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, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (1:1-3).
The opening verses form an introduction to this book and recount for us the process by which John received this revelation and the purpose of the revelation. It is a revelation that has come from God through Jesus and then to John through the angel that has been sent to him. It is first and foremost a revelation that belongs to Jesus who will now show [it to] his servants but it is also a revelation about Jesus and about what must soon take place. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that John's eye on these events is a prophet's eye. Time often seems to be conflated, and events that may be far in the future seem to be near, while other aspects of what he recounts are already happening around him.
John writes as a witness testifying to the testimony of Jesus Christ, and what he writes is regarded as utterly true, for it is the word of God and a prophecy. As with all Scripture, readers must not only hear the word of God but also take to heart what they read. In other words, they must take note and adjust their attitudes, their conversation, their worship and their way of life in the light of God's word. Those who are willing to do this will be blessed. They will receive the fullness of God's blessings for them and inherit all that he has in store for those who trust and believe in him. The urgent need to take all this to heart is clear: because the time is near. That time, as the book will later show, is the Day of the Lord, the time when Christ will return to judge and to save.
John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (1:4-5a).
Initially, at least, this revelation is addressed to seven specific churches in Asia. 'Asia' was the name of a Roman province occupying an area which is now part of modern Turkey. Since the book is full of symbolism and numbers are often symbolic, it may be right to say that seven churches were chosen because the number seven is a sign of wholeness and completion. Nevertheless, the book almost certainly travelled round these churches in a circular direction from Ephesus, north to Smyrna and Pergamum, before moving south-east to Thyatira and south to Sardis, then Philadelphia and finally Laodicea (see chs. 2-3). No doubt the whole book went with the letters to those specific churches. But there is also good reason to believe that those specific letters of chapters 2-3, as well as the whole book, were intended for all churches of all time. This view is supported by the statement at the end of each of the seven letters: 'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'
The greeting from the Triune God to this church is typical of early Christianity, Grace and peace to you. The words are a wonderful reminder of what it is to be blessed as a Christian. We receive the grace of God, his undeserved mercy and love and forgiveness and his sustaining power, to live the Christian life. We also know the peace with God that comes from our reconciliation with the Father brought about by Christ's death and resurrection.
God is always present. As he has been in the past and is in the present, so he will be in the future. This eternal character of God is vital for Christians to grasp. As they go through persecution for their faith in Christ, and as they cope with the continual changes of life and its difficulties, so they need to grasp the unchanging and eternal nature of the God in whom they trust. The seven spirits refer to the Holy Spirit in all his perfection as the one who now speaks to the churches and who enables the church to fulfil its calling. Now we see that the greeting also comes from Jesus Christ who is given three titles:
Jesus faithfully proclaimed God to this world, persevering through suffering and even to his death on the cross. His testimony was true and perfect. He thus becomes the. example for Christians to follow as they too are called upon to suffer and perhaps even face death as his witnesses. These Christians will need all God's grace in order to come through what awaits them in these last days before the return of Christ. As we read in the letter to Pergamum in 2:13, Antipas had already died for the truth. Jesus calls him 'my faithful witness'. Later other Christians will be called to give their lives, bearing testimony to the faithful witness, Jesus Christ (11:7; 17:6).
This reminds us of Christ's exalted position as the one who conquered death and was raised to life by the Father. He can thus be called the 'Living One' in verse 18, for he is alive forever. This too is significant for suffering Christians who, through faith in Christ, will themselves be raised from the dead. Where Jesus has gone before, his people will follow.
The sovereignty of Christ over all that is going on in this world is again a vital teaching about the nature of Christ and his kingly rule, which is not just theoretical but deeply practical and pastoral when seen in the context of a suffering church. Those who receive this letter need to know above all else that Jesus will vindicate his name and his people as he ultimately calls the nations to account. As we read through this book we shall see this theme surfacing frequently. Those who seek to destroy the church of Christ should know that he is sovereign and his rule will be clearly seen (6:15; 17:14; 18:3-10; 19:15-16; etc.).
Thus the scene is set. This revelation is the revelation above all of Jesus: who he is and how he will reveal himself as history progresses. He is in control and is the ruler even of the kings of the earth. And so John pauses to rejoice in the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and to ascribe praise and thanksgiving to God for his wonderful grace.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. 'I' am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty' (1:5b-8).
Ascribing glory and power to God is to acknowledge all that is true of him. Such 'doxologies' are quite common in Scripture. But this one is a little different, for it is specifically applied to Christ. To him alone belongs glory and power, for he has brought about the salvation of his people. Four glorious statements about what Christ has done for his people summarise why praise and glory should be offered to him.
a) Jesus loves us. The love of Christ has surrounded and directed his people through all time, but above all it has been seen in his death on the cross on our behalf.
b) Jesus has freed us. His death redeemed his people from their sins, freeing them from their captivity or bondage to death, which is the righteous judgment of God upon sinful people. Thanks to his blood (his sacrificial death on the cross), Christ has dealt with sin and the penalty for sin. We are now freed to serve God.
c) Jesus has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve. Drawing on the Old Testament, Christians are reminded that the reason for their redemption is that they should be God's special people reflecting God's holiness back to this world. As we read in Exodus 19:5-6, God commands the people of Israel: 'Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'
Much of what follows in this book of Revelation is helping Christians work out what it means to be God's people. It is not that the church is like God's people in the Old Testament, but the church is now seen to be God's true Israel. We are to serve as a kingdom in the sense that we serve the one true King, Jesus Christ. We are to serve as priests as we live in a world which persecutes the faithful. This will involve following Christ as faithful witnesses of God's revelation to a sinful world, and living a life of holiness as was required of priests and is seen in all its perfection in Christ himself.
d) Jesus will come again. The greeting comes to an end by again pointing to Christ as King over all the nations (see v. 5) and to the Father who is eternal (see v. 4). The emphasis on Jesus again reminds God's suffering people that Jesus is King and will return in glory, which is what with the clouds means. This return will be seen even by those who pierced him.
John uses several Old Testament references and allusions to make his point here. First, he draws on Daniel, a prophet to whom he owes much, as we shall see later. In Daniel 7:13 we read: 'In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.' What Daniel prophesied about the judgment of evil rulers, we are now told is to be fulfilled in Christ's second coming. Then Zechariah 12:10 is used further to emphasise God's judgment on those who surround Israel and also to show Israel's own mourning for having rejected God: 'They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.'
Glory speaks of Christ's divinity. Cloud is linked with God's glory in the Old Testament, for example, in Exodus 16:10. We may also remember the appearance of God in his glory in the pillar of cloud over the Tabernacle (Exod. 40:34) and later at the opening of Solomon's temple (2 Chron. 5:13-14). But it also reminds us of Christ's own predictions of the revelation of his divine glory and, of course, of the majestic glory of Christ that was seen at the Transfiguration.
There will be no doubt that Jesus has returned as King since all the peoples will see him. The fact that they will mourn probably indicates that John has in mind particularly those who have rejected Christ. They will now fear his judgment as they clearly do in 6:15-17.
Tragic as this day will be for so many, its anticipation is a great comfort to those who currently suffer for Christ's sake. Since Christ will come and God is the Alpha and the Omega (the First and the Last 1:17; 22:13) and the Almighty, suffering Christians need to be assured of the ultimate vindication of their faith and of their Lord before the nations of this earth. It is worth noting how this title, which indicates God's great and sovereign power over all, is used in 4:8 and 11:17 in a similar context of praise and doxology. Here God identifies himself as the one who really is sovereign and really does know the end from the beginning.
In various ways, this introduction has emphasised the trustworthiness, power, sovereignty and love of Christ and of God. These are all vital truths for God's people as much in our day and age as in John's. These are the great truths that remind us that we remain ourselves in the midst of a suffering world in which God's people will often be persecuted. They also remind us of the context within which we live and work and serve. It is a context in which Christ has freed us from the penalty of sin to serve him in this world while we await his return in glory.
In the verses which follow, John, a fellow sufferer for the gospel, tells us of his commissioning by God to write what he sees.
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: 'Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea' (1:9-11).
It is appropriate that John should be commissioned by God for the work of recounting this revelation because he too has experienced suffering as a member of Christ's kingdom and is a Christian brother of those to whom he writes. He too knows the need of patient endurance which is to be characteristic of those who are in Jesus, that is, of those who belong to him. Later John will use these words again as he calls for patient endurance from suffering Christians in 13:10 and 14:12. The island of Patmos where he received this revelation was one of a number of small islands off the south-west coast of Asia Minor (see the Introduction).
The first day of the week rapidly became the day on which the early church gathered for worship, thus replacing the Jewish Sabbath day worship. This soon became known as the Lord's Day for it was the day on which Jesus was raised from the dead. On one such Sunday, as we often call it, John was in the Spirit. This indicates that he was receiving some special revelation from the Holy Spirit that gave him full prophetic authority. We find something quite similar in the prophecy of Ezekiel to which there are many allusions to this work of the Spirit (see, for example, Ezek. 2:2; 3:14, 24). The reference to a loud voice like a trumpet adds to the impression of God's special revelation, reminding us of the very loud trumpet sound that accompanied God's message to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18-19). This experience clearly does not refer to the constant presence of the Spirit with God's people, but to a special work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring this particular prophecy. Whether John was asleep or awake is not clear at this point.
Thus it is that John's commission to write all that he sees and hears and send it to the seven churches begins. He is confronted now in his vision by the one who has been introduced as the Alpha and Omega in verse 8.
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone 'like a son of man', dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (1:12-16).
John does not immediately see the source of the voice, rather he sees seven golden lampstands, but someone like a son of man is there among the lampstands and in his right hand he held seven stars. All of this sounds very strange to our ears but their meaning is explained to John in verse 20. The lampstands represent the seven churches to which he is writing. Again the figure seven is no doubt seen as a sign of completion and perfection. This person is standing among the churches of Christ. In his hand he holds seven stars which we are told are 'the angels of the seven churches' (see below).
a) Like a son of man
This person like a son of man is clearly the resurrected and glorified Lord Jesus, but the picture language used here draws upon the book of Daniel, particularly chapters 7 and 10. We noted Daniel 7:13 earlier when talking of Christ 'coming with the clouds'. There 'one like a son of man' was seen, and the passage continues: 'He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.'
It is a passage well suited to describe what John sees, for it talks of one who is fully sovereign, eternal and surrounded with glory. It reminds us of all that we have learned so far of Jesus before whom the nations will bow (note especially v. 7). But the allusions to Daniel continue, no doubt because his visions were so similar; his message was also about the last times and the sovereignty of God, and his writing was also filled with apocalyptic imagery. Thus we find a description of this person's dress which calls to mind Daniel 10:5-6, with its portrait of one who comes to speak to him in a vision who was 'dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist'. Daniel 10:6 sounds so similar: 'His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.'
The description of his clothing and his feet all build a picture of one who is pure and holy, perhaps one who is like a priest who comes into God's presence representing his people. And yet, though the priestly identity is surely there, it is at the same time clearly a royal description. Here is a picture of power and authority. This is strongly reinforced by mention that his head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. Here the picture is drawn from Daniel 7:9-10, not of the son of man but rather of God the Father himself seated on his heavenly throne: 'As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.'
This description of Jesus indicates his supreme authority but also points to his role as judge when he returns in glory. The sharp double-edged sword coming from Jesus' mouth intensifies this impression of Jesus Christ as the warrior and judge who will fight for his people and speak words of judgment on all others. Again an Old Testament prophecy, this time about the coming Davidic king, helps us understand the point. Isaiah 11:4 refers to this king who is to come and will judge with righteousness and 'with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked'.
The whole impression of the vision in these verses helps build a picture for us of Jesus representing his people before the throne of the Father, watching over them and protecting them, but also of Jesus who is truly sovereign and will return to judge those who have rebelled against him.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: 'Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades' (1:17-18).
There is surely only one response to such an awesome revelation of Jesus Christ and it is to be utterly fearful. In view of Jesus' words, Do not be afraid, John's falling down as though dead is not an act of worship but rather a fainting with fear. It is the sort of dread that we see elsewhere in Scripture when people are confronted by the glory of the living God (even in a visionary experience). But the one who speaks 'grace and peace' to his people (v. 4) and who 'loves us' (v. 5) placed his right hand on John in a gesture of comfort. He then speaks words of comfort, giving three reasons why John should not be afraid. He begins with the words 'I am', a reminder of his divinity.
b) I am the First and the Last: Jesus draws attention to his eternal sovereignty and divinity.
c) I am the Living One. Though he died, now he is alive forever. It is the greatest comfort to the believer that the one who did indeed die has conquered death and is now alive, thus guaranteeing resurrection for those who have faith. For those called by God, there is no need to fear death for Jesus is the Living One.
d) I hold the keys of death and Hades. Through his death and resurrection Jesus has conquered death and so those with faith in Christ can be assured of life themselves, for Jesus will raise them too. This particular encouragement will be vital when Jesus addresses the church at Smyrna. In that letter, 2:10-11, he says, 'Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.... Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.... He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.'
There is enormous comfort for us all as we ponder who Jesus is. As sovereign Lord and God he has conquered death for his people so they need not fear it. Just as he is alive, so we as his people will be made alive and the final judgment (second death, 2:11) will have no sway over us. Far from looking upon Jesus as God who is most to be feared, we look on him as Saviour and Lord who brings us his love, grace and peace.
And so the commission is summarised.
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (1:18-20).
John is to write both about the present experience through which he is going and the descriptions which follow of the present world scene, as well as writing about the revelation he has concerning the future. In other words, this verse is really a key to the book as a whole. While John here is being asked to write down the immediate things he sees, he is again being asked, as he was in verse 11, to write down all his experiences and visions for together they contain God's word for his suffering church.
The final verse explains the meaning of the lampstands and stars. The reference to the stars being the angels of the seven churches is not clear. Since the word 'angel' can refer to a 'messenger', this reference could simply be to the messengers or perhaps leaders of the various churches. The 'angels' would thus be human representatives or ministers of the churches. Nevertheless, on other occasions in John's book when the word 'angel' is used, it refers to heavenly beings who work at God's command. It is thus more likely here that a particular angelic being is in mind who is given responsibility for each church. This angelic being would therefore be seen as 'representing' the church or standing for the church being addressed. This is what seems to be happening as we turn to chapter 2.
Many Christians over the years have given up reading this book because, beyond title first four chapters, they feel they can neither understand much of it, nor see its relevance to them. These short sections of special lessons will occur from time to time in this commentary simply to remind us that this book is in fact written for all the churches of all ages as God's word. They are not by any means intended to be exhaustive of what God is saying through Revelation to us in the twenty-first century, but they will remind us that what is said is useful and profitable for all Christians.
First, a suffering church. We cannot help but note that John writes to a suffering church or one which will suffer, just as he is suffering for the gospel. More Christians were put to death for their faith in the twentieth century than in all the preceding centuries put together, and there is no evidence that this century will be much different. The church of Christ will suffer in all sorts of ways, and this book speaks to us of the comfort, love and discipline which the Lord Jesus, Lord of the church, brings to his people in the present. It also points to the time when such suffering will cease. If ever we want to understand the context in which the church today suffers, then this book is one of our greatest helps and as we read it we need to bear this in mind.
Secondly, Jesus is right there in the midst of his churches. He has not neglected his suffering people nor left them to suffer on their own. More than that, one day he will vindicate his name and his people. This truth about Jesus is both a comfort and a challenge as we shall see in chapters 2-3. On the one hand, we need to know for today that even in our churches the same Lord Jesus is present among us and watching over us and caring for us. He 'comes' among us with blessing. On the other hand, we are reminded that if we turn from him, or follow unbiblical teaching or practices, then the same Lord will 'come' not to bless but to judge. The need for modern churches to be faithful to the God of Scripture and to Scripture itself as God's word, could never be greater. As we shall see later, the problems of syncretism, and the pressures of the world around, are acute for us all. We must remember that Jesus is among us, encouraging and comforting us but also commanding obedience.
Thirdly, we must ask how we view Jesus. In verse 17 John's initial reaction, like that of many of the prophets, is to fall down, probably from fear. Very quickly Jesus picks him up and encourages him not to fear. However, in a modern church which spends much time encouraging Christians to regard Jesus as 'friend and brother', this passage reminds us that if the Son of Man appeared to us right now we would fall at his feet before his glory—and until he picked us up, we would surely be fearful. Scripture never compromises the glory and majesty of Christ, while also describing him as one of us. It is all too easy to forget his 'majesty'. We no longer stand in awe at the thought of the King of Glory returning with the clouds to judge and to save. Our worship should incorporate, where possible, the whole teaching about Christ. We should at one and the same time stand in awe of who he is, the one who holds the keys of death and Hades, and yet also enjoy the love and care and comfort of Jesus our friend and brother.