All scriptural quotes below are from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011.
An important characteristic of apocalyptic literature is the source of the vision and the method of delivery. Usually the vision is given to the human by an otherworldly creature (like an angel) or by being taken to an otherworldly place (like heaven). Spend a moment looking back at Chapter 1 looking for clues of how this revelation has come into your hands.
A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John, (Revelation 1:1)
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Christ gives this vision to an angel who shares it with John. Here is our bridge between heaven and earth. We have a divine messenger sent from heaven by Jesus to his faithful follower on Earth, John. We will see as we explore this vision, John is going to do his best to describe what is indescribable, to reveal to our human minds God's vision which is beyond his and our comprehension. But this still doesn't end the transmission process from God to us.
John shares this vision with seven churches in Asia. It is a scroll, which is sent to these seven churches, that is the source of what we read in our Bibles today. The choice of seven churches is no accident by the way.
Think about seven in scriptures.
Did you think about the seven days of creation in the poem (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) that opens the Book of Genesis? Numbers often have symbolic meaning in apocalyptic writing and that is true of this seven. Seven is a number of completeness or totality. So here we have a glimpse that this vision is for seven historical churches in Asia but also something that more complete.
Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)
Based on this information the roads between the seven churches of Asia, it is believed the letter traveled in the order the churches are listed in verse 11. Looking at the map, perhaps you can imagine John's writing being carried from Patmos to Ephesus and from there to the other churches in Asia.
At some point it begins circulating throughout the Mediterranean. Eventually there is a discussion among early church leaders about the powerful yet difficult to grasp vision contained in this scroll and whether it should be included in the collection of writings Christians would consistently use in their worship, study and prayer life. Perhaps you are envisioning the Holy Spirit being present in those conversations. Eventually this vision for seven churches in Asia became of vision for all Christians in all times and all places.
This first chapter of Revelation is packed with imagery of Jesus. Perhaps you are like me and you default image of Jesus is from a picture, icon, or scene from a movie. Images connect us deeply with Jesus and his ministry on Earth. Revelation is going to expand our image of Christ to a heavenly one of him ruling with God the Father and the "seven spirits that are before God's throne" (verse 4)--that is with the Holy Spirit.
In verse five, we have a unique title for Jesus as the faithful witness. What do you think of when you hear "faithful witness"? Do you think in legal terms? Do you envision a person who takes their oath to "tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth" as sacred? Do you think about someone who has witnessed a great event and perhaps like a reporter, live on the scene, will accurately report to you?
It is likely the followers of Jesus in the seven churches of Asia heard something a little different. Remember this letter is written in Greek not English. In this case it's important to know a little bit about the Greek word μάρτυς which is being translated as witness. If we transliterate that Greek word into English it would be martys. Perhaps you can see the relationship to the English word martyr. Faithful martyr brings up a very different image than a faithful witness doesn't it?
What might it mean to call Jesus the faithful martyr? The one who is so faithful to the message God has entrusted to him that he is willing to give up his life rather than deny that message. To us who are shaped by acts of terrorism done in the name of religion, we might shy away from describing Jesus as a faithful martyr. However to the seven churches in Asia who are suffering hardship, persecution, and even death for their faith, Jesus at the faithful martyr would be source of strength and hope. How could this image be a source of strength and hope for Christians today as well?
Much could be said about the other titles in verses five and six, but we are going finish this chapter by looking at the vision of verses 12-18.
I turned to see who was speaking to me, and when I turned, I saw seven oil lamps burning on top of seven gold stands. In the middle of the lampstands I saw someone who looked like the Human One. He wore a robe that stretched down to his feet, and he had a gold sash around his chest. His head and hair were white as white wool—like snow—and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like fine brass that has been purified in a furnace, and his voice sounded like rushing water. He held seven stars in his right hand, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His appearance was like the sun shining with all its power.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet like a dead man. But he put his right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, but look! Now I’m alive forever and always. I have the keys of Death and the Grave.
Note: The Greek phrase, υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου, translated here as "Human One" has traditionally been translated as Son of Man. If you would like to know more about the reasoning for this new translation, you can find it beginning at the bottom of page of the Preface to the Common English Bible.
The description of Jesus as the "Human One" is meant to make us think of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7 we explored in "History is Important." There we noticed the "Human One" establishes a kingdom of all people, nations and languages that will never fade away and that the Ancient of Days judges the temporal empires of earth. In John's vision, the Ancient One and the "Human One" have merged into one.
Finally if you start to sketch out the image of Jesus being offered here in Revelation, you may start with a human being dressed in a robe and white hair. But then as we look closer, we see Jesus is not like any human we know. His eyes are aflame, his feet are made of brass, he holds stars in his hand, his voice thunders and a two-edged sword issues forth from his mouth.
It is as if John is doing his best to describe the indescribable Jesus who reigns in heaven with God the Father. Indeed the one John describes makes him immediately fall down at his feet in a posture of worship. In other words John recognizes the divinity of Jesus and worthy of his worship.
As we continue our study of Revelation, we will the image of Jesus continue to expand such that we are forced no longer to see him as another human being but as the one who is fully human and fully divine.
This blog has only been a taste of what we could reflect on in Revelation 1. I hope it has been helpful to you. You may still have unanswered questions about something particular in this chapter. You could explore those questions buy using any of the resources listed below or by emailing me at RevGerlach@OldTrinityEpiscopal.com. Also feel free to leave your comments or questions on this blog.\
In preparing this study of Revelation, I have read several works that have shaped my thinking especially “The Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse)” in An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown © 1997 and Revelation for Everyone by N.T. Wright © 2011.
I also have made frequent use of the notes in The Jewish Annotated New Testament © 2011 and The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today's World © 2008.
The image above from the opening page of the Book of Revelation is from the St. John's Bible, © Donald Jackson, 2011, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.
The image of the Seven churches of Asia is in the Public Domain and we found on WikiMedia Commons.