hand. The event will unfold as a result of divine action, and it will be true to the eternal plan. It’s all a process – God’s process.
Therefore, in order to become oriented to the book of Re we must take seriously what the author says happened. John tells us that he had a series of visions. He says that he “heard” certain words and “saw” certain visions. We also have many other examples in scripture of visions.
In order to understand what is involved in a visionary experience we may consider Ezekiel’s vision of a valley full of dry bones (Ek 37 14). In this vision the prophet saw the assembling of the bones into skeletons and the coming of sinews and flesh, climaxed by restoration to life, so that “they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (Ek 37 10). We are not to understand that bones were actually scattered around in a valley; because the account is purely symbolic. In fact, the prophet’s visionary experience pictured the revival of the dead nation of Israel, hopelessly scattered in exile. Through this vision Ezekiel was assured that the dispersed Israelites, living as exiles in foreign lands, would be reestablished as a nation in their own land.
Ac also reports several instances of visionary experiences (9 10; 10 11; 16 9; 18 9; 22 17; cf. 27 23). One of the most significant was the apostle Peter’s experience at the house of Simon, a tanner, in Joppa. In this case a natural cause – hunger – cooperated in producing the vision. Hungry, and waiting for a meal to be prepared, Peter fell into a trance and saw “something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners” (Ac 10 11). In it
were all kinds of quadrupeds, reptiles, and birds, both fit and unfit for food according to Jewish law and custom. The vision was accompanied by a heavenly voice bidding Peter to slaughter and eat what was provided (Ac 10 13). This vision taught Peter that, as a Jewish Christian, he need no longer restrict his diet to kosher foods only, but he was now permitted to visit and even to reside at the home of Gentiles.
Because of the vision, Peter agreed to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, where he stayed for several days preaching to Gentiles (Ac 10 2248).
We are not to think that there was literally a sheet filled with various creatures.
Similarly, when Re reports that John “saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads” (13 1), there is no reason to imagine that such a creature actually existed. Nevertheless, the vision had profound significance for John and still has for the reader today.
The biblical story in Re
During the time span noted above – from around 200 BC to 300 AD – people much better understood how to read this apocalyptic type of literature. However, the further we moved along in history, the further the people’s ability to read apocalyptic literature strayed from the proper way of doing so. After the first few centuries of the early church people moved increasingly further and further away from reading and understanding apocalyptic literature as it was meant to be read and understood. In fact, between 200 BC to 300 AD readers had many apocalypses available to them so they much more easily understood the symbolism of these apocalyptic documents such as Re. Perhaps no better example exists than the many goofy misunderstandings of Re that have appeared on the scene in these past two centuries – some of which we’ll talk about later in this class.
The golden thread throughout Re is the message that Jesus Christ, the lamb of God and savior of the world, has proven himself to be the victorious King of kings and Lord of lords, and that all who trust in him will also be victorious over evil, sin, suffering and death. Right from the beginning of Re – immediately and directly – we see Jesus Christ revealed as God’s own Son who became man to redeem the world from sin and death. Jesus is both the receiver and the giver of revelation. [This revelation is given by God to Jesus, and by Jesus through the angel to the seer.] Jesus passed on the revelation by sending his angel to his servant John. As such, John’s witness is both the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
In other words, here in Re we see again the exact, same sacred Story we’ve seen told throughout the whole of the NT – albeit in a new and different key – that being the apocalyptic genre in literature.
Re is seen as central by some Christian groups, as an embarrassment by other Christian groups and is virtually ignored by most Christian groups. The Revised Common Lectionary has very few passages from Re. You get some material from the opening chapters and then some material from Re 21 and 22. But most of Re never occurs in the lectionary. Occasionally someone will end up in the whirlwind of a local independent congregation that is super big on Re and hear their preacher say, “I bet you have never heard about Re. What do you think your pastors are hiding from you?” Of course, some will realize that they have never heard much about Re. Further, you begin to wonder that even on those few occasions that Re does occur in the lectionary, how many times have you ever heard anyone preach on it? Therefore there is definite credibility to the statement that “most Christians ignore Re.”
Just as are the other NT books, Re is about the “double judgment”: God’s judgment and God’s salvation. However, for most Christians today The Revelation to John is a closed book. Literally! They never read it! They are either afraid of it or they think that they couldn’t possibly understand it – even if they tried. Some, therefore, simple put the book aside as being too weird, too bizarre or as being of no relevance for our time. Some fear its apparent doom and gloom perspective. Some see in it only a judgmental God ready to condemn. Often readers divorce Re from its historical setting and try to read it as a book of secret codes that tell us how God is going to act at the end of time! One scholar – very much tongue in cheek – has said that Re is the most misunderstood – and misused – book of the Bible but it’s still the one book beloved by the fanatics of every generation.
That said, it’s extremely important to keep the purpose of the book in mind when dealing with Re because it’s so easy to get distracted by thoughts that the book does not intend to teach. In other words, it’s so easy to get caught up in the symbolism of the book that often leads some people off on wacky journeys as they try to find a one-to-one correspondence between the visions of Re and all sorts of events going on in the world. Some who misunderstand the purpose of Re have even gone so far as to create elaborate (and very ascriptural) schemes of events (such as millennialism, premillenialism, dispensationalism, etc.) that must come to pass before Christ returns. There’s a lot of “real goofy theology” out there stemming from these misunderstandings of Re. There’s tons of it!
Briefly, John’s purpose is to show these beleaguered Christians the reality and the glory of their God, to exhort them to faith in the risen and glorious Jesus Christ, to encourage them in the face of terrible obstacles to faith, to show them that wrong behavior will be judged, to give them the vision and the hope of God’s impending restoration – not destruction – of the cosmos. John’s purpose is the same of that of the other NT authors. It’s just that he accomplishes his purpose using apocalyptic literature because the Christians were facing increasing persecution.
It’s unfortunate that Re is not read and used more than it currently is because in times of persecution in the early church Re was viewed as a powerful source of strength and encouragement. Re was written to encourage believers that despite the circumstances of their dire reality, God’s reality would have the final say. In fact, of all the books in the Bible Re provides the most panoramic sweep of history and of God’s ultimate control over it. Re comes through time after time telling us that death will not have the final word. Instead, God will have the final word. In fact, God already has had the final word! God has already won! We’ve already won!
Re is a very dramatic portrayal of God’s triumph over the powers of evil. Things might be in bad shape but God knows what he’s doing and all along God is leading his people to the new Jerusalem where God promises he will wipe away all tears (Is 25 8) and where his people will dwell with him forever. This is “coming of YHWH to Zion talk” that’s found all over the Bible, and we read it here in Re 21
2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” …
Therefore, Re is a fitting final book to close the NT because it testifies to much that has gone before. Everything that has gone before has anticipated the end of the present evil age; it has anticipated the ultimate triumph of God over evil.
Still, Re is a hard nut to crack. Partly because of its complex and bizarre imagery, symbolism and code language, Re lends itself to different interpretations. Re is not clear cut prose that describes something that anybody can witness with their own two eyes and about which there wouldn’t be a lot of disagreement. No, Re doesn’t come at the sacred story in that manner. Instead, the author uses extraordinary symbols to convey realities which are in some ways beyond human imagining and comprehension.
As such, in reporting his visionary experiences John frequently uses symbolic language. Sometimes he even explains the meaning of the symbols. Other symbols really need no explanation; for example, the number seven means completion, perfection or wholeness. Other symbols in Re can be understood in the light of the symbolism used in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the books of Ek, Dn and Zc.
This symbolism lends itself to diverse kinds of interpretations and consequently there have been so many arguments over the centuries about what to do with Re, how to interpret it, how to make sense of it, what place it ought to play in Christian life and worship. That’s the way it has always been and will be. Hence, Re demands that we ponder its symbols and ask what they might mean for the people the book was originally written for and how we can appropriate them and make sense of it today. Re jars us out of our spiritual stupor by forcing us into a kind of world that we don’t inhabit. Re forces us to address and better understand apocalyptic literature, something that, in the end, will make us look at and understand our everyday world a little differently than we did before.
While Re is a hard read and difficult to understand, once people begin grasping apocalyptic literature and how apocalyptic literature must be approached and understood, this revelation to John on Patmos will become increasingly more clear. The book itself is a tougher read than most but once Christians of today can read and hear it using their Jewish eyes and ears, and with a better understanding of just what apocalyptic literature is all about, things will slowly begin to come together.
For instance, when we Christians think of ourselves as Jews of the first century when reading our scriptures and living out our lives, we are to understand that at the core of everything for the Jews, and therefore for us as well, was the coming kingdom of God – long-promised, long-awaited and long-hoped for. We, too, right now, are awaiting the coming kingdom of God – whether you know that or not, whether or not we think of it that way. And, as a part of that coming kingdom of God, we will have our king – Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus, who reigns at the right hand of God as we speak – there in his risen, now glorified body, just as we will see him when he returns to earth as promised. Jn 19 poignantly reminds us of this coming king with these words: 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
It’s in that sense that first century Jews read, prayed, sang and pondered their scriptures. But in those texts there were various visions of how God’s “theocracy” – God’s worldwide kingdom – would come into reality and (not least) what it might look like when it did. Some people all those centuries ago, it seems, really did want a “theocracy” not too far removed from what we see in some parts of the world today. For instance, Simeon ben Kosiba (a.k.a. barKochba), the great wouldbe messiah of the 130’s AD, seems to have tried to establish that kind of divine rule. Others were not so sure of what that theocracy might look like.
But because the Jews believed – as we read in books such as Dn and Jm – that God’s will for his people in exile was that they live wisely within the pagan world where they found themselves, and because they believed that God was ultimately sovereign (in ways that are normally invisible) over those nations, the Jewish people were able to develop a theological account of the comings and goings of pagan nations and their rulers. They also developed a subversive literature and lifestyle designed to critique the pagan rulers, to encourage the faithful, and to warn of God’s ultimate judgment. This literature only they, or those they taught, could understand. That literature included what is called “apocalyptic” literature, literature that was coded and symbolic writing about the powers of the world and the powers of God. This literature intended to “reveal” or “unveil” the hidden divine truth behind the outward realities of power and empire to “knowing” Jewish ears but not to the unknowing.
One way of thinking about this is that some scholars have explained apocalyptic literature as having been written in code. Therefore, those with access to the so-called apocalyptic code book could decode the writing for their purposes of understanding what was being said. Thus, those who understood apocalyptic knew that the imagery of the apocalyptic visions and its use of symbolic numbers served two important purposes: both to uncover and to cover.
1. First, it uncovered the truth to those who understood apocalyptic (who understood apocalyptic code) because they had access to this so-called code book needed to decode the writing which allowed them to uncover both the hidden meaning of the day’s events as well as the significance of future events.
2. At one and the same time apocalyptic visions and symbolic numbers kept the truth hidden from the outsider.
Such writing is quite useful for giving strength, support, and encouragement to the persecuted, while giving nothing away to the persecutor. That’s just another way apocalyptic functioned.
Therefore, such apocalyptic writing is quite useful for giving strength, support, and encouragement to the persecuted, while giving nothing away to the persecutor. Re was written to early Christians who were being persecuted, ostracized and ridiculed for their faith – some of whom would ultimately give up their lives for their faith in martyrdom. Re is telling these people to persevere while at one and the same time Re is apocalyptically providing the real, divine reality which lies behind what appears to be the reality. See “two dimension” conversation below.
As such, as discussed above, we will see that history is seen as a spiritual battleground in which the forces of good and evil contend for final control of the earth and its inhabitants. At stake is nothing more, or less than the whole of God’s good creation. It’s a big deal!!! It’s important to know and understand what is at stake in all of this! Hence, God’s revelation to John!
Re is a letter written to the seven churches of Asia. All of the churches in Asia Minor were living in difficult and dangerous times. John had been exiled; a Christian named Antipas had been martyred Re 2 13; and the author anticipated further martyrdoms Re 6 9, 7 14 and 17 6. People within the Roman Empire were accustomed to worshipping their rulers as though they were divine. However, Christians understood the emperor Domitian’s claims to be Lord and God as an attempt to replace God (See further discussion of Domitian below.). The threat of arrest, imprisonment and death were becoming increasingly real. Christians also experienced every day social and economic discriminations such as we see in 1 Pe. These Christians were “different” and were perceived by the authorities as threats to society. Still, Christians wondered who was next in line for persecution. Who would be arrested next and made to choose between God and Caesar? Imagine for a moment what it would be for you as a Christian to have to live your life that way.
In Re 1-3 we read of the specific circumstances for each of those congregations. Because the number “seven” in apocalyptic literature represents perfection, wholeness or completeness, here the number “seven” is symbolic of the whole church in its fullness.
Note: John is fond of sevens; he mentions seven golden lampstands, seven stars, seven flaming torches, seven spirits of God, seven eyes, seven seals, seven angels, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven heads on the dragon, seven plagues, seven bowls, seven mountains, and seven kings. Furthermore, without directly enumerating them, John includes seven beatitudes scattered throughout his book (1 3; 14 13; 16 15; 19 9; 20 6; 22 7, 14) as well as the sevenfold praise presented to the Lamb (5 12).
Jn received this vision ~ 95 while he was on Patmos where he had been exiled – probably to die – for announcing the good news of Christ and because he refused to compromise his faith.
Patmos [Re 1 9] is a small, barren, rugged, rocky, mountainous island about 35-40 miles off the west coast of southwestern Asia Minor (Turkey) in the Aegean Sea. Patmos is approximately two miles wide by nine miles long (this description varies all over the place) but it has a listed square mileage in most places of thirteen. In other words, it’s a small island! (Only about 3,000 people currently live on the island.) The Roman Empire used it, along with several other islands, as a place to exile their political dissidents.
Dating and more Historical Background
Through the work of Paul and later the work of John, the province of Asia had become the most thoroughly Christian province in the Roman Empire. However, in spite of the great growth of Christianity in the empire, the whole of the Roman Empire was far from being completely Christianized. As such, Christians were still at the mercy of the ruling powers and were, therefore, persecuted. While Ac notes occasions in which the ruling powers dismissed charges against St. Paul because they were unjust, the government saw its purpose as the preservation of peace, and religion was one means by which peace and order could be maintained.
By the time Re was written, Caesar worship (also called the emperor cult) was the most widespread and most widely practiced religion of the Roman Empire. Caesar worship actually was not one that had been imposed upon the nation by the rulers but began as a popular movement, expressing the gratitude of the people toward Rome. Caesar worship had become personified in the goddess Roma, who came to symbolize the state. As the years went on, worship began to shift from Roma to the emperor himself. Also, from time-to-time emperors were given divine honors after their death, such as Caesar Augustus allowed with Julius Caesar.
Other emperors sought to stop the practice, the major exception being Emperor Gaius, better known as Caligula, who ruled from 37 to 41. He bestowed divine honors upon himself, and even went so far as to attempt to set up a statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem.
Caligula remained the exception until Domitian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 81 to 96. Domitian bestowed divine honors upon himself and his predecessors and gave himself the title “Lord and God.” He went so far as to require that once a year all residents of the empire appear before a magistrate and burn a pinch of incense to the emperor as god. If they met this one requirement, they would be allowed to worship any other god or goddess of their own choosing.
How tempting it must have been to offer that one small sacrifice to Caesar and then to be let alone to worship according to one’s own conscience! But it was impossible for Christians to offer even that one small pinch of incense, since Jesus Christ was and is their only Lord and God. The opening letters in Re to the congregations in Asia, and indeed in the whole of Re, call on believers to remain faithful even in the face of death – as some ultimately did.
So during this time of John of Patmos, the members of the churches in Asia to whom Christ was speaking through John were thus faced with the competing claims 1. of Christ and 2. of one who had set himself up as lord and god, Domitian. Since Jesus had pointed out that no one can serve two masters, Christians had no option but to refuse to offer this sacrifice. Therefore, the opening letters in Re to the congregations in Asia and indeed the whole of Re comes out of the call to remain faithful even in the face of death.
The book of Re was composed and sent to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia at some point between 69 and 96 (most probably in 95 or 96). The author listed seven churches because, as noted above, seven was considered the number of wholeness or perfection. By listing seven churches the author was indicating that, in reality, this revelation was meant not only for the seven churches listed but also for the entire Christian church. Re was sent in order to encourage the churches with the assurance that, despite all the forces marshalled against them, victory was theirs if they remained loyal to Christ. Although some scholars have (incorrectly) identified the persecutions alluded to in the book as originating from the Emperor Nero (5468), it is far more likely that the book reflects the conditions prevailing during the latter years of the Emperor Domitian (8196). Irenaeus of Lyon ~ 180 wrote that it was written during the persecutions of Emperor Domitian towards the end of his reign 81-96. Also, according to the church historian Gonzalez it was the persecutions during Domitian’s reign that led to the writing of Re.
Prior to Domitian the state religion had not discriminated against the Christian faith. [Note: Nero’s mad acts against Christians were restricted to Rome and had nothing to do with the issue of worship.] As noted above, the first emperor who tried to compel Christians to participate in Caesar worship was Domitian. Toward the close of his reign he became so conceitedly proud and arrogant that he demanded people address him as “our lord and god” (dominus et deus noster in Latin). Of course, faithful Christians would not address any human being as lord and god or participate in offering incense to him in temples built in his honor. Also, the Jews had decades before been granted immunity from such requirements, and they could legally abstain from Roman pagan worship. At first the Roman authorities regarded the Christians as a sect within Judaism, but toward the close of the first century it became clear that the Christians were separate from the synagogue. Therefore, Christians who refused to participate in emperor worship exposed themselves to the charge not only of being unpatriotic, but also of being subversive and enemies of the state. Consequently, at various times and places they suffered persecution because of their faith.[Also favoring the close of the first century as the time of the composition of Re is the fact that, according to Re 2 811, the church in Smyrna had been persevering under trials for a long time, whereas according to Polycarp in his Letter to the Philippians, 11.3, the bishop of Smyrna in the first half of the second century, the church there did not yet exist until after the time of Paul (that is, in the 60s). Furthermore, in Re 3 17 the church in Laodicea is described as rich, though this city had been almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 61.] [But, as noted above, some have vigorously argued that Re was not written in the time of Domitian but in the time of Nero in the 60’s. However, Re seems to imply that Nero was already dead. Since some scholars seem to have nothing but time on their hands, some have even argued that both are correct; that is that an early source that was composed during the reign of Nero was used as the basis for the writing of a later work which is the book of Revelation in the time of Domitian. So these types see it both ways: that is, a draft of the document was done during the 60’s but then the final product was done by someone else in the 90’s. It just never ends!]
As such, the majority feel Re is our latest book of the Bible (with the exception of 2 Pe), written toward the end of Domitian’s reign between 9095 with the traditional date of writing ~ 95. This date is corroborated by the testimony of early church fathers, such as Irenaeus of Lyon (180), Clement of Alexandria (200), Origen (254), and Eusebius (325).
While the historical situation is not totally clear, it does seem Domitian was claiming Deus et Dominus, that is, that he was god and lord of the empire, which was less a religious move on his part than it was a political move intended to unify the empire. In addition, people living in the eastern part of the empire were very accustomed to thinking of their rulers as gods. Those people who lived on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, which is where Re had its home, also felt that pushing the Emperor’s divinity was a good practical way to get the Emperor’s favor and therefore a good way to get more money from the Emperor in order to build roads, stadia, etc..
For John and all of his people, all of this was blasphemy; this was putting into the place of God someone who did not belong. People who refused to participate in the Emperor cult stood out. The Christian recipients of Re had experienced some persecution already. Jn was on Patmos where he had been sent there for refusing to compromise his faith and because he would not stop telling others about Jesus.
A Christian named Antipas had already been killed. All over the place in Re Jn says to be ready because more of this was going to happen to the believers. In addition, Christians were facing social and economic discrimination, and they could look forward to more of the same.
So at one level Re is about the battle between the Christian church and the pagan political power of Rome, and at another level there is a second battle going on in the struggle between God and Satan. The church was the place of God’s activity in the world and the Roman Empire was the place of Satan’s activity.
Initial guidelines for reading Re
Before jumping into Re we’ll first address a few basic guidelines regarding:
1. apocalyptic literature;
2. Jn’s visions and
3. the biblical story itself.
Genre: Apocalyptic literature
Re tells the same biblical story as does the rest of the Bible; it just does so using apocalyptic language. The literature genre / style of Re was that of apocalyptic literature, a genre very familiar to Jn’s readers but, unfortunately, entirely foreign to most modern day readers – including some so-called “scholars” and “theologians”.
Apocalyptic literature was written during times of crisis. It’s what could be called encouragement literature or endurance literature. In a time of persecution or other great difficulties, those hearing or reading the book were encouraged to endure until the end, for the end was coming soon when the Lord Jesus Christ would return and would reward those will have kept the faith.
Apocalyptists (those using this genre of literature) understood that scripture was clear. Jesus was coming back. That’s the important aspect in all this – not exactly when or how he was coming back but that Christ was going to return! Luther himself, therefore, reminds us that we ought to live our lives each day as though Christ was crucified yesterday, risen today and coming tomorrow. Approaching Christ’s return in this manner could not be anything but helpful.
In general, the apocalyptists received their revelations in ecstatic or dream visions, which were reported with the stylistic features typical of apocalyptic literature. For instance, persons were represented in the likeness of animals, and historical events in the form of natural phenomena. Colors and numbers had secret meanings. The images themselves often had a history behind them and originated from astrological, cosmological, and mythological tradition of antiquity.
Although there were no formal laws that were applicable to all apocalypses (= revelatory literature, see further discussion just below), most of these books had the following basic features:
1. The authors of such books viewed the universe as divided into two camps, one good and the other evil. In other words, in apocalyptic literature in general, history was seen as a cosmic battleground in which the forces of good and evil contended for final control of the earth and its inhabitants. Apocalyptic authors always view reality from both an earthly as well as a heavenly perspective. What happened in heaven affects what happened on earth. Battles were being fought in heaven as well as on earth.
As such there was a very strong dualism present. These two camps were engaged in a long and fearful struggle. Behind the conflict were supernatural powers (God and Satan) at work among people and institutions. The mighty forces of evil, Satan and his hosts, at times seemed to gain the upper hand. In everyday life it was not always easy to distinguish clearly the works of the two, but at the end of present evil age every human being would be found to be on either one side or the other. The double judgment.
Victory, however, already belonged to God since the forces of evil had been overcome by Christ on the cross. Re therefore reminds God’s people that God’s victory is more than a foregone conclusion it has already been won through the blood of the Lamb, the Lamb who by His death conquered death. Though Satan is powerful, his defeat has already been assured. Hence, the forces of evil would be ultimately destroyed in a final consummation when Jesus came to earth again. The final separation of the two camps (the one good and the other evil) was the meaning of judgment: the double judgment.
2. Apocalypses usually contained predictions about the final outcome of human affairs, focusing on the last age of the world – the present evil age, when good would triumph and evil would be judged – at the second advent / coming. Present troubles were represented as “birth pangs” that would usher in the “End.” God had set a limit to the era of wickedness and, as such, God would intervene at the appointed time to execute judgment. In the final battle the powers of evil, together with the evil nations they represent, would be utterly destroyed. Then a new order would be established – the consummated kingdom of God, when the “End” would be as the Beginning – as God’s good creation, and Paradise would be restored – the new creation.
Hopefully within this brief summary you can readily see that apocalyptic literature tells the same basic story behind the Story that the rest of the whole of the Old and New Testaments do. This same story is just being told in a different key – through apocalyptic literature. Same story just told another way – and for a purpose!
Excursus: Apocalyptic Worldview
Apocalyptic literature originally surfaced during the Hellenistic period (323-146 BCE) and particularly in Judaism when God’s people faced a crisis. The religious, political, and social structures that had given their world meaning were being destroyed. As such apocalyptic literature is akin to prophetic literature that grows out of a situation where people were experiencing persecution and who perceived themselves to be ostracized or marginalized by the power structures.
Therefore, an apocalypse is written to people in these difficult situations in an encoded language system in order to offer them words of assurance. So we start with people who are marginalized socially, who understand themselves to be oppressed, in this case the Jewish people.
To these people came the bold message / word of assurance and hope from outside their situation but the message itself was encoded in a kind of symbol language that was discernable only to those on the margins who were in the know. In other words, the symbolic nature of an apocalypse like Re was intelligible only to those who had been initiated. By being a part of the community you were accustomed to this kind of language from using other documents like this as your scriptures (for example: Dn, Ek, Is, Enoch) and from living in that community where that is the language spoken by the people in the community.
Remember that it was Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BCE) who desecrated the Temple, who outlawed circumcision and reading the Torah. So everything that had given the Jewish people meaning was kaput. This is when Dn was written.
Apocalyptic thought helped readers deal with these crises by identifying the Jews as a minority community composed of God’s faithful, elect people. Their lives were closely related to the end of the present suffering and indeed to the end of history itself. That end was to come soon and suddenly, and when it finally came, then the kingdom of God would be consummated and the present situation of believers would be reversed.
When you have that kind of world view, it is not hard to see why the apocalyptic thinker envisioned things in terms of very sharp contrasts, in very sharp appositions. For instance, the present age was viewed negatively; the coming age was viewed positively.
How were you going to get from this negative world into the positive next world? The only way you could do that would be by dramatic intervention on the part of God in order to bring an end to the old world order and bring in the new. Therefore, God’s persecuted people were urged to hang on because God would intervene soon.
But when would God intervene? Apocalyptic writers sought to unveil the answers to that question
1. by emphasizing God’s divine plan for all of history and
2. by describing what the end would be like.
In other words, apocalyptic writers unveiled their apocalyptic version of the story behind the Story!
At the core of almost all apocalyptic thinking is that apocalyptic thinkers / authors foresee a period of great suffering by God’s people right before the end. In fact, that’s how you know the end is near because of the great suffering you are experiencing. The worse things get, the closer you know that you are to the end.
You can see how this ties in with the thinking of some people even in our day-and-age. That’s one of the reasons that neo-apocalyptic “brothers and sisters” – those who are often on cable TV – are expecting the end of the world and they know it’s going to happen soon. They almost get excited and happy when there are crises in the world. To them that shows that we are just that much nearer to the end. The worse things are, the closer they feel we are to the end. They seem to go around thinking, “Give me an earthquake or a tsunami!!!” They particularly get fired up by crises in the middle east.
Another characteristic of apocalyptic literature is that all apocalyptic authors are absolutely sure of one thing: that God will be the ultimate victor. No matter how bad things are, no matter how dark it is at the other end of the tunnel, apocalyptic authors are certain God will be the ultimate victor.
Thus, characteristics of apocalyptic literature would include:
1. Time is divided into two ages, the present evil age and the good age to come. As a way to indicate the divine plan now being revealed, apocalyptic literature divides history into these clearly distinct periods. In working out those periods apocalyptic thinkers survey the past as well as look toward the future. However, the surveys of the past are usually written as though the events have not yet occurred. That is, the past is written as though it were being predicted. Intricate numerical calculations often accompany discussions of the historical periods.
2. The end of present evil age will come with dramatic suddenness.
3. The end is expected almost immediately.
4. God’s plan is in the process of being revealed. Apocalyptic authors express their experience of God in visions. These visions include colors, clothing, textures and voices.
5. The end of the present age will be marked by a period of extreme distress. History is presently under the control of evil powers.
Other characteristics include:
6. It’s highly symbolic – loaded with numerical symbols, beasts, cosmic figures and nature images that are used to represent what they have experienced and want to say. In part the authors use symbolic language as protection because the persecutors often could not decipher the meaning of a bear or a white horse. Still, this apocalyptic language is used because they are trying to express what cannot, finally, be put into words: the reality and activity of the living God. For example: Re 5 6 a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, … We’ll discuss many other powerful and wonderful examples of this.
7. It demonstrates cosmic conflict and dualism – God vs. evil and the two ages noted above. Apocalyptic authors envision events happening not only on earth but also in the heavenly or spiritual world. Battles are fought by God and angels simultaneously on earth and in heaven.
8. It’s eschatological – concerned about fulfillment in the end times.
9. The present world is to end very, very soon.
10. The ultimate victor is God.
11. There is a faithful and an elect remnant to which the writing is addressed.
12. It includes angelology and demonology.
13. The end is conceived in terms of battle, resurrection and judgment.
14. The agent for God’s victory is the Son of Man, the Messiah or God himself.
15. Pseudonymous authorship. In most apocalyptic literature the person who receives the visions is pictured as an ancient figure who lived long before the author’s time. This links their writing with the centuries-old activity of God and protects the author from persecution.
16. The person receiving the vision is often depicted as being unable to understand it until an angelic, heavenly interpreter appears.
17. Apocalypticism is good news in a very bad news situation.
The name for this document, APOKALUYIE IWANNOU, the Revelation to John, comes from the first Greek word in this document, VApoka,luyij which translates literally as revelation, which transliterates into English as apocalypse and which means to uncover or to unveil. Apocalypse is further broken down into two Greek cognates apo-kalypto. kalypto means to cover and apo means to take away (the cover). So Apocalypse means literally a document that takes away the cover, it reveals something; it discloses things previously hidden., particularly unseen realities of the spirit world as we see in He 11 and future events.
He 11 1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
In neither the Greek or in the English do these words have a plural form. Therefore, this book is not a batch of “revelations”that John had on Patmos, as you will often hear it said, but rather it’s the record of a single, coherent vision that God gives to Christ and that Christ then delivers to John of Patmos – the Revelation (singular) to John.
Thus this vision we read of in this last book of the Bible is a single ongoing vision, not a little snippet here and a little snippet there.
Over time the word apocalypse came to designate literature called “apocalyptic literature” which had its roots in the prophetic books of the OT as noted above. In other words, from time-to-time God had himself inspired his prophets to write using this apocalyptic type of literature. Jewish apocalyptic literature begins with the book of Dn where we see great visions and apocalyptic creatures, but there is apocalyptic also in Is 2427, Ek 3839, and Zc 914, where there are, for example, frequent references to the approaching day of the LORD.
Dn is the only one, true Apocalypse in the OT. Starting in Dn 7 you’ll see some of the same kinds of bizarre imagery that are so prominent in Re. Zc 9-14 consists of two separate collections of material influenced by apocalyptic thought. Apocalyptic writing also occurs in such OT books as Ex, Ps.
Important apocalyptic writings outside the OT, of which John would have also known, are the book of 1 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Fourth Book of Ezra, the book of Jubilees, the Ascension of Isaiah, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
During the two or three centuries leading up to the coming of Jesus, the Jewish nation was struggling with foreign domination, and apocalyptic writing came into being. Apocalyptic literature flourished (in both Jewish, and later in Christian contexts) from around 200 BC to AD 300, though examples appear as late as the ninth century AD.
Re is apocalyptic literature all the way through; it’s the only complete apocalypse we have in the NT.
Re is certainly not a Gospel in that we don’t have the life of Jesus here; in fact, Re has little to say about the life, per se, of Jesus.
Re is not an accounting of the history of the early church as is Ac.
Re is not a letter in form even though it contains 7 letters in Re 2-3.
Re is an apocalypse, the only one we have in the NT.
Apocalyptic literature expresses meaning using different conventions than that used in all other literature forms. One definition often seen is that apocalypse is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, thereby disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal – insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation – and spatial – insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”
However, the definition I prefer to use when teaching is: Apocalyptic literature uses a blend of literal language and of symbolic, pictorial language which function together – at both the literal and the symbolic levels – in order to retell the story of the creator God and of his people in fresh and different ways. The same biblical story is being told in Re as is being told in the rest of the NT.
For example, Re’s beasts, dragons, dissolving universes, it’s whatever, were pictorial representations of deep historical and theological realities.
These pictorial representations were very familiar to Jn’s readers in that they came from apocalyptic literature within their own, well-known Hebrew scriptures as noted just above.
There are also a number of strongly apocalyptic passages in the NT which would include: the synoptic apocalyptic material of Mk 13 and parallels (Mt 24 and Lk 21); 1 Th 4 1517; 2 Th 2 112; 1 Cor 15 2028; 2 Cor 5 15, 12 4; and He 12 2223. Still, the only entirely apocalyptic document we have in the NT is Re.
Apocalyptic literature contrasts with other literature forms such as in the gospels where we get literal language. Jesus did such-and-such; Jesus said such-and-such. It’s very easy to follow because it’s literal. But then when you enter the world of Jesus’ parables, it becomes metaphorical and symbolic while in apocalyptic literature, the literature as a whole is a blend of literal and symbolic, pictorial language.
For instance, some parts of Dn are very literal while other parts of quite symbolic and pictorial such as the vision that Nebuchadrezzar has of the statue made of the four metals in Dn 2 31 “You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. This is symbolic and pictorial pointing to a greater truth that is revealed as you continue reading through Dn.
Unfortunately, many come to Re and get lost in this apocalyptic language. They begin by thinking that Re is telling an entirely different story than what we have in the rest of the NT or in the whole of the Bible. That’s the first misconception of this wonderful book of Re that we must refute and retire. However, it’s important to note that the story told in Re is the same biblical story that we read and see elsewhere in the NT. Re is sending the same message as is the rest of the NT, for example, as we read in Paul’s letters. It’s just that it does so using a different style of literature – apocalyptic. Therefore, while much of the language in Re is symbolic, some of the language in apocalyptic literature is never symbolic for something else – God, for example, which is always understood literally. Therefore, when reading Re remember its language is always a blend of symbolic, pictorial language with language that is to be understood literally. It becomes the task of the reader, you, to know which is which, and that’s part of my task for this course, to teach you what is apocalyptic and what is not.
It’s through this apocalyptic literature that John the seer is able to say things, not only in fresh ways, but also in very deep and powerful ways that he could not with another genre of literature. For what John, the author, intended to reveal to believers in this document, using apocalyptic language was the very best way he could have done so. He could not have imparted his message nearly as well by having using another form of literature, for instance, by having used narrative literature. As we move through our study of Re I will give you examples of my assertion that using apocalyptic was the very best way for John to show and make his point. Some of these examples “will blow your socks off!” so come prepared for that too!
A very good way of comparing this apocalyptic literature to other forms of literature is to say that an artist can say things through a painting that could never be said with words. Look at your favorite painting, for example, and try to explain it using words. You cannot do it as well as the artist has done with their painting. Another equally powerful comparison would be that a dancer can say things with their dancing that could not be expressed using words. So also here in Re we have John using apocalyptic literature and saying things more deeply and fully than he could have by using other literature genres. Again, it’s the same story; it’s just a different way of telling it.
As noted above, at its core apocalyptic was written to uncover or unveil both past historical activities and what they meant – something which emphasized God’s plan for all of history – and apocalyptic was especially meant to uncover or reveal the last times. Apocalyptic described what the end would be like.
Apocalyptic literature was far more familiar to people then than now. Re would have been quite recognizable to each of the churches cited in Re 2-3. People then better understood how to read and understand apocalyptic literature. They knew implicitly that it was not be taken literally. The key to understanding apocalyptic literature is to know what is symbolic or when it’s literal. Much of the time that is an easy task. For instance, there exists a scholarly, interpretive consensus on most of the visions in Re. No matter what your Christian persuasion, for most of the visions in Re the scholars agree on their interpretation. At other points the symbolic language can be highly subjective and here the interpreters will disagree on the exact referent of this or that symbol. (And those disagreements will split even within the various denominations within Christianity. For example, some Catholic theologians will find themselves agreeing more with some Protestant theologians than they do with other Catholic theologians on a particular symbol, etc. But we also see this same thing with most of other scholarship regarding biblical interpretation. They don’t always split along party lines. The truth be told, at the highest level of biblical scholarship there is far, far more agreement on matters of biblical interpretation than probably most Christians in the pew would expect to find.)
Today, Re is mysterious to many people and is further often misunderstood, misused and abused. Those who divorce Re from its historical setting get off track in the blink of an eye. People often get wacky ideas out of Re because they fail to understand the genre of Re. Thus, Re sounds so very different that misguided and misinformed people usually fail to understand that Re is not a book of secret codes that program how God will act at the end of the present evil age. Failing to understand apocalyptic literature allows them to come up with a message out of Re that is different from any other book of the Bible. Hence, their assessment has to be wrong because, once again, Re’s message is the very same biblical story being told as in the rest of the NT. It’s just that this message is being told in a fresh way using this different style – apocalyptic. Again, Re is the same story being told in a different key – apocalyptic. As such, Re does tell us how the story will end: it will end with the final defeat of all evil and with God united with God’s people. (That’s the same story the rest of our Bible tells us!) However, the exact timetable is not outlined in Re or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Bible. John, in fact, tells the reader to not read his book as though it were a schedule. Remember, Jesus, despite all attempts to predict the end, will come like a thief. Re 16 15 (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”) Therefore, what is painted in the stark colors of Re is a series of impressionistic paintings (visions) that witness to God’s activity in the past, in the present and in the future. And, as we move along in this course, you will become increasingly versed in just how this verse or that verse, how this passage or that passage, is to be read in this wonderful Revelation to John.
God had a very good purpose in apocalyptically showing this ultimate victory to us as well, and we see that here in Re being demonstrated in spades.
As we struggle in our lives, in whatever form those struggles take, even in oppression and persecution, there is a great temptation to compromise our faith, or to lay it aside completely. We Christians are being constantly confronted by these temptations each and every day of our lives. In fact, Christianity is under assault as never before in so many ways – subtle or otherwise. That’s how Satan goes about his business, and he does so 24/7. For example, Christians are more and more being confronted with these temptations as we see in how things have been increasingly going against God’s will in the “world” – including this wonderful country of ours. Each of us is being called to know and do God’s will and deal with it as Jesus taught us to do.
Then, by showing us here in Re the ultimate destruction of the forces of evil, God sternly warns us of the consequences of falling away. We are supposed to be paying attention to what God’s Word has to say to us.
However, at the same time God shows us, and tells us, that if we remain faithful, we will receive life with him. For instance, in addressing the church in Smyrna Jesus tells us all, Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life (Re 2 10). That very promise gives us the strength to remain faithful, even when times get tough. Please know that this verse and other verses like this were on the minds and in the hearts of countless Christians as they moved towards their martyrdoms in the early church. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. That’s what each of us Christians is being called to do. Each of us has to ask ourselves the question, “How am I measuring up so far?” Jesus will certainly be answering that very same question for us when he returns. We probably ought to be looking into that before he comes back and make sure that we’ve been doing what Jesus would have had us doing. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Second, apocalyptic takes the form of visions, visions which transcend the events of history. While the events of the present for the reader at times seem overwhelming, the visions experienced by the one who records the material go above and beyond the present and take into account the whole of history – from the beginning to the end – from the past into the future. These visions show that God is in control of history.
Re consists of a long and complicated series of over sixty visions (according to Elwell and Yarbrough – but I’ve still not been able to verify this number). If having that many visions were not problematic enough, these visions are further complicated in that at times they blend into one another, overlap, go back and start over, pick out and expand details, provide overviews to colossal events and so on. At times it’s a real mess!
Note: Here and there in John’s account of his visionary experiences he uses the word then. There is, however, no reason to assume that the order in which John received his visions must be the order in which the contents of the visions are to be fulfilled. In Re 12, for example, we will find a vision that takes us back to the time of the birth of Jesus. Such features in the book should point out to us that it would be incorrect to turn Re into an almanac or time chart of the last days based on the sequence of the visions that John experienced. In other words, like any good teacher, John knows that repetition is a helpful learning device, and so he repeats his messages more than once from differing points of view and in this way gets his point across to his readers.
Further, these visions must be read for what they are: visionary accounts of reality given by God to John on Patmos – visionary accounts intended to portray profound spiritual and theological truths revealed throughout the whole of Re.
Importantly, the images used in Re were far more familiar to people of John’s day than they are, unfortunately, to current-day Christians. Most of the over 350 images are echoes and allusions coming out of the OT and those that were not out of the OT came out of other books current in that day.
Already in the opening verses of Re, it becomes clear that the code book which unlocks Re is nothing other than the OT. It is clear that John (in reality, Jesus, since he’s revealing these things to John through his angel) knew his Hebrew scriptures. Of the 404 verses that comprise the 22 chapters of Re, 278 verses contain one or more allusions to an OT passage. John had so thoroughly pondered the OT that when it came to recording the important of his visions of God and of heaven, he expressed himself by echoing phrases borrowed from the prophets of Israel. Therefore, to a people familiar with the OT, Re was an open book, not a closed one (which is part of the reason we modern types at first miss out on Re’s message. We just don’t know our OT well enough.). Rather than showing a division between the two testaments, Re shows that the Old and New Testaments stand together as a continuous stream, the NT fulfilling the Old and pointing to the final fulfillment in the return of Christ for judgment.
Therefore, in attempting to understand John’s symbolism, we must consider not only Re itself, but also his extensive use of the OT. In fact, there are more echoes of OT in Re than in any other NT book. So, again, you have to put on your Jewish thinking caps when reading this book of the Bible, just as we should when reading every book of the Bible.
No doubt some of John’s symbols seem exceedingly strange to readers today. For example, the Roman Empire is symbolized as a beast-like a leopard with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion’s mouth (13 2) a very horrible description as those who were being persecuted by Rome knew well. Such strange beasts were more or less commonplace features in apocalyptic literature and Re is a notable example of that literary genre. People of our day-and-age also make use of animals as symbols of nations and groups: the British lion, the Russian bear, the American eagle, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant. In the same way, some of the imagery in Re may seem unusual or even bizarre, but on further reflection, and with the use of a disciplined imagination, the meaning will usually become clear. In any case, it is important to recognize that the descriptions are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols.
To begin with we have the opening vision in Re 4-5 which is followed by a series of visions in Re 6-22. Importantly, Re moves forward with this complex series of visions/images but not in a linear, chronological fashion. Instead, it moves forward in a complex, blending, overlapping, hard-to-follow fashion. These visions may go back and start over. Therefore, John’s visions are not related in a linear, chronological fashion but instead they are related in a complex, non-linear, “flashback” fashion. At one point the author will take the story back into the past and in the next scene the author will move into the future and then back to the present. You have to know this about the character of apocalyptic literature in order to fully understand the author’s message, or you will quickly get lost. [And this even happens to so-called scholars of the Bible!]
In other words, it’s not as if John begins at day one in Re 1 and he ends with the second advent / coming and the renewal/restoration of all creation at the end of the book in Re 21-22. These visions function not to say that “A” happens and then “B” happens and then “C” happens and so on. That is, these visions are not related linearly but in a complex, blended way. They overlap; they go back and start over; they give your a wide-angle view and then will zoom in for a close-up. One vision overlaps with another. Vision one will describe one aspect of the kingdom of God and vision two will describe another aspect. It’s like watching a movie being told back-and-forth in time like the movie Pulp Fiction.
For instance, in the first half of Re most visions move from the first Easter (the first coming) to the second coming. They tell us about God’s ways with humanity and they are always focusing on this twofold path, either to salvation or judgment (the double judgment). Also, Jn actually talks about the second advent / coming and the renewal/restoration of all creation often in Re 7 and 12 and throughout.
Jn pulls out all the stops with his imagery in order to bring home the truth of this biblical story. John does it this way in order to tell us about this victory of God that has already been won through Jesus of Nazareth. The visions of Re went above and beyond the present time and took into account the whole of history, from the beginning to the end, and showed that God was in control of history. In fact, in Re God described himself as the Alpha and the Omega (Re 1 8), using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to show that everything from beginning to end was under His control. Jn’s visions tell us God has already conquered and won, but this victory of God through Christ is still in the process of being fully worked out.
Through each of Jn’s visions we see God’s inexpressible mercy toward those who turn to God; we see this glorious future for the people of God. Still, there will be this inexpressibly, fearsome judgment on those who cling to evil – the double judgment. Thus, in Re we will see this jarring juxtaposition of these scenes of great blessedness for the people of God and this horrific judgment for those who refuse to follow God.
Therefore, the story is not being told in a linear way and if you read the story linearly, you will misunderstand what the author was trying to say. You will get yourself lost in the blink of an eye.
All of these visions seek as a whole to tell the story of this victory of the creator God, and by all accounts the climax of Re comes in 21-22 which tell of the consummation of the biblical story in light of the story behind the Story.
The biblical story being told
The story behind the Story brings us to the third guideline to be used in reading and studying Re. Jn is telling the whole story from creation to fulfillment of creation in the second advent / coming with these different visions in this rich kaleidoscopic variety of ways in order to make his theological points.
Again, the story being told in Re is the same biblical story that we read and see elsewhere in the NT but here in Re it’s being told “in a different key” using apocalyptic language.
The exact, same basic Christian theology as we see in the rest of the NT is woven throughout Re. This is just John’s way of theologizing. We have here in Re the same inner coherence and unity of biblical story that we see in the rest of the NT. If you get too enthralled by the symbolism of Re, as many interpreters will from time-to-time, you are more likely to miss the theological truths being expressed here in Re.
The Teachings of Revelation
Although there are some strong differences of opinion about the endtime drama depicted in Re, there is virtual unanimity about its essential theological teachings. Re is a profound theological document containing many well-developed ideas. Two of the most important concern that of God and that of the Son of God.
The central fact of the book is that God exists; God has created the universe; God is guiding the course of its history; God has overcome evil, and God will bring everything to a triumphant conclusion in his own good time. Numerous OT images are woven together to give a rich depiction of God. The commanding vision of Re 4-5 shows God on his throne, ruling over the universe, with all the heavenly hosts and the redeemed of earth bowing down before him. It is significant that as the book begins to unfold the course of future history, every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them (Re 5 13) join in the concluding doxology to God who created all things and to the Lamb (4 8-11; 5 13). This is to prepare the reader for what is to come.
8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twentyfour elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
The descriptions that follow in the text hardly look like a creation that is praising God, but we would be totally wrong to see it that way. In reality, all of creation, in its own way, is praising God, even those beings (supernatural and human) that are fighting against the will of God. This is reminiscent of a profound OT theme: God does his will in heaven and earth, and no one can hinder him.
God is introduced in trinitarian fashion in 1 45 where we read:
4 … 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. …
God is introduced in this trinitarian manner:
first as the one who is and who was and who is to come,
second as the seven spirits before his throne (symbolically representing the Holy Spirit’s seven fold ministry as seen in Is 11 23), and
third as Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Emphasis on the Spirit and his ministry is somewhat limited in Re (2 7; 3 1; 4 2, 5; 14 13; 17 3; 21 10; 22 17), with the heaviest emphasis being laid on the divine glory of the Son throughout the whole of the book of Re.
We will discuss this Re 1 text in much greater depth as we get there.
The two dimensions of God that Re seeks to unveil:
One of the keys to understanding Re is to grasp the idea of God’s relationship to the world. The series of visions that we have in Re open up the important theological truth that theologians call the “two dimensions.” In other words, embedded within the concept of inaugurated eschatology is the concept that the kingdom which has now been inaugurated is truly present in one dimension but that it’s also present in the world in a hidden way.
For instance, were someone to ask John about this kingdom of God that has now come they might say, “I don’t see any kingdom of God! In fact, the world just seems to go on in evil and sorrow just as it has always done!” John would respond that “the kingdom of God has, indeed, already come but you don’t see it because it’s only open to the eyes of faith. It’s hidden in the world.”
This inaugurated kingdom of God by definition calls for faith
that God truly has inaugurated his kingdom through Christ,
that Christ is at the right hand of God and
that he is coming again to set all things to rights – all things which scripture clearly tells us have either happened or have begun to happen.
Therefore, how much more important is this call for faith when – within this inaugurated kingdom of God – evil and injustice continue to reign and especially God’s own people are persecuted?
That is what’s going on in the background at the time Re was being revealed and written. That’s the situation at hand with Re. Re was being written in order to encourage and exhort people in a time of persecution.
One of the ways it does this is by unveiling the two dimensions. In other words, to eyes who do not have faith, it appears that this God is absent from the world. God is not on the throne. The kingdom of God has not yet come, and further, it will never come. But to the eyes of faith John unveils the “two dimensions.”
Therefore, at the heart of the visions we find in Re is what we call the two dimensions / realities in which we live:
1. Jn reveals the world of recorded time, what we can see now, where God is working out his earthly purposes, and
2. The other dimension is the heavenly dimension, what we cannot see, the divine, supernatural order, what’s behind the scenes, where God is in control, where God is all in all, which will one day be evident with power, where Christ is at the right hand of God and from where Christ will soon come again, says John the seer, to renew all things.
So Jn is unveiling this hidden, divine dimension which is really the ultimate reality that controls all the rest of reality, the same reality that will be fully unveiled at the second advent / coming of Christ. John the Seer would never imagine that he would have to write such a book after the second advent / coming because the kingdom of God will be unveiled in unimaginable, un-missable power and glory. But now God’s kingdom is hidden. So in order to encourage his readers, he opens up the two dimensions of God to them:
1. the dimension of the world of recorded time where God is working out his purposes here on earth and
2. the divine dimension where God is all in all and Christ reigns as king at the right hand of God in God’s space, heaven.
Using apocalyptic language John is saying that God is reigning even though it may not seem so. John is exhorting his readers to hold fast even in the face of persecution and trial and trouble and affliction for your faith. John is exhorting them to hold firm because God will reward your faith in the end.
This is the setting with which we are being presented in this wonderful book we call Re. a
Note: Perhaps you are beginning to see just how powerful this apocalyptic language can be. Using apocalyptic allows John to say things to his readers that he would not be able to better express using any other form of literature. But by using apocalyptic John is able to express to people of faith then, in his own time, as well as now, in our time, and throughout the whole of recorded history, that God is reigning in his kingdom even though it might not, to some, seem that he is.
Now, in order to get the most out of and most fully understand Re we must be ever cognizant that Re is constantly shifting back and forth between these two dimensions of God, challenging us to see the hand of God at work in the world around us, even though that world is hostile to God. God is the supreme reality. We are to see that this world is subordinate to God and that everything is moving toward its climax and its renewal as we saw in Ro 8 – just as the whole of scripture has been telling us in so many other ways leading up to the book of Re. The world is moving toward its appointed goal, regardless of how things look now. As we move along in our reading of Re, we will see that this renewal / restoration of all creation is the whole point and climax of Re. This is no more than the story behind the Story playing itself out now at the end of the first century AD.
Note: Perhaps by now you are also beginning to see that the message, the story being told in Re is, in and of itself, a truly incredible expression of the same story being told in the whole of our Bibles and that there is no better story to be told even though there are those who grossly misread Re and come up with these sensational, but truly goofy, conceptions of dispensationalism or millennialism or whatever. You don’t need to make up stuff that isn’t there in the text. The text in and of itself is wonderful and comforting and fulfilling just as it is!!!
Notice how this concept of the two dimensions wonderfully fits with the character of this now-hidden inaugurated kingdom of God that we discussed in “the story behind the Story” class – story about salvation history. At the heart of inaugurated eschatology is that the kingdom of God has come but the kingdom had come, as it were, in disguise. In other words, according to Re Christians are living in the inaugurated kingdom (of inaugurated eschatology) but everything is moving along toward a climactic vision of the new heaven and the new earth (consummated eschatology) that we know of from our story behind the Story.
Re 21 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
cf 2 Pe 3 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
In the consummation of everything the kingdom of God will be gloriously evident. Christ will come – says Re – in power and glory.
Re 22 7 “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” … 12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. … 20 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
cf Re 11 17 singing, “We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.
cf Re 19 1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God,
When everything is consummated, God’s justice, power, beauty and love will be truly evident to all, but it will be too late (double judgment) for those who have rejected God who will fall under judgment. The time to act is now.
However in this time of the inaugurated kingdom, the kingdom has come. God has come; and yet this kingdom has come in a veiled way, as something hidden in the world. We remember here Jesus’ parables, for instance, which tell us the very same story. We learn in the parables, as here in Re, that God’s kingdom has come as something revealed only to the eyes of faith but as something hidden to unbelievers. The kingdom of God’s glory and wonder and truth and beauty is open only to faith. This kingdom of God is here; Christ is at the right hand of God reigning on God’s throne; Christ is at work in power and glory through his church. God is all in all. This is what theologians call the two dimensions of God which Jesus is revealing to us through John here in this wonderful book we call Re.
Still, to the eyes of the unbelieving, it looks as if God is not there at all, as if evil is reigning, and as if oppression and injustice are still in control and that death reigns over all. Just look around you every day and you will see it everywhere. Evil, sin, suffering and death are everywhere. Death stalks the world as it always has. In times of great crisis and trial, even from God’s believing people, it can seem as if God is no where to be found.
Only to the eyes of faith is this greater dimension clear that God has truly conquered death through Christ. Apocalyptic literature like Re is meant to draw open the curtain to reveal that in spite of appearances that God is no where to be found, God, in fact, is everywhere in control; God is at work; this kingdom has now come and it’s moving toward its glorious goal and its consummation. Christ reigns on his throne; he rules over all. Christ is all-powerful and he will save his people and judge the wicked. Christ is working his purposes out in the world, and he’s bringing about this great consummation of the new heaven and new earth when all will be evident and we will no longer need books of revelation to tell you what is going on. No matter what things look like now, the book of Re is revealing the reality behind the facade. Re will throw back the curtain and reveal that God is truly on God’s throne. We will see that God is truly there to save and redeem his people. It takes faith to see that, but Re will here show us what awaits us when we get this “peek” into God’s kingdom as it was revealed to John on Patmos all those centuries ago. Lucky us!
These people to whom Re is directed are about to undergo great trial of persecution and affliction. So it will be all too tempting to say “God is not in control” or “Evil reigns.” For example, in the case in these churches as Jn has envisioned it – where is God when great persecution is about to come? It looks as if the powers of evil and the powers against God have won and triumphed. Jn envisions Christians being put to death on a widespread basis and so on. In this inaugurated kingdom it can seem as though God is nowhere and yet the whole point of Re is to comfort these believers to whom it’s given. So the writer of Re is encouraging the reader to see and look beyond the obvious and know that in the real, true dimension of things as they are, God truly is in control. You cannot see that now; you need faith rather than sight. Then, some day faith is going to give way to sight at Christ’s second advent / coming but now you need to have faith to know that God is control. The kingdom is only inaugurated; you need to believe that it will be consummated and that God is all-in-all even now.
That’s what this apocalyptic literature is all about. All of these complex visions are meant to give the true vision of reality. The reality of the world is not as it might appear to the eyes of unbelief; instead, it is as it appears to the eyes of faith; God is in control, and God will also have the final victory over evil and every force opposed to God. Apocalyptic literature, especially Re, is written to unveil the reality of these two dimensions and therefore to encourage believers in that faith.
Summarizing, the two dimensions are as follows.
1. In the world as we see it, it appears as if God is not in control. It appears as if evil is the victor. It appears that one is tempted to say “My faith in God is misplaced.”
2. And yet there is the real dimension of reality. The author of Re is telling us – just like Paul and Lk or anyone else would tell us – that if we could see all of reality, you would see that God is fully in control. Even though it may not appear like it now, God is working out his purposes in each of their individual lives as well as in the whole of the cosmos. God has conquered evil and death through Christ. However, that has not yet been fully manifested and seen because the last enemy – death – has not yet been fully defeated as it will at the resurrection of the dead. Still, the people are to believe and know that God has conquered death. The second advent / coming and the resurrection are coming; the new creation is coming; they need to be faithful and believe.
When reading Re we are sort of drawing the veil aside and seeing the true reality of what’s going on. When we do this we see God on his throne. So these are the two dimensions of reality seeking to confer and build up the faith of believers by revealing the hidden reality that only faith can know is there – that is, that God is on God’s throne and that God is in control.
Hopefully by now you are beginning to better understand why Re was so very important for the early Christians who lived in times when being a Christian was not at all like what it is to be a Christian in our day-and-age. Being a Christian then was hard; it was difficult; it was life-threatening; it could cost you your life! Does that apply to any of us? I think not!
Later we will look at key elements of Re which serve as windows into how we are to read Re as a whole. For example, following this introduction we will introduce the opening vision Re 4-5 which introduces the series of visions and shows us how all of this works itself out in Re.
The Son of God
The second, well-developed theological idea found in Re is that concerning our understanding of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH incarnate, YHWH in the flesh. No book in the NT speaks in such exalted fashion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as does Re. From the overpowering vision of 1 1218 to the return of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords (19 16), he is seen as nothing less than the Divine Being himself (1 8; 3 7; 22 13). The doxologies of the book are directed to both, and the Father and the Son have the same divine qualities (4 11; 5 1213; 7 12). God calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (1 8; 21 56) and Jesus refers to himself in the same way 22 12-13.
Re 1 12-18. We’ll save the thunder and lightening of these verses for later!
Re 19 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
Re 4 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Re 22 12 “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Authorship and more Historical Background
Frequently apocalyptic literature will not reveal the actual author’s name and will instead talk about the author as an important figure from the past such as we see in Dn – which is the only full-blown apocalypse of the OT.
This accomplishes two things:
(1) protects the current author from arrest/persecution by the state in particular but it also
(2) connects the document with the ongoing history of what God has been doing.
Obviously, on the first point Re is an exception because the author readily and often identifies himself as John. Therefore,
he was not trying to hide himself. [In fact, four times in Re the author called himself John (1 1, 4, 9; 22 8).]
John was a common name among Jews from the time of the Exile onward and among the early Christians. Four persons are mentioned in the NT who bore the name John. Which of these is intended, or whether the author was some other early Christian leader with this name, has been extensively debated for centuries. The absence of any specific data in the book itself makes it difficult to come to a firm decision. Although an opinion will be offered, we’re not going to settle the issue of authorship in our discussion today. Besides, by far and away more important for the study of Re is the actual content of the book itself, rather than knowing its author. True, knowing exactly who penned the Revelation to John would help in some places but, based on the primary documents we have, we cannot say with certitude which John it was.
Hence, current scholarship tells us that Re was written by a Christian prophet named John who is otherwise unknown to us. In other words, some scholars contend that the author of Re is not to be identified with either the son of Zebedee (one of the original twelve, the brother of James, the apostle) or with the author of the Gospel Jn or the Johannine epistles 1, 2, 3 Jn. Still, some pretty big hitters contend that the author of Re and of Jn are one and the same – the beloved disciple, John, the apostle. That is, many theologians contend the John who wrote this book was undoubtedly also the John who wrote the gospel account and the three letters which bear his name. In the gospel John is referred to as the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 21 20, 24 and elsewhere).
Still, although most scholars now consider the Gospel of Jn and Re to have been written by different authors, the relationship of Re to the Johannine school of thought continues to be disputed.
That now said, since there is no qualifying identification (such as “John the elder” or “John Mark”), it is probable that the author intended his readers to understand that he was the John who was so well-known that he needed no title or credentials. As such, from the midsecond century onward the book was widely, though not universally, ascribed to the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Tradition tells us that the apostle John was quite old, of course, and that he was living in the city of Ephesus at the time, in the Roman province of Asia. It’s entirely logical that because of John’s preaching in Ephesus the Romans may have chosen to exile him to Patmos to get him out of their hair. As such, in the early church the traditional author for Re was John, the disciple of Jesus, the disciples whom Jesus loved, the other disciple.
John was writing to congregations in danger of persecution, and he himself was already suffering persecution on Patmos. Tradition has it that John is the only one of the Twelve that did not suffer a martyr’s death. This, however, does not mean that he did not suffer persecution. In fact, the vision we have recorded in this book was given to him while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. So it’s possible that the John of Patmos is the same as the apostle John.
All of this now said, many theologians contend that the Jn of Patmos was not the Jn of the Fourth Gospel nor of the epistles. These scholars base their opinion in large part on the internal evidence found in the gospel of Jn and in Re. They contend the differences between both the Greek and the theology of these two documents is just too great for them to have been written by the same author.
Scholars have always noted that the Greek language of Re contains a peculiar kind of Greek different from the gospel of Jn. This has led, in turn, to a peculiar history of the transmission of the text. This is because the scribes were tempted here in Re, more than at any other place in the NT, to correct the strange language by bringing it into conformity with the standard Greek grammar such as one normally ascribes to Jn. For the past thirty-five years now a strong, but not universal, consensus has developed that the author of Re was not writing in his native language. In fact, the Greek seems to be a secondary language to the author of Re and not the Greek of a native speaker.
For example, the Greek structure of the Gospel of Jn is relatively simple but it’s still very clear and clean Greek. The Greek structure of Re is both abominable and highly Semitic according to most Greek linguists, using almost a direct translation into Greek terminology phrases that you find in Aramaic (which are called Semiticisms).
Other “errors” in the Greek found in Re include: 1. prepositions that require the accusative case actually have genitive objects; 2. indicative verbs get used as participles. The Greek rules just get thrown out of the window.
It’s translation Greek, that is, a clear example of someone thinking in Hebrew or Aramaic but writing it down in Greek. In other words, it seems that Re was written by someone who didn’t know Greek very well and who was clearly thinking in Hebrew or Aramaic while writing in the Greek.
Instead, the consensus now is that the author was a Palestinian whose mother tongue was Aramaic or Hebrew and that this Palestinian had migrated to Asia Minor – probably because of the population disruptions and shifts that occurred by the war with Rome during the years 66 to 70. In fact, the author’s Greek in Re is therefore the language of someone who is writing in Greek but who is thinking in either Aramaic or Hebrew (Aramaic and Hebrew are very similar languages). Since scholars have noted that there is a fairly consistent system to the author’s grammatical and syntactic aberrations, his style is not merely due to ignorance of good Greek. Instead, according to some scholars, his Greek may represent a protest against the higher form of Hellenistic culture and/or an imitation of the so-called biblical Greek of the Septuagint. So some theologians contend that the author was just trying to imitate the style of the Septuagint when writing Re. When you bring all of this authorship stuff together and you read everyone’s opinion about who this John actually is, it’s just a mess.
Therefore, all of this now said, much of contemporary scholarship, but not all, rejects apostolic authorship on the basis of internal evidence such as the differences in Greek and theology found there.
Of course, and on the other hand, those far closer to the historical situation and who spoke Greek as their native language – for example, Justin Martyr ~ 150, Irenaeus of Gaul ~ 180, Tertullian of North Africa ~ 200, Origen and Hippolytus – had no problem with acknowledging Jn the apostle as the author both of the gospel Jn as well as of Re.
As such, there are some very noted theologians who still contend that the apostle John was the author of all five of these documents: Jn, 1-2-3 Jn, Re.
excursus: authorship? recognized?
In the East, however, apostolic authorship was sometimes rejected, notably by the socalled Alogi (a group of heretics in Asia Minor, about AD 170), as well as by Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (after 247). Dionysius argued on the basis of differences of vocabulary and grammatical style between the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse and believed the latter to be the work of another person named John, who, however, he was prepared to say, was “holy and inspired” according to Eusebius in his Church History V xxv. 7.
From this point on, the apostolic origin of Re was frequently disputed in the East. Eusebius (AD 325) wavered between regarding the book as “recognized” or as “spurious.” But after Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 367) and the Latin church under the influence of Augustine toward the end of the fourth century had accepted Re in their lists of the canon, the book was no longer officially contested as part of the NT. Even though the precise identity of “John” is still debated today, interpretation of the book does not depend on certainty concerning this matter.
Another difference between Jn and Re is that the eschatological views seem to be different. Jn seems to have a much greater sense of a present eschatology such as, “What you have now is what you are going to get” kind of thing whereas in Re there seems to be a strong future orientation. Still, even this difference in eschatological views between the two documents has been “explained away” by some theologians who contend these documents were written by the same person. In other words, these theologians who contend there’s just the one John who wrote it all “find a way to make their theory work” so that it supports their scholarship. That’s just what you’d expect them to do if they expect to be published!
Another difference between Jn and Re is that Re shows no interest in the historical life of Jesus, something which argues against the author being Jn, the disciple, according to some theologians. Again, this, too, has been “explained away” by some theologians who contend these documents were written by the same person.
Another major argument against single authorship of both Jn and Re is that the apostles appear in Re to be a group that the author is looking back on. There is never anything like, “the other eleven and I are going to be …” Of course, some theologians shoot this one down too.
If John, the disciple of Jesus, wrote Re, he would have been very old – which still makes it all possible. The final document is probably at least 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was in his mid thirties at his death, but the evidence is that his apostle Jn, the son of Zebedee, was perhaps even a teenager during Jesus’ ministry which would have made him in his late seventies or well into his eighties on Patmos. Again, quite possible.
The author refers to the apostle as someone other than himself. [lecture note: I could not find this scriptural connection.] For these reasons most eliminate Jn, the son of Zebedee, as a potential author. It’s possible but highly improbable in the view of many theologians.
Given all of this, we can at least conclude that the author of Re is a leader and a prophet in the early church in Asia Minor. So at least at one level the author of Re is John of Patmos, but having said all of that, if you carefully read Re, you see that the real author of Re in terms of content is Jesus Christ.
It’s Jesus Christ about who tells / reveals to / commissions John of Patmos what to write. We see that in 1 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,
John of Patmos receives the vision and tells what had been revealed to him as a result of his having been commissioned to communicate the message to other early Christians.
Often in apocalyptic literature the visionary does not understand what they are seeing and they need a divine figure (a heavenly interpreter), usually angelic, to explain/ interpret things.
Liturgical use of Re
Re is also a book of worship. Re was literally used in worshipping communities as their “book of choice.” We have in Re 1 3 Blessed is the one (singular person) reading and the ones (plural) hearing. …
The blessing on those who hear and read the words out loud was most likely pronounced for a worship setting. That is, the author was imagining a worship setting. In fact, Re is chocked full of worship materials – hymns and liturgy. A great deal of the liturgy of the Lutheran hymnals is right out of Re. While our entire liturgy is right out of the Bible and much of it right out of Re, most people don’t know that.
One of the predominant theories on Re is that it was written to be read during worship to prepare people to receive the Eucharist. [Obviously this document was read in the early church or we wouldn’t have it today.] It was presented in the slot of the sermon, and it was written in such a way that the author sort of ushered the people into this world of visions and then at the end the author led you right into receiving the Lord’s Supper. Re can be read in English in about 75 minutes so if you think of a 2 1/2 hour worship service, that reading was doable. Certainly those of the early church worshiped far, far longer on the Lord’s Day than we current Christians do. Not even close.
Re is a repetition told in different ways. For example, as we read further in Re we’ll find that the 7 seals and the 7 trumpets are basically saying the same thing. The repetition in the book was originally done because the book was used as liturgy in holy communion and it was recited by memory. Repetition was one of the ways that helped the people memorize these huge passages of Scripture.
Some of the better-known passages of Re include:
1. Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty
We first see these words in Isaiah’s vision in Is 6 when he sees the Lord upon the throne.
1 … I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
That language is then picked up by the author of the Apocalypse, Jn, who in Re 4 8, speaking about the heavenly throne room and the beings around the throne said:
8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twentyfour elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
We have this image of the elders gathered around the throne of God, casting down their crowns in an act of submission to the holy God. … casting down their golden crowns around the grassy sea is a line from the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’
2. 1 8
8 I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
3. 3 20
20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
Perhaps you’ve seen that classic picture of Jesus knocking on the door which has no doorknob on the outside – the one on the inside has to open the door for Jesus.
4. 13 18
18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixtysix.
5. 20 1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.
6. 21 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
Major Themes In Revelation
Jesus is reigning at the right hand of God. Jesus is YHWH in the flesh. Jesus will return to Zion in his final judgment. Jesus as YHWH in the flesh will reign forever. Jesus has already done everything that can be done for the salvation of humanity. We are waiting the return of Christ to proclaim his final victory, a victory that has already been won through Jesus on the cross.
A first major theme in Re is unveiling as we noted above. The word apokalypsis in 1 1 translated as revelation literally means “unveiling.” Re seeks to pull back a veil and show Christians the truth about God and the truth about the world in which they live. Accordingly, the message of the book is both negative and positive, an oracle of doom infused with a promise of hope. Remember our “double judgment” discussion. See also the comments above regarding uncovering in the section which discusses apocalyptic literature.
The Corruption of Human Society
Re also shows believers what their world is really like, and it is not a pretty picture. In Re 17, John beholds a vision of a woman who is “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17 18). Scholars identify this city as Rome: the woman sits on seven mountains (17 9) just as Rome was built on seven hills, and she is also seated on many waters (17 1), just as Rome was fabled for its control of the seas. She is adorned with jewels and clothed in fine linens (17 4) in a manner emblematic of Rome’s great prosperity. But although this woman seems rich and powerful, she is not a figure to be envied; she is, in fact, a drunken whore, supported by a monster, covered with blasphemies, sated with the blood of martyrs and saints (17 16). A horrible fate awaits her, and when her fate comes, she will be getting her just deserts (17 1516). Thus, one prominent message of Re is that the powerful and prosperous empire is not what it appears to be. When the empire is finally unveiled, it will be exposed as a corrupt and horrible reality that believers should renounce and abhor.
Some theologians complain that Re’s perspective on human society is too pessimistic, and they suggest that this extreme perception be balanced by more positive or neutral takes on the political world elsewhere in scripture such as in Ro 13 17; 1 Pe 2 1317). But by the same token, Re is highly regarded as a work that takes seriously the power and nature of sin, portraying unrighteousness not just as personal immorality but rather as systemic evil and social injustice (see especially Re 18). In this regard, Re usually is recognized as offering the most sustained political critique of an “antiGod society” anywhere in the NT. A society is “antiGod” when it uses its power to enslave others, when it becomes prosperous by making others poor, when it revels in selfadulation, or when it becomes cavalier about justice, ignoring the suffering of the innocent and allowing or perpetrating violence against the righteous. And, in a basic sense, an antiGod society is one that claims for itself the prerogatives of authority and power that belong to God alone.
The Judgment of God
Re also depicts human society as standing under God’s judgment, which is imminent, final, and absolute. The readers are assured that whatever trouble comes upon those who spurn the corruption of this world will be of minimal consequence compared to this divine judgment. Their current experience of temporal tribulation will prove to be nothing when they see what God’s angels dole out. This, then, is the real crisis, what requires their full attention. The visions of Re alert believers to this true crisis, so that they will not compromise their faithfulness in ways that might spare them minor troubles today only to guarantee themselves harsher judgment from God in the near future.
God Controls the Future
Re not only exposes the corruption of the world and its power systems; it also pulls back the veil of heaven to reveal who truly is in control of history. We see that in John’s visions. In so doing, it provides an ultimate proclamation of confidence and hope. God alone is Lord of history, and so the forces of evil will not prevail. Suffering is only temporary, for God is preparing a new world in which all sorrow and injustice will be banished. God will dwell with God’s people and wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more (21 4). Indeed, Re does not just predict that this will happen. It claims that this victory over evil has already been won through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (5 910). The truth that this book unveils is that what is currently happening on earth and what will soon take place are but a playing-out of events for which the ultimate outcome has already been determined. Those who have been loved by Jesus and freed from their sins by his blood (1 5) are able to witness troubling times unfold without giving in to despair, for they know how the story ends. The church, accordingly, becomes a community of prophets (19 10; 22 9), empowered to speak and live for the one who, they know, is already ruling in heaven.
Finally, Re also answers the question “Who is worthy of adulation?” No earthly power, however grand, but only God and the Lamb are worthy of receiving power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (5 12; cf. 4 11). For this reason, the entire book of Re is threaded with songs of worship and hymns of praise (1 56; 4 8, 11; 5 914; 7 1012; 11 1518; 12 1012; 15 34; 16 57; 19 18). Despite its bleak portrait of injustice in a corrupt world, Re remains an optimistic book. Re is, in the final analysis, an ironic invitation to joy.
Outline of Re
The focus of Re is the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the definitive establishment of God’s kingdom at the end of the present evil age. Corresponding to this, the structure of the book involves a series of parallel yet everprogressing sections. These sections come before the reader, over and over again, but in climactic form, bringing the struggle of the church and its victory over the world in the providence of God. There are probably seven of these sections, though only five are clearly marked. [See notes on the number “seven” above.]
The plan of the whole, then, can be divided as follows: Prologue (1 18); seven parallel sections divided at 3 22; 8 2; 11 19; 14 20; 16 21; and 19 21; Epilogue (22 621).
One outline for Re would be (and others have offered up outlines over the centuries):
All of these will be discussed in fuller detail as we move through the course.
1 1-20 introduction to the book and to the vision that is given to John of Patmos. Re begins a vision of the risen Christ, a most striking image of the risen Lord which draws on imagery from language in the OT which is used to describe God in the OT. Here, it’s used to describe Jesus Christ.
1 1-8 prologue
1 13. This book opens with an expanded title and a beatitude for its reader.
1 48. After a salutation similar to those with which many NT letters begin, 1 10 John reports that he received a revelation while “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” and that he was directed to write this in a book and send it to seven churches.
1 9-20 prophetic call / vision of the exalted Christ. The first thing that he sees is a spectacular image of the Son of Man, who dictates seven letters to him, specific messages for each of the churches.
Re 23. Re continues with the letters to the 7 churches, real, historical places that Jn knows where people were conducting worship of God and proclaiming Jesus as Lord. These two chapters focus on the present time of the life of the church – what is happening now. This contains the prophetic seven letters to the churches and the specific time frame Re is addressing. God has assessed the situation in those congregations and making declarations about what’s going on in those churches.
The letters are highly symbolic as is the rest of the document and yet if you read the letters found in Re 2-3, you can see the reality of the life in those churches coming through. For example, see notes at 2 18-29. Each of the letters to the 7 churches has some symbolic imagery but hints of a historical reality behind that that was descriptive of the way the church was operating at that time.
4 1 – 22 5 apocalyptic visions – what is to take place soon. Then we move into an invitation to Jn to ascend to heaven.
4-18 focuses on the time between the present and the end and is divided into 2 large blocks of material: 4 1 – 11 19 and 12-18
4 1 – 11 19
There is a theological vision given that has very little if any information that can be specifically historicized, maybe with the exception of 11 1-14. You can not figure out how to apply this part of Re to the historical circumstances in which John of Patmos was writing or to some kind of subsequent historical situation although that hasn’t stopped many people from trying to make sense of this document in terms of real historical situations down through the centuries. It’s a theological vision that has little or no information about specific historical situations, and yet people for centuries have been running the ball into the wrong end zone with this material!
In other words, 4-11 contain much symbolic theological language that is very unintelligible if you try to apply or make application of it to current world events. No matter how you try, you can’t create correlations in 4-11. You can’t say this means this or that means that. You can’t say this stands for this or that stands for that. It’s really a general, open theological vision that isn’t trying to symbolize things that are historical so much as it is symbolizing things that are theological.
Re 4. After recording these letters, John sees a door open in heaven, and there is a voice telling him to come up and see what is taking place. John is taken up into the heavenly realm itself. There, he beholds the throne of God, angels, and other wondrous creatures.
Re 4 1 – 5 14
heavenly court / Jesus commissioned with a scroll
4 1 – 8 1 the seven seals
Re 5. The one seated on the divine throne holds a scroll bound with seven seals, and there is a search to find someone who is worthy to open this scroll. The only one worthy is the Lion of Judah, who, as it turns out, looks not like a lion but rather like a lamb that has been slaughtered.
Re 6. One by one, this Lamb opens the seals of the scroll, and as he does this, catastrophes strike the earth until, with the sixth seal, stars fall from the sky and the sky itself rolls up like a scroll and disappears.
Re 6 1 – 8 1 the seven seals
7 1-8 interlude 1: sealing of the 144,000
7 9-17 interlude 2: multitude from every nation
Re 8 2 – 11 19 the seven trumpets
10 1-11 interlude 3: John commissioned with a scroll
11 1-14 interlude 4: two witnesses
Re 7. Then, angels intervene to ensure the safety of God’s faithful ones: 144,000 people of Israel are marked for protection, and John sees an innumerable multitude of people, robed in white, from all nations being brought before the Lamb.
8 1. The Lamb opens the seventh seal, initiating a halfhour of silence in heaven.
Re 89. Seven angels appear, each with a trumpet, and as these trumpets are blown, more disasters strike the earth.
8 2 – 11 18 the seven trumpets
Re 10. But following the sixth trumpet, there is a brief interlude: an angel appears with a small scroll, shouting with a sound of seven thunders. John is told to seal up what the seven thunders said and not write it down, and he is given the scroll to eat; it tastes sweet but makes his stomach bitter.
Re 11. He then takes some measurements in heaven and is told about two witnesses who will come to the earth, be martyred, raised from death, and taken up into heaven. Finally, the seventh angel blows the seventh trumpet, and God’s temple in heaven is opened amid loud shouts of praise.
11 19 – 15 4 The 7 Signs
15 5 – 16 21 The 7 Bowls
17 1 – 20 15 The 7 Sights John is always saying, “and I saw…”
12-18 provides apocalyptic symbols that are themselves pointers to specific historical items, persons and events in the recent past, present and even in the future. Some inaccurately say there is not a future dimension to Re. We get a
glimpse of the future that goes beyond simply the identification of things in the past and in the present in these chapters.
12 1 – 13 18 opposition revealed
14 1-5 interlude 5: lamb and 144,000
14 6-20 final judgment
15 1 – 19 10 seven bowls and judgment on Babylon / Rome
19 11 – 20 15 visions of judgment and victory
21 1 – 22 5 new heaven and a new earth and the new Jerusalem
Re 12. Great portents appear in heaven: a cosmic, pregnant woman and a red dragon, which turns out to be Satan. War breaks out as Michael the archangel leads the heavenly forces to defeat Satan.
Re 13. On earth, a series of beasts blaspheme God, oppress the saints, and insist on conformity to idolatrous ways.
Re 14. Angels call for saints to endure this tribulation, and John beholds a vision of the Son of Man reaping the earth with a massive sickle; the wrath of God comes mightily upon the earth, as evidenced by an awful river of blood.
Re 1516. Seven angels with seven bowls appear, and each bowl brings a terrible plague upon the earth.
Re 1718. John is invited to witness the judgment of a great whore, who is identified as the city of Babylon. Her downfall is lamented on earth but celebrated in heaven.
19 1 – 22 5 present a vision of “The End”
Re 19 Amid great canticles of praise, John then sees heaven opened, and a rider who is called Faithful and True comes on a white horse to wage a final victorious war against all the kings of earth. The flesh of those kings is consumed in a grotesque but spectacular banquet, and the beasts responsible for the tribulation mentioned earlier are thrown into a lake of fire.
Re 20. Satan is imprisoned, and those who proved faithful in the previous trials are allowed to reign with Christ on earth for one thousand years. After that time, Satan is released for a final battle and then is thrown into the lake of fire to be tormented forever and ever.
Re 21-22. Then John sees a new heaven and a new earth, and a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. He concludes his book with a thrilling vision of paradise: gates of pearl and streets of gold, and a city in which there is no fear or pain or trouble of any kind.
22 6-21 epilogue: Just as the book began with Jn on Patmos, it concludes with Jn on Patmos coming out of this visionary state, making statements that have something to do with his own historical situation.
Re often has created problems for theological leaders in the church, many of whom have not always known what to make of it. It was the only book of the NT on which John Calvin did not write a commentary. And Martin Luther admitted freely (although he “walked that back” in his later years), as we noted in the introduction, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.” Still, it surely has been a boon to artists and poets. Pieter Brueghel, William Blake, Salvador Dali, and countless others have been inspired by its fantastic imagery, and, as noted previously, no other book in the NT has contributed so generously to the church’s hymnody and liturgy.
At a crassly popular level, Re continues to fuel everything from pulp fiction to Christian rock operas to Hollywood horror movies. Remember, Re may be the most misunderstood book of the Bible but it’s still the one book beloved by the fanatics of every generation. Re has proven to be a book to fire the imagination, to take readers beyond themselves. It also expands our horizons, spatially and temporally. We travel from earth to heaven and from the present to the future, without always knowing exactly what the experience means.
These are the matters we’ll be addressing directly as we now move into our discussion of certain passages found in this Revelation to John.
Read vv 1-8. These verses establish the authenticity, the intention and describe the apocalyptic nature of the letter. vv 1-3 serve as a prologue while vv 4-8 contain the greetings and opening doxology.
Note: We will be spending more time on certain passages within Re and this is one of those texts that requires more time. If I fail to lay the proper groundwork with you now, you’ll only be more likely to get lost as we move deeper into this wonderful book of Re. [That may still happen anyway but it won’t be because I didn’t try!]
Re is at one time the most wonderful of biblical books and yet the most puzzling. We must begin by better understanding the idea of revelation itself. That’s the word that has come to be used as the title for the book (not ‘revelations’, not plural). This is partly because the original word, ‘Apocalypse’ wasn’t well known at the time of earlier translations into English. Now, of course,’apocalypse’ and its cousin ‘apocalyptic’, have become well-known in English. Perhaps it’s become too well-known because these words have come to refer, not so much to the sudden unveiling of previously hidden truth, but to ‘apocalyptic’ events – violent and disturbing events such as natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis) or major and horrific human actions. Thus, in that sense, 9-11 in the USA was an ‘apocalyptic’ event.
However, that’s not the sense that revelation or apocalypse has in Re. The author, John, is sometimes called ‘John the Seer’ or ‘John the Divine’. As discussed above John is sometimes identified with the John who wrote the gospel and epistles. Here in Re this John is using a way of writing well-known in the Jewish world of the time – apocalyptic. This way of writing was designed to correspond to, and make available, the visions seen by holy, prayerful people who were wrestling with the question of the divine purpose and what they saw going on all around them. Just like any theater audience, they and the rest of God’s people sometimes felt like they were in the dark. As they studied their ancient scriptures and said their prayers, they believed that the story they were hearing was building up to something, but they weren’t 100% quite sure what. But then, like someone all by themselves in the theater for the first performance, the ‘seer’ [seer reflects the reality that they are ‘one who sees’ something that other people do not see] the seer finds that the curtain is suddenly pulled up. Suddenly the ‘seer’ is witnessing a scene. In fact, the seer is invited to be part of the scene within God’s ongoing drama. That’s what’s going on in this Revelation to John.
Revelation the idea, and this book are based on the ancient Jewish belief that God’s sphere of being and operation (heaven) and our sphere (earth) are not after all separated by a great gulf. Still, these two spheres meet, merge and meld into one another in all kinds of ways. For ancient Jews, the place where this happened supremely was the Temple in Jerusalem, something that will be quite important to note as the action proceeds in Re. Unfortunately, most humans seem blind to this, only seeing the earthly side of the story. Some people, some Christians, are aware that there is more to life, but they aren’t quite sure what it’s all about. Ancient Jews also struggled to see both sides of the story, though it was often too much of an effort for them just as it is for believers today.
The early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth had become, in person, the place where heaven and earth met. That might be hard for some people to understand but that’s what was going on during Jesus’ ministry. Looking at Jesus – and contemplating his death and resurrection in particular – they believed they could see right into God’s own world. They believed they could then understand things about his purpose which nobody had imagined before. Additionally, coming to this position was just part of the process of coming to the fullness of faith.
Fortunately, it didn’t stop there. As the early Christian movement grew and developed momentum, further questions emerged. What was God doing now? What were his plans for the little churches dotted around the Mediterranean world? Where was it all going?
In particular the questions always on the table were, “Why was God still allowing followers of Jesus to suffer persecution? What line should they take when faced with the fastest growing ‘religion’ of the time, namely the worship of Caesar, the Roman emperor (also called the emperor cult)? Should they resist?”
They wondered how were they to deal with this because, as you already know, this was to become a “life or death” situation both in the real world of life here on earth as well as in the very real world of the life to come in the consummated kingdom of God. It was to become that big a deal!!!
Next, there were probably several groups of Christians in ancient Turkey where John seems to have been based. These Christians would have been mostly poor, and they would have met for worship in one another’s homes. By way of contrast, people were building grand and expensive temples for Caesar and his family in various cities (as a part of the emperor cult) because they were eager to show Rome how loyal they were. What would Jesus himself say about this? Did it mean that, after all, the Christians were wasting their time, following a crucified Jew rather than the one (Caesar) who was rather obviously the ‘lord of the world’? In other words, were the Christians backing the wrong horse?
Re was written to say ‘no’ to that question and to say much more besides. For instance, they were saying, “No, Christians were not wasting their time. No, Caesar was not the lord of the world.” At the core of Re is a fresh revelation of Jesus the Messiah v 1. John, with his head and his heart full of Israel’s scriptures, discovered on one particular occasion, as he was praying, that the curtain was pulled back Re 1 9 ff. He found himself face-to-face with Jesus himself! We will come to that in the next passage.
But in this passage, the introductiontotheintroduction of his book, we already learn five important things about what sort of book this is and how we ought to read it. Of course, it goes without saying that we ought to read it with careful prayer and thought, being ready for God to lift the curtain so that we, too, can glimpse more than we had imagined.
First, this book is a fourstage revelation (apocalypse). It is about something God has revealed to Jesus himself v 1, and which Jesus is then passing on via an angel v 1, to his servants, through one particular servant, John. The sequence goes like this: God Jesus angel John churches. These lines get blurred as the book goes on, but this framework remains basic.
Second, the book takes the form of an extended letter. There are particular letters in Re 2-3 to the seven churches in western Turkey, but the book as a whole is a letter from John to all the churches, telling them what he has seen.
Third, the book is a prophecy as John says in v 3. Like many prophets in ancient Israel, John drew freely on earlier biblical traditions. (Think here about intertextuality: echo and allusion. Just as in the other NT books, echo and allusion are EVERYWHERE here in Re.) These echoes and allusions were in themselves revelations of God and his purposes. Again and again, they come up fresh and in new forms.
Fourth, the book functions as witness as John states in v 2. Here we meet a familiar problem with language and the words that languages use. The word in question here is the Greek word marturi,an [which is noun accusative feminine singular common from marturi,a, aj f testimony, witness, evidence; reputation (1 Ti 3 7)].
The words for ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ are basically the same, coming from the same Greek stem – marturi,a, but it’s difficult to settle on one of these English words to the exclusion of the other when translating from the Greek into the English, or into other languages as well. So most scholars use both witness and testimony as they translate marturi,a.
However, we should remember two things whenever we see either of these two words in our English translations.
1. These words regularly carry a sense that God is ultimately conducting a great heavenly lawcourt. In that lawcourt, the “witness” borne by Jesus and his followers is a key to the ultimate judgment and verdict. More later.
2. These words regularly carry the sense which this original Greek word marturi,a has given to the English language – that English word being martyr. Those who bear this ‘testimony’ may well be called to suffer, or even to die, for what they have said. They may one day become a martyr.
Fifth, and far and away the most important to know about this book: As we continue reading in Re, everything that is to come flows from the central figure, Jesus himself, and ultimately from God the father, ‘He Who Is and Who Was and Who Is To Come’ vv 4, 8. Even in this short opening John manages to unveil a good deal of what he believes about God and Jesus, as well as about the divine plan. (That’s how apocalyptic works too.) God is the Almighty, the beginning and the end as we see in v 8. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and this title occurs at the beginning and the end of John’s book (see also 22 13). Other ‘lords’ and rulers will claim similar titles, but there is only one God to whom they belong. Remember Ps 96 5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. The God of Israel, YHWH, created the cosmos; YHWH created everything. YHWH alone is to be loved, praised, thanked and worshiped. Never forget that! I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no other gods but me (Ex 20 1-2). And we have the shema of Dt 6 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Further, Jesus is the one who, through his suffering, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension, has accomplished God’s purposes for the humanity he loves. His love for his people, his liberation of them by his selfsacrifice, his purposes for them (not just to rescue them, but to put them to important work in his service) all these are stated here briefly in Re 1 6. And, not least, Jesus is the one who will soon return to complete the task, to set up his rule on earth just as it currently is in heaven. Remember the words we have in Jn 14 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Of course, nobody in the first century knew exactly when Jesus would return. And, in spite of all the wacky types who claim to know when Jesus will return again, we still don’t know when Jesus will return for his second advent. [Mk 13 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.] Hence, we still await that moment today. But Christian living, and indeed belief in this one God, only makes sense on the assumption that he will indeed come to set everything right at last. That’s what scripture clearly tells us and I have faith that it will occur just as scripture has promised.
Let’s now settle back into our seats, put other concerns out of our minds, and wait for the curtain to rise as John’s vision continues to unfold before us.
Reread vv 1-3.
Looking more closely now at vv 1-3 we see that they demonstrate for us a sense of certainty within the situation of an uncertain future. So what do I mean by that?
In reading the opening verses of Re we can immediately begin to see how the book is to be understood. The opening sentence (in the Greek) of the prologue discloses to the reader the origin and content of his book. The source of the revelation was God who spoke through the Son who, in turn, communicated it through an angel to his servant John – his angel who showed to God’s people the things that were to be. God gave this revelation to John in order to show what “must soon take place.”
The sense of the word must here does not mean the necessity imposed by fate but instead the sense of must here results from the understanding that this is as the result of the sure fulfillment of the purposes of God that have been laid out in their Hebrew scriptures for over a thousand years. In other words, the hearers of Re would have immediately drawn on their Hebrew scriptures and thought things through by using their Jewish eyes, ears and brains in order to make the connection the author John here was trying to achieve. As always, for us to truly and most fully understand our NT documents, we must look, hear and think as a Jew of the first century. When you do that you are operating out of the Jewish matrix which lies within all of us Christians no matter what our denomination.
The word soon indicates that John intended his message for his own generation. In other words, there is a distinct sense of urgency in John’s words. to show his servants what must soon take place is why apocalyptic literature is written, that is, to show the immediate future. In their understanding the author and his community are living in the last times. The end is coming soon and his ‘predictions,’ even if we can call them that, are for the period that has already started. He is writing to encourage his fellow believers in their present and projected persecution. In that sense Re is every bit as much an “occasional writing” as any letter of Paul or any other document in the NT and must therefore be understood within its historical setting. In fact, when we totally divorce Re from its historical setting, we do a real number on the book particularly as we begin to read it as a timeless blueprint for when God has to do whatever it is that God is going to do at the end of time. And that becomes the real point of dialogue with certain neo-apocalyptic wacko types who are on cable TV at this very moment telling us exactly when the end of the world is going to be.
In all of this we see that God desires to give certainty to his people in the midst of an uncertain future – but only on God’s terms. In this Revelation to John God will not answer all of our questions, but He will show us that in the midst of seeming defeat we can have hope because the victory has already been won. That is why those who read this book are called blessed (1 3).
God’s people will be blessed when they take this book to heart because the time is near. The time of persecution had arrived for God’s people and the words of this revelation – this book – provide them with the strength to endure by pointing them to the final victory – which, of course, has already been won by Jesus on the cross.
The revelation given to John that comprises the content of this book is given through God’s angel. The angels are ministering spirits who served God and his people. Angels are mentioned throughout the Scriptures, from Ge to Re, and are active from their singing at the creation of the world (Jb 38 7) through their return with Christ at the day of judgment (Mt 25 31). The very term “angel” means “messenger,” and one of their most important functions in the Scriptures is that of delivering messages from God which mark momentous events in the deliverance of His people.
Examples of this would include the appearance of the “angel of the Lord” (possibly even the preincarnate Christ Himself) which we see all over the place in our Old and New Testaments. We see the angel of the Lord coming 1. to the patriarchs and 2. to Moses at the burning bush to call him to lead Israel out of captivity to the Promised Land, 3. to the use of angels in the call of other prophets (for example, Isaiah in Is 6), and 4. the announcement of the coming births of children who would be instrumental in the deliverance both of OT Israel and of the whole world –
the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah,
the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth,
the birth of Jesus to Mary and to Joseph,
culminating in the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.
Whenever angels speak, the message is to be heard as though coming from the mouth of God himself.
The multitude of angels is often referred to as the “heavenly host,” the heavenly army of God which fights for his people. As such, angels serve to bring God’s judgment upon his enemies. For instance, a band of destroying angels brought death to the firstborn of the Egyptians (Ps 78 49). He sent an angel to bring destruction against Israel because of David’s disobedience (2 Sam 24 1516) and against the Assyrians when they were threatening to destroy Jerusalem (2 Ki 19 35).
In other words, just as elsewhere in scripture, angels are active in carrying out God’s judgment against the world throughout Re and also are active in the war against the armies of Satan. [Have you thanked your guardian angel lately? Have you thanked Jesus lately?!]
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,
1 VApoka,luyij VIhsou/ Cristou/ h]n e;dwken auvtw/| o` qeo.j dei/xai toi/j dou,loij auvtou/ a] dei/ gene,sqai evn ta,cei( kai. evsh,manen avpostei,laj dia. tou/ avgge,lou auvtou/ tw/| dou,lw| auvtou/ VIwa,nnh|(
v 1 provides a clear key to the apocalyptic nature of the text because it’s John the seer who received the revelation. With the first six Greek words (literally: revelation of Jesus Christ which gave to him) John immediately ties this revelation in with the giving of the revelation of Jesus Christ. This revelation is given by God to Jesus, and by Jesus (through the angel) to the seer, John. Hence, all of the elements of apocalyptic are present: John received the message from God. It was this same message which God had given to Jesus who, in turn, had, through a messenger (an angel), given the message to John in order to show the people what they must know. John didn’t just write on his own; John was God’s scribe. [In the same fashion good preaching is not just words of the preacher but that which God has inspired.] It is a Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to Jesus to show his servants by sending an angel to John.
This beginning – the revelation (apocalypse) of Jesus Christ … to his servant John – follows ancient literary conventions in which the first sentence functions as a title presenting the essential contents of the composition.
the revelation of Jesus Christ indicates the immediate source of Jn’s revelatory visions while their ultimate source is God as we see with which God gave him.
The insistence that the events predicted in Jn’s visions must soon take place frames the whole book, here at 1 1 and at 22 6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”, and again with the time is near which we have at 1 3 and again at 22 10. Also, this mediating angel of 1 1 is mentioned again only in 22 6-9, 16. Two other angelic guides appear in 17 1-18 and 21 9 – 22 5.
The very first word of the document is VApoka,luyij which means revelation (singular!!!) and which gives us the title of the whole document. [VApoka,luyij noun nominative feminine singular common from avpoka,luyij, ewj f revelation / apocalypse.] This is the first work known to us that has ‘apocalypse’ in its title. In fact, this is the first appearance of the term in apocalyptic literature so that has become the title for this genre of literature. VApoka,luyij actually only appears here in v 1 and no where else.
Over the centuries what must soon take place has lent itself to people scrutinizing Re in an effort to find specific predictions of today’s events in the events announced in Re’s visions. Inevitably they are disappointed for they fail to see that the real purpose of Re is to give comfort to Christians of all times.
John himself steps into the background. Notice that Jn seems to have had some kind of standing in the community because he doesn’t have to identify himself other than by calling himself by his name. He has no title here; his only identity is that of a dou,loj. He doesn’t have to go through a whole song and dance saying who he is. For instance, he doesn’t call himself “Jn the apostle.” It’s just assumed that his readers knew who he was and that he had the authority to say what he said. In other words, John himself is not important because the document is the revelation of Jesus Christ and it’s being revealed to John.
One can just imagine how John has been cringing these past 20 centuries over this document sometimes being called The Apocalypse of John!!! Instead, VIhsou/ Cristou/ is in the (subjective) genitive case so Jesus is the subject, or the actor, who does the revealing. That is, it’s Jesus Christ’s revelation; it’s a revelation that somehow belongs to Jesus. Hence, to call it the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is to assert divine authority here. In other words, this is a divine word of God himself.
e;dwken This is not only Jesus’ revelation but it’s the revelation that was given to Jesus by God.
o` qeo.j In Re God is the one who is revealed through Jesus Christ, ie, God is defined by Jesus. [Remember, how do we know who God is? Look at Jesus! Jesus is God.] And just as God is defined here by Christ (the anointed one), so in a real way Christ is defined by Jesus. That is, Jesus is defined as the one “dying for us” [who has died for us] in 1 5 and 5 9.
Notice that unlike the other NT documents such as the gospels, there is no attention paid to the teachings or ministry of Jesus in Re because what is important in terms of this document is that Jesus is the one who died on the cross and who was raised from the dead and who ascended to his throne at the right hand of God where he reigns as King, and all of this was God’s way of salvation for humanity. So God is defined here by Christ who is defined by Jesus who is defined by the phrase “dying-for-us.”
So we can see that we can say it here in simple terms but the message being provided in this Revelation to John is deeply permeated through and through with the vast theological story behind the Story, with the story of OT promises and prophecy here coming to fulfillment in the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, YHWH incarnate, who died that we might live. Thank you Jesus.
There’s much more that could said about v 1 but we must move on to v 2.
2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
2 o]j evmartu,rhsen to.n lo,gon tou/ qeou/ kai. th.n marturi,an VIhsou/ Cristou/ o[sa ei=denÅ
Here in v 2 Jn is more closely defined / identified as the one who bore witness ( marturi,a) to the Word of God and to the witness (or testimony) of Jesus which he saw. He gave his marturi,a martyria, his witness.
That was very important for the readers of Re because they were experiencing persecution, being arrested and being hauled into court as we discussed previously. Depending on how you understand the background of this document, it seems as though some Christians were being called into court and being asked to offer incense to Domitian in the temples built in his honor. Faithful Christians would not address any human being as “lord and god” – as Domitian required – nor would they participate in offering incense to Domitian.
Christians who refused to participate in emperor worship (the emperor cult) exposed themselves to the charge not only of being unpatriotic, but also of being subversive and enemies of the state. Persecution would necessarily follow.
Therefore, those Christians called into court were “witnesses” in the legal, technical sense. The term for that is that in court was that you gave your witness, your marturi,a. You as a Christian were called to give your witness all the way to death if need be. In fact, they had already had a man named Antipas who had witnessed all the way to his death as we will read in Re 2 13.
So what is happening here in early Christianity is this ‘Greek word family’ of marturi,a was becoming a technical term in Christianity for someone (a martyr) who bore his/her witness all the way to death. In other words, in Re the whole language family of ‘I give witness’ or ‘my witness’ – which comes from the Greek word marturi,a – is in the process of changing from just the legal term definition into meaning blood martyrdom, that is, that the Christian would witness all the way to their death. John plays with this a little here as well as also later when he speaks of Jesus who is the witness. John does this again in 22 16, 18, 20. But here already we have the reference to the witness of Jesus and, obviously, this community knew that Jesus had already witnessed all the way to death over sixty years earlier.
So the word martyr, of course, comes from martyria marturi,a. In Re Jesus is called the martyr, the witness, the ma,rtuj in Re 1 5. Interestingly enough, one of the titles that is then given to Jesus is that Jesus is the ma,rtuj: Jesus is the witness. You see that in v 5 with the words ‘and from Jesus Christ the witness.’ You also get this usage in 3 14.
So the long and short of this verse is that:
if you are a Christian in the process of being persecuted,
if you are hearing this read and you have the potential of being arrested and of having to give witness for you faith,
if you don’t know what tomorrow may bring,
if you don’t know when you leave home in the morning whether you will ever see those people again in the evening or at anytime in your life,
if you don’t know if you will live through the day because of pressures being put on Christians,
it may, therefore, be of some significance to you (my tongue is very much buried in my cheek here) to be reminded that Jesus had been a witness, that Jesus had been faithful and witnessed all the way to death (and who overcame death) and that you were now being called to witness to this same Jesus just as he witnessed all those years ago to the point of his own death.
Therefore, from the very beginning of Re we are to understand everything in this letter concerns Jesus. Of course, Re concerns itself, in part, with the “end times” (the consummated kingdom of God at Jesus’ second advent / coming that we’ve been talking about in my other classes). BUT … the entire essence of Re is about Jesus – his incarnation, life, ministry, suffering, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the right hand of God where he now reigns, King of his kingdom. In other words, at the heart of Re is, of course, Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!
Now just as with the other NT documents, as we move along in Re we will discover Jesus teaches us who God is. This book of Re is a continuation of Jesus’ story that we’ve studied in each and every one of our other classes; it’s the continuation of the story behind the Story found in our Hebrew scriptures.
As we move along we will find out that when Jesus left to ascend to the Father, He was not done with us! That’s what Re testifies to.
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.
3 Maka,rioj o` avnaginw,skwn kai. oi` avkou,ontej tou.j lo,gouj th/j profhtei,aj kai. throu/ntej ta. evn auvth/| gegramme,na( o` ga.r kairo.j evggu,jÅ
The word aloud is not in the Greek even though it’s clearly implied. John intended for Re to be read aloud. When you hear it read aloud, especially in the original Greek, something changes. You begin to notice all the alliteration (the repeating of letters) and mnemonic devices which are used for memorization. Remember also that in NT times reading was usually a group activity (only 5% were literate) in which one person read to all the others.
Note: It is believed that the entire book was repeated over and over until people had it memorized. In the early church and before, before most people could read, everything was memorized. In fact, we know that they were much better at memorization than we are today. The theologian Philo had large portions of Scripture memorized until he learned to read after which time he was not able to memorize as well.
The Greek phrase o` avnaginw,skwn kai. oi` avkou,ontej the one reading and the ones hearing very likely indicates that this book was being read in worship. John’s placement of this within worship indicates that this document was not be to be used as a reading for a few who were seeking special secret knowledge, but rather it was to be read as a prophetic word in the openness of the gathered community, just as Paul’s letters were to be read in worship.
Therefore, in the early church the book of Re was used and recited, most likely in its entirety, as a part of the communion worship service. Of course, our Lutheran divine worship liturgy is shorter than Re but it is taken primarily from Re! As Christians we believe that every time we come to the feast, we are living in the End Time. In our Eucharist celebrations the first Lord’s Supper comes forward into the present and the wedding banquet of Is 25 comes backward from the future into the present as well. It’s that moment in which all of this is being realized. At the Supper it is God doing something right now. It’s not just a remembering of something that happened 2000 years ago. It’s happening right now! It’s the experiencing of something from the past and something from our future. Our Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the feast to come! It’s what it’s going to be like on the last day but necessarily with different meaning then than now. .
Remember also that manuscripts were costly and few Christian groups could afford them. In the absence of scrolls (and later, codices) there was, of course, a great emphasis on the public reading of handwritten copies of communications to congregations. Whatever gospel or Pauline letter of Johannine writing they may have had in their possession, they read it – usually from beginning to end.
The fact that a designated person read aloud indicates that this revelation to Jn was meant to be used in Christian worship. We see this also in Co 4 16; 1 Th 5 27. cf 1 Ti 4 13.
16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.
27 I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The term blessed will be used to describe God’s people six more times in this book, making a total of seven “beatitudes.” [Maka,rioj adjective normal nominative masculine singular no degree from maka,rioj, a, on blessed, fortunate, happy; mÅ qeo,j God who is worthy of all praise (1 Ti 1 11; 6 15)]
In fact, an often neglected feature of Re are its seven Beatitudes which are interspersed throughout Re here beginning at 1 3; 14 3; 16 5; 19 9; 20 6; 22 7 and finally in 22 14. [Of course, some scholars have placed some significance on the fact that there are seven Beatitudes.]
Remember the place of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount of Mt 5 1-12 (cf Lk 6 20-23) as well as elsewhere in Mt 11 6; Mk 11 9; Lk 10 23; 11 27-28; 23 29 and Jn 13 17; 20 29.
So we find beatitudes in Jesus but there are also beatitudes in the prophets at Is 19 25, 30 18, 56 2 and Jm 17 7.
A Beatitude begins with the word blessed maka,rioj and signals an action of God in which God does the blessing, an action given apart from the world’s standard values. As such, a Beatitude functions to reverse the values of the world. Just as Jesus’ Beatitudes of the gospels emphasized God’s blessing of those most despised in the world – the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, so also the Beatitudes were used here in Re as vehicles of hope, as promises of God’s blessing to those who suffered for the witness to Christ in the world.
Blessed is the one (singular person) reading and the ones (plural) hearing. We have talked about the aural (having to do with the ears / hearing) nature of the literature earlier. The blessing on those who hear and read the words out loud was most likely pronounced for a worship setting. That is, the author was probably imagining a worship setting for this revelation. In fact, Re is chocked full of worship materials – hymns and liturgy. Remember that a great deal of the liturgy from Lutheran as well as other Christian hymnals is straight out of Re. Remember also that our entire liturgy comes from the Bible and much of it right out of Re even though most parishioners don’t know that.
Remember also that some scholars contend that Re was read to the congregation in the slot of the sermon (as the sermon), and it was written in such a way that the author ushered the people into this world of visions and then at the end the author led you right into receiving the Lord’s Supper.
God’s people will be blessed when they take this book to heart, because “the time is near.” The time of persecution, of seeming defeat, has arrived for God’s people, and the words of this book provide them with the strength to endure by pointing them to the final victory.
Since John here calls his words a prophecy, these words therefore have the same weight of the words of the OT prophets. Therefore, a divine blessing can be pronounced on those who read and who hear the book.
All of this is being written because the time is near which refers to the time when behavior will be judged. The nearness of the end is a consistent emphasis throughout Re. [For you story behind the Story people this forecasts the coming of YHWH to Zion.] It is not sometime in the distant future; it’s coming momentarily – soon. John views his writing as a prophecy directed to the Immanuel situation (God with us) of the church as we see here in v 3a as well as at 22 10 And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.
John does what prophets do; John applies God’s Word to their own day. The war between God and Satan was being waged on two stages the spiritual stage and the earthly stage. The spiritual battle raged on, and the defeat of Satan had already marked the real victory. However, members of the human race were not merely pawns in the struggle, but were, and are, deeply involved because, in part, the forces of Satan used other human beings in its quest for the destruction of the people of God. Far from being insignificant, what went on in the world had great spiritual significance because the eternal salvation of the people of God was at stake.
This revelation comes to John in the midst of this spiritual battle, as the forces of Satan – using the government of the Roman Empire – sought to destroy the church of God, through forcing either apostasy or death. Through the apocalyptic imagery of Re, Christians were promised that they already had the victory, even though that victory was visible only through the eyes of faith. This message of hope was conveyed in a way which only Christians could understand – because only Christians had the knowledge which unlocked the code of apocalyptic messages.
As always, the OT is the key.
As we next move into the greetings and doxology of Re in vv 4-8, we continue to be reminded of our “Jewish matrix” – as Dr. Walt Bouman, my Systematic Theology professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, often called it. We are Christians but our religious heritage goes all the way back to Christianity’s emergence out of Judaism. As such, our OT holds the key to everything we read in the NT including, but most especially, when reading Re. To read Re through any other lens is to miss the whole point of what John is saying to Christians then – as well as to Christians of all ages. It can be read in no other way.
Re recounts a vision of the risen Christ experienced by a Christian prophet named John. Here John describes Christ as (v 5) the faithful witness (or martyr), the firstborn of the dead, the ruler in a kingdom of priests, the one who comes, the beginning and the end of all time.
It is only through the OT that the symbolism of Re may be understood. In other words, the more you understand your OT, the more you will understand your NT. That’s just the way it’s always been and always will be. [As before we are, of course, talking about intertextuality: echo and allusion.] Verse 7, for example, declares that Jesus is coming with the clouds. This verse refers directly to Dn 7 13, in which the one like a Son of Man comes in the clouds and approaches the ancient of Days (the ancient one).
Dn 7 13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
In fact, Jesus Himself applied this prophecy to himself in our gospel accounts as recorded in Mt 24 30 and 26 64 and their parallels in Mk and Lk.
30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.
64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Remember always that the point of this intertextuality is that whenever a NT author echoes or alludes to another passage in the OT, they are also bringing the context of that OT passage forward into the present time. In other words, you cannot, for instance, fully understand a passage in one of Paul’s letters until you understand the context(s) of the passage(s) he is echoing. When writing, NT authors purposely echo and allude to OT passages, intending to draw in the whole context of the echoed passage. That said, you would be surprised to see how few scholars understand this and how few of them have gone back and looked carefully at these passages that the various NT authors echo in their documents. So remember, the echo always draws in the context of the echoed passage into the echoing passage. In fact, often that which might appear murky when just looking superficially at a particular passage might be illumined quite well by an echo so when doing your personal Bible study, be sure to read and study the texts that are being echoed or alluded to.
Further, the declaration later on in v 7 that even those who pierced him will look upon him is a direct citation of Zc 12 10, and alludes also to Is 53 5 and Ps 22 16.
10 And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. They have pierced my hands and feet. NIV
As we enter into a study of Re, we will see many strange creatures and awesome events, but many of them are referred to in the OT as well. Still, God is consistent, and the whole of history is in his hands.
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,
4 VIwa,nnhj tai/j e`pta. evkklhsi,aij tai/j evn th/| VAsi,a|\ca,rij u`mi/n kai. eivrh,nh avpo. o` w’n kai. o` h=n kai. o` evrco,menoj kai. avpo. tw/n e`pta. pneuma,twn a] evnw,pion tou/ qro,nou auvtou/
4b-8 Re begins with a series of messages addressed to seven churches which we read about in Re 2-3. John’s greeting to these churches extols God as one who controls their past, present, and future.
Asia v 4a here refers to the Roman province of Asia which was located in the western portion of what we call Asia Minor.
While there were certainly more than 7 churches in the region by the time Re was written as we know from Ac 20 5 ff and Co 1 4; 4 13, these are the seven that were specified v 11 below.
When you recognize the coded nature of Re, you can begin to make sense of the various numbers that occur in the book. In fact, the failure to properly understand the use of numbers in Re is responsible for some of its misuses which have arisen within – and without – the church, for example, the most false doctrine of premillennialism which speaks of a thousandyear reign of Christ on earth after His return but before the final judgment. [We’ll discuss this when it comes up in Re 20.]
Still, the numbers in Re are important for understanding the message of the book. The meanings of the numbers remain consistent throughout, and, of course, knowing the proper meaning will enable you to see the message. While there is not total agreement among scholars as to the precise meaning of some of the numbers, the following guidelines will help you in seeing the message behind the numbers.
The first significant number to appear in Re is the number seven as it does here in the salutation (greetings), appearing here for the first time in v 4 where it refers to the seven churches in Asia – who are the immediate recipients of the Revelation to John – and the seven spirits before the throne of God. [We will see a listing of these seven churches very soon in v 11 below.] The number seven is the most common number used in Re, appearing 54 times!
seven is the number of completeness, perfection, or holiness. The creation of the world culminated with God’s resting on the seventh day. The OT speaks of seven high festivals in the Jewish year, four of them falling in the seventh month, and two of them lasting for seven days. Since seven is the number for completeness, once you’ve written to seven churches, you’ve written to everyone. [This understanding and approach is quite typical within Judaism and in broader Greco-Roman, pan Mediterranean culture as well.] Remember that since the number seven was also meant to indicate completion/perfection, therefore, with seven churches John intended that the whole church would read the letter, the church then as the church now.
In other words, the salutation therefore indicates that the seven churches, while being seven real congregations, thus stand for the whole church in all the world. Additionally, the seven spirits symbolize the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit, perhaps referring to the sevenfold description of the Spirit in the Septuagint version of the OT at Is 11 2 He is the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel, of power, of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord. Note the literally seven designations of the Spirit of the Lord being mentioned here. [Count them out; there are seven of them!]
Seven is also the sum of two other numbers standing for completeness: 3, which is the number of God (the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and 4, the number of the world (the four directions of the compass). The number 3 1/2 (half of 7), is always associated with the evil forces which oppress the church, usually those spiritual and religious in nature. This number comes in several variants as well, for instance:
1. “a time, and times, and half a time,” in Re 12; and
2.. 42 months or 1260 days (three and onehalf years) in Re 11-12.
The numbers 12 and 10 are also of great significance. The number 12 refers to OT Israel (the 12 tribes) and NT Israel, the church (the 12 apostles). Ten and its cube, 1,000, represent completeness. These may be multiplied and combined to get important illustrative combinations: 24 (OT plus NT Churches); or 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000 represents the whole people of Godpast, present, and future).
As we move through the book, we will see how these numbers illustrate God’s truth to us, how they tell us what must soon take place, and how they are given to us to comfort us in the midst of our struggles in life.
So we see that the Revelation to John is an actual letter that was sent and circulated among the 7 churches of Asia. The letter is also in the format of a Pauline letter, and v 4 begins the salutation of the letter.
Further, vv 4b-5 form a doxology for the letter. [The word doxology comes from the Greek word doxologia – which itself comes from two Greek words, do,xa doxa meaning praise and legein meaning to speak – hence to speak praise or to praise. Therefore, a doxology is a form of praise to God – most commonly to the Persons of the Holy Trinity in a liturgical setting.] This doxology in vv 4b-5 was undoubtedly patterned after the ancient baptismal formula. [Being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit meant, and means, that we become adopted into God’s family and that we therefore live in the safety of the promises of Jesus.] All of this establishes (in baptism) an alternative to Caesar. Being baptized as a Christian was saying here is something else in life, something other than what Caesar is doing, and this something else, faith in Jesus, can be yours. And that happens by way of baptism.
Note: John followed Paul’s doxological format indicating he was familiar with Paul’s style of writing which is highly likely given that most scholars agree that Paul’s letters were finished by the 60’s and that they were being circulated as a group by the end of the first century. Re is dated to the end of the first century so its logical to assume that the author of Re undoubtedly knew of and had read Paul’s letters by that time. Today, in fact, nearly as many correlations are being made between Re and Paul as are being made between Re and the gospel of John. [Things like these keep scholars up nights!]
grace and peace
John opens with this dual salutation of grace and peace, something St. Paul had also done previously at the beginning of all his letters. For instance, we have in Ro 1 7 to all those who are in Rome beloved of God, called to be saints: grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
ca,rij grace is very likely related to the way that in Greek you still say hello [ today it’s chira sp phonetically ] but in antiquity you would have said cai,rein greetings. So Paul (as does here John) has likely taken the typical Greek way of saying “hello” cai,rein and then given it a theological twist with a similar sounding word ca,rij thereby turning it into grace. [See also Re 22 21.] Then the other part of the greeting is peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.
eivrh,nh peace in the Greek translates the Hebrew word shalom which is the typical Jewish greeting. The Hebrew word Shalom means fullness, well-being. Shalom was used both for greeting and farewell with great richness of meaning among the Jews. Shalom means far, far more than “a lack of war,” for instance, and instead points to a full societal and personal well-being, coupled with righteousness. Further, Shalom is possible only as a gift of God.
It’s obviously no accident that Paul used these two words – ca,rij and eivrh,nh – in combination and in the rest of his letters just as John (later in time) does here in Re 1.
So once more you would plug in everything you know about shalom in the OT as referring to fullness of life that John will provide in vv 4b-8. And, of course, the source of the blessing is the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Grace and peace always stand in this order; it’s never peace and grace. This grace and peace come from God, reminding us of the favor and acceptance that God has extended to believers. It is because of God’s grace that people can enjoy peace – peace with God as well as the peace of God, something that imparts inner poise and tranquility, even amid the hardest of experiences in life.
Following Paul’s introduction of this phrase in his letters, “Grace and peace,” of course, soon became a traditional greeting among Christians. For instance, see also 1 Pe 1 2, 2 Pe 1 2 and here with John in Re 1 4.
In 4b John gives a Pauline blessing – for example, grace and peace to you. – and again reminds us that this is witness to Jesus. In his letters Paul usually says grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ or something like that. In other contexts sometimes Paul will bring the Holy Spirit in such as in 2 Cor 13 13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Next, now that you know that that’s the normal thing that authors do in ancient Christian circles when writing letters – that is, you give salutations, benedictions in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – if that is the norm, where then do we see that here in vv 4-5? Remember, you must read it as it was written, apocalyptically. Let’s now put that together.
So where is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the apocalyptic document Re?
John adds three phrases identifying the source of the grace and peace. Of course, with his three phrases John is alluding to the three Persons of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even though they are arranged in an unaccustomed order. Further, he does not use the usual language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to refer to them but instead he uses apocalyptic language which would have been immediately understood by his (informed) hearers that he was talking about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Thus, John uses apocalyptic language to change the salutation from God the Father to from the one who is and who was and who is to come v 4 in order to provide us with this wonderful, poetic (and apocalyptic) description of God. In other words, from him who is and who was and who is to come refers to YHWH. As for the ordering here, we can see that John would have been inclined to say that God is the one who was and is and is to be, but here John wants to stress the eternal presence of God so he begins by referring to from one who is. Notice this very exalted way of talking about God, the one who is and who was and who is to come. That is, since he begins with the verb form of who is, this phrase tells us God is eternal. He’s saying that the primary thing he can say about God is that God is the ever-present (eternal) one.
In fact, John is most probably here alluding to God’s self-disclosure to Moses I AM WHO I AM in Ex 3 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” Therefore, not only do we get the intertextuality of echo and allusion that we’ve seen all over the place in our Bible but we get it in apocalyptic language to boot!!! This is really amazing material here being presented by God through Jesus through the angel to John on Patmos. Amazing material!
Secondly, we next hear that this grace and peace comes from the seven spirits who are before the throne. In other words, for the first time in Re Jn importantly introduces the seven spirits of God. This is necessary in order to set the stage because that’s the only way to say what seven spirits means in the rest of its usages as we read in Re 3 1; 4 5; and 5 6.
Seven, we know, symbolizes perfection, and here in this highly symbolic apocalyptic language seven spirits symbolizes the Holy Spirit – as they will throughout Re. So John is using the expression in order to symbolize the plenitude, the fullness, the completeness and the power of the Holy Spirit. That is clear because notice that grace and peace are coming from these seven spirits which are before his throne.
Note: seven spirits can not be angels, as some scholars have postulated, because grace can’t come from angels. Angels are just creatures like we are – more powerful – but creatures none-the-less. [See notes above concerning the allusion to Is 11 2.] grace and peace can only come from God, and here in vv 4-5 we have grace coming from the three persons of the godhead. Therefore, it appears from the way that Jn includes grace and peace in the salutation that he intends this talk about the Father (the one who is and who was v 4), Jesus Christ (v 5) and then the seven spirits which are before his throne (v 4) … that he intends all of this to mean that the seven spirits which are before his throne is another way of talking about the Holy Spirit by stressing the omniscience and omnipotence of the Holy Spirit (in for example 5 6) and also by stressing the fullness of the Holy Spirit in calling it the seven spirits which are before God’s throne.
Thirdly, grace and peace are also from Jesus Christ who is described as the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth v 5. Wow! The “apocalyptic hits” just keep coming at John’s hearers and readers!
At a time when many Christians were suffering because of their Christian witness, this would have served as a poignant reminder and encouragement to them that Jesus Christ was the faithful witness “par excellence.” because Jesus took it all the way to death for us, even death on a cross. [We see this also at 1 Ti 6 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you … ] Further, the description the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth echoes Ps 89 27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth in which YHWH appoints David, and by implication, the Son of David as the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. Also, John’s use of the title the firstborn is related to Christ’s status in the Hebrew scriptures promise of resurrection as we read in Co 1 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. See also 1 Cor 15 20 and Ro 8 29.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
Structurally John lists the three in the order of God, Spirit and Jesus Christ because he intends to continue his reference to Jesus Christ by the addition of a doxology along with some other statements about Christ. Therefore, instead of interrupting the sequence of his subjects by using the order of God – Jesus – Spirit – and then come back to Jesus once again, he varies the accustomed order so as to provide a smoother transition to the doxology. [Just because we are accustomed to hear it in the order of Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not mean that to hear the Godhead talked of in another order (such as Father, Spirit, Son) would make it any less trinitarian or less powerful.]
Then John further identifies Jesus as the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood in v 5. Also noteworthy here is John’s choice of verb tenses in the Greek. John says Jesus Christ loves us (right now in the present), and he says that in the past Jesus Christ freed us from our sin when he died on the cross. However, some of the later Greek manuscripts instead read who loves us and washed us from our sins” where the scribes confused the word lusanti (which means freed) with the word lousanti (which means washed. Actually both readings are theologically significant.
In summary, grace and peace is coming from:
him who is and who was and who is to come is God the Father.
and from Jesus Christ is the Son.
and from the seven spirits who are before his throne is the Holy Spirit.
Thus, clearly, the seven spirits symbolize the Holy Spirit and indicate the wonder of this almighty, divine Holy Spirit of God. In other words, exegetically, seven spirits only seems to work as meaning the Holy Spirit here and elsewhere in Re such as in Re 3 1; 4 5; and 5 6.
Therefore, vv 4-5 are really apocalyptic code language for “grace and peace to you from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the same trinitarian formula we see used in other NT documents. That explains it all. Notice this trinitarian framework told apocalyptically: God, Christ, spirit / Father, son, spirit. Hence, just as in Paul, we have the trinitarian framework here in Re 1 4-5 as well; it’s just that John has expressed it using apocalyptic language so as to at one and the same time both uncover and cover as discussed above.
Therefore, v 4 is telling us that all of these churches have at their disposal all of the characteristics of the Holy Spirit such as the presence of God (Shekinah), the creative and sustaining characteristic, the gathering spirit, the inspiration, etc. All of these are now at these churches’ disposal.
Note: Shekinah (Hebrew for dwelling) is a term that in the writings of the rabbis came to mean the presence of God. It occurs as a manifestation or revelation of God. Although the term is not found in the OT, the term may be used in reference to God’s glory filling the temple in 1 Ki 8 11, 2 Chr 7 1 or God’s presence in the cloud of Ex 14 19, etc.
So we now see that the mention of the seven spirits with the seven churches is code language telling us that the full presence of the Holy Spirit is in the midst of the seven churches. That is, the Holy Spirit is in the midst of the whole church – both here on earth – and in heaven as well. Wow!
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,
5 kai. avpo. VIhsou/ Cristou/( o` ma,rtuj( o` pisto,j( o` prwto,tokoj tw/n nekrw/n kai. o` a;rcwn tw/n basile,wn th/j gh/jÅ Tw/| avgapw/nti h`ma/j kai. lu,santi h`ma/j evk tw/n a`martiw/n h`mw/n evn tw/| ai[mati auvtou/(
This is one loaded verse!
So not only does the greeting come from God and the seven spirits v 4, it also comes from Jesus Christ Ihsou/ Cristou. John makes it quite clear that we are talking specifically about Jesus, the Christ, here. This is also the last use we will get the title Jesus Christ. From now on it will be “Jesus” except 22 20-21 where it is “Lord Jesus .” ku,rie VIhsou/Å
We probably have here the technical meaning of “martyr,” o` ma,rtuj( and, in addition to being the martyr, he is also the faithful one [the editors put a comma after witness]. So the way they are reading it is, “the witness, the faithful one.” However, in 3 14 and 2 13, the editors to the Greek NT put the two together giving us “faithful witness” instead.
For Jn and his people this is most important because they are being called to witness, to be martyrs, and the one to whom they are witnessing is the one who gave his witness all the way to his death, Jesus Christ. Therefore, they are called upon to give witness all the way to death because it is Jesus – whom they are witnessing – who is the firstborn of the dead – who has already himself witnessed all the way to death for humanity!
In a sense the proof of the pudding (that they are to witness all the way to death, if necessary) is found in 2 13 where we get a man named Antipas who has been killed because he also was a faithful witness or a faithful martyr.
So whether or not you have an organized persecution in place at this time, persecution and the resultant martyrdom is clearly on the horizon. The “smell of persecution” is growing stronger.
In a sense that helps us understand how Jn is coming at this because it helps us to see that Jesus is for us in this text. This is not Jesus in the abstract but Jesus as the one who has been the witness, the faithful one or the faithful witness. Thus, this is John helping us to see that Jesus is for us; it is Jesus who is the faithful witness.
See also 2 10; 12 11. We will discuss these passages as we come to them but they clearly link back to what we are here discussing in this passage.
the firstborn from the dead refers to Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection of Christ was never seen in isolation because it is the conquering of death. Hence, Jesus is the first to be raised, and then, in the power of his resurrection, all will be raised in the “general resurrection” at Jesus’ second advent / coming. [Remember, the words of the Lord’s Prayer: for yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory.] The whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not that he alone is raised from the dead. Instead, in the power of his resurrection all will be raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is the conquering of death. Therefore, we have this phrase – the firstborn from the dead – that is also used in Co 1 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
We have a paradox of language with this phrase “first born of the dead.” You can easily see this clash of images with the words ‘born’ and ‘dead’ – in the same phrase – which is typical of what Jn is going to do throughout Re.
Moreover, because Jesus is the first one resurrected from the dead signals that the end-time is in the process of happening – everything has already begun – because as faithful Christians living out of our Jewish context, we know from the story behind the Story that resurrection is an end-time event.
Notice again this is also a two stage resurrection – just as we see in the gospels and Paul’s letters. The same story is being told here in Re as in the rest of the NT. Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead and the source of the resurrection of all the rest of the dead at the time of Jesus’ second advent / coming.
This is just like we read in Paul’s letters. So we have this grace found in v 4 also coming from the Father and from Jesus Christ.
kai. o` a;rcwn tw/n basile,wn th/j gh/jÅ “and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Notice also that Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth. This is not a kingdom that is apart from the world of creation but it’s a kingdom which is destined to rule all creation. In other words, he’s the true king. This gives Jesus a title which was claimed by Roman rulers – King. So already the theme of worship of the true ruler is present.
Additionally, Jn may also be saying that Jesus is more powerful than all the demonic powers of this world.
The phrase released us from our sins through his blood addresses the atoning sacrifice (substitutionary atonement / vicarious atonement) we’ve seen in Paul and that we see again beginning here in Re 1.
Note: Though blood occasionally refers to the literal fluid in human beings, the Bible uses it primarily as a symbol of life and death so that the phrase shedding of blood means, of course, taking a life. The blood shed in the OT sacrifices, therefore, represented death as punishment for sin. This established the principle that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins. These sacrifices point to the blood of Christ, his death on the cross, as the penalty for sin. Through this blood presented to God in heaven, Christ obtains for humanity forgiveness, release from bondage, atonement, justification, cleansing, holiness (sanctification) and victory.
vv 5-6 clearly refer us back to v 1 with the specific mention of Jesus Christ. This is meant to tell us that:
1. God is defined by Jesus. What we know about God is revealed by Jesus and his consistent witness. What we know about God we have learned from Jesus. Therefore, the source of all grace and peace is Jesus because he was the first to conquer death.
Throughout Re we will see that this book is a book of resurrection, and that this resurrection is the good news of God. John’s readers are to be “resurrection people in resurrection communities.”
2. Jesus is also the most faithful witness of the resurrection community because He’s already witnessed and been resurrected. All of this having to do with the end time is grounded in the resurrection. We not only witness to Jesus but Jesus is the most faithful witness of the good news, and this is proven by His resurrection from the dead. Jesus is always to be recalled as the one who shed his blood as we read in Re 5 12 … worthy is the Lamb whose blood …
3. Jesus is more powerful than any king of this earth. Yes, this is a political claim being made here. Early Christians were very political people. They understood Jesus as their King. Unfortunately, most current Christians do not have this important understanding of Jesus. You can imagine the audacity of these people established in their baptisms. This tiny little group claimed to be more powerful than the mighty Roman empire, and, when the dust finally settled, it turned out they were right. This small group felt they were correct about this and they were willing to stand for this, even if it cost them their life. What then was their motivation? It does not come from them. It could not come from them. Who has the power then? Jesus!
4. Christ’s people are a kingdom of priests established by their baptism. Therefore, their role is to make Christ known to the world.
5. AMEN means “it is certain”.
6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
6 kai. evpoi,hsen h`ma/j basilei,an( i`erei/j tw/| qew/| kai. patri. auvtou/( auvtw/| h` do,xa kai. to. kra,toj eivj tou.j aivw/naj Îtw/n aivw,nwnÐ\avmh,nÅ
OT priests were mediators or go-betweens who presented the needs of the people of God. In the OT this contact with God was accomplished through the sons of Aaron who were set apart as priests to offer sacrifices for sins Ex 29 44. Those who were not consecrated to the priesthood but who tried to do the work of priests were punished.
Christ is the fulfillment of the OT priesthood because he sacrificed himself and brought his blood into the heavenly tabernacle in order to restore our relationship with God and take away sin forever. Christ has made us clean again so that we can now enter into the presence of our holy God. Christ reigns at the right hand of God, interceding before the Father on our behalf. Christ assures us that we will receive the benefits he died to win for us. Through faith in Christ we can come directly to God so that we no longer need a human priest.
It’s in this way that the NT teaches that all who believe are priests who, as priests, can offer sacrifices of gratitude for the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus; we can offer ourselves in selfless service to others, and we can bring our daily needs and the needs of others to God in prayer.
The act of Christ’s setting us free from our sins in v 5 was followed by his making us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father here in v 6. This is the truth that, beginning with Luther, the protestant reformers emphasized: the doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers by which we mean, as did the Reformers, through Jesus Christ every Christian has access to God and can intercede on behalf of others.
The OT understanding (as we see in Ex 19 6 below) was that Israel was to constitute the Lord’s kingdom – the people who acknowledged him as their king. Further, Israel, like priests, was to be wholly consecrated to their Lord’s service. [See Is 61 6 but you shall be called priests of the LORD, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Cf 1 Pe 2 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.]
Christ has made us a kingdom. Christ has not given us a kingdom but he has given us a kingdom each member of which is a priest to God. The sense here in the Greek is not that Christ made a kingdom for us but that he made us, his people, into a kingdom of priests. That therefore means then that the rule of God, the new creation, is present already in Christ’s believers. The theologian Roloff put it this way: “Christians are God’s realm of dominion. Wherever they are in the midst of the world quickly coming to its end, something of God’s end time new creation is realized.”
We see here in John’s perspective how the privileges of Israel from his viewpoint are passing over to the Christian church. That is, the OT designation of Israel as priests of the Lord is here applied to the Church. We’ll see this again in Re 5 10, 20 6.
Therefore, most scholars believe this language here in v 6 ultimately echoes Ex 19 6, the language of kingdom and priests. 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. … Here Jn seems to be taking the language of Ex 19 6 and Is 61 6 over and applying it to the Christian Church. In other words, in John’s perspective the promises made to Israel for the future in Ex 19 6 and Is 61 6 are here realized in the present with the Christian Church. Christians, Christ’s believers, are the priests. We don’t need the intermediaries and so forth. [Luther will greatly expand on this understanding during the Reformation by teaching what it is that scripture actually says and how the Church of his time had got it so wrong over the centuries leading to abuses that could only follow once they had got off track.]
So what does it mean to be a kingdom (from our translation)? Kingdom means, and is, priests for our God (not kingdom of priests because ‘of’ is not there). Hence, we get the comma after kingdom in the original Greek and in the translation. We don’t get the word of which is not there in the Greek. This kingdom of God is superior to any earthly kingdom because those in God’s kingdom are not really subjects in the kingdom sense but instead they are beneficiaries and partakers of God’s grace. They are priests before God who themselves make up and constitute God’s kingdom of grace. Once in the kingdom we possess all the blessings of God’s salvation and are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to remain in the true faith and to live our lives for Christ. In other words, the kingdom that the divine King creates and establishes is the holy Christian Church which is the communion or congregation of all believers (priests) of all times and places.
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.
7 VIdou. e;rcetai meta. tw/n nefelw/n( kai. o;yetai auvto.n pa/j ovfqalmo.j kai. oi[tinej auvto.n evxeke,nthsan( kai. ko,yontai evpV auvto.n pa/sai ai` fulai. th/j gh/jÅ nai,( avmh,nÅ
v 7 is the first prophecy of Re – which opens as it closes 22 20 with a reference to the second coming of Christ. In the course of our study of Re we will see that Re is just chuck full of OT references as we noted in the introduction.
This good OT sounding word occurs 27 times in Re. The NRSV doesn’t like ‘behold’ and gets rid of it every time it can. But it’s here in the Greek. If one thinks of Re being read out loud – all the way through – in the course of a worship service, which it was in the early church, they may have needed that word VIdou. every now and then to get the hearers’ attention again. Still, it’s hard to imagine that with various things being talked about in Re that anyone’s mind would wander for long.
all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him echoes the words of the Lord in the gospel of Jn, for instance at Jn 16 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.
Actually, the Nestle-Aland Bible (the Greek Bible) prints v 7 almost entirely in italics which is their editors’ way to generally indicate an OT quotation. That is, John here in v 7 does not say, “as it is written in Dn 7 …” So John does not quote it as if it were in quotations. Instead, what Jn says here is an allusion from and a combination of Dn 7 13 and Zc 12 10.
13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
10 And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
We get the same combination in Mt 24 30 and parallels. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.
This is another great example of the intertextuality we’ve discussed in the many other classes I teach. Echo and allusion again and again. In other words, that we are getting this particular combination of verses from the OT here and in the synoptic gospels, and in Jn 16 above, does not mean that one is copying the other. No. This is intertextuality all over the place. What we know is that the early church very quickly remembered and searched the Hebrew scriptures in the course of developing lists of various passages in order to help understand and teach about what had happened in Jesus – to teach what had happened in his incarnation, life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and his ascension. Therefore, seeing this reference here in v 7 to what we find in the gospels and in our OT does not doesn’t mean that one NT text copied it from another. Instead, the NT authors were drawing from a common pool of Hebrew scripture texts which were then given their proper and long-awaited attention to in the early church. And, as always, all of these authors were telling the very same story, the story of Jesus.
Further, and even more importantly, this echo of Dn 7 suddenly introduces the ‘son of man’ imagery which is at the heart of v 13 with the words one like a human being which is better translated as Son of Man. Remember what intertextuality does: When NT texts echo or allude to a particular OT text, they are, in effect, bringing the context of the OT passage forward into the present. That’s at the core of how intertextuality – echo and allusion – works.
Note: Son of Man is the self-designation Jesus will use in the Synoptic Gospels. The NRSV’s “like a human being” is actually a mistranslation of Dn 7 13. It should instead read Son of Man as it is in the Aramaic, that is, one who is a true human being. It’s the designation of a person as a human being born of a woman. The Son of Man is not an expression of ‘humanity’ as such; rather Son of Man is a kingdom figure involved in eschatological judgment. [Scholars often call him the “Son of Man of Daniel” or the “Danielic Son of Man” because it’s a figure that only appears in Dn.] For the story behind the Story students, remember the various “figures” who course their way through the OT; the Son of Man of Dn 7 is one of those figures.
In the context of both Dn 7 and Zc 12 the language of coming on the clouds therefore signals final salvation and judgment is coming – because that’s the context of these two passages. Therefore, v 7 here is to show that Jesus’ followers are part of the new kingdom of God to come, the new kingdom of God that is coming. They are part of the consummated kingdom of God that will be at Jesus’ second advent / coming and which will be continuing on earth forever in life everlasting.
every eye will behold (see) him, even those who pierced him
See here in v 7 John is saying that all will see Jesus as the Son of Man and those who executed him will also see him and all the tribes of the earth will beat their breasts, will mourn. Everyone, even to include those who killed him at the cross, will see Jesus. Here, ‘see’ means to see and understand, like “I see; I understand”. ALL WILL RECOGNIZE JESUS FOR WHO HE IS. As opposed to the first coming of Jesus, this second coming John is speaking of here will be obvious and made clear to all. This includes all of us because the law indicts all of us; we all nailed the nails! Jesus’ coming will be obvious. People aren’t just going to disappear leaving their hair dryer mysteriously blowing. As we move along in this course you will see that the idea of rapture (to be discussed later) is not in Re. There won’t be any question in anyone, living or dead, that Jesus has come and that Jesus is Lord.
Not only will his coming be clear, but who he is will be manifest to all. He is the LORD. Notice also that the returning Christ is still identified by his death with a reference to “the ones who pierced him“ – another demonstration of the power of apocalyptic language being used.
V 7 concludes with a “double whammy” using the words nai,( avmh,n which is translated, “Yes. Amen.” “It is so. Amen.” “Yes. That is the way it is. Amen.”
Also in this two word ending, the first word nai is in the Greek, and the second word is in Aramaic (Hebrew?) avmh,n – although the Greek word avmh,n is simply the Aramaic word transliterated into the Greek alphabet.
As we read vv 7-8 we can identify in these verses the first of two major, overarching themes of the book, both being told apocalyptically, the first of which is the return of Jesus. Jesus is the one who is coming with the clouds. v 8 will provide the second overarching theme of Re: Jesus is not only coming (again), but Jesus is the LORD God, the almighty. Jesus is God himself! [For the “Story Behind the Story” students you should see in vv 7-8 the very same story being told as we saw told throughout the whole of the Old and New Testaments. It’s just that it’s being told and taught using apocalyptic language.]
8 VEgw, eivmi to. a;lfa kai. to. w=( le,gei ku,rioj o` qeo,j( o` w’n kai. o` h=n kai. o` evrco,menoj( o` pantokra,twrÅ
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
The solemn opening of Re now reaches its climax in a resounding note of assurance with words ascribed to the LORD God who declares to all, I am the Alpha and the Omega.
VEgw, eivmi ‘I am’ is found four times in Re. God speaks this in Re 1 8 and 21 6, and Jesus speaks this in Re 1 17 and Re 22 13. John is clearly echoing the ‘I am’ language in Ex such as at Ex 3 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” We see here that the author does not carefully distinguish between God and Jesus because they are one and the same. Jesus and the God of the OT here are interchangeable. Jesus is interchangeable with the God of the OT.
These ( a and w ) are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, an appropriate reference, as the book was originally written in Greek. [Notice that alpha was spelled out in the Greek but that omega was not. According to Metzger that’s because grammarians had not invented the name ‘omega’ until the sixth or seventh century. ] When these two Greek letters are used together it is meant to indicate not only the beginning and the end but also everything that is in between.
God is first and last, an idea that was expressed in Is 44 6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. This tells us God was before all things and that he will outlast all things. God’s eternity is brought out once again with the addition of the statement, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
As the first and the last, the one who was, who is, and who is to come, God rules over all human history. These words echo throughout the rest of the book, reminding God’s people that God is in control, and that the victory has already been won for his people. As we move through the book in the coming weeks, let us be ever mindful of that hope and certain victory that is already ours because of Jesus.
So in his second advent / coming there is a sense in which the Lord is fully present with us; he’s present in his divinity; he’s present in the power of the spirit. He’s also present in his humanity in his body and blood in a mysterious, sacramental way in the Lord’s Supper. But in the Lord’s Supper he’s not present in his local bodily humanity that can be seen and touched. However, that is what changes (forever) with the second advent / coming.
Think of what that involves. The creator God – now made and come in human flesh now glorified – is going to enter his creation; he’s going to reenter the cosmos. That will be the final, glorious ultimate event which we cannot even comprehend. How is it that he is visible and glorious and has a circumscribed human body like us that every eye will see him as it says in v 7 above? How will we all have access to the Lord? These are mysteries beyond our range of knowledge but we do know that’s what the second advent / coming is all about.
During this time within the inaugurated kingdom of God we have the Lord both in presence and in absence. The Lord Jesus is not fully with us because he’s at the right hand of God and yet he said on one occasion to the apostles “it is good for you that I go away otherwise I would not be able to send the comforter to you” in Jn 16 7. As the result of that we have this wonderful transforming power of the spirit and of the Lord’s Supper at work in us, indwelling each baptized Christian enabling them to know and do God’s will.
Next, Jesus’ presence here in this mysterious way in the Lord’s Supper looks forward to the time when the fullness of Christ’s presence will come at the second advent / coming. That is why at the heart of the Lord’s Supper liturgy you always talk about the second advent / coming – Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. We remember his cross, his resurrection, his ascension into heaven and we look forward to his glorious, second coming. All of this, even the Lord’s Supper, looks forward in hope to the ultimate event, the second advent / coming of the Lord. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about these matters nowadays, some of it purposeful, but some of it just out of ignorance of what the Bible really says. Still, it’s just as true, now as then, that the church, especially the great fathers in the church, were very clear when they talked about it.
One of the events of the second advent / coming will be another of these great hopes: the general resurrection of all the dead. Of course, we’ve already seen fulfilled some of these hopes within the biblical story up to the time of the resurrection and the time of the church and so on, for example, the new Exodus; the new covenant; the coming of the Davidic king; etc. But all of them have only been fulfilled in an inaugurated way, not a fully consummated way.
For instance, we’ve seen the fulfillment of the coming of the Davidic king but we haven’t seen it fully fulfilled until the Davidic king comes in his second coming in glory and power.
Also, there are other hopes we’ve not yet seen fulfilled for us. The resurrection of the dead is fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection from the dead but that still looks forward to the fulfillment and consummation of that event – and what Christ’s resurrection is all about – our resurrection (the general resurrection). At Christ’s second advent / coming the resurrection of the dead will happen. The general resurrection, that of our bodies, which is the fruit of Christ’s resurrection, has not yet happened. It’s a future event which we await in the second advent / coming of Christ. Cf 1 Th 4 13.
John again brings in the doxological language he used earlier in v 4 with “… the one who is and who was and is coming …” See notes above. ‘is, was, is to come’ also includes all of time AND is the OT name of God, which was given to Moses in Ex 3 14 (see above).
Language such as this in v 8 also occurs in 4 8, 11 17; 16 5; 21 6; and 22 13.
o` pantokra,twr the almighty occurs eight other times in Re (1 8, 4 8; 11 17; 15 3; 16 7, 14; 19 6, 15; 21 22). This description occurs no where else in the NT except 2 Cor 6 18 which is a quotation from the OT. On the other hand, in the apocalypse of Jn it’s the most used title for God. It was most probably chosen in opposition to ‘the emperor,’ and it’s a manifestly political term. In other words, human rulers claimed that they had total dominion over the world and they gave themselves these grand titles. But it is to God and God alone to whom dominion over the world and history belong.
So v 8 addresses the second over-arching theme of Re, that is, “Who is God”? Using apocalyptic language the battle with the Roman authorities of the secular world is now joined here in v 8. Of course, for the author of Re, God is the God of Israel. YHWH is the one who is ‘the Almighty,’ thank you very much, not the emperor in Rome or who ever else claims to be so.
John leads us quite naturally to the next pericope, Christ appears to John which is followed by the letters to the seven churches.
Re 1 9 – 3 22 the triumphant Christ speaks to his Church
Re 1 9-20 the appearance of the triumphant Christ
Re 2 1 – 3 22 the letters to the churches
2 1-7 Ephesus
2 8-11 Smyrna
2 12-17 Pergamum
2 18-29 Thyatira
3 1-6 Sardis
3 7-13 Philadelphia
3 14-22 Laodicea
Recapping: So John (the seer) was in exile on Patmos because of his testimony for Jesus. That is, rather than deny his Lord and submit to the emperor’s command to honor him as a god, rather than cease preaching the gospel of the Lord who he knew and loved personally (if the author is indeed the apostle John), John was willing receive whatever punishment the authorities were willing to mete out to him – which in this case was to go into exile. [If this is the apostle John who was in exile on Patmos, then this would not have been the first experience of punishment for testifying of Jesus. Many years previously, back in the city of Jerusalem, John had been arrested along with the other apostles for preaching about Christ, and he had been brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. When commanded to stop, they had refused, and instead they had rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Ac 5 41). 41 As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.] [We all should ask ourselves if we love Jesus enough to do the same were the circumstances the same now as then.]
John was experiencing what all followers of Jesus may at some time or another be called to experience suffering and persecution for the sake of the Gospel. At least we should expect that that suffering might be part of it. That he identifies his situation with that of other believers is clear in that he identifies himself as his readers’ companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance (Re 1 9).
It was on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) that Christ Himself appeared to John in quite a startling way, inaugurating a series of visions by which Christ would comfort His church. Here the Lord speaks directly to John and begins to tell him “what must soon take place” (Re 1 1). This first set of visions is specifically addressed to seven congregations in Asia Minor. The events described however, have their parallels in every age, and the words are as relevant today as they were at that time, because the human condition and the world’s attitude toward the church have not changed in the intervening now almost 2000 years.
The words that are spoken to each church in Re 2-3 are words of both warning and encouragement; that is, both Law and Gospel. In every case there is an exhortation to remain faithful and the promise that Christ will always be with his people, just as He promised His disciples before He left them (Mt 28 20).
Re 1 920: The Appearance of the Triumphant Christ Read Re 1 9-20.
The description of the one like a son of man who appears to John is striking. Though this being is never referred to as Jesus or as the Christ, there is no doubt about who it is apocalyptically when connected with OT scriptures through intertextuality. The description of Jesus given here is quite different from the picture we get in the gospels. Obviously! Apart from His transfiguration in which His divine nature shone forth briefly, Jesus is never described physically in the gospels. Here, however, great emphasis is placed on His appearance. But it is clear that this is not a physical description of an individual, but rather a spiritual, symbolic portrayal using physical, apocalyptic imagery.
While the description at first seems strange and fantastic, its meaning becomes clear when compared to the OT pictures of God and His Messiah. Thus we see that the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ is the God of all ages. He is the one like a son of man,
who is referred to in Dn 7 13, the one who comes with the clouds of heaven. He wears a robe down to His feet, the style worn by the high priest of the Israelite religion (Ex 28 4; 29 5). The golden sash He wears indicates that He occupies the office of high priest, the office ascribed to Jesus throughout the Letter to the Hebrews.
His hair is white like wool, the symbol of wisdom and purity. In Dn 7 it is the Ancient of Days whose hair is white like wool, so we see a clear connection between the Son and the Father. Thus, what is ascribed in Scripture to the Father is here also ascribed to the Son. The hearers of this Revelation would have made the clear connection between the Father and the Son – that they had the same qualities, that they were of the same God. [Of course, the language to more thoroughly describe this – the language of the Trinity – would not be coming for another 230 years until the Council of Nicea in 325 etc.] In other words, what this Revelation is saying is that what belongs to the Ancient of Days likewise belongs allso to the Son of Man. His eyes are like blazing fire, indicating penetrating insight nothing escapes His gaze, and all that human beings seek to keep hidden nevertheless is laid open to the eyes of Christ. His voice has the roar of rushing waters, a description given to the voice of God in Ek 43 2. The sash, the eyes, the feet like bronze and the voice all also call to mind the one like a man who delivers a message to Daniel in Dn 10. We could go on and on about this particular passage but suffice it to say it IS packed with OT foreshadowings.
As Jesus Himself states (1 20), the seven stars in His right hand represent the messengers (angels) of the churches – most likely the pastors of the churches, and the seven lampstands among which He stands represent the seven churches to whom the seven letters which follow are being sent, and, as noted previously – by extension they represent the whole church on earth. Like a lampstand, the church does not produce the light of the world, but it rather bears the Light of the world, Christ Himself. It bears the Light to the world by speaking the Word of God which has been committed to it. When the Word of God is spoken by His people, it is as though Christ Himself is speaking.
Since the OT (Is 49 2) tells us that the mouth of the servant of God will be made like a sharpened sword and since the NT says that the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Ep 6 17) or is sharper than any doubleedged sword (He 4 12), the image of the sword coming out of Christ’s mouth is quite appropriate, even though most Christians don’t make the intertextual connection with this apocalyptic language. Our Lord governs the world by no other way than by His Word. The Word of God alone changes the lives of people: it drives them to repentance when it convicts them of their sin through the preaching of the Law, and it gives them hope and comfort and empowers them for service through the Good News that God has been merciful to them by sending Christ to die for them. God’s grace in action! As you can see, everything fits together quite nicely.
The Christ who appears to John shows himself to be victorious by his very appearance. His face shines like the sun, as it did at His transfiguration, an event that John himself (if the apostle John is the author) witnessed. [Whether or not this is Jn the apostle, we are still meant to make the connection to the transfiguration through intertextuality.] When John, quite understandably, falls at the feet of Christ, he hears the words Do not be afraid – the same words heard many times before by the people of God who have witnessed God’s mighty acts. For instance, it was previously heard:
by Zechariah in the temple when Gabriel appeared to announce the coming birth of John the Baptist;
by Mary when Gabriel appeared to her to announce that she would be the mother of the longawaited Messiah;
by the shepherds when the angel choir announced the Messiah’s birth, and so on.
Whenever God acts, whenever people see God as God really is, it is only natural that they become even more aware of their insignificance when compared to the majesty of God, and their wretchedness when compared to the holiness of God, so that they tremble in fear (awe). [I cannot emphasize this previous statement enough.] But for the people of God those words of assurance, Do not be afraid, come as a great comfort, assuring them that God has put away their sins, that they stand cleansed before God, and that God has declared them to be His people. If that doesn’t give us comfort, we’ve got a problem!
The words of Jesus set the stage for the rest of Re because they point to the victory which has already been won. In v 17 he describes Himself as the First and the Last, echoing the words of 1 8, which are ascribed to the Lord God, thus showing that He and the Father truly are one, just as Jesus had also declared in Jn 10 30. His declaration that He was dead and is now alive forever shows that He is already victorious. The events to come – which Re will reveal in the following visions – these events will show Satan’s lastditch attempts to destroy the work of Christ, to turn the world away from Him. [That’s Satan’s task: to work to thwart the will of God through we human beings. Satan is very good at this; he’s been doing it since his own fall from grace.]
Still, in the resurrection of Christ it is made clear to us that the victory has already been won that we need not fear those who can destroy the body but who cannot destroy the soul (that is, who can kill us physically but cannot touch us spiritually). We need not fear because eternal life has already been won for us. That ship has already sailed and will come into port again when Christ returns one last time. The strength to endure whatever the world sends against us comes from knowing and trusting – in faith – the One – Christ – who has already won the victory. He is the one who has the keys to death and Hades, who has released His people from the power of Death and Hades, and who will ultimately condemn the wicked to eternal destruction.
Let’s next look at some specific matters within the verses themselves.
Additional textual notes:
Jn was on Patmos for the Word of God. Just like Paul was imprisoned by Nero for spreading this message about Jesus, the other king, so also Jn has been exiled to the isle of Patmos for for proclaiming the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. So Jn is in exile, suffering grievously on the isle of Patmos.
Our God is a patient God who suffers long with his stubborn children and who still remains faithful in spite of their unfaithfulness. As punishment for their sin God could have destroyed Adam and Eve immediately when they sinned but instead he held back his anger and extended hope to them through his grace. God was also patient in the time of Noah. God is slow to anger Ps 86 15, patiently holding back the return of Christ so that we human beings take the opportunity to repent. In his earthly life Jesus exhibited this perfect patience that only saw others with his eyes of love.
Patience is expected of us as well. We are to commit ourselves to boldly hang on during the long days and weeks of suffering. We are to stand firm in the faith following the examples of Job (Ja 5 11; Jb 1 21-22; 2 10) and John in Re 1 9. We are given the power to do this because of our living hope found in the glorified Christ and his long-suffering grace. [Additionally, we are to bear patiently with the sins and shortcomings of others as an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit Ga 5 22. Remember the Lord’s Prayer!]
John was in the Spirit – a trance, a state of spiritual exaltation when he heard a trumpet-like voice. This does not mean a dream but instead it’s a vision like that of Peter’s in Ac 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. Cf 2 Cor 12 1-6.
While some scholars have postulated that the churches are listed in this order because of their order of importance – something for which there is no textual evidence, it’s far more likely that they were listed in the order which they would be visited geographically because starting with Ephesus, the city closest to Patmos, a messenger carrying John’s written revelation would travel somewhat in a clockwise circular fashion to take the document to these churches before returning to Ephesus.
Of course by the 90’s there were far more than just seven churches in the province of Asia. For instance, we know from Paul’s letters the names of several others cities in which there were Christian congregations. So why were there no letters written to these other churches? Why these seven? Seven churches were chosen, apocalyptically-speaking, because seven, as noted above, means completeness, all-inclusiveness. By identifying these seven churches, John was therefore saying apocalyptically that the letters being sent to the individual seven churches was, in fact, intended for all churches – wherever they may be. And, of course, these messages to the seven churches are also meant for us today.
The fact of the matter was that these seven cities/towns sat at the center of seven postal districts. That is, each city laid on a route which formed an inner circle within the province of Asia. Once the messenger made it to the city, the letter would then have been widely disseminated into the rest of the region. It’s from 25 to 50 miles between each city, and each city served as a center from which the scroll (no codices just yet) could have circulated through an even wider expanse of territory.
As major centers of Asia Minor, the worship of the emperor would have been especially strong in those cities and the threat of persecution especially strong.
And I turned to look at the voice which was speaking with me is eerily reminiscent of Ek because also here, Jn is echoing Ek 1 28 … and I heard the voice of someone speaking.
28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
Seeing the Son of Man in the midst of the lampstands (that is, in the midst of the churches) means that Christ is not an absentee landlord. Instead, he’s in the midst of his churches, supporting them during trials and persecutions.
This kind of clothing was worn by royalty, by kings. This is the way John refers to Christ as King apocalyptically.
John is not saying that the Lord had prematurely aged. Instead, among the Jewish people the older you were the wiser you were. Hence, the Lord of these churches is filled with wisdom.
This description comes from Dn 7 9 (and 1 Enoch 46:1) where the prophet Daniel uses the same language to describe his vision of God, the Ancient of Days. Dn 7 9 “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 like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.”
“Ancient One” (also translated as one that was ancient of days) is God. Dn 7 parallels the way the Son of Man is described here in vv 14-15.
In using this language John assigned a dignity to Christ in terms that resemble Daniel’s vision of God Almighty. Therefore, again through intertextuality, we are to make the connection: this is Son of Man figure standing before John is the Ancient One, God Almighty himself! Again we have here a wonderful example of intertextuality being used apocalyptically to tell us this Son of Man is God Almighty himself! Exciting stuff!
Piercing eyes like a flame of fire burn away our shams and hypocrisies and look into our innermost selves. John here alludes to the Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man in Dn 10 which reads 6 His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.
John’s apocalyptic language shines forth here again. For example:
feet were like burnished bronze represent strength and stability apocalyptically speaking. We actually do not know what this word calkoliba,nw means so ‘burnished bronze’ is an educated guess. The dictionary will give you a meaning but in terms of being able to trace it out, it’s can’t be done.
Again, we have language probably inspired by Dn 10 LXX, the burnished bronze language in particular. Cf Dn 2 33, 41.
John describes Christ’s voice as penetrating and unmistakable with the phrase fwnh. u`da,twn pollw/n like the sound of many waters just as had Ezekiel had used in describing the God of Israel in Ek 43 2 which is in a vision of the Lord upon his throne. We also see it in 14 1, 19 6. It may come originally from Ek 1 24 When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword represents Christ’s word of judgment. Cf He 4 where it reads in v 12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
John magnificently concludes his vision telling us the face of Christ was like the sun shining with full strength.
Still, we are not to take John’s account with a flat-footed literalism because it’s not meant to be taken that way. In fact, those who do try to make Re a literal according to of this or that unfortunately trivialize this account when they make a composite picture of the heavenly Christ showing each of these features literally. This passage must be understood apocalyptically! Tell Pastor Eden story.
Notice when Jn is given this revelation of Jesus, the Son of Man, it’s the same concept. It’s this unapproachable divine glory so resplendent that when he sees this, he cannot see it. He falls on his feet as if a dead man. Actually, in the context, this is not Jesus appearing to Jn. In the context when you read all of Re, it’s more like Jesus giving something like a video of himself to Jn. Jn says at the conclusion of Re that Jesus sent his angel to give him this vision. So it’s actually a subjective sort of thing; it’s not even objective. Even at that, he still cannot look at this glorious splendor of the Lord.
So we are to notice this difference between the incarnate Lord Jesus prior to the resurrection and the exalted, incarnate Christ Jesus after the resurrection. With the incarnate Lord Jesus prior to the resurrection his glory is veiled but now in his resurrected, ascended being / personage it is fully revealed.
In fact, we see this in the gospels at the transfiguration where Jesus momentarily reveals his divine glory. Normally it was veiled but in the transfiguration it was momentarily revealed. Here in Re Christ’s divine glory is fully revealed in this vision given to John.
Note: The transfiguration of Jesus when Jesus appeared in a glorious form on a mountain with Elijah and Moses was a preview (a type, a foreshadow in ontological terms. It will also be used intertextually through echo and allusion.) … the transfiguration was a preview of his glory to come after his resurrection. [The transfiguration is found in Mt 17 1-3; Mk 9 2-13 and Lk 9 28-36.] [The transfiguration is celebrated as a church festival in the Eastern and Western churches on August 6 or, more recently in some Western churches on the Sunday before Lent.]
The whole point of the vision here in Re was not to overwhelm John but to reassure him by showing Christ resplendent with his divine attributes, apocalyptically, of course, and he does that, in part, by placing his right hand on me.
Christ further identifies himself with three statements:
I am the first and the last v 17b and then beginning in v 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.
With these three statements John is assured that the heavenly Christ bears the same titles as does the Lord God, the Almighty that we read of in v 8 which reads “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. So even here John is using intertextuality – even within this same book which again brings in the intertextuality we discussed in v 8 above.
John is here reinforcing with this hearers that after conquering death Jesus is preeminently the living one … alive forever and ever. And, to have the keys of Death and of Hades is to possess authority over the domain of Death and Hades. Here, no distinction is to be draw between Death and Hades because they combine to express one idea; they represent the realm of the departed. Because Christ has the keys, the time and manner of the death of each person are under his control. Therefore, his people, who were sometimes threatened with death because of their loyalty to him, need not fear that death will separate them from his love. It is easy to imagine how the many who became martyrs in the early church would have had texts like this one in mind as they approached imminent death – just as Christians in our own time still do the same.
gra,yon ou=n means write therefore.
So scholars agree that v 19 outlines and can be seen as one of the keys to the structure of Re. Namely,
a] ei=dej the things that you saw refers to the vision which has now just concluded – the vision of Jesus in Re 1 9-20. What John saw embraced both the situation already in existence and things that still were to happen in the future.
a] eivsi.n the things which are refers to what is going on in the churches right now in Re 2-3
As always in Re, it’s important to distinguish between elements that symbolize what is (referring to the present life of the church in Re 2-3) from those elements that symbolize what is to take place after this. That’s just part of our task in this wonderful book of Re.
a] me,llei gene,sqai the things which are about to happen after these things refers to the end time future which will be laid out in Re 4-22.
This is the first of several places in Re where John explains some of the symbolism. For other examples see also Re 17 15, 18.
The angels have been variously interpreted by scholars as follows:
1. heavenly messengers;
2. earthly messengers / ministers or
3. personifications of the prevailing spirit of each church.
The angel mentioned in v 1 is, of course, a heavenly messenger or spirit while, on the other hand, here in v 20 and at Re 2 1, 8, 12, 18; 3 1, 7, and 14 the angel reference is to earthly messengers, probably the pastor / leader of each congregation.
This v tells us that the churches are the location of God’s presence and the object of his concern. Christ is present in all churches.
So in looking back over vv 9-20 we see that the danger of the fullpower sunlight of v 16 is worth contemplating as we hear John speaking about his vision of Jesus. For instance, we can’t look directly at the sun for more than a second or two at most before having to turn away. So, with the brightness of a Mediterranean sky in his mind, when John speaks of Jesus in this way v 16, we are to be and should be “seeing” this Jesus with a new kind of reverence.
For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of firstcentury fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving intimacy. John would agree with the second of these, but he would warn against imagining that Jesus as being some cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside. For John, to see Jesus as he is would drive us not to snuggle up to him, but to fall at his feet as though we were dead. Let me explain.
This vision of Jesus in vv 1216 introduces us to several things about the way John writes. Just like it would be for someone reporting a strange dream, the things John says are hard to imagine taken all together. It’s more like looking at a surrealist painting or a set of shifting computergenerated images on your computer screen. This is hardly a simple sketch John has provided in vv 9-20.
For a start, when John hears a voice like a trumpet v 10, he tells us that I turned to see the voice. There is a sense in which this is just right on because the Jesus whom he then sees is indeed The Voice, the living Word of the father, the one through whom God spoke and still speaks. And the words which Jesus himself spoke turned into a visible sword coming out of his mouth v 16, echoing Isaiah’s prophecy both about the coming king (11 4) and about the suffering servant (49 2).
Is 11 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Is 49 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
In fact, as discussed and alluded to in the introduction to this class, a great deal of this book is about ideasmadevisible, on the one hand, and scripturemadereal on the other. It is, in fact, the sort of thing someone enmeshed in scripture, like John – after pondering and praying for many days – might see in a dream.
In particular, this vision of Jesus draws together the vision of two characters in one of the most famous biblical visions, that of Dn 7 [which – along with the books of Ex, Is, Ek and Zc, Dn – is one of John’s favorites].
There in Dn 7, as the suffering of God’s people reaches its height, the Ancient of Days (the Ancient One) takes his seat in heaven, and one like a son of man (one like a human being – in other words, a human figure, representing God’s people and, by extension, all the human race) – one like a Son of Man is presented before him, and enthroned alongside him. Here, however, in John’s vision, these two pictures seem to have merged. Therefore, when we are looking at Jesus, John is saying that we are looking straight through Jesus at the Father himself. He’s saying they are one and the same, again, the very same story being told in the whole of the NT – not just in the gospels, but in each and every book of the NT. It’s the same story. Jesus is God.
Let’s hold that picture with all the details for a moment. Next, let those eyes of flame search us in and out. Imagine we are standing beside a huge waterfall, and its noise is like sustained thunder. Imagine that noise as a human voice, echoing everywhere around the hills and around your head. Then imagine Jesus’ hand reaching out to touch you …
Fear and awe, of course, are the natural reaction, but here, as he does so often, Jesus says, Don’t be afraid v 17. “It’s all right.” Yes, John and his people are suffering v 9. Yes, the times are strange and hard, with harsh and severe rulers running the world and imposing their will on city after city. And we have the seven churches who need to know that Jesus himself is standing in their midst, and that the angels who represent and look after each of them are held in his right hand. [Remember, seven is the number of perfection, and the churches listed in v 11 thus represent all churches in the world, of all places and all times.]
And the Jesus in question has, as his credentials, the fact that he was dead but is now alive for ever and ever v 18. This is comparable to someone whispering to us that they know the secret way out of a prison in which we have been imprisoned. He says, “I’ve got the keys of death and Hades! I have them right here! There’s nothing more you need worry about! Let’s go!”
To be sure, to grasp all this requires faith. And, to live by it will take courage. But it’s that faith – and that courage – which Re was written to evoke. And much more … and it will do so apocalyptically!
So already in just a relatively few verses, we’ve learned quite a bit about the way John writes. We’ve already learned a lot about the way he means for his readers to understand what he says. Just as anyone else describing a dream or a vision, he must know that what he says is impressionistic. He knows that it appeals not to logic, but to the imagination [something which has been starved rotten in some parts of our present day culture while at the same time being overstimulated in others!].
So it’s now that we are being asked to imagine the following scene. What would it took like if the curtain between heaven and earth were suddenly pulled up, revealing the Jesus who had been there all along but whom we had managed either to ignore or to cut down to our own size? What would we see?
We know now we would see a Jesus who is mindblowing – dramatically powerful but also gentle and caring.
We’d see a Jesus in and through whom we see his father, God the creator.
We’d see a Jesus who has spoken – and still speaks – words which explain what is going on in the present and words which warn of what will happen in the future v 19.
Wow! And we see all of this apocalyptically … and we’ll see even more as we move along!
Again, John was there because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus as we saw in v 9. This most likely means that the authorities had put him there, in exile, as a punishment for his fearless teaching. The Romans had most likely put him there to stop his work from having any further effect on the Asia Minor mainland. The result, however, was the exact opposite. Exile had given him time to pray, to reflect, and then to receive this most explosive vision of God’s power and love. He told us he was still a partner with the churches in the suffering, the kingdom, and the patient endurance in Jesus in v 9.
This might seem to us an odd combination. In other words, how can the kingdom – which means the sovereign rule sit together with suffering and patient endurance? How could these two go together? However, that’s just part of the whole point of the book. Jesus himself won the victory through his suffering … and John was telling his listeners that his people – including us – must do likewise. We must suffer, too, in this present evil age, in this inaugurated kingdom of God. Then, John would go on tell us much, much more, and he will do so apocalyptically.
Hopefully we’re all beginning to get this wonderful, comforting sense that Re was, and is, intended to provide.
This brings us now to the seven letters to the seven churches that we read about in Re 2-3. In Re 1 John’s vision of the heavenly Christ was, of course, in heaven. Here in Re 2-3 John’s revelation focuses here on earth – on the conditions of the seven churches in western Asia Minor.
The seven letters are sharp and pointed messages to each of the churches in question, and, through them – as noted above – to the many other Christian churches already in the area and to all others, then as well as now, who can listen to what the risen Lord is saying.
Note: The message to the seven churches has traditionally been called letters but there is no evidence whatsoever that any portion of Re 2-3 originated as separate documents. In fact, every Greek manuscript of Re that we possess from antiquity incorporates all of the seven letters, and none of the seven letters exists by itself. Of course, the seven letters vary in length according to the needs of each church community. Some of the churches are doing well, some have problems brewing and yet others are in grave spiritual danger. [(Religious) history repeats itself – then as now. We see the same situations in our own day and age.]
There is a uniform pattern to the literary structure of the seven letters contained in Re 2-3. The general pattern of each letter is commendation, complaint and correction, and many theologians agree that all of the letters have these seven characteristics:
1. a commission to write (to the angel);
2. the church is called to hear;
3. Christ’s credentials are told;
4. Christ praises the church for what it does well;
5. Christ condemns the church for where it falls short;
6. Christ makes a command for a correction of the shortfall (to not fear, to repent, to wake up); and
7. those who conquer receive promises from Jesus.
First, the message of each of the seven letters is directed to the angel of the particular church mentioned. While the term angel in this context could refer to the local church leader, most scholars believe it’s far more likely that the word angel here refers to the spiritual guardian angel of that church – based on what we learn in the rest of Re.
Next, each individual message is prefaced with an identification of the heavenly Christ. John uses one or another of the various features from the symbolic description of Christ that he gave in Re 1 12-16.
Then, following the introduction of each letter, Christ opens with the words I know indicating that he, Christ, knows the specific, special circumstances and differences of each church. Therefore, the statement that then follows from Christ is either a commendation for faithfulness in Christian commitment or a condemnation for negligence and unfaithfulness.
The letters continue by congratulating the church on what has been going well (only in Laodicea is there nothing to praise), and then warn about what has been going badly (only in Smyrna and Philadelphia is there no fault to be found).
Note: As we will read below, we should not imagine that Christians in Ephesus were the only Christians promised the right to eat of the tree of life, or that those in Smyrna were the only Christians promised that they would escape the second death Re 20 14, and so on. All the promises – and all the warnings – are for all the churches – then, as now.
All seven letters conclude with an appeal to hold fast and listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church. [We see this seven times at Re 2 7, 11, 17, 26; 3 5, 12, and 21.]
This serves both as
1. a clear clause on the inspiration of scripture as well as
2. on the Spirit being a “person” distinct from Christ. [Note: Passages like these were certainly used by the church fathers when they went about codifying “the Doctrine of the Trinity.”]
Further, all seven letters also conclude with a solemn warning (challenge) and promise (assurance):
1. with a challenge to overcome, to conquer the forces contrary to God as well as
2. the further assurance that all who conquer will be rewarded by Christ.
The Greek verb John used here in Re 2-3 is nikw/nti [verb participle present active dative masculine singular] stems from nika,w [intrans. and trans.] and which is translated as conquer, overcome; or win the verdict (such as how Paul uses it in Ro 3 4). By using this verb conquers John quite purposely means this as a military term suggesting that the Christian life is not a bed of roses. Instead, the Christian life involves a struggle, a conflict against anything and everyone who debilitates the Christian life of all that gives its strength and power. Being a Christian is a full-time undertaking, in part, because you can rest assured, Satan is himself working 24/7. More importantly it’s a full-time undertaking because we Christians have been given rather clear instructions as to what we are to be about now living in this inaugurated kingdom of God as we anxiously await Christ’s return. Furthermore, what awaits those who persevere is Jesus … forever.
All of the seven letters emphasized the importance of conquering because the main challenge each of the young churches faced was the threat of pagan persecution. Indeed, these seven letters seem to have been written as part of the Lord’s preparation of these churches for worse to come. They were to conquer, not by fighting back, but by following Jesus himself, who had already won the victory through his own patient suffering. Still, some people in these churches would suffer. Some would die. Still, all must bear patient witness to Jesus, thereby conquering the evil forces that surround and threaten them.
Re 2 1 3 22: An Overview of the Letters to the Churches
There is no doubt that the problems Christ cites in his revelation to John were literal problems being experienced by those congregations. Nevertheless, and for the purposes of the church today, and since the number seven itself indicates completeness, the seven churches themselves, though real congregations, are representative of the entire Christian church of all times and places. The churches of God today all have their challenges, and Satan is as active today in his struggle to destroy the church as he was then. In fact, we can safely assume that through the centuries Satan has only more effectively honed his skills to lead Christians astray from the course set for them by God in holy scripture. Clearly, therefore, the letters to these firstcentury congregations have relevance for the congregations of today, first in their words of warning and exhortation, but also in their words of comfort and encouragement.
The letters to the seven churches are written in the same format, and a sevenfold division can generally be seen (as noted just above but here presented a little differently). That division would include, though in special cases one or more parts may be missing: (1) the greeting; (2) a title of the risen Christ based on the description in Re 1; (3) a word of praise, beginning I know; (4) a criticism; (5) a warning; (6) an exhortation, beginning He who has an ear; and (7) a promise, which will reach fulfillment in the closing chapters of Re 2022.
This is just as it is among the churches of God today. These letters all use God’s formula for dealing with His people praising them for their service, calling them to repentance when they fail to be vigilant, warning them of the outcome should they fall away, and exhorting them to remain faithful. All of this is done in the context of His Lordship over His church and always in the laying before them of the hope that He has won for them the hope that gives them the strength to endure. Each letter ends with a declaration of the blessing that will belong to the one who overcomes, that is, to the one who will be victorious. We know that God’s people are more than conquerors as Paul reminds us in Ro 8 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Notice again the same message in Paul’s letters as we see here with John of Patmos. They are both telling the very same story.) Faith brings victory because it clings to the one who has already emerged victorious. In other words, those who remain faithful will emerge victorious with their victorious Lord.
Excursus: Remember that the third key principle we Lutherans hold forth when studying and interpreting the Bible is that Scripture interprets Scripture by which I mean that all of Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the Bible’s central themes and motifs. In other words, Lutherans believe that difficult passages of Scripture are to be interpreted in light of those passages that are more readily understandable. We often try to reconcile what is said in one part of Scripture with what is said in other parts of Scripture, sometimes recognizing that there is tension between texts that seem to say different things. We try to be faithful to the entire Bible rather than just picking some parts and leaving others alone. End of excursus.
Re 2 1-7 The Letter to the Church in Ephesus read the text
Ephesus heads the list as the principle city of Asia Minor with an estimated population of a quarter million people during the early centuries. In fact, Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the entire Roman Empire as well as the most important city in Asia Minor at that time. The mile marker numbering the Romans used began at Ephesus. It was also the greatest commercial city in the province of Asia as well as the most important seaport in that province; it was wealthy, cosmopolitan and bustling with commercial life. Trade passed through it by land and water.
Ephesus had, of course, a Caesar temple where the people could worship Caesar (what theologians call the emperor cult). Ephesus was also the center of the (Greek) Artemis (Diana to the Romans) cult – the great mother goddess. [The Artemis cult was a cult of the trees. Artemis was a remote, distant tree god. Its temple was one of the seven wonders of the world at the time. Artemis was an absent deity.]
Note: So these “gods” of the city Ephesus (Caesar and Artemis) were gods that were always away. Caesar may have, in fact, never come to Ephesus. We see from this that Ephesus had a fairly well-developed religious superstructure. You could worship both Artemis and Caesar. As long as you paid your taxes and you were loyal, the empire did not care. Worship whomever and whatever. And there were all sorts of other little cults going on in all of these cities.
Note: Current-day Ephesus is a very large city. Massive buildings dating to the first century and beyond still stand to this day. Archaeologists have unearthed the amphitheater as well as streets, houses and shops. From their work it’s possible to get a very good picture there of what life was like in ancient Ephesus. There’s even a gladiators’ graveyard indicating how some of the population spent their free time. They have also found the Temple of Artemis. When the Romans established temples to the city of Rome and to the emperor, they did so carefully within the massive precincts of Artemis herself.
The one thing you don’t see today in Ephesus, or in any of the surrounding modern towns and villages, is an active Christian church. That’s ironic because Ephesus had been one of the major centers of early Christianity. In fact, by the early second century, Christian writers were holding up Ephesus as a great example of Christian faith, life and witness. Further, for several centuries it held a position of preeminence, and one of the great fifthcentury church councils was held there. (The third of the seven ecumenical councils that Lutherans hold as valid took place in Ephesus in the year 431.) Archaeologists, in fact, have also found a church building in Ephesus which could be where that council took place. But, to repeat, there are no active churches there today. If there are any Christians there, they are in hiding.
That would have been almost as unthinkable to John’s audience as it would be for us to imagine our current-day great churches empty and in ruins, with no new Christian fellowships rising up to take their place. But this sense of devastation, of a place where there once was a thriving Christian witness but where there is no more, is precisely what Jesus warned the Ephesian church about in Re 2 5: If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand out of its place. Like much in these letters, that is a severe warning. Remember lampstand here represents a church. Jesus would have removed the church! Ouch!
Paul had brought Christianity to Ephesus in the 60’s of the first century. Paul spent three years there during his third missionary journey as we read in Ac 20 31. Paul had caused a decrease in the sale of silver souvenirs at the temple of Diana as we read in Ac 19 21-41. The guild of silversmiths, fearful that their sales would keep decreasing, started a riot in order to prevent further Christian influence from hurting their business. The riot that ensued as a result of Paul’s preaching of the Gospel showed how the world reacts violently against Christ – then as now – when it believes that its own interests are being threatened. Nevertheless, Paul had a successful ministry there, and the congregation was well-established through his preaching of the Gospel.
On a later visit to Ephesus Paul warned the elders, with tears in his eyes, that they were in for trouble. In Ac 20 Paul says 29 I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.
Now in the 90’s – when this revelation was being revealed to John – what Paul had envisioned in the 60’s had happened. John was writing to the second generation of believers in the Ephesian church. False leaders had arisen and believers were being led astray – just as Paul had warned three decades before. Again, just as history repeats itself, religious history does as well.
Christ here in Re praises the congregation for its hard work and its perseverance in the faith for how it refused to tolerate the wicked and tested those who claimed to be apostles but were not (that is, who were false teachers under the guise of God’s servants). In other words, they knew the Word of God and were able to determine who taught according to it and who did not. Like the Bereans to whom Paul preached (Ac 17 11), the Ephesians searched the Scriptures to see if what these men said was so.
11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
They are also praised for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans (Re 2 6), a sect which sought to compromise with pagan society, proclaiming that Christian liberty allowed them to practice idolatry and immorality, thus allowing them to avoid suffering for the faith. [You see here how Christ is challenging Christians of times and places: “Do not compromise your faith with anything!” We are reminded of Luke’s words in Lk 12 which reads 8 “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. 9 But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. That’s rather straightforward talk. You either acknowledge Christ or you don’t. You’re either found in faith or you are not.] Such practices must certainly be condemned, then as now, for Christ calls us to deny ourselves and our own desires, take up our cross and follow Him (Mk 8 34). The Ephesians were aware of the seriousness of committing their entire beings to Christ.
However, while the Ephesians were commended for their zeal, they were also called upon to repent for having forsaken their first love (Re 2 4). Their love for Christ and for one another had cooled and had to be restored, since love is the first fruit of the Spirit (Ga 5 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. … ). While He was engaged in His earthly ministry, Christ repeatedly warned the Pharisees of their unloving, selfrighteous attitude, pointing out that the heart must be right for the actions to be approved by God. In other words, the Ephesians were doing what was outwardly correct, but their hearts were not right, and they were again in danger of falling under God’s judgment. Christ called them to continual selfexamination and repentance lest they be lost.
The message is one that God’s people need continually to hear today unless our love should also cool and we begin taking Christ’s blessings for granted. Remember who and what you are – children of God, and what Christ has done for you! Then your zeal for the Lord will increase, as will your love for Him and for all for whom He died. Do so, and you, too, will eat of the tree of life that was taken away with the Fall (Ge 3 2224) but which will be restored in the new heaven and new earth that we’ll read about later in Re 22 2, 14.
v 1: The statement These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands is a declaration of the continuing presence of Christ with his people along with his care and concern for them. John reminded them that Jesus was the sovereign one who held the seven stars in his right hand v 16. John is here simply restating what he already said in Re 1 16.
v 2: Jesus was delighted with the Ephesian Christians: they had worked hard, they had been patient even under threat and persecution v 3, and they had drawn a clear line between those who were really following Jesus and those who were not v 2. Indeed, when some people had arrived trying to pass themselves off as apostles, the Ephesians had seen through them. We don’t know who these people were, but the early Christians seem to have travelled a lot. Therefore, it’s quite likely that others, seeing what was happening, would show up and try to claim hospitality, and even a hearing for new teaching. And the Ephesians would have had none of it.
The necessity of testing for correct doctrine and dependable advice was widely recognized in the early church as we see also in 1 Cor 14 29; 1 Th 5 2 and 1 Jn 4 11. The method of testing may have been that which was used by the Bereans which we read of in Ac 17 11 These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.
v 4: Along with the words of commendation vv 1-3 we have these words of condemnation. Life in the church was and is a delicate balance. Those who are rightly concerned for the truth of the gospel may forget that at the very heart of that gospel is love. This is the very trap the Ephesians had fallen into.
the love you had first refers to the love they had at first for one another and/or for Christ. The Ephesians had made a good start by weeding out those whose ideas were not consistent with the witness of the apostolic message, but that had been achieved at a high cost because their love for Christ had grown cold. Also, the love they once had for other believers had been replaced by suspicions of unsound teaching. There had been the separation of those in the church, a separation of those who should have been together.
Love, in the early Christian sense, was something you did, giving hospitality and practical help to those in need, particularly to other Christians who were poor, sick or hungry. That was the chief mark of the early church. In fact, no other nonethnic group had ever behaved like this. Love of this kind, reflecting God’s own selfgiving love for them (as they would have said it), was both the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in this God.
Hence, the threat to remove the lampstand v 5.
v 5: The theme of repentance both begins and ends this Greek sentence. Remembering in the Bible not only involves the mind but it especially includes action. Remembering by way of action is God’s way. For instance, God remembered his covenant with Noah by not sending another flood, his covenant with Abraham by delivering his people from Egypt, Hannah by giving her a child, Samuel. God remembers the sins of his people by punishing them or he remembers their sins no more by forgiving them.
God also wants our remembering to also involve action. Remembering the Lord means trusting him to meet all our needs, remembering the Sabbath day means keeping it holy, remembering someone’s kindness means responding in kind, remembering the laws of God means obeying them, remembering the poor means helping them in very specific and practical ways. In a most special way we are to remember Jesus Christ, giving him thanks for who he is and what he did, identifying with his death on the cross and his resurrection, fostering a deeper faith in him. And, all this and much more, comes into place when we eat his body and drink his blood at the Lord’s Table, doing it in remembrance of him.
This v reminds us of what we already know that when well-intentioned people, zealous to find the right way, depart (fall) from the ultimate way – the way of love, the presence of Christ will depart from them. Apostasy, or falling away from the truth of God’s Word, has occurred throughout the history of God’s people. On numerous occasions the Israelites of the OT turned away from worshipping the true God to idols; the NT records similar departures from the truth. Such falling away usually resulted in some form of judgment by God. [Some passages suggest that the last days will be characterized by severe apostasy. God issues numerous encouragements to believers to remain steady in their faith and not to fall away. The book of Re is one of those encouragements.]
The presence of God departing from us is, of course, is not what Christians should want. Remember, as Christians who love Jesus we all look forward to the consummated kingdom of God when all who are found in faith will be in the full time presence of the Lord forever in everlasting life.
It’s easy to let this slip by unnoticed. It’s easy to settle down into a vaguely comfortable existence which puts its own needs first and, sometimes, last as well. The Ephesian church needed to wake up, to remember how things used to be, to repent and get back on track. John here provides that call.
Repentance involves a conscious sorrow for one’s past way of life; it’s a heartfelt “I’m sorry” expressed to God. But, it’s far more than that. It is a turning from an old way of living to a new way of living. God requires this change in us because of our sin which, apart from the experience of God’s grace, holds great power over us. Those who do not repent are judged. To merely regret one’s sinful ways is not repentance and leads only to death. The Bible gives us powerful examples of prayers of repentance such as in Ez 9 and Ps 51. For those who do confess their sins and turn to the Lord in open and honest repentance God promises forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. God wants all to repent; God wants all to be saved. This call to repentance went out from the OT prophets, from John the Baptist and from Jesus and his disciples. It’s a call that continues to go out today to believers everywhere.
v 6: The author of Re had serious differences with other Christians regarding the proper style of Christian witness. John mentions three so-called “Christian” groups who were not witnessing properly:
1. the Nicolaitans 2 6, 15 who were followers of Nicolaus. The Nicolaitans were a heretical group that had worked out a compromise with pagan society. They crop up again in the letter to Pergamum v 15. They taught that spiritual liberty gave them sufficient leeway to practice idolatry and immorality. Nicolaus was a proselyte (a gentile who converted to Judaism) of Antioch who was one of the first seven deacons of the Jerusalem church Ac 6 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
2. the followers of Balaam that we read about 2 14-16 – a group (similar to the Nicolaitans) at Pergamum, and
3. the followers of Jezebel that we read about in 2 20-23 – a group at Thyatira.
In essence, these three groups were essentially one and could be lumped into the Nicolaitans group. The followers of these three groups encouraged accommodation to pagan culture which included participation in pagan festivals and eating of meat ritually sacrificed in connection with the practices within pagan temples. Not good. While some of the NT authors considered the eating of such meat to be a matter of indifference, which was not inherently wrong, Paul, on the other hand, had a different view and stated that sometimes eating such meat was to be avoided in order to avoid misunderstandings. See 1 Cor 8 1-13 (Paul’s food offered to idols chapter).
In this situation John regards the “Christian” teachers / prophets who advocate such a tolerant approach as, in fact, teaching people to commit spiritual adultery (to be discussed below), demonstrating a lack of faithfulness to their true Lord. This text can be compared to Ho 1-3 which discuss Hosea’s family, the restoration of Israel, Israel’s infidelity, punishment and redemption, and which provides further assurances of God’s redeeming love.
That now said, the hateful practices of these three groups resulted in, of course, false doctrine v 15. The Lord hated the practices of the Nicolaitans and praised the Christians at Ephesus for joining him in this hatred as we read here in v 6.
The key to understanding the witness style of these three groups is the OT language used to label them. Nicolaus (Greek) and Balaam (Hebrew) mean the same thing: the one who conquers or consumes the people.
Balaam serves as the biblical prototype of all corrupt teachers and religious compromisers. He encouraged immorality, idolatrous feasting and infidelity against the Lord as we read in Nu 22-24; 25 1-3; 31 16; 2 Pe 2 15 and Ju 11. Balaam appears in Nu 22-25 and was credited in Jewish tradition with starting idolatry and with the mixing of Israelite and non-Israelite religion. Related is his role in involving Israelite men in improper sexual relationships with Moabite women which we read about in Nu 25 1-5 and 31 16. In fact, idolatry and illicit sexual relations are exactly the charges leveled by John against Balaam in Re 2 14 and against the prophet Jezebel in 2 20.
Jezebel was the wife of king Ahab who worshiped the God Ba’al and who led her husband to sin as we read in 1 Ki 16 31; 21 25. She opposed Elijah and earned his hatred for trying to seduce Israel away from worshipping the true God. For that reason Jezebel was labeled a whore in 2 Ki 9 22.
Nicolaus, Balaam and Jezebel were all, therefore, figures identified with attempts to adapt religious faith to the surrounding culture – attempts that inevitably led to compromises. The people John regarded as their followers took a rational and moderate approach to witnessing. Their approach was “Why should we be so rabid about it all when the emperor just wants a little sacrifice? What’s the big deal anyway? And how can you live if you don’t take part in the everyday life of the city – including taking part in your trade union meetings and the public festivals, all of which involve religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the gods? Why not a little peaceful coexistence with the empire rather that head-to-head confrontation?” As you can see, these groups advised compromising with the culture. Their model of witness was to go with the flow and to grossly blur the distinctions between their church and the society in which they lived. Folks, that won’t work. It didn’t then and it won’t now. This approach will not result in salvation.
The main point we can gain from this mention of the Nicolaitans is that the church must always be on the lookout for individuals or groups who try to teach strange new ideas or to introduce strange new practices. This doesn’t mean that God never has new things for the church to learn. Instead, these new things will come from prayerful, spirit-filled study of scripture – not through mere innovation as they had with the Nicolaitans.
v 7: Of course, everyone had ears but the sense here is that everyone who has “spiritual perception” should listen. The message to those who persevere in love concludes with a promise here in v 7: To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. This, of course, is the promise of Eden restored, the renewal / restoration of all creation in the consummated kingdom of God at Jesus’ second advent / coming. This, of course, is the ultimate goal which all Christians wish to obtain and which they do through faith in the One who has already won the victory for all.
The local color of these seven letters is quite remarkable, and in the case of Ephesus one point stands out in particular. The great temple of Artemis had within its extensive grounds a wonderful garden focused on a particular tree (the tree of life) which was used, not only as a sacred shrine, but as the focal point of a system of asylum. This tree was even featured on some of the local coins. It was thought that criminals who came within a certain distance of the tree would be free from capture and punishment. It is no accident, then, that this letter to Ephesus finishes with the promise that God, too, has a Paradise, a beautiful garden, with the tree of life at its heart – in which believers will be with God forever, in which there will be no more evil, sin, suffering and death!
However, God’s Paradise is no refuge for unrepentant criminals. It is the place where those who repent v 5 and those who conquer v 7 will have the right to eat from the tree, and so to obtain life of a sort which God always intended his human creatures to possess but which, until now, they have forfeited by their sin. The tree of life, after all, was there in the original garden (Ge 2 9; 3 22), and will be there, planted many times over, in the new garden city, the new Jerusalem that we will read about in Re 22 2. That is, the tree of life which had been denied to Adam was now accessible to the conqueror, to the person who obeyed the message of the letter and overcame and conquered evil.
Re 2 8-11 The Letter to the Church in Smyrna read the text
About thirty-five miles to the north of Ephesus was Smyrna, a powerful but beautiful city in which Greek and Roman culture flourished. Its citizens were closely aligned with Rome and eager to meet its demands for emperor worship.
Smyrna was a city that had been completely destroyed in 600 BC by a devastating earthquake. Somehow the city had managed to recover and become a booming city again. So the emperors thought of Smyrna in the tradition of a phoenix, that is, as something that was dead and had risen up from the ashes again.
This letter is the shortest of the seven letters, and Christ had nothing but praise and encouragement for the Smyrneans – just as his did for the Philadelphians in their letter. The most famous of the early martyrs was Polycarp. He had been consecrated bishop of Smyrna by John the apostle himself. It was in Smyrna where he would be arrested and later executed in February 156.
The Christians in Smyrna faced many threats. Partly, this had something to do with the idea that there was this phoenix walking around the city.
Another threat was the fact that the city was a seed-bed of loyalty to the Romans because it had a particularly loyal Caesar’s temple (the emperor cult). People were very suspect of anyone who was not equally loyal.
Another threat involved the Jews who were particularly hostile to the Christians. There was a large and actively hostile Jewish population who made life very difficult for Christians in Smyrna. Certain Jews accused the Christians of being agitators against the civil authorities v 9 and also threatened the Church with “second death”. Jesus here warned the Christians of Smyrna to be prepared for a brief period of further persecution.
Nevertheless, they were told not to be afraid, because by being faithful they would inherit a crown of life (Re 2 10). Even though they may even have to experience physical death, they were assured that the second death, eternal death, would not touch them.
The first death is the death of the body which everyone undergoes; it’s the physical (temporal) death when we take our last breath on earth. This death cannot be avoided in the present condition of humanity.
The second death is the eternal death of the soul of impenitent sinners (unbelievers) at the final judgment that all await at Jesus’ second advent / coming. It’s the eternal damnation by which the soul will be dead to all that it had been created for. This “second death” can be avoided by being found in faith in the first death.
To us, who for the most part do not experience physical persecution but who nevertheless live in a culture which looks down on Christ and His people, and which openly and regularly marginalizes and ridicules the Christian lifestyle, the encouragement not to give in to the surrounding culture is an important message. We may be assured that Christ will continue to give us the strength to remain faithful and that such faithfulness will be rewarded with the gift of eternal life.
v 8: The phrase the first and the last is essentially the same as the phrase the Alpha and the Omega of Re 1 8. This expression draws on its OT foreshadowings found in such texts as Is 44 6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. and Is 48 12 Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called: I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.
v 9: There was persecution by pseudo-Jews, those who said they were Jews but who were not. See also related texts found in Ro 2 28-29 and Ga 6 16.
Satan is Hebrew for accuser. See also Zc 3 1. Cf Jb 1 6-12.
v 10: devil in the Greek is transliterated as diabolos and means accuser. See the warnings of Jesus in Jn 15 20 and in Paul at 2 Ti 3 12.
The time reference ten days means that the time of persecution will be limited and of short duration.
Faithfulness is one of God’s chief characteristics. It refers primarily to his reliability in keeping his promises which we see vividly portrayed in both Testaments. For instance, God fulfilled his promise to give Canaan to the descendants of Abraham. God kept his promise to never reject his people completely (remember the faithful remnant). God’s most outstanding example of his faithfulness is the sending of his own Son, Jesus Christ, who fulfilled all of God’s promises. The Bible often connects God’s faithfulness with his own steadfast love for and loyalty to his people. Because God is faithful, his word is also faithful and trustworthy.
In response to God’s faithfulness we are to depend on God and trust him completely. Faithfulness also stands as the hallmark of the life of the Christian as we seek to imitate the faithfulness of Christ. God wants us to be people who are dependable and capable of being trusted. Faithfulness is also one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit we read of in Ga 5 22.
Christ exhorted these persecuted believers to be faithful even to the extent of being ready to die for his sake. [While martyrdom wasn’t yet the endpoint of persecution for Christians, it was just around the corner. The words they knew from the book of Re would have been part of every Christian’s belief and understanding when they later might be “chosen” to give their life for their faith, and … when they would freely do so. Re would have served as a source of strength to those undergoing martyrdom.
the crown of life is the crown that is eternal life. There are two Greek words that can be translated into crown. One is daidma which means royal crown, and the other, which is used here, is stephanos which usually has something to do with joy and victory. Hence, crown here does not refer to a royal crown but to the garlands or wreath awarded to the winner in athletic contests. We see crown also at 3 11; 4 4, 10; 6 2; 9 7; 12 1 and 14 14.
v 11: Jesus also promises here that the faithful will not be harmed by the second death. John cites this second death again in Re 20 6, 14 and 21 8 where he will be more specific about what this second death involves in referencing the lake of fire. Folks, the second death will be none too pleasing. Compare also the words of Jesus at Mt 10 28 and Lk 12 4-5.
Another aspect of the letter to Smyrna:
On another note, we have these passages in the NT that can give us pause. As one translation puts v 9 as … I know the blasphemy of those selfstyled Jews. We might ask how can anyone say such things? But in fact, in the real world (as opposed to the fantasyworld of the relativist), there are hard edges, hard questions, tough challenges. We see this also in the early church which was Jewish to the core. Some of the hardest questions came straight out of the Jewish-Christians who comprised the church as we’ve seen already in Paul. “Who are the children of Abraham? Are they just his physical family (in which case, what about the descendants of Ishmael and Esau?)? Or are the children of Abraham the larger, worldwide family which God promised to Abraham?” In fact, the family of Abraham was the larger, worldwide family (Abraham’s family was now multi-national). All of this led Saul of Tarsus to persecute the early Christians violently. Then, when he changed sides, Paul got himself in the same trouble again. But, as we see when we look at other Jewish renewal movements of the period, like the one at Qumran, we see that all of this was essentially a struggle within Judaism – not against Judaism. The early Christian church firmly clung to the ancient Jewish hope, and the ancient Jewish scriptures, and they claimed that they were all fulfilled in Jesus the Jewish Messiah.
In western Turkey, by the time Re was written, it is likely that the church contained a fair mixture of Jews and nonJews. But there was a large and lively synagogue community as well whose members did not believe that Jesus was God’s Messiah sent to Israel to announce God’s kingdom. Nor did they believe he was raised from the dead to prove the point. However, the point of the Christian faith was not that this was a new religion, invented out of nothing. Rather, the Christian faith was the fulfillment of the ancient promises to, and hopes of, the people of Israel. This, of course, immediately caused a problem. This was especially so when members of the synagogue, not content with their own rejection of Jesus, actively blasphemed him, perhaps calling down curses upon him.
In our politically correct age it would be much more convenient if these reallife challenges did not happen. But they did – and they do. One group (Christians) said that Jesus was raised from the dead and therefore is God’s true Messiah, Israel’s king and the world’s true lord; the other group said he wasn’t and isn’t. Who, therefore, is the true Jew? Paul had previously given us that answer in Ro 2 2529: the one who is the ‘Jew’ in the heart. John would agree and so, according to this letter, would Jesus himself. This means that, like it or not, the Jewish synagogue in Smyrna had become a ‘Satansynagogue’ not just in a vague, general, abusive sense, but in the rather sharply defined sense that, as ‘the Satan’ is, literally, ‘the accuser’, the synagogue in town has been ‘accusing’ the Christians of all kinds of wickedness. In particular, in a city where Roman imperial presence and influence was everything, the Jews would have been exempt from taking part in the festivities of the imperial cult. These Jews may well have been accusing, to the authorities, the Christians who were claiming that exemption as well. The Christians would have had to endure persecution and deprivation due to their refusal to take part in ceremonies connected to emperor worship. Perhaps it was accusations like that, with social and political consequences, that had given Smyrna’s Christians a taste of poverty in an otherwise rich city (v 9).
All this is at the heart of the message to Smyrna. In this church the Lord finds nothing to criticize. His main task is to warn that fierce persecution is on the way; and he does so as the one who is First and Last, who was dead and came to life. (There may be a local allusion here, because Smyrna, as a city, had once been destroyed as noted above by an earthquake and then rebuilt.) Whatever happens, the times and the fates of the Christians in Smyrna are safe in his hands. Still, the devil may well imprison and ‘test’ some of them.
The warning is again surrounded with promises that are immediately relevant to a church under this threat. Those who are ‘faithful all the way to death’, as Jesus himself had been (Pp 2 78), will receive ‘the crown of life’ – meaning perhaps ‘life as a crown’. In other words, the true, renewed life of God’s new age – whose possessors will be marked out by it as royalty – is marked out by crowns. Again, Smyrna itself was thought of as a city with a crown, due to the way its splendid architecture used the natural advantages of a steep hill to good effect.
The final promise points in the same direction. Anyone who is, quite naturally, afraid that they may face death for their beliefs was introduced to an idea to which John will return near the end of the book. There were, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily death to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus had already passed that way, and those who belonged to him could know that he would first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise them to new life in his final new world. But the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. This ‘second death will do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do for the physical body.
This is a terrifying prospect, to which John will return in Re 20. But his point at the moment is this: do not be afraid to face the first death. Some of you will have to do that. To ‘conquer’ to face that martyrdom in faithful patience will mean that you will have nothing to fear from the ‘second death’. Be content to go with Jesus through the first death. He was dead, and came to life; and so will we.
Re 2 1217 The Letter to the Church in Pergamum
Fifty miles to the north of Smyrna (and ten miles inland from the Aegean Sea) we find Pergamum, the northermost of the seven cities. [Pergamum also found as Pergamos and Pergamon in the literature.] Dominating the view of the city of Pergamum from much of the surrounding countryside was its high acropolis in the middle of the city and the majestic set of temples which sat there. The city boasted an outstanding library, and even the word parchment is derived from this city’s name. Many local inhabitants in the first century must have been proud of all this. But for the little Christian community it represented a threat and a threat with which, it seemed according to what we read in vv 12-17, the Christians were not coping particularly well.
From the second century before Christ Pergamum was the site of the “imperial throne” (what John calls “Satan’s throne”), the seat of the Roman governor (proconsul?) of the whole region (the province Asia Minor?) and the administrative center of the province. Therefore, emperor worship was strictly enforced there. It was an official seat of Roman authority and was also one of the few cities that had the ‘right of the Sword’, that is, the right to mete out capital punishment.
[Remnants of the imperial throne remain in a German museum to this day, and the decoration of the throne is exactly as John describes it later in the text!] The letter to Pergamum refers to the city as the place where the Satan has his throne. It was the city where Satan lived (2 13). Since the Satan the accuser or the devil is referred to elsewhere in Re as the ancient serpent (20 2), we may find the clue to this description in Pergamum’s famous local religions. Four important pagan cults were centered in Pergamum.
For a start, there was the shrine of the god of healing, Asclepius, whose symbol was a serpent. The serpent is still depicted in the caduceus, the insignia of medical associations. However, to John the serpent was the personification of evil, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan in Re 12 9.
But, in addition, Pergamum was another city with a major center of the imperial cult of Rome and its emperors. John does not identify Rome with the devil. But, as we shall see, he believes that the devil has been using Rome for his own ends, not least to attack the church.
In view of such a multiplicity of forms of paganism, t’s no wonder, therefore, that the heavenly Christ writes to the church in Pergamum, I know where you live – where Satan has his throne v 13.
Generally the Jews were tolerated in the Roman Empire because they were considered a pesky “ethnic” group that didn’t proselytize (they stayed to themselves). But the Christians were not tolerated because they proselytized (tried to bring regular folk into the faith). So the loyal followers of Rome would learn about the glory and peace of God and then start to question their loyalty to the state. Then they would start to study and get baptized and start taking communion. So then you had a problem because the Christians were taking away a loyal subject. So the Christian were persecuted.
How then should a Christian live in a city like Pergamum? What could one do, and what should one not do? We can only guess at the many anxious discussions, and varied teachings, that might have attempted to address these questions. Should one take part in the normal civic life which included festivals of the gods, not least Rome and the emperor? Was there a way in which one might do enough to get by while drawing back from full involvement? Paul had addressed these issues in two letters (1 Cor 810; Ro 14), and had given careful and nuanced advice: no compromise with pagan temples and cult, but flexibility on food that had been offered to idols, and indeed on meat and drink in general.
At this point, some in the church at Pergamum seem to have taken that permitted flexibility all the way into cultural assimilation. Their thinking had become, “There’s no point standing out; we are part of this society, let’s go with the flow.” However, some Christians, faced with the challenge to deny Jesus, had refused to do so. Therefore, Jesus was pleased that those were remaining faithful even though Christians were being put to death there. One in particular, Antipas, had died as a result (v 13). But there were others perhaps in reaction who were keen not to stand out. They had gone along with the prevailing culture.
For these people Jesus has stern words. Jesus warned against tolerating those who hold to the teachings of Balaam (2 14) and of the idolatrous and immoral Nicolaitans (2 15). This is, more or less, the same mistake that the Israelites committed when King Balak of Moab (Nu 22-24) hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel (v 14). Balaam found he couldn’t curse them. While Balaam was unable to curse OT Israel, he still wanted Balak’s promised reward, and so he encouraged the king to use a different tactic: entice Israel into immorality, thus bringing a curse upon themselves. In other words, where direct spiritual attack (the curse) had failed, more subtle temptation might work; and, as often, the best temptation would be sexual. In an ancient version of the ‘honeytrap’ beloved of spy novels of our day (and, for all I know, actual spying), Moabite women were sent to entice the Israelite men who, presumably, already had Israelite wives. Through this they were drawn into idolatry, worshipping gods other than YHWH. Thus both groups would tempt the church to compromise with the surrounding culture and would thus bring about the downfall of many in the church. Their job was done.
The same tactic still works remarkably well today. Sexual morality isn’t, as it is so often portrayed, a matter of a few ancient rules clung to by some rather conservative persons when the rest of society has moved on. It is, rather, a matter of the call of the creator God to faithful manpluswoman marriage, reflecting the complementarity of heaven and earth themselves. That is the theme which finally emerges in the great scene at the end of Re. Married love is a signpost to the faithfulness of the creator to his creation. The reason sexual immorality is so often coupled with idolatry, as it is here, is because such behavior points to different gods the gods of blood and soil, of race and power. It’s a toxic mixture, and the Christian had no business getting involved with it, as Paul himself warned in 1 Cor 10.
As for the Nicolaitans it may be that they were, in fact, a small group who are teaching something very much like this teaching of Balaam. Some have suggested that, in the original languages, the names Balaam and Nicolas may have similar meanings. One way or another, the problem in Pergamum is that much of the church has lost its cutting edge. It had lost its ability to say ‘no’ to the surrounding culture. As the earliest Christians found in Ac, the church always has to be able to say We must obey God rather than human authorities even if the authorities in question are not the official magistrates but simply the insidious pressures of people saying but this is what everybody does. (Of course, the magistrates, too, would probably have posed a threat if the Christians had refused to join in with state religion.)
Jesus’ response here is clear. The Roman governor may wield the sword, but Jesus has the sharp twoedged sword coming out of his mouth (vv 12, 16, as in 1 16). His word will cut through the halfhearted spirituality that is happy to face both ways at once.
As always, there is a promise, though in the case of Pergamum it is a little obscure. There are many early Christian texts which see the little churches like the Israelites in the wilderness. That, indeed, is the setting for the story of Balaam. That is the setting Paul uses for his very similar warnings in 1 Cor 10. On that wilderness journey that Paul recounts in 1 Cor 10, God fed his people with ‘manna’, bread that dropped down from the sky. Jesus promises to do the same here; the place where you live may seem to be starving you, but I will give you secret (hidden) manna. Many Christians have clung to this promise as they find themselves spiritually hungry in an alien environment. Many, too, have seen it as a pointer to the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, again with parallels in 1 Cor 10. God has given and has left us with much if we would but avail ourselves of his gifts.
In this text Christ warns us about tolerating certain people like those of Balaam and Balak, and he calls to repentance those who do such things and those who tolerate them. It is tempting to ‘flirt’ with sin, or to think that, since forgiveness is always available, resisting is not all that important. Not so! As God is holy, so He calls His people also to be holy. To those who continue the fight, Christ promises His heavenly food, that is, eternal life.
The text also tells us that those who conquer will also receive a white stone with a new name (2 17) written on it. The new name indicates a new identity with Christ and signifies the beginning of new life for those who turn from their old way of life to Christ. This new name of Christ is received by the faithful at their baptismal rebirth. Embracing Christ means new life, life which ceases to be enamored with sin and instead despises and repudiates it. In fact, Paul tells us in Ro 6 2 We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Further, Pergamum’s great buildings were made of a black local stone. When people wanted to put up inscriptions, they carved them on white marble. This was then fixed to the black buildings, where it stood out all the more clearly. In addition and this may tie in with the hidden manna there was a custom of guests at a feast being given a stone with their name on as a ticket of admission which served as their admission ticket – metaphorically, in this case – to the heavenly banquet to come Is 25 6-9.
What name, then, is written on the stone? Is it a new name for the person concerned? Or, is it the new name of Jesus the Messiah, as opposed to the old names of the local and imperial gods and goddesses? In favor of the second, it is possible that there may be an allusion here to the names of the tribes of Israel on the high priest’s clothing. These names would be summed up in that of the one true Israelite, Jesus the Messiah. But the fact that nobody knows this name except the one who receives it points more so to the first solution. In other words, Jesus is promising to each faithful disciple, to each one who conquers, an intimate relationship with himself in which Jesus will use the secret name which, as with lovers, remains private to those involved. The challenge to avoid the false intimacy of sexual promiscuity is matched by the offer of a genuine intimacy of spiritual union with Jesus himself.
v 13: The official center of the emperor cult in Asia was in Pergamum, hence, I know …where Satan’s throne is.
According to legend Antipas was bishop of Pergamum (Pergamos) and was the first martyr in the province of Asia (in the year 92). Having witnessed before the Roman governor that “Jesus is Lord,” he met his death by being slowing roasted to death in a bronze kettle during the reign of Domitian whom we discussed in the introduction.
faithful one is the Lord’s title from Re 1 5.
v 14: Balaam had compromised the true faith with the paganism that surrounded him. He advised the Midianite women on how to lead the Israelites astray. He serves as a fitting prototype of corrupt teachers who deceive believers into compromise with worldliness.
vv 14-16 go to the biblical theme of watchfulness. In God’s love and caring for his people, he watches over them. God’s people themselves must also be alert and watchful in at least three areas:
1. We must not forget the good things God has done for us and we must not fall into temptation and sin.
2. We must watch for false teachers in the church.
3. We must watchfully await Jesus’ second advent / coming because he can come at any time, and we must be ready to meet him when he comes.
v 17: The hidden manna is the heavenly food available to the believer who overcomes / conquers and it’s here being contrasted with the unclean food of the Balaamites. Here it’s a promise of everlasting life to those who overcome. To eat the hidden manna is to partake of the messianic banquet in the kingdom to come as we read in Lk 22 28-30, the “Eucharist” of the age to come, and in Is 25 6-9. In sharp contrast to the communion with the pagan cult, it restores our original communion with God.
Certain stones were used as tokens for various purposes, and here in the context of the messianic banquet the white stone is probably used for the purpose of admission. In ancient Greek law courts a white stone or pebble was a vote for acquittal so here it symbolizes Christ’s verdict of “not guilty” on all believers.
Re 2 18-29 The Letter to the Church in Thyatira
The city of Thyatira was the smallest, least well-known and the least important of the seven cities in its time, and yet it gets the longest letter. It was located about forty-five miles southeast of Pergamum. One of the things for which it was famous was its various and very numerous trade guilds and not least its smelting work in copper and bronze for the making of among other things, idols. That may well explain the choice of the particular description of Jesus in v 18, picking up from 1 15: his feet are like exquisite brass. Perhaps even more important was the local deity in the area, who was the patron deity of the bronze trade, was Apollo Tyrimnaeus who appeared on local coins together with the son of god, that is, the Roman emperor. In light of these associations, there is particular power in the letter’s beginning as it announces these are the words of the son of God, whose eyes are like flaming fire and whose feet are like exquisite brass v 18 (which, as noted just above, echoes Re 1 14-15). John wants his readers/hearers to know who the true Son of God is.
Thyatira is also mentioned in Ac as the home of Lydia (the seller of purple dyes who proselytized outside the city). Lydia was Paul’s first convert in Philippi (Ac 16 14) .
Jesus begins by commending the devout Christians there for their efforts to remain faithful. The Christians at Thyatira were praised for growing in love, faith, service, and perseverance v 19 – unlike those at Ephesus, who had lost their first love. Unlike the church in Ephesus, there had been progress made in this community.
Unfortunately for the Christians the various guilds often combined features of their trade unions with certain religious practices. Feasts for the guilds normally took place at pagan temples or shrines where an animal was offered to the gods and then eaten by the members. These meetings also involved idol worship and sexual debauchery. As such, the local industries, and the many trade and business guilds which were formed around them, had become a major problem for the church. If they didn’t participate in the feasts and ceremonies of the various guilds, they would be unable to make a living. If they did participate, they were being unfaithful to the Lord.
Just as today, some kinds of business and trade societies, various types of religious or quasireligious ceremonies were used in antiquity as a way of celebrating the industry in question and invoking divine blessing upon it. Again, as in our own day, many people took these ceremonies with a grain of salt. But in this letter Jesus makes it very clear that this is not an option. Yes, the church in Thyatira had done considerably better of late than it had before (v 19) but there was still a major problem. Love, faith, service and patience in v 19 read like a Pauline list of the virtues that one should expect from a maturing Christian community. But there is still work for this community to be doing.
In the previous letter the problem in the church at Pergamum was identified by allusion to a famous biblical figure, Balaam the prophet. This time another ancient villain plays the same role: the Canaanite queen, Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, King of Israel, who seems to have been the cause of some at least of her husband’s wickedness. The name of the false prophetess in Thyatira being referred to here in Re 2 was, of course, not Jezebel. John gave her the code name, Jezebel, based on what we read about the real Jezebel in 1 Ki 18-19 and 2 Ki 9 – the same Jezebel who had induced Ahab to worship Canaanite deities. John gave the false prophetess the name Jezebel because she was leading many of the Christians astray with her teachings.
In other words, the church in Thyatira had allowed this prophetess to exert an influential “prophetic” leadership in the community. This “Jezebel” was prominent in the congregation but she undermined their loyalty of God by promoting tolerance toward pagan practices. No doubt this woman considered herself an authentic prophet of God and that she was declaring God’s will for the new situation; but she was wrong. Jezebel had actively sought to destroy the worship of the true God among the Israelites and replace it with the worship of Ba’al and Astarte. Therefore, the people were guilty of tolerating Jezebel … who calls herself a prophet v 20. Perhaps the attitude of love being conveyed by the people had become misguided which, in turn, led to tolerance of an evil, evil that should have been cast out from among God’s people. But the heavenly Christ had called the would-be prophetess to repentance but she refused to repent of her fornication Re 2 21.
Here the word fornication is probably used in the OT sense of apostasy.
Her teaching of what John calls the deep things of Satan in Re 2 24 had the effect of compromising Christian commitment by taking part in pagan practices. We should not to minimize the importance of these problems confronting first century Christians because it would have been economic suicide to reject the minimum requirements for guild membership. Nor should we dismiss this problem as only of academic interest, as if it doesn’t concern us.
The real Jezebel’s story is told in 1 Ki 16-22, ending with Ahab’s death. Jezebel’s own story comes to its unpleasant end in 2 Ki 9. Jezebel, like the women of Moab whom Balaam and Balak used to seduce the Israelite men away from the pure worship of Yahweh, was a foreign woman who introduced the worship of Ba’al, a rival god, into Israel. That was at the heart of many other evils, summarized in 2 Ki 9 22 as whoredoms and sorceries. 22 When Joram saw Jehu, he said, “Is it peace, Jehu?” He answered, “What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?”
Whoredoms in that passage, like fornication in v 22, was a metaphor for the spiritual playing around of communing with other gods. Certainly this is what is in mind in v 22. It seems unlikely that church members themselves have been engaging in sexual activity with this firstcentury Jezebel. However, everything we know about ancient and indeed modern paganism inclines us to think that the sexual immorality noted in the Pergamum letter was a reality here as well. Certainly v 20 seems to point in that direction. Once one admits (as Paul did not in his letters) that it is all right to attend events in pagan temples or near equivalents, then all the ancillary practices, which regularly included licentious sexual behavior, would come with the territory. In other words, almost literally: if you wanted to find a prostitute, the precincts of a pagan temple would be the natural place to look.
This makes it all the more shocking that the church was tolerating the woman here nicknamed Jezebel. It isn’t clear whether she was an official and accredited church teacher, but certainly she had a powerful influence through what she claimed was her prophetic gift. It seems that, within the young and muddled Christian community, some had become convinced that their spiritual freedom could appropriately be expressed both in sexual license (one still hears, in some wouldbe Christian circles, the word ‘prophetic’ used to describe a call for sexual license) and expressed in attendance at pagan shrines, cult meals and the more ambiguous fellowship meals (still with religious overtones) of the trade guilds. Some may even have embraced a teaching according to which the Christian’s freedom from sin meant that he or she could, and perhaps should, explore the satanic depths (v 24), going boldly right into the enemy’s camp just to show how invulnerable one was.
As far as Jesus is concerned, this whole approach is an absolute disaster. The church has no business compromising at any point with pagan worship and the practices that reflect and embody it. Here, as in the devastating scene in Re 17-19 where the great whore is the imperial city Babylon (Rome), judgment is pronounced on Jezebel and on all who have gone with her into wickedness. The throwing on a bed, great distress (v 22) and utter slaughter (v 23) that will follow are no doubt symbolic, but they are symbolic of the real and powerful action which the Lord will take – as the one whose flaming eyes search minds and hearts (vv 18 and 23) – to purge his people of this multiple sin.
The authority which the Lord possesses, with which he can do all this, is summed up with a reference to Ps 2, one of the great royal psalms in which the Messiah is given authority to rule the nations … with a rod of iron, and smash them in pieces like a clay pot Ps 2 9. Here (in vv 2627) this royal authority is to be shared with those who conquer. In Re, Jesus intends to make his people a royal priesthood. What is required at the moment, for those who have not been drawn away by the teaching and practices of Jezebel, is that they hold on tightly. That is exactly what Christians today should do when they find themselves in churches where incorrect teaching and behavior is being eagerly embraced as God-given; they should hold on tightly. We have this very situation playing itself out in major American denominations this very day. Every generation of Christians must ask and answer the question: How far should I go in accepting and adopting contemporary standards and practices?
John tells us one more thing. Jesus promises to give them the morning star. Later in the book (22 16) we see that it is Jesus himself who is the morning star. We probably have here another hint of the level of intimacy which he offers to his people. He will share his very identity with them, as we have just seen him do with his royal authority. But the morning star (in reality the planet Venus at its predawn brightest) is a sign of the special vocation of Christians, not least those holding on when others around them seem to be compromising, under pressure, with local pagan practices. Christian witness is meant to be a sign of the dawning of the day, the day in which love, faith, service and patience will have their fulfillment, in which idolatry and immorality will be seen as the traps and delusions they really are, and in which Jesus the Messiah will establish his glorious reign over the whole world.
As citizens of a pluralistic society, a society which continually demands tolerance of views and practices which Christians should find intolerable, these words shout out to us today, as well. The exalted Christ warned these Christians that they were being enticed into both idolatry and adultery. Here the OT theme of idolatry as a spiritual form of adultery is proclaimed – as seen in the writings of Jm, Ek and Ho. Unfaithfulness, both sexual and spiritual, shows contempt rather than love for the one offended – God – and destroys relationships rather than heals them. Jezebel’s coming destruction is announced, and those who tolerated her behavior are called upon to repent. Genuine love will not tolerate evil and instead will condemn it. Those who participate in it must be warned unless they set themselves up for destruction.
v 18: This is the only place in Re where the title Son of God appears.
v 20: Jezebel was Israel’s pagan queen who had lived many centuries earlier. She was trying to seduce Christians into pagan practices.
v 22: adultery
Adultery is sexual unfaithfulness to one’s spouse and was prohibited in the OT law, and, as a sin both against one’s spouse and against God, was punishable by death. The NT not only considered the actual act of adultery sinful, but it also added that adultery is a sin that we can commit even in our thoughts. Unconfessed adultery leads to exclusion from the kingdom of God. Yet God will pardon that sin as well as any others we confess.
Spiritual adultery is adultery as an image of human unfaithfulness to God.
God uses the human institution of marriage as a picture of his love relationship with Israel and of Christ’s love relationship with the Church. At the present time the church is engaged to Christ 2 Cor 11 2. When the new heaven is created, Christ as the bridegroom will officially marry the church as his bride in the heavenly wedding Re 19 7.
God wants us to remain faithful to him as our divine fiance. In both the OT and the NT God considers unfaithfulness to him as adultery. Usually this form of adultery was idolatry. God promises judgment for those who continue in unfaithfulness. When the Assyrians destroyed the adulterous northern kingdom of Israel, the Bible calls this tragedy “divorce.” When the adulterous nation of Judah was carried away into Exile, however, this was a temporary separation rather than divorce because God took them back as his wife. cf Jm 3 14.
Here in this text those who commit adultery are those who accept the teaching of the false prophetess, here called Jezebel, and they are, of course, engaging in spiritual adultery.
v 23: Jezebel is the spiritual mother of all people who pursue antinomian (literally against the law meaning libertine, ie, “there is no need for the law of God in Christian life”) doctrines. Those who accept her teaching and practice will be judged accordingly to damnation at the eschatological destruction of the wicked – those not found in faith at the second advent / coming.
v 24: the deep things of Satan references heretical teachings which are in contrast to 1 Cor 2 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. Also, this is probably John’s sarcastic reversal of the prophetess’s own claim to teach the deep things of God.
v 26: to the end suggests that perseverance in the Christian life is all-important.
Two rewards are promised to those who conquer.
1. They will share in Christ’s messianic rule over the nations. v 26
Ps 2 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
2. Christ will give them the morning star. v 28
v 27: rule here literally in the Hebrew means to shepherd.
v 28: Although the morning star is the name given to the planet Venus when it appears in the east before sunrise, as though it is heralding the sunrise, biblically the morning star is none other than Christ himself as we see in Re 22 16 “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Through intertextuality this verse echoes other NT texts as well.
In Lk 1 he is the daylight from on high. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
In Jn 1 he is the true light which enlightens all who come into the world. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
In 2 Pe 1 he is the lamp shining … until the day dawns and the morning star rises. 19 … You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
The expression morning star is a metaphor announcing the dawn of a new day and the fulfillment of hope after the night of longing and expectation. In pledging to give this star to those who conquer, Christ is pledging to give himself. Always remember that the ultimate reward enjoyed by Christians is to be with their Lord. Christ’s gift of the morning star is the privilege of being with Jesus in all his glory throughout eternity. It’s the ultimate consummation of the coming of YHWH to Zion. Maranatha!
Some theologians see morning star as a messianic symbol. See Nu 24 17; Mt 2 2, 10.
Re 3 1-6 The Letter to the Church in Sardis
Sardis was located at the junction of five roads about thirty miles to the south of Thyatira, and it was the capital of the province of Lydia (and later the capitol of the Seleucid kingdom) Sardis was a natural citadel thought to be secure because of its location on a very high hill – Mount Tmolus – and its sheer cliffs on three sides of the city which dropped some fifteen hundred feet to the valley below. For a long time most thought the city was completely impregnable. Attackers might come and go, but the citizens were quite content in their security.
However, twice in its history, Sardis – failing to be watchful – was conquered by attacks at night. The residents of Sardis knew very well what had happened to their city six hundred years before the Christian gospel reached them. They thought they could never be captured until one night, during the reign of their famous King Croesus, the invading Persian army led by Cyrus the Great – who features in other various biblical stories – found a way in. Someone, got up the sheer cliff and managed a surprise attack. Because nobody was expecting it because of their sheer lack of vigilance, the result was all the more devastating. Cyrus conquered Sardis in 546 BC. Though Sardis remained an important city, the lesson had been learned. Then, once again in 214 BC Sardis was captured by Antiochus the Great, again because of the lack of vigilance. Sometime later in 17 AD the city was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake but unlike Smyrna, it never came back to its original glory.
The problem in Sardis was spiritual lethargy; it had completely compromised with the surrounding pagan world. Here in Re Christ declared that, although the church appeared to be flourishing, they were, in fact, alive in name only. They were dead v 1. No condemnation could have been more sharp; the church was an example of nominal Christianity, very much like what we see in some quarters of so-called “Christianity” today. These people in Sardis were Christian in name only.
Still the Lord began his words to Sardis not with threats but instead with urgent admonitions as we see in vv 2-3. He urged them along with five staccato imperatives: Wake up! Strengthen what remains! Remember! Obey! Repent!
It may be that, since there were no major problems in the church at Sardis, there was nothing to challenge them nothing to keep them sharp and as a result they had sunk into a stupor. The fact of the matter is that although they looked fine outwardly, they were only going through the motions of the faith. Therefore, the church in Sardis was considered to be more dead than alive.
Here in Re 3 Jesus is saying that the Christian community in Sardis needed to learn it all over again! They had the reputation of being alive of being a vibrant going concern, of being a fellowship where things were happening. But they had gone to sleep on their reputation, and they needed to wake up. Still, all was not lost; there were some good things happening; but unless action was taken quickly they, too, would wither on the vine. The city had fallen in the past because of a lack of vigilance – as noted above – so now the Sardians were being reminded to be watchful and to shake off their apathy. Further, John told them that if they failed to wake up, Christ would come like a thief, that is, at an unexpected hour.
Note: This text is not a reference to the second advent / coming because here Jesus’ coming depends on the church’s refusal to repent, not because of whether or not the Sardians are watching. Christ comes in many ways and at many times, and this is clearly a limited coming in judgment upon the unrepentant in Sardis. In other words, this text referred to a day of judgment which would involve Sardis. However, elsewhere in the NT this phrase I will come like a thief is a frequently-used metaphor for the unexpected arrival of the returning Christ at his second advent / coming. See Re 16 15; Mt 24 42-44; Lk 12 39-40; 1 Th 5 2; 2 Pe 3 10.
The more detailed charge against Sardis appears to be twofold.
First, their works were not been found to be ‘complete’. That may have been a tactful way of saying that their performance of the gospel, their Christian way of life, “had left a lot to be desired.” But that’s not the sort of thing Christian faith is. The Christian faith is all or nothing: either Jesus really is the Lord, rightly asking for our absolute allegiance, or he is a sham and should be rejected outright. It simply won’t do to bumble on, looking busy but achieving little or nothing. Reputation isn’t enough. We see a lot of this in today’s church too.
The second charge emerges in vv 4-5: although the situation in Sardis was critical, it wasn’t hopeless. Jesus acknowledged that some of the Christians in Sardis ‘had not allowed their clothes to become dirty and polluted.’ While it’s not clear what, in fact, this image is being used for, it may just be a way of commenting on their spiritual laziness. That is, they had fallen into bad habits. Further, it may have been a more specific reference to the toleration, within the community, of some sort of immoral behavior – the same toleration we see in some of the other communities John wrote to, and the same toleration we see in the Christian church today. Also, the meaning here could be symbolic with the dirty clothing symbolizing the purity of their Christian lives. Cf Zc 3 3-5.
John tells them that if this continues, the church in Sardis will suffer the same fate as the city had suffered six centuries earlier. In fact, Christians should never dare to think that they “have it made” at any time, because Satan is always ready to catch us unawares. Jesus warned those in Sardis that, if they did not wake up, the day of judgment would come upon them like a thief v 3, just as He had warned His disciples while still on earth. They won’t know when it will happen. This very thought echoes similar sayings in Paul and Peter, and in the teaching of Jesus himself as we see in these verses: 1 Th 5 2; 2 Pe 3 10; Mt 24 42-44. This was obviously a regular warning note sounded among the early Christians. The Jesus who holds the life of the churches their angels, and the seven spirits of God which bring the churches to life (see 1 4; 4 5; 5 6) will come. And when it does, they won’t know what’s happening until it’s too late.
Throughout Re we glimpse other ‘comings’, which may consist of times of persecution (when Jesus is coming to cleanse and purify his church) or of moments of comfort and restoration. Even Laodicea, as we shall see, is promised that if they open the door he will ‘come in to them and eat with them’ (3 20). Here with Sardis it seems that the ‘coming’ may well be a time of persecution or simply of internal collapse – a church quietly drowning in its own harmlessness, unable to believe that its reputation for being alive is no longer deserved.
But the promise, to those who ‘wake up’, to those who ‘conquer’, and to those who have managed to keep their ‘clothes’ from being ‘polluted’ is that they will share the triumphal procession when Jesus comes as the conqueror. John does note that there were still some in Sardis who were worthy, that is, who still had faith and so were truly active in service for their Lord. To those, he gave the promise that they would be dressed in white, clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
Note: soiled clothing represents evil deeds and white garments symbolize righteousness. dressed in white is a description of the redeemed. See Re 3 18; 6 11; 7 9, 13. Cf 4 4 and 19 14. Scarlet is the color of sin while white is the color of purity and holiness. Cf Is 1 18.
They will wear white robes – as people did in triumphal processions – and as the newly baptized would do when they emerged from the water. They would, in other words, share the victory of Jesus over all (including ultimately death itself) that drags human life down into the dirt. This theme will be taken up again and again later on in Re.
Note: For example, the Essenes of Qumran wore white as a symbol of their inner purity. Roman Emperors wore white in triumphal processions. White garments signify heaven in Dn 7 9 and festivity in Ec 9 8.
Additionally, and although it’s phrased by John negatively, their names will stay where they are in the book of life (a metaphor for salvation and election) – the heavenly registry of the names of God’s people first mentioned in Ex 32 32 . In other words, all who remain in the faith are promised the same and are told that their names will not be blotted from the book of life that is, they win – not lose – their citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
The idea of writing names in the book of life had a long history within Judaism. For instance, Moses prayed that if God would not forgive the sin of the Israelites in the golden calf episode, he wished to be blotted out of the book that you have written. Ex 32 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sinbut if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” Cf Ps 69 28; Ma 3 16. [This was not an encouraging reference, since where Moses was almost all the Israelites had deserved to be blotted out of that book, and it was only God’s fresh act of mercy that rescued the situation.] Also, by the time of Daniel the theme had developed to include the idea of books being opened on the day of judgment as we see in Dn 7 10 and 12 1. Remember the concept of progressive revelation which we find all through Hebrew scriptures.
progressive revelation / cumulative revelation
As we move through scripture the kingdom of God hope gets gradually put together and further clarified. There is a narrative progression that takes place regarding biblical concepts. It’s like any good story; it doesn’t tell everything at the start. Concepts implicit early on get made explicit as the story proceeds. Various of these hopes are progressive and cumulative in how they arise. Some aspect is revealed about the kingdom of God and then later that aspect is further revealed. That this story gets put into place gradually causes theologians to call this theological progressive revelation. So we have this cumulative thing which theologically we call progressive revelation. This is further proof that God is continually at work, progressively revealing his truth, his self, but in his own time. None of this will really be clear until the fulfillment at the consummation of the present evil age reveals it.
A great example of this is that early on in the Bible you don’t have big concepts like the resurrection of the body, the new exodus, etc. We don’t even know about an exile yet! That is, if you accepted just the Torah, that would explain why you didn’t accept the resurrection of the dead and the renewal/restoration of all creation because those topics are not discussed in the Torah. Only later do they appear in the OT literature.
Returning now to the book of life. This idea of a divine registry is found often in the NT. Jesus refers to it in Lk 10 20; Paul refers to it in Pp 4 3; and especially John refers to such records in Re 3 5, 13 8; 17 8; 20 12, 15; 21 27. Still, John says nothing about how these records are to be kept. At this time in the church, however, many Greek cities had an official register of all citizens. Names were removed as they died or committed some treasonous act. Also, when a citizen was to be condemned to death, his name would first be blotted out of the book, so that sentence could proceed without any stain on the city’s reputation by way of one of its citizens facing the ultimate penalty.
Here in Re it appears that names at present in God’s book can be blotted out. [John is, however, not advancing a theory about predestination, as some have claimed, which in any case always has as its corollary that those who are to be saved turn out to be those who persevere, that is, the faithful remnant.]
John is passing along a standard early Christian warning which went back to those warnings of John the Baptist, Paul and even of Jesus himself. It’s a warning against presuming that belonging to the community of the people of God, irrespective of behavior within it, is all that is required. (Long before Jesus, we read about some Israelites in the OT who also thought that they were God’s chosen people and that all they had to do was show up.) However, there’s far more to it than just that! That kind of thinking will only get us sideways with God and ultimately separated from God for all of eternity. In fact, being Christians, and everything that implies, provides us with an opportunity for the best of endings – being with God forever in everlasting life.
This final promise is directed to those who conquer (again) in Sardis. … I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels (v 5). In other words, to those who wake up, who stay unpolluted, and who conquer, who overcome, Jesus finally reiterates another promise well-known from the gospel tradition. The one who holds the seven spirits and the seven stars will not let His people fall from His hand. Here Christ repeats the promise He made while on earth, that whoever would acknowledge Him He would acknowledge before His Father in heaven (Mt 10 32). He will ‘acknowledge their names’ before the father and his angels (see Mk 8 38; Lk 12 8). To be acknowledged by Jesus himself in the consummated kingdom of God will be truly amazing. To have him acknowledge us before his father will be the moment of all moments. These concluding words of the letter to Sardis challenge all to be faithful. We are all to wake up before it’s too late.
Re 3 7-13 The Letter to the Church in Philadelphia
As with the church at Smyrna, Jesus had nothing but praise for the church in Philadelphia. (Only these two cities receive unqualified praise.) Though the people of the church were perceived as weak, that is, as having little strength, they had nevertheless remained faithful. The church in Philadelphia was poor, small and harassed both by pagan citizens and by the local synagogue, but the members of the Philadelphian church had not strayed from the way. Philadelphia was not immoral. So John encouraged to remain faithful in the future as they had been in the past. They were also promised that they would be preserved from the hour of trial, that is, they would be kept safe when God poured his wrath upon the world.
Philadelphia was located about thirty-five miles south southeast of Sardis at the gateway to the high central plateau of the province of Asia in Asia Minor. The city had been founded in the second century BC by Attalus II Philadelphos, one of the kings of Pergamum. It was the youngest of the seven cities we read of in Re 2-3.
Central Turkey, in the first century as much as any other time, was notorious for its earthquakes. Much of Philadelphia was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 AD (which also devastated Sardis) but by the 90’s it had been rebuilt with a grant from the emperor. (So they, of course, out of gratitude to the emperor added “New Caesarea” and “Flavia” to their name!) Since Philadelphia experienced frequent tremors, most of the people lived in the country side and worked in the city. In a great city of that day, the fine public buildings would have been particularly susceptible to earthquakes and therefore dangerous in such a crisis. We can only imagine what the earthquake must have done to those splendid works of ancient architecture, civic structures and, not least, temples (of which ancient cities had plenty). Imagine the pillars which hold the pediment in place on the front of most Greek style buildings. [The pediment is the triangular facade over the entrance of Greek style buildings.] In and earthquake it’s not too difficult to imagine the tall pillars shaking, cracking and then buckling as the huge marble pediment came crashing down. It would not have been a good place to be.
Now, in a city like Philadelphia that knew plenty about earthquakes and collapsed temples, imagine the effect of promising the church there that those who conquered would be made pillars in the temple of God (v 12). That’s the imagery John was drawing on in his letter to Philadelphia. However, John was saying that no stone, no marble would be involved. Instead, as in the writings of Paul and Peter, this would be a ‘temple’ made of living human beings, with Jesus himself as the foundation. In fact, this imagery was used from the earliest days of Christian faith.
In fact, we know that the first Christians, partly because of Jesus and partly because of the gift of the spirit, regarded themselves as the true Temple, the place where the living God had made his home. [Remember also what Jesus first does at the Temple in Mt 21 on the first day of what we now call Holy Week. Do you really know what was going on in that particular passage and its connection to this passage?] Sometimes the Jerusalem leaders had themselves been called ‘pillars’ (representing steadfastness and permanency) as we see in Ga 2 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.) This pillar metaphor depends for its force on this idea of the church as the new Temple. But here now in John’s letter to Philadelphia it is the ordinary Christians in Philadelphia, far away from Jerusalem, who are to be ‘pillars’ in this city Philadelphia notorious for danger from earthquakes! Think of the apocalyptic imagery John is employing here. This was a promise to cherish.
This metaphorical imagery goes closely with the comment, and the promise, at the beginning of this letter to Philadelphia. Jesus is the one who, like the steward appointed over God’s house in Is 22 22, has ‘the key of David’: a symbol of authority, the royal key that will open, or lock, any and every door.
22 I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.
Equipped with this regal power, Jesus had metaphorically opened a door right in front of the Philadelphian Christians, and he was urging them to go through it. In the Christian understanding an open door was a technical expression for an opportunity to spread the gospel. As with Paul’s use of the same picture that we see in 1 Cor 16 9; 2 Cor 2 12; Co 4 3, the meaning of open door was almost certainly that they had an opportunity not just to stand firm but to make advances, to take the good news of Jesus into places and hearts where it had not yet reached. The church, though small in Philadelphia, had a great missionary task to perform. [Truth be told, we all do!] Their qualifications were all in place. They had some power – not very much, but with the backing of Jesus they had all they needed. And they had been faithful, keeping his word and not denying his name. [This implies that there had already been persecution of some sort.] They had to courageously go through the door. They had to grasp the opportunity they had while it was still there. [If you snooze, you lose.]
But there is something in the way. Since it had a large Jewish populations, the missionary zeal of the Philadelphian Christians had been met with opposition at every turn. Just as in most cities of the region, there was a significant Jewish community in Philadelphia. Nearby Sardis was a major Jewish center at the time. As in the letter to Smyrna, we have here an indication that the synagogue community was using its civic status to block the advance of the message about Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. [Most ironically, this message about Israel’s Messiah was Jewish to the core and yet it was tremendously challenging to and contested by the Jewish people.] Therefore, the Christians of Philadelphia were being attacked by the synagogue of Satan, those Jews who refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Still, John assured the Christians of Philadelphia that at the judgment these Jews would be forced to acknowledge that Christ had loved the Christians of Philadelphia. In other words, even those who have resisted the gospel would yet recognize the church as the true Israel of God (See Ga 6 16 As for those who will follow this rulepeace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.) Even those who have resisted the gospel will learn that I have loved you. v 9.
We should not imagine a ‘Christian church’ on one street corner and a ‘synagogue’ on another, as we have in many cities today. We should imagine a Jewish community of several thousand, with its own buildings and community life, and a Christian church of probably two or three dozen at most, holding on to the highly improbable, and extremely risky, claim that the God of Israel had raised Jesus from the dead. That imbalance between number of Jews and Christians goes some way to help us explain what John was now saying.
Re 3 9 [I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lyingI will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.] is considerably harsher than the equivalent in the Smyrna letter we read in 2 9 [“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.] Still, we must again remind ourselves that this isn’t antiJewish. The synagogue of Philadelphia was criticized not for being Jewish but for being hostile to Christians. Therefore, what we have here is what theologians call an “innerJewish” question: “Which of these groups can properly claim to be the true Jews, bearing the torch of God’s ancient people?” This, as we saw, was a common enough question in other parts of firstcentury Judaism. Here, as he always is, Jesus is being quite clear. Those who follow him, the Davidic Messiah, are the true Jews. On the other hand, those who deny him are forfeiting their right to that noble name. It’s just that simple and it’s just that powerful.
What is more – and this is where the Philadelphia letter goes beyond the letter to Smyrna – there will be a dramatic reversal of roles. In Ma 1 2 God declares to rebellious Israel, I have loved you, contrasting Israel, the descendants of Jacob, with Edom, the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau.
2 I have loved you, says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the LORD. Yet I have loved Jacob
Here now in this letter to Philadelphia we have a similar contrast: the unbelieving synagogue will realize that Jesus, their own Messiah, has loved this little group that believes in him. Additionally, ancient prophecy had spoken of times when foreign nations would come and bow before the people of Israel and thereby acknowledge that the one true God was with the people of Israel. Now, instead, it’s going to be the other way around. Like Joseph’s brothers in Ge 42, the Jewish people will bow down before the same Jesus that they had previously despised. Eventually, as we move along in Re, it will be clear that the followers of Jesus are the ones who can go through the open door, the ones who are to be pillars in the new temple.
The Christians at Philadelphia, like the church at Pergamum, were promised that they would be inscribed with the new name given from Christ Himself. These followers of Jesus were to carry the new name the triple name of God, of the heavenly Jerusalem, and of Jesus himself, bearing his ‘new name’ of King and Lord. Their strength in their weakness was the grace of God, given to them in His Word.
In fact, we know that God’s strength is indeed made perfect in weakness because Paul also told us so in 2 Cor 12 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
The Philadelphian Christians were to be marked out publicly as God’s people, as Jesus’ people, as citizens of the city where heaven and earth will be joined for ever – the new Jerusalem. There will be no earthquakes there. Security and vindication will be the ultimate reward for their patience. The time of trial is coming on the whole earth (v 10), and like a powerful searchlight it will reveal who is holding on to Jesus and his promise of a crown ‘ (v 11) … and who isn’t. The Philadelphia Christians were holding on at the moment. John told them to continue doing so and conquer when the time comes just as must we.
v 7: Along with Smyrna the message to this church is entirely commendation without a word of condemnation.
key of David is a messianic reference to the One who may judge in God’s name and admit or exclude from the city of David, the New Jerusalem in v 12. The Davidic Messiah Christ had authority to control entrance into the kingdom. See Is 2222; Mt 16 19 and Re 1 18.
v 8: It’s probable that the Philadelphian Christians had been excommunicated from the Jewish synagogue and therefore Christ was assuring an open door to his kingdom. open door could also represent opportunity but the context seems to favor the kingdom understanding. In other words, no one will be able to deny Jesus’ treasures to them for they are assured of forgiveness and salvation. Cf Is 22 15-24.
v 9: With bow down Jesus will make the unbelieving Jews to humble themselves before the Philadelphian Christians.
Cf Is 43 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. and
Is 60 14 The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. Also Is 49 23; Ps 86 9.
These OT texts picture the eschatological victory of God as the pagan nations bowing at the feet of Israel. Here in this Re text the imagery is reversed. In other words, at the final coming of God’s kingdom the Jewish people – who regard the Christians as heretics and outsiders to the people of God – will see that God has chosen them. Jews will bow before the Christians rather than Christians bowing before Jews. Still, as with the imagery of Re 2 26-27, Christians don’t really expect or want Jews to someday grovel before them. Again, the imagery here is of Christians sharing in the ultimate reign of Christ who has redefined the meaning of reigning.
v 10: A reward was promised to this little, feeble church: they will be sustained in the coming persecution.
This v is the first indication in Re of an approaching general visitation which will be portrayed in the successive series of judgment-visions from Re 6 onward..
However, the Philadelphian church will not be spared from testing. It will be kept in, not from the time of trouble.
thrh,sw verb indicative future active 1st person singular from thre,w keep, observe, obey, pay attention to; keep under guard, keep in custody; keep back, hold, reserve; maintain, keep firm; tÅ th.n e`autou/ trarqe,non (if of an engaged couple) not to marry the girl to whom he is engaged or. (if of one’s daughter) to keep his daughter from marrying (1 Cor 7.37)
The Greek se thrh,sw evk which here gets translated as the phrase keep you from can either mean keep you from undergoing or it can mean keep you through.
In other words, to those faithful to him, the Lord Jesus will in turn be faithful during the hour of trial that will come to the whole world by preserving them during that trial (See Jn 17 15) and by protecting them from demonic assaults. Although the faithful will not be rescued from sufferings, persecution and martyrdom, they will be sustained and supported so as to persevere in their faithfulness. They may die but they will remain faithful is the overriding thought here!
hour of trial (sometimes called the great tribulation) is an apocalyptic image that we see in Dn 12 1; Mt 6 13; Mk 13 4; Jn 17 6, 15; 2 Th 2 1-12. The hour of trial refers to the testing and tribulation (Re 8-9, 16) coming to the inhabitants of the earth preceding the manifestation of God’s eschatological triumph in the eternal kingdom of God. Testing and tribulation will precede the coming of the consummation of the present evil age.
inhabitants of the earth is an expression used elsewhere in Re to refer to the enemies of the church. They are those who live on the earth, a phrase which in Re describes the unbelieving world. This is not a reference to severe persecutions of believers because God will keep believers from undergoing (or keep them through) the hour of trial.
Note: This protection is possible for God without taking Christians out of this world – just as he protected the children of Israel from the ten plagues in Egypt while they remained there.
v 12: The special reward promised to the one who conquers is addressed here, just as it is in all seven letters, to the individual members of the church. I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it.
The idea of making the victor a pillar in God’s temple is clearly symbolic because later in Re John will insist that there is no need for a temple in God’s city (Re 21 22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.). John is not in the slightest concerned to keep the details of one vision consistent with those of another. In each he is making a point for emphasis, and one should not try to dovetail one vision into the details of another. Apocalyptic imagery is sufficiently fluid to allow for the figure of a temple in one vision and to dismiss it in another.
the new Jerusalem See Re 21 2 which we’ll discuss at length later. The coming down of the New Jerusalem from my God out of heaven represents the union of heaven and earth and the liberation of all creation from bondage. This is one of the numerous allusions in the messages of Re 2-3 to the detailed descriptions of eschatological events found later in Re 21-22. The clear exhortations of Re 2-3 cannot be separated from the eschatological imagery of the main body of Re.
Re 3 14-22 The Letter to the Church in Laodicea
As we saw in the previous letter, Philadelphia had been devastated in the earthquake of AD 17 and she had gratefully accepted help from central funds in Rome. But when a later earthquake, in AD 61, did major damage to several cities in the Lycus valley, to the south of Philadelphia, one city, Laodicea, was so rich and independent that they refused imperial help. Most would have jumped at the offer but Laodicea reckoned it didn’t need outside help. It was quite rich enough, thank you very much.
That tells us one of the most important things we need to know about Laodicea, which stood about forty miles southeast of Philadelphia and one hundred miles to the east of Ephesus at the junction of important trade routes running more or less northsouth and eastwest across the district of Phrygia. It was founded in the middle of the third century BC by Antiochus II of Syria and named in honor of his wife Laodice.
Laodicea, Hieropolis and Colossae formed a cluster of cities that were evangelized in the 60’s during Paul’s Ephesian ministry that we read about in Ac 19 10. This was not Paul in person but by, it would appear, Epaphras of Co 4 12-13. Paul, however, regarded these cities as part of his appointed mission field as we see in Co 2 1 For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face. Paul asked the Colossian Christians to convey his greetings to the believers in Laodicea – among whom Nympha and the church in her house are specially mentioned in Co 4 15.