An Introduction to John’s Revelation – Revelation 1:1-3
I became a Christian in 1997. At that time a number of people within the Christian church, luckily only a handful within my own, became obsessed with the subject of eschatology. Books were handed around discussing issues like the millennium bug, how Tony Blair, Bill Clinton or Saddam Hussain were the antichrist and how our national insurance numbers, barcodes or microchips were, in fact, the mark of the beast. Thankfully all the commotion came and went. Well, at least until the next round of end-of-world scares and therefore, in 2011, following the predictions of Harold Camping, I was asked by the members of my church to preach through the book of Revelation. Since we stopped for Lent and Advent this took me a two-year period. Two years in which I listened to between twenty to thirty sermons a week, read countless commentaries and read through Revelation over a hundred times. To enable my sermon construction, I began to compose detailed study notes. However, although these were only intended for my personal use, they began to be disseminated throughout my congregation and it is these notes that make up the bulk of these notes that you have before you.
Before I begin I must emphatically state that the authorship of Revelation is disputed. In fact, all we know from the text is that the author was called John (1:1. 1:4, 1:9, 22:8) and he saw himself as a “brother and companion in the tribulations and kingdom” (1:9) with the congregations to whom he was writing. Although I personally believe that the book was written by the Apostle John, here is a list of the suggested authors:
- John the Apostle: Son of Zebedee, who was amongst Jesus’ inner circle (Peter, James & John) and the undisputed author of John’s Gospel and 1 John.
- John the Elder: also active in the early church and possibly the author of 2 & 3 John.
- John Mark: who was a disciple of Peter and who wrote Mark’s Gospel
- An anonymous author: who wrote on behalf of those listed above. The use of scribes was a common practice in the ancient world.
Those who agree with John the Apostle’s authorship:
state that it is included in the Muratorian Canon and has the support of the early Church, all of whom claimed that the Apostle John was the author.
- Justin Martyr of Rome (110-165 AD)
- Irenaeus of Lyon (120-202 AD)
- Tertullian of N Africa (145-220 AD)
- Origen of Alexandria (181-252 AD)
Those who disagree with John the Apostle’s authorship:
state a number of discrepancies:
- Textual differences: John’s gospel is arguably the best Greek found within the NT and Revelation is among the worst. The stylistic problems might be addressed by the fact that John used an Aramaic syntax in the Greek language to emphasise the prophetic nature of the text.
- Thematic differences: The emphasis in John’s Gospel on themes such as love and truth are absent from Revelation.
- Revelation seems to look back to an apostolic age (18:20, 21:14): Due to the large use of symbolism in Revelation and its non-chronological nature, this seems a highly contentious criticism of the text.
- John’s age: This is purely dependent on dating; nevertheless, the early Church and many modern theologians agree that the bulk – and possibly all – of the disciples would have been in their teens when they began to follow Jesus; this would mean that the Apostle John would still have been able to write the book.
Although there are a small number of people who would disagree (as there always are), due to the many illusions of persecution and emperor worship, most scholars place the date of writing in one of two timescales:
- Nero (54-68 AD): Those who support this view would be keen to show that the first main persecution of Christians came under Nero’s reign and that the numbers that make up Caesar Nero in the Hebrew are 666. Nero was also the first leader to be called “the antichrist” by the Church and “the beast” by his own subjects.
- Domitian (81-96 AD): Those who support this view would point out that this was the view held by the early Church. It was the second great persecution and many Christians and non-Christians alike thought that Nero would return from the dead; a tradition which lasted until the 5th century, known as the legend of Nero Redivivus.
Domitian may have been a possible candidate. In the same way that John the Baptist symbolically represented Elijah, many saw Domitian as a representation or reincarnation of Nero. It is also highly probable that the book was written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, because the reference about the New Jerusalem not containing a temple (21:22) may have been used to console the Jewish Christians, who were being persecuted by their fellow Jews (2:9).
Although the book is only addressed to the 7 churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), given that they are large cities and follow the Roman postal route, it is more probable that the intended audience was all of Asia Minor.
Styles of Interpretation
Having looked at a brief introduction of the book, let us now look at the way in which the book has been interpreted over the years. Four main styles of interpretation exist:
- PRETERIST – from the Latin “praeteritus” meaning “gone by”…Primarily, or entirely, related to the 1st recipients, the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
- HISTORICIST – Sees the book as giving us a broad view of history but focusing almost entirely on Israel and the Western world. This is sometimes known as popular eschatology as this has been popularised by American Christian media such the film “The Omen” and the book series “Left Behind.”
- FUTURIST – Is similar to the HISTORICIST view but sees the bulk of the book as regarding the eschaton.
- IDEALIST – Sees the book symbolically and as a struggle between good and evil in every age.
Even if individuals are unfamiliar with these terms, they will rely on at least one of these particular perspectives in reading the text. If you would like to study the book of Revelation in any great depth I would encourage you to read commentaries from all of the given perspectives, although I personally encourage PRETERIST and IDEALIST texts. I have personally found HISTORICIST and FUTURIST texts less helpful and sometimes bizarrely contradictory.
Introduction & Benediction: v1-3
v1 – “The Revelation” – The Greek word here is apokalupsis (where we get the word apocalyptic from) which actually means:
- Laying bare or making naked
- A disclosure of hidden truth or instruction (ie a revelation)
- An appearance
Although the word apocalyptic may have particular connotations in our own day, it was a popular type of literature in the ancient world and contained a number of characteristics:
- It was written at a time of persecution and therefore was often written in a code that could only really be understood by the author and the recipients (like the enigma code in WW2).
- It contained otherworldly journeys, visions and beings and was highly symbolic and would often make reference to the throne room of God.
- Commonly it used dualism (that is the contrast of opposites: good and evil, God and the devil, Babylon and Zion, the beast and the Lamb etc) for emphasis.
- It usually carried an eschatological (end-times) thrust.
The Church Bible kept on our communion table of my last Church read in its introduction to Revelation:
“For the most part the book consists of several series of revelations and visions presented in symbolic language that would have been understood by Christians of that day, but would have remained a mystery to all others.” (pg 311)
v2 – “prophecy” – The gift of prophecy can be exercised through various mediums of expression (spoken, written, musical, dramatic etc). However, ecstatic and trance-like states, as recorded here, seem to be the exception rather than the rule (1 Cor 14:29-33). Here are some key points regarding prophecy:
- Prophets would speak as the spiritual, social and political mouthpiece of God – to the Eastern mind these things were inseparable. So the prophet was a preacher and social commentator.
- The bulk of their prophecy had a concrete historical fulfilment as well as a Christological or eschatological (the end-times) fulfilment (compare Matthew 1:23 pg 849 and Isaiah 7:10-17. Please remember Ahaz was a real king and the prophecy was fulfilled in his life time and was then applied to Christ) and therefore was not purely predictive.
- Prophecy is usually but not always conditional (1 Samuel 15:22-23, Jonah 3:5-10 etc).
v3 – “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things” – This is the first of several beatitudes or blessings within the book, here the blessing is pronounced upon the preacher, “he who reads” and the congregation that hears and acts upon the information that is given from this text.
v3 – “those things which are written” – The book of Revelation is also an epistle or letter and therefore follows the pattern of many Greco-Roman and NT letters.
- It must be noted that, because many people could not read in the ancient world, letters were read aloud and often would repeat things in a number of ways to reinforce their message and to avoid any misunderstanding – this explains the large amount of repetition that is contained within the book.
- Letters have real authors and real recipients and speak about real problems, particularly if they have been written by a church leader (John) to his churches (the churches of Asia Minor).
v3 – “the time is near” – Within prophetic books there is a prophetic urgency. “The time is near” the book of Revelation addresses a specific age and every age within human history and, because the next major event upon God’s calendar is the return of Christ, this is to be considered theologically near even if it may be chronologically distant.
In light of this, we must interpret Revelation according to the conventions of these three different types of literature; failure to do this will mean that the book, called Revelation, will remain closed or will become the subject of endless speculation.
MEMORY VERSE: 3Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.
APPLICATION: If a blessing is pronounced upon the readers of the book; why not read the book through this week or listen to it on audio. Free audio bibles are available online.
Greeting the Seven Churches – Revelation 1:4-8
Before, we can properly enter the text of Revelation we must understand have an interpretive lens in which we can read not only it but the whole of scripture. Although, numerous models of interpretation may exist I advocate that a text must be understood in 3 ways.
Theological – means the study of God (Theo) and applies to the study of scripture in its original language, culture and context. This means you must read whole sections and not just pull out single scriptures out randomly. It also requires the reader to interpret the text in light of the context of the whole scriptures ie the bible teaches that man is saved by faith alone (Romans 9:30-33) but it also appears to teach that he is saved by faith plus works (James 2:24). This may appear to be a contradiction, however, when read in light of all scripture we come to see that “we are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Christological – is the study of the Word (see John 1:1-5), in relation to the person, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although we are unable to place Christ in a text in which He is not mentioned, unless this is done by the NT authors, it means that the scriptures can be used to illustrate Him (see Luke 24:44-49). So, He left His homeland like Abraham, was betrayed by His brothers like Joseph, taught the law like Moses, used His death to defeat His enemies like Samson and is a great shepherd king like David.
It also means that the historical teaching of the Church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22), although not as inspired as Scripture also helps to our understanding of the text. It is for this reason I often encourage believers to purchase study bibles and commentaries.
Pneumatological – “Pnuema” is the Greek word for Spirit. In the light, of its original context and in the light of the way in which the text deals with Christ we apply it to ourselves, our families and our churches. Unfortunately, this is often done first, however the reader must understand that although God speaks to His sheep and that we should expect His guidance in our everyday lives (John 10:27) the scripture is not intended for personal interpretation (2 Peter 1:19-21).
“John” – Although there has been some debate, this is probably John the “beloved” apostle, the son of Zebedee, the author of John’s gospel. Regardless of who this is however, it seems that this John is exercising oversight over the churches in Asia.
“the seven churches” – Seven is the symbolic number for ‘perfection or ‘completeness’ and appears often in Revelation symbolically which would suggest that it applies directly to seven real churches and indirectly to all churches.
“Asia” – This is the Roman province of Asia known as Asia Minor but today is better known as Turkey.
“Him who is and who was and who is to come” – This is God the Father, though this metaphor is fluid and can be used of Christ, but not in this particular instance.
“The seven Spirits” – The “S” in “Spirits” has been capitalised by the translators of the NKJV because they see it as referring the Holy Spirit, which would make sense as you have the Father and the Spirit in verse 4 and the Son in verse 5, which makes up the Trinity. This would make the “seven” a metaphor for completeness/perfection.
“the firstborn from the dead” – It is sometimes more helpful to think of the raising of Lazarus or Dorcas from the dead as resuscitations. Jesus was the first who was raised from the dead in His new resurrection body. Lazarus and Dorcas would die again; Jesus went from His earthly life to His resurrected life.
“the ruler over the kings of the earth” – Revelation is book that was written to Christians suffering intense persecution (probably under Nero or Domitian). They were often mocked by the Jews or by the pagans about the sovereignty of God and would inevitably doubt God’s protection under such intense persecution. A popular heresy, which later became known as Gnosticism taught a dualistic worldview which is that there was a cosmic struggle between a good and evil. This is not the orthodox position of the Judeo-Christian faith; they teach that God is in control of everything, and although the devil tries to thwart His plans he must submit to His will (see the book of Job). Although this persecution was evil and from the devil, Jesus was “the ruler over the kings of the earth” and was using it to bring about His ultimate aim which would be not the health and prosperity of some but the commonwealth of all mankind.
“to Him who loved us” – This is a Greek implies a continuous action – “To Him who once and always and continues to love us.”
“and washed us from our sin” – This is a Greek construct known as a aorist active participle which means: AORIST – a one off, completed action, ACTIVE: standard form of speech, PARTICIPLE – a form of grammar, which implies that Jesus has washed us from our sin once and for all. This brings us into the question of whether a Christian can lose his/her salvation. I would say that although some people are “converted” through tradition, emotion, intellect etc, a true conversion of the spirit is an everlasting work (see John 10:27-30).
What I mean is this: if your salvation began and continues in the Spirit you will naturally produce the fruits of the authentic Christian life and although there may be times of trial and struggle through your relationship with Jesus (His Word, His Body and His Spirit) you will inevitably change. Therefore, it is not grace or works but grace being outworked through action (see James 2:14-26).
“and has made us kings and priests” – this can be read in the Greek as a Kingdom of priests, which is followed by the NASB (New American Standard Bible) and the NRSV (New Revised Standard Bible) and because it mirrors Exodus 19:6 (Revelation borrows a lot from the Exodus) and because it fits my theological prejudices about a Kingdom-based gospel opposed to a conversion-based gospel, I prefer this BUT it can be read either way.
The sentence is also an aorist active participle, which means a continued action (see v5). So “we were, are and always will be a kingdom of priests” this is a doctrine known as ‘imparted righteousness.’ Basically, this means that our righteousness has been given to us by grace and through faith and is not something we can work at or earn (see 1 Corinthians 1:30).
“He is coming with clouds” – This is a sign of divinity and God’s presence in the Bible and is applied to Jesus.
“every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him” – This takes Revelation straight to the end of the world. This happens a number of times in Revelation, and is one of the main reasons it is misunderstood. The book is built on a system called ‘progressive parallelism’ which means that it gives a little information and then goes to the end, it then may overlap and then go straight to the end again and again.
“Alpha and the Omega” – “Alpha” and “Omega” are capitalized as they are titles which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.
“the Beginning and the End” – the word “the” has been put in italics by the NKJV translators because they ARE NOT in the original Greek, Jesus is “Beginning” and “End” which emphasises His eternality.
“who is and who was and who is to come” – is used in v4 to speak of God the Father, here it speaks of God the Son. They are distinct but One, which again is focusing on the divinity of Christ.
“the Almighty” – “The Almighty” or “El Shaddai” in the original Hebrew was used by the patriarchs to speak of God until the divine name was revealed to Moses (Exodus 6:2-3), here it is being used for the Son.
MEMORY VERSE: 8“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
APPLICATION: Have a look at some passages in the OT does Christ appear, is He predicted or can He (or His message) be illustrated by this?
The Vision of the Son of Man – Revelation 1:9-20
“your brother” – Although, John exercises apostolic authority over the churches that he is writing to and probably all the churches within the area of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) he refrains from the use of a title. Whilst titles may be helpful to describe someone’s function or role I do not think that the NT sanctions the use of religious titles except ones, which emphasise our equality (Matthew 23:6-12). Today this might be seen as an example of servant leadership.
“companion in the tribulation” – Revelation was written at the time when the church had been kicked out of the Jewish worshipping community (the synagogue) and was suffering under the great persecution of Nero (reigned 54-68 AD) or Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD). The use of the term ‘the tribulation’ as opposed to “tribulation” suggests an intensity of suffering which was already taking place.
“kingdom” – A Kingdom-based-Gospel is the crux of Jesus’ teaching and ministry and has been replaced by a conversion-based-gospel by many Christians and churches. God is interested not only in the conversion of individuals but of media, law, education, government, the family structure, economics and the whole of creation.
John is reminding His flock that regardless of how insignificant they look; the Kingdom shall continue to grow (see Isaiah 9:6-7) and a day shall come when it shall be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). However, even though they were living, working, praying and hoping for it, ultimately it would only come about fully at the return of Jesus – in theological circles, this is sometimes called the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom.
“on the island that is called Patmos” – According to the Roman historian Tactitus, political prisoners were exiled on the island of Patmos and therefore it functioned as an ancient Alcatraz. According to Church history, John was boiled in oil but not killed and placed in exile on the island of Patmos by the Emperor Domitian.
“I was in the Spirit” – This is probably a trance. It must be remembered that ecstatic trances are rare exceptions; predominately the individual is in complete control; phenomena that is popularly called ‘manifestations of the Spirit’ or ‘slaying in the Spirit’ (which can be seen in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles) is something that individuals submit themselves to as opposed to something that overwhelms them (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-33).
“the Lord’s Day” – Jews celebrated their day of rest/worship on Saturday; this was commonly called the Sabbath (see Genesis 1:1-3). This would mean that the first day of creation was a Sunday, known in the NT and amongst Jews as “the first day of the week.” Sunday is the day that Jesus rose again (John 20:1-18) and appeared to His disciples (John 20:19 & 20:26-31) and the day when the early church would meet together to remember this (Acts 20:7 & 1 Corinthians 16:2). Although, I do not believe in the elevation of sacred days (see Romans 14:1-13) I and most Christians around the world conduct our worship services on Sunday, this is a continuation of NT tradition and is a reflection of the Church’s belief that the new creation has already begun.
“What you see, write in a book and send it” – This would suggest that the contents in the scroll was intended for its original audience (there were no books in the ancient world, just scrolls), which would make sense as the persecutions of Nero and Domitian were localised and not Empire-wide. This is why some of the seven churches seem not to be suffering from persecution (see Revelation 2-3).
“the seven churches” – Since the number is used symbolically in the book of Revelation and because the churches that are listed seem to be in major cities it would imply that the book was intended for all of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It is interesting to note that the Romans created a network of roads which could be used for mail and the speedy dispatch of troops. The churches listed seem to follow what was probably an established postal route. Reinforcing the fact that God is a God of order.
“lampstands” – Because of the use of OT symbolism this is probably the menorah (see Exodus 25:31-40) which symbolises the church as the people of God (v20) (see Romans 11:13-24).
“One” – Although the NKJV translators have capitalised this use of the word “One” so it can be used as a title this word does not appear in the original Greek and has been placed in to help the reader hence the italics.
“Son of Man” – Even a casual reading of the gospels will show that this was Jesus’ most preferred title for Himself. It could be used to refer to humanity or divinity but most importantly it was a term that was not used by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day in reference to the Messiah, so Jesus was able to load it with His own particular meaning.
“a garment…girded about the chest with golden band” – robes and sashes were usually only worn by priests (see Lev 16:4) and royalty (Ezekiel 26:16), so this metaphor would emphasise Jesus’ role as King and priest.
“His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow” – It seems bizarre to imagine that Jesus has gone through the ageing process in heaven. This probably is a reference to two ideas: either His hair is white so as to identify with John who was now considerably older than when he first knew Jesus in the flesh, or what seems more likely is that this is identifying Jesus with God. God the Father is known as the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:9, a term that reflects God’s wisdom and pre-existence and here it is being applied to Jesus.
“His feet were like fine brass” – In the Eastern tradition, the dirtiest part of a person’s body was their feet. Even today in Arab lands people will show their feet in a sign of disgust when driving, like us showing the finger (neither of which I advocate J). Jesus’ feet however were “like fine brass,” probably, showing the fact that, in the same way brass is an alloy made of a strong metal like iron (which can become brittle and rust) and flexible metal like copper (which isn’t as strong), Jesus is both firm and gentle.
“His voice as the sound of many waters” – Again, this may be likened to a natural phenomenon (ie John was on an Island and heard the tide regularly going in and coming out) or heavenly description of deity (see Ezekiel 1:24 or Daniel 10:6).
“He had in His right hand seven stars” – Obviously, a metaphor of the power of Jesus has over the Church (v20). The right hand was the hand of power.
“out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” – the word “sword” here is “rhomphaia” (pronounced “hrom-fah’-yah) which is the large and broad cutlass used by the Roman soldiers, who were probably guarding the island, or used for the supervision of labour camps that may have been in force. Here, though, it is used as a reference to word of God, another title used for Christ by John (see John 1:1-5 and Revelation 19:11-16)
“I have the keys of Hades and of Death” – As the church was pushed out of the synagogue (who were still legally allowed to congregate and had a special legal dispensation not to worship Caesar) and was persecuted by the Romans, many must have doubted Christ’s sovereignty, that is His control over the affairs of men, particularly life and death. Jesus says “I have the key of Hades and of Death.” That is, He has the authority of death and the afterlife, which was called “Sheol” in the OT.
“Sheol/Hades” was a holding area before the great judgement and according to Jewish religious teaching was divided with an area for the righteous known as “Paradise” and a place for the wicked known as “Tartarus.” This is incorrectly translated “Hell” by the KJV, a term which is used only by Jesus and is the Greek word “Gehenna.”
v19 – Basically, this means that Revelation deals with the past, the present and the future and John is to write it down for his congregation.
“the angels of the seven churches” – The Greek word for “angels” here is “aggelos” (pronounced ang’-el-os) which literally means “messenger” and according to the original Greek could either be speaking of an angelic representation of the churches or the pastors of the church. In light of chapter 2 and 3, which deal with the churches, I personally feel that it is the shepherds of the flock, which are being dealt with.
MEMORY VERSE: 20The mystery of the seven stars which 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 which you saw are the seven churches.
APPLICATION: Do you worry about the condition of the local/national Church? Although, I believe it is important for you to pray and participate in it I would like to meditate on the fact that Christ has the Church (and it’s leaders) within the palm of His hands.