A Study of Revelation - Chapter 1
Part 2 of a chapter by chapter study of the book of Revelation
This study is first and foremost a personal dig into the book. For most of the last 3 years I have focused on the topic of hell when looking at Revelation so I'm keen to get more out of the book. I am hoping this broader study will help bring clarity to the only two verses that discuss 'torment' alongside 'forever and ever'. I'm also keen to deepen my understanding of the book and engage with those who have gone before me. I hope you find the study useful and feel free to comment on the videos that will follow or engage with the posts using the comment section below.
There will be a need for at least one post to be a study on the various debates around the structure of Revelation but there is a certain amount of agreement at least with the structure of the first 3 chapters:
1:9-1:20: Purpose of letters and vision of glorified Jesus
2:1-3:22: 7 letters to 7 churches
'The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. ' Revelation 1:1-3
John packs his theology so densely that each verse could take an essay to unpack as he links to words, phrases, and whole passages of the Old Testament (OT). Tonstad (2019) reflects on this by comparing Revelation to a symphony;
"the theme may be soft at first, a background whisper played softly on a clarinet, before all the instruments join in."
To take this further, the soft whisper can easily be traced to the OT and understood, and perhaps often taken as literal, whereas the full symphonic blasts make for disorienting imagery where any melody can be hard to find. Both the soft flow and full blasts should be read carefully as we noted in the overview: Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgement should be tilted in the direction of a nonliteral analysis (G.K Beale).
This is the apocalypse. Unfortunately this word has become synonymous with 'the end of the world'. It is simply the Greek word which means 'revelation'. This book is the revelation of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God - it may or may not have anything to do with the 'end times' or 'parousia' or 'eschaton' (it does, but it is not its main aim). The aim is that God gave His Son the revelation to show to His (Jesus') servants the things that must soon take place.
John wasn't the first to talk about an apocalypse. Paul spoke of his personal apocalypse in Galatians 1:12 when Jesus was 'revealed' to him. He taught regularly through his letters that the truth would be 'apocalypsed' (Rom 2:5, 1 Cor 1:7, Eph 3:3 and more). The priest Simeon prayed that Jesus would be an apocalypse to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32) and Peter writes that Jesus Christ will be 'apocalypsed' (1 Peter 1:13, 4:13). We need to remove the lens that reads Revelation through an idea that this is all about 'the end'. This is about Jesus and the Kingdom of God being revealed.
Daniel also had an apocalypse. In fact it is one of the Old Testament books that John alludes regularly to. The first verse alludes to Daniel 2:28-29 and verse 45 which have a very similar structure:
"There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days."
Daniel 2:29 and verse 45 say, "what will be after this". What is interesting to note is that though John utilises this structure, what has been revealed to Daniel as 'what will be in the latter days', John is recognising as "must soon take place" and "is now near". The implications of the nearness or immediacy of what will happen is regularly debated and is often a display of modern assumptions rather than what John or his audience thought. At this point we'll stick with what G.K Beale has to say about it and discuss it further in future chapters:
"The least that can be said is that the wording in Revelation refers to the immediate future. John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of the end times, which the OT (e.g., Daniel) had predicted and which will continue to exist throughout the church age."
The first sentence has implications for how you view God and Jesus. It also has hints of John 1:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made...The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him." John 1:1-3,9-11
Jesus, the word, was God and was with God. The two persons are one God. There is communication and revelation between them. Jesus, the Son, was sent to make God, the Father, known. The Son comes to his people to make himself known. Anyone who suggests the trinity, or theology of three persons in one God, is a made up theology from the council of Nicea (325AD) has not engaged with Revelation - or much of the NT or early church writings for that matter. As we will see, John sees the son and the father as two persons but both God and worthy of worship.
The revelation is given by Jesus, through His angel (not necessarily a winged one as angelos simply means messenger), to John who witnesses both the word of God, the testimony of Jesus and saw what was revealed. Though John saw what was revealed, verse 3 makes it clear that there is a blessing (God's favour or honour) for those who read aloud, hear the message and protect or keep to what is written. As we read through Revelation we need to keep in mind ALL that is written. There are certain verses that are regularly ripped out of their context to fit a certain framework or systematic theology and I will do my best to keep the context Revelation and the allusions to the OT and refer to systems only when it is necessary for clarity.
The good news is that God can be known and has made himself known through Jesus and through his word. We do not need to pick and choose ideas to create a God. Who God is, isn't down to my own emotions and ideas. Though God may be mysterious in that his ways are not our own and we may not always understand what he is doing, he is not a mystery in that we can pick and choose what we think about him. God has revealed himself through Jesus the word who became flesh and dwelt among us (see John 1:14).
"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, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth." Revelation 1:4-5
You are not the intended audience of the book. Yes the bible is relevant to you and I, but we are not the initial intended audience. We need to read this book with an awareness that our cultural and modern inclinations are foreign to the mind of the author, and his are foreign to us. Interpretation of any scripture is a deep dive into cross-cultural studies and we need to be aware of the filters or lenses we might read scripture through. John is writing to seven churches in Asia Minor (see map). We may be able to apply what he writes to our lives today but we can only do that once we have worked out what the original audience understood John to be saying first. There will be more on this as we go.
John's structure to introduce his letter isn't new to the New Testament. Paul begins his letters in similar ways:
"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Romans 1:7
Early Christians placed Jesus alongside God, emphasising his divinity. This was one way in which they showed it. Instead of 'God our Father' John uses the oldest name for God:
"Who is, and who was, and who is to come." vs 4 and 8
This is a Greek form of the name of God from Exodus 3:14, "I AM WHO I AM (YHWH)". This phrase is important not only because John is confirming to his audience who his message is from. It is also used in one of the only times God is quoted (verse 8) and He is introducing himself. This has always been an important name and shows a God who is involved in His creation. John also utilises a structure that isn't chronological (notice 'was' is after 'is') but focuses on the God 'who is' and emphasises the one 'who is to come'. As already discussed, YHWH, reveals himself and can be known and we are made to be in relationship with Him. As Tonstad summarises,
"Whether past, present, or future, God is with people"
Acknowledging God the father and Jesus Christ as recognisable here is straight forward but what about the 'seven spirits'? Firstly, note that numbers are important and they are to be thought of as symbolic unless otherwise stated (see above note by GK Beale). Seven is the most well known number as it is seen overtly throughout scripture as the number of completeness, wholeness and rest (sabbath - the day of rest - is a play on the Hebrew word for seven). 'Seven spirits' appears 4 times in Revelation - 4 also being an important number relating to the world (Bauckham points this out, and we will flesh this and other numbers further in future chapters). Most commentaries connect this with Zechariah and Ian Paul connects this phrase
"with the seven lamps on the golden lampstand in Zechariah 4:2 which are associated with the seven 'eyes of Yahweh'" Zechariah 4:10
If, like me, you need reminding what Zechariah is about, check out The Bible Project's overview:
Also note that Zechariah 4:10 states that the seven eyes 'range through the whole earth' which is a further connection to Bauckham's comment about the meaning of the number 4. This isn't a huge jump for Ian Paul or Bauckham to make given that John states as much in Revelation 5:6 when talking about 'seven eyes':
"Which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth."
Just to add to the symphony of allusions, it could also be that this connects to Isaiah 11:2 which is labelled the 'sevenfold Spirit of God' from the Greek Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Old Testament). This is important as the sevenfold Spirit is connected with bringing about the end-time kingdom of the Messiah.
Most commentators agree that this is an early recognition of the Holy Spirit as a part of the Godhead. Though some connect this to Jewish archangels (mentioned later in 8:6), it makes better sense of the location of the statement sandwiched between the father and the son, though this is my conclusion rather than any overt statement of the commentators I'm reading. The Spirit brings about God's grace (see Zechariah 4:7, "Grace, grace to it!") and as He/They are 'before the throne', this is a status of messenger for God enthroned. The Holy Spirit is the helper promised by Jesus (see John 16:5-15) and He is vital to knowing the grace and peace that comes from God.
John doesn't hold back from sharing his ideas of who Jesus is. He is the faithful witness to YHWH even through death. He is the firstborn (echoes of 1 Corinthians 15:20) of the dead, at this point he is the only one born of the dead, but we have a hope that we all will be resurrected in his likeness as John will see later on. The hint is left here, that Jesus was the first to be resurrected and this implies others will follow. All authority (echoes of Matthew 28:18 and Colossians 1:15-20) is in Jesus to the extent that he is the ruler of kings. Ian Paul points out that this threefold exultation of Jesus links to Psalm 89's 'faithful witness' (verse 37), 'firstborn' (verse 27a) and 'ruler of the kings of the earth' (verse 27b) as a pointer to the praise of God's faithfulness and the 'delight in the Davidic kingship'. Though David's kingship failed, Christ's will be eternal.
"To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." Revelation 1:6
God loves his people. He loves them so much that he has freed them from their state of sin through the blood of His son (see John 3:16). This summary goes so much further than most 30 minute gospel presentations. Not only are we forgiven (the focal point of most Evangelical messages but missed from John's greeting), we are freed from its bondage and given the honour of rulership and made priests since we are identified by Jesus' atonement.
On a technical note: Atonement was what the priests in the OT did when the blood of animals (click for more on why death was needed) was used to achieve sanctification for the people (to make clean/holy). A priest-king is a theme that can be traced back to Melchizadek (Genesis 14:17-24, connected to the Messiah by David in Psalms 110:1-3,4-7 and connected to Jesus by the writer of Hebrews - for a good summary click here) and can also be found in Exodus 19:6 as God's promise to his people. Verse 6 starts as a statement about Jesus (freed us from sin - see Matthew 1:21) and ends in worship reserved for the Father (Psalms 145:13) and connects the two with 'to him'.
What this means: 1) Jesus is God. 2) The cross and his resurrection has made us priest-kings to bring about the kingdom of God now, in the present.
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:7-8
John continues to connect Jesus with more images of Messiah in the Old Testament. His first reference ("coming with the clouds") is to Daniel 7's Son of Man and he connects it to Zechariah 12:10 ("who they have pierced") which also sounds very similar to Matthew 24:30 (which references Zechariah 12:10's "they shall mourn"). Remember that we are dealing with symbolism and we should not rush to take this literally as this symbolism is not new. The Gospel of Matthew and Daniel's visions were not talking about looking up and seeing God on a cloud as per Monty Python sketches and neither was John in his vision. Tonstad summarises it like this:
"The "Son of Man" who comes "with the clouds" encroaches on God's turf to the point that the "Son of Man" becomes a euphemism for "Son of God"
To see just how much of a euphemism, check out Matthew 26:63-64 and connect it with Matthew 27:43. The two become synonymous and are clear pointers to both Jesus stating he is God and the response of the crowd and the priests that crucify him for blasphemy. This isn't language of an uneducated age that didn't know what clouds were (even if they didn't have the science behind evaporation etc.) but a recognition of God's power being above ours.
Jesus has the power of heaven (see also Matt 28:18) and in his revelation, all nations of the earth will recognise that the one they pierced is the one they should be worshipping. Zechariah 12:10 emphasises this wailing over the recognition that Jesus is Lord and they have been rejecting Him. Bauckham, Tonstad, and Beale all point out that this wailing may well be a wailing of conviction and repentance. Beale uses John 19:37 as support. This is another reference to the same passage in Zechariah, where a Gentile solider sees the 'pierced' Jesus and repents. Whether this 'coming' is a direct link to the 'second coming' or a reference to the repentance of the Gentiles prior to the 'second coming' is debated. Given that Matthew and Daniel reference a 'coming' of the Son of Man, I see this as more of a reference to the authority of Jesus than the final arrival of God's judgement though both could well be in John's and his audience's mind.
The authority of Jesus is given the seal of God who is directly quoted. God calls himself the Alpha and Omega and uses his ancient name (YHWH, see comments about verse 4). Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and with the emphasis of 'the Almighty' added to the end shows a clear pointer to God's sovereignty over all things. I'll make further comment on this phrase when we look at verse 17.
1:9-1:20: Purpose of letters and vision of glorified Jesus
'I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” ' Revelation 1:9-11
Though there is debate on whether this John is the author of the gospel and letters titled with the same name, I, along with Tonstad and others who have done more in depth studies are happy to leave authorship with a single author. "John writes as if there were no other John" (Tonstad quotes Farrer's 1964 The Revelation of St. John, for this observation). It is a simple observation but a compelling one.
John has an interesting way of introducing himself. Tribulation, kingdom and endurance are all connected in Jesus. Beale points out that this is a model for Christian living now,
"The exercise of rule in this kingdom begins and continues only as one faithfully endures tribulation"
Scott McKnight picks up on this theme in his book ‘Revelation for the Rest of Us’ and coins the term ‘Dissident Disciples.’ How to live as a faithful follower of Jesus when the world you are in is Babylon. Jesus promises the disciples in John 16:33
"In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."
The Christian expects, or at least should expect, trials and tribulation. This is a common theme found throughout the New Testament but one often missed by Western Christians in the face of suffering. Tribulation as well as kingdom rule (make note of this as we start to see language of 'conquering' in future chapters) and endurance (we'll see patient endurance 7 times in Revelation) is how we identify with our saviour. Do you identify with Jesus when you are facing suffering? (See also 1 Peter 4:13, Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 1:5 and many others.)
John continues to introduce where he is and why he is writing. Many have concluded (and I have been taught) that John was in prison on Patmos, reading into the 'on account of the word of God' and the language of tribulation. There is no evidence that this is actually the case both of John's imprisonment or of Patmos being used as a prison. There is a tradition that he is in exile as noted by Beale without contradiction, but Tonstad and Ian Paul note there is very little to give us a clear picture of John's own tribulation in this case. The phrase could be voluntary mission or involuntary exile but the focus is on the word of God and testimony of Jesus. The testimony of Jesus and the word of God are inextricably tied together as we've already noted in highlighting John 1 previously.
While 'in the spirit' is seen to be a phrase of prayer, the experience to follow is one of vision and sound. Paul uses a similar phrase in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 as does Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3:12. When you pray, do you pray in the spirit? There are many who preach that engaging with the Holy Spirit is not for now but Jesus promises a helper and He never mentioned he'd remove it. The Apostles preach a baptism of the spirit to those who aren't apostles and they don't preach that it will ever stop. Cessationism (the belief that prophecy, tongues, and other spiritual gifts stopped with the apostles) is a limitation, if not a hindrance to the Christian life. God's Spirit is still available in full now, it is why Paul teaches the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and to seek the gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31). So Christian, go pray in the spirit and seek out the gifts as we are called to do.
There are two interpretations I agree with (there are always more than two interpretations for verses in Revelation!) for John's use of "the Lord's day", either he is referencing the day of the week (as several early church fathers think) or he is making a bigger claim that 'the day of the Lord' an eschatological (end times) has arrived. I think it could be a bit of both. Whatever John experienced, this is no ordinary Sunday.
This section ends with a reminder, this is a letter, as well as an apocalyptic book. There is a general consensus (at least with those I am reading here) that though John is writing to 7 real churches he is also engaging with a wider audience - "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Rev 2:7). These churches are also representatives of the universal church and what John writes to them is what many need to hear.
'Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. ' Revelation 1:12-16
If you skim read this, you will only see what your brain wants you to see. But when you look deeper you find all sorts of gems. Re-read that first sentence:
"Then I turned to see the voice..."
How do you see a voice? Well, it doesn't make much sense in the Greek other than to be an idiom or an allusion. Tonstad (Beale agrees) points it out as an allusion to Exodus 20:18 from the septuagint (LXX, the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) that "all the people saw the voice" where they are seeing the thunder and lightning (also the "voice like a trumpet" allusion to Sinai from verse 10) from God speaking to Moses the great commandments. Tonstad also notes that Israel were not able to see a form but only a voice (Deut. 4:12,15). John is about to see what they could not.
It is important to note that verses 12-16 are interpreted by 17-20 below. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches (verse 20). This form of interpretation is to be noted as it will be how we gain understanding of what John sees - he or someone in the vision explains it.
As has already been seen in verse 4, Zechariah is the background needed for understanding lampstands. Though allusions can be found in Exodus 25, 37 and Numbers 8 as Beale points out, Zechariah 4 shows that the lamps on the stands represent God's Spirit (or presence) and John will point this out later in chapter 4 as well. The church is a light, powered by God's spirit and even the gates of hades will not prevail (more on this in a moment). The church is the universal people of God not just a single nation (Israel) as was the case in Zechariah 4.
Tonstad points out the location of the son of man as important as well. 'In the midst off' could be translated as 'in the middle of' and emphasises the closeness and love Jesus has for the church (see verse 6). This closeness will be seen more in chapters 2-3 but it is important here also as it highlights Jesus' priestly role. It is also a Godly role linking back to Zephaniah 3:17,
The Lord your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will rejoice over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy. (NASB)
This location alongside the royal clothing (there is some ambiguity as the sash and tunic could be priestly as well given Isaiah 22:21-22) brings out the priest-king role seen in verse 6. At this point I would recommend you stop and read Daniel 7:9-14 and Daniel 10 to see the blurring of allusions that John makes here. The Son of Man has hair like the Ancient of Days, this isn't a mistake but another clear point that John knows that Jesus is God. John also wants to state that Jesus will judge (see Daniel 7:10 for the connection) and this is emphasised by the 'eyes like a flame of fire' as we'll see in chapter 2. The feet and the voice show divine purity and power (Ezekiel 43:2).
The "seven stars are the angels of the seven churches" as verse 20 tells us. What this means will have to wait for chapter 2 but there are two more symbols to explore - the two edged sword coming from His mouth and His shining face. Both Beale and Hosier see the double-edged sword as a sign of judgement and authority of God's word. Whilst Beale does connect the sword to Isaiah 11:4 and 49:2, Tonstad makes a compelling case that in the context of the suffering servant that Isaiah has in mind, it is hardly a picture of a warrior in the usual sense. Tonstad argues that Jesus' witness as the faithful witness (see verse 5) is one of "revelation and persuasion and not violence" and with that conclusion makes no reference to the shining face. Beale makes reference to the shining face by showing it as an allusion to the face of the warriors in Judges 5 (see verse 31 particularly) and highlights that Jewish writings had connected it to the stars of Daniel 12:3. Is Jesus a warrior or a persuader or both? We shall see...
' When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.' Revelation 1:17-20
Whatever your view of Jesus from the previous verses, He is clearly someone to behold with fear! Though there will be images of a suffering servant in future chapters, this doesn't seem to be it. Jesus, the Son of Man's, first words are "fear not". This is similar to Joshua's response to the commander of the Lord's army (Joshua 5:14) and Daniel's response in Daniel 10.
John quotes Jesus as calling himself 'the first and the last, and the living one'. This is a connector to God calling himself 'Alpha and Omega'. Keep an eye on this pattern, it will come up in future chapters. Slight spoiler: it means Jesus is God.
In Revelation 1:18 there is a significant phrase said by Jesus:
"I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."
On the 11th of April 2020 (Easter Saturday), I had a conversation with Roger Harper, author of The Lie of Hell on my channel. In his book, Roger argues that by having the keys of Hades, Jesus will be able to rescue souls from torment in Hades (the intermediate state between death and judgement) up until judgement day. This is a unique understanding and this verse is only one text of many that builds Roger's case.
One thing is clear, death and the realm of the dead are under Jesus' control. This is John's argument against the religions of his day suggesting that the underworld was controlled by a god. Unfortunately this argument now needs to be made for Christians who believe the Devil is in control of the underworld. There is not a single verse that suggests the Devil has any power over the underworld - his power is limited to this world (John 14:30, 16:11, Ephesians 6:12-13, 1 Peter 5:8-10 and others) and this age and as we will see in future chapters, he is fighting a losing battle.
In response to this idea that Jesus' keys mean he is literally able to walk in and out of a realm called hades and redeem the dead here and now is potentially a stretch of this one text. As already discussed, with Revelation, the emphasis is to take something symbolically unless otherwise clarified. I don't think this has been clarified enough by John in this passage to use it to defend post-mortem conversion. At the very least, it is an argument from silence. It goes beyond the scope of a study of Revelation 1 to debate this thoroughly and I will continue to engage with the conversation with Roger elsewhere. There aren't many places in the bible that talk of keys and Revelation contains 4 of the 6 references. One of which, Revelation 3:7, alludes if not quotes Isaiah 22:22 (see allusion to the Son of Man's clothings above),
"who has the key of David who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens."
Jesus will judge, he has authority over death and the realm of the dead and one day he will unlock hades and there will be a resurrection. We will see this more in later chapters.
John is told to write what he sees, things that are and things that will be. There are things in Revelation that have happened, there are things that may well be happening now, and there are things that are coming. This isn't just about the end, in fact, there is hope coming for a new beginning.
Revelation chapter 1 makes sure the reader knows this is not about them and this is not about John.
This is an apocalypse, a revelation of Jesus. We must remove the idea from our minds that an apocalypse is about the end, but pray that we all have apocalypses as we read Revelation.
John wants you to know that though God the Father, the Spirt and Jesus are distinct persons, they are all God.
Jesus has the authority of heaven over this world, death and the grave/Hades.
I hope you've found this helpful, I know I have. This is a working document that may develop as I continue to read commentaries and work through future chapters. Let me know what you found helpful in the comments or look out for a video essay of this on my youtube channel in future.