Exposition of Revelation 1:4-8
Last week, we began studying the Book of Revelation. We were reminded of the Book as being a comedy in the sense that it ends in a eternal wedding for believers and a tragedy to unbelievers ending in eternal death. We also remember that John tells us that what He is giving here is a full disclosure of what he had been told. Therefore every one who hears or reads Revelation is responsible to apply the words of this prophecy to their own lives. This means that we must learn it to know what is to be applied. If we will keep to its covenant blessings for faithfulness, then the end is a blessing. If we fail, then the covenant curses will come upon us. This is basically similar to what was offered Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy. They failed to keep the covenant and brought upon themselves catastrophic judgment.
This sounds scary to us as well. Who could keep to God’s covenant promises? Are we any better than Israel. But we can take comfort from the pen of Martin Luther who reminds us “If we did in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”. That sounds like bad news, but listen to what comes next: “Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing”. We must understand that the battle is the Lord’s who will keep those who are His.
Exposition of the Text
Verses 4-5: John, to the seven churches which are in Asia—Grace and peace to you from He Who is, Who always has been, and who is coming and from the seven spirits which are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the witness, the faithful, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
The writer again simply refers to himself simply as John, meaning that he was well known. He does not try to impress his being an apostle on them. He is simply in this book a fellow servant, a brother, or simply John. Being an apostle, he would receive great honor in the New Jerusalem. Yet he is humble even as Jesus was humble in his coming to earth in a lowly manger. This would be a good lesson for all of God’s servants today. So many today want to lord it over the brethren like they were some potentate whom God could not get along without. We are all servants. We are to bow before the Lord only. Even one of the angels refused worship. So who are we mere humans to demand others fall at our feet?
The seven churches were real churches. Whether or not they also represented church ages as well, as some think, is an open question, but these churches really existed and should be treated as such in interpreting the book. They all were in what is today southwest Turkey and the circuit of them made a semicircle. The messenger John would have sent would have started in Ephesus and ended in Laodicea. These were real churches with real gifts as well as real problems from which we can learn much.
Grace and peace was a unique Christian blessing which combines the greetings of East and West. The Jews greeted each other with the word ‘shalom’ which means peace and well-being. And the Greeks greeted each other with the word ‘charis’ which means grace. God’s church is not a church for a particular race of people, but rather to the ‘whosoever’ of every tribe under heaven. Christians everywhere greeted each other with these words. They were also used, as here in letters.
John’s ‘grace and peace’ is by far the most elaborate in the New Testament. Paul typically used: “Grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And Peter uses: “Grace and peace to you, be multiplied.” But the greeting in Revelation is Trinitarian if the seven spirits of God is understood as the Holy Spirit. It is hard enough for us to understand how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from each harder and yet One God. No less hard is it to compare the seven spirits here with the Holy Spirit, unless the number seven, the number of God’s perfection is taken into account. The number seven is prominent everywhere in Scripture all the way from Genesis, but is most prominent in this book.
The first person mentioned in the greeting is the Father who is called the “One Who is, the One Who always has been, and the coming One. The Greek here is especially strained but refers back to Exodus 3:14 where the Greek translation of the Hebrew states “I AM, the One Who is”, translation mine. The sentence “I am” is the simplest of all sentences, yet it describes the most complex being in and above the universe itself. But this simple sentence is very profound in that while it is a complete thought, it is highly defined. ‘I am’ is usually complemented by a noun or adjective to complete its meaning, such as “I am strong.” Here the word ‘strong’ defines or limits the meaning of a very abstract sentence in a concrete way. Not only does it say “I am strong” but it also says “I am not weak.” But it also does not say “I am good looking.” I may or may not be that as well, but ‘strong’ does not mean ‘good looking’. This means that adding anything to I AM limits Who God is. But God is beyond all limits, so adding anything to the I AM makes God less than Who He is. It is wonderful for our understanding when He allows these limiters to help our understanding. So when God says “I AM your Shepherd (Yahweh Rophe), we can get a feeling of comfort in that God looks after us like a Shepherd cares for his sheep. But we must always remember that God cannot be limited by the word ‘shepherd’. He is much more than that. We can say that “God is Love” so long as we do not make it equivalent to “Love is God”. For although one of God’s attributes is love, God is more than be contained even by this great word. So God revealing Himself to Moses as I AM necessarily keeps Him from being labeled. Moses wanted to know God’s name. Knowing someone’s name is to get a handle on that person. It becomes a means of coercion. For example, when we want to get the attention of our son to take out the garbage we use the name to get a handle on him. We would say for example: “John Paul Whitaker, take out the trash! Now!” Note the full name is used to get attention. But we must be reminded like Moses, it is God who needs to get a handle on us and not vice-versa. This I AM is the name of the Sovereign of the universe.
It is interesting to note that the I AM is expanded here by using the past (imperfect) tense and well as the present. This describes that God is Eternal and unchanging. He is and always has been Who He is. And note this is not extended into the future tense as though God will be any different in the future. Instead the though is finished out by using the participle, “The Coming One”. Here, the emphasis is a warning to be ready for His visit.
The seven spirits of God as we have noted is difficult to interpret. It is nowhere else suggested that there are seven spirits. Commentators are all over the map here, but I think that this best refers to the Holy Spirit. The use of the coordinating conjunction “and” makes these seven spirits of God equal to God. And the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ afterwards makes Jesus Christ equal to both the Father and the Spirit. This is also true in the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19 to baptize them “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. Note in this formula, one name covers all three persons of the Trinity.
The last person referred to is the Son. Usually we would think of the Holy Spirit coming last, but perhaps it is written this way to emphasize Who the Father is (He comes first.) and what the Son has done (last). There are four titles which describe the Son. The first is “The Witness.” This word appears frequently in John’s writings, as we have noted before. He came to testify of the Father to the world. The next title is “The Faithful One”. Jesus was true to the task the Father sent Him to do, to declare the Father and to die for the sins of the world. The third is “The Firstborn from the dead”. His resurrection is the one that guarantees ours.
The fourth title is “The ruler of the kings of the earth. This is significant. It is not Caesar who is the ruler of kings, but Jesus. As we go on into the Book of Revelation, this idea will be brought out again and again. Note that the love Jesus has for us is in the present tense. It says that even though the act of loosing (or washing) happened long ago, his love is constant for us even to this day.
Verses 5b-6:to him who continually loves us and loosed us from our sins by His blood, and he made us a kingdom and priests to God and His Father—to Him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
This is a doxology which John goes into when He things upon what God has done for us. It is one of the many hymns we find in Revelation. Some texts here have washed rather than loosed. The words for ‘washed’ and ‘loosed’ are very similar in spelling in the Greek, and either would fit. If it reads ‘washed’, then we think of the Song “Are You Washed?” If it reads ‘loosed’, then we think of “He Set Me Free.” What is important is to think upon what price Jesus paid for our sins.
This doxology flows naturally from reflecting on what God has provided to us. Worship is the proper response to this reflection. In fact, we will discover that worship is one of the major themes in the Book of Revelation. Especially stressed is the emphasis on true worship of the Triune God as compared to false worship. What is spoken to the seven churches of Revelation is appropriate for us as well.
Verse 6 ends with the note that Jesus is worthy to be praised for what he has done, and that His kingdom shall be for ever and ever. Earthly kings have their time in the sun. And earthly rulers bask in the limelight for a season. But there shall neither be an end to the Kingdom of God or of Christ the King. Amen
Verse 7: Behold He comes with the clouds, and every eye shall see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth shall beat their breasts because of Him-- even so, Amen.
John is still in a state of profound worship in the Spirit. He has just given the doxology “to Him be the glory for ever and ever, amen” in response to remembering Jesus death and resurrection and what it provides for us. Now he quotes two Old Testament prophecies from Daniel and Zechariah.
Bass in his book “Back to the Future” sees this prophecy having been already fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem. It would take too much time to try to explain his argumentation here, but it is very compelling except that following the Book of Revelation strictly as having been fulfilled presents a problem with what the book means for us today. The Book shows Jesus in the New Jerusalem reigning with His spotless bride. If this happened in AD 70, then what has happened in the church and world since would not reflect this very well.
However, as we have discussed, if we understand the double fulfillment aspect of Biblical prophecy, we should not have any difficulty in agreeing that it was fulfilled in 70AD as a type of its later fulfillment. We can read from the catastrophic account of the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel from the Jewish historian Josephus and understand that the judgment of Jerusalem is a picture of what will happen in the end times to the entire earth.
When the Jews rejected Jesus, the result was the utter destruction of Jerusalem and most of their homeland and their being led away as slaves. In the same way, a terrible price is now going to be paid for the entire world’s rejection of Jesus Christ. This shall be clearly laid out in the Book of Revelation. The world every day defies the rule of God. They hate God. They are putting all their hope in that there either is no God, or that God is so indulgent to sin that He can be bought off with lip service. Anyone who thinks this will wake up to the fact that they have made a tragic and eternal mistake, whether they come to the judgment throne of Jesus Christ from the grave, or whether they are alive to see Him come in glory.
We dare not, therefore, presume on God’s grace. Rest in His grace, yes, but resting in His grace is not the same as presuming it. Presuming God’s grace says we can live any old kind of life, even one which is utterly displeasing to God, and that God is required to save us anyhow. The Old Testament says there is forgiveness for sins of ignorance and done without premeditation. But is also says that the soul that sins presumptuously shall die.
Resting in God’s grace means that we always remember the price that Christ has paid for our sins. Think upon those wounds in which He was pierced for us. Remember that He did this to free us “from sin” rather than “to sin”. Resting in His grace means that we know we are utterly dependent on Him. He has done this for us, and we can add nothing to the work. This is not a time for arrogance and pride, but humble thankfulness.
The prophet Amos warns those who are looking for the day of the LORD. To what end will the day of the LORD be to you. This day is to be a day of judgment, a day of darkness and not light. When we consider how horrible this day will be for those who are not ready, let us redouble our efforts to warn those who have not accepted Christ as their Savior. We really do not have an option, for the prophet Ezekiel in the 33rd chapter calls us to be watchmen and call out the warning to the people. We are to tell them that the Lord is coming again, even as a thief in the night. If we fail to give warning, then we are responsible for the deaths of those as they were entrusted to us for their safety. However, if we proclaim and they do not listen, we have delivered our souls.
When the Lord returns, everyone will know it. Only the eleven saw Jesus ascend into heaven in great glory and majesty. But here it says that every eye shall see Him. In its original fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem, the inhabitants would have remembered Jesus’ prophecies against Jerusalem and mourned that they had not repented. The very nation that Caiaphas tried to save by putting Jesus to death was going to be totally lost. They would remember that they had pierced Him. The things that happened in this prophecy’s original fulfillment tells us of even a greater wailing. No one should be deceived as Jesus warns when He says that may will come after Him and say that Christ is here or there. John warns us that the world is full of false (anti) christs already. Not even Hollywood with all of its special effects shall be able to duplicate this. The return will be with such majesty and power that everyone will be instantly convinced. And in this light, they will see in what utter darkness, sin, and rejection they have lived and will break out in utter despair. They shall be as undone as Isaiah when Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up. But all hope will be forever gone at this point. All I can say is make sure you belong to Him. Amen
Verse 8: I AM the Alpha and the Omega says the LORD God, the One Who is, Who always has been, and the One who is coming, the Almighty.
Some translations include the words “the beginning and the end” and/or “the first and the last.” These may have been margin notes put in to help the reader understand what is meant by “the Alpha and the Omega”. Later copyists thinking that they were part of the text included these comments as part of the text itself. Whatever the case, the meaning if this verse is little affected.
Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last. The equivalent English expression is “from A to Z”. The Hebrews often rhymed words which were opposite in meaning as the equivalent of “everything”. We can remember in the Garden of Eden that Satan tried to deceive Adam and Eve by saying “You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” What this meant at least in a moral sense “You shall be like the gods. You shall know it all.” In the first part of the verse, the Alpha and Omega says that He is the All in All. And this is the LORD God saying this. Then God repeats the I AM, always have been, and am coming of verse 5. This as we have said before show us that God is Eternal and unchangeable. This is as Dr. Hollis Gause notes is God’s stamp of sovereignty over history--yes and more than history, time itself And if that is not enough, John records that God ends this introduction with “The Almighty.” Let no one mistake what this verse what is being said. It is an absolute statement about God’s Sovereign power. In three different ways, it says God is Eternal, unchanging, all powerful, and in every way the All-In-All.
How puny must all of the works of man appear in His sight! Even mighty Rome itself was but a grain of sand in the eyes of God. Human beings put so much pride in their power and achievements. What idolatry it must seem to God to think that the work of men’s hands and the thoughts of his mind are exalted by the world over God. It is absolutely futile to oppose God.
Since God is all powerful then, how wonderful it is to place one’s trust in Him. Even though the heavens of heavens cannot contain Him, he dwells in the heart of believers through the Holy Spirit. The astronomers talk about the size of the universe in terms of millions of light years. I cannot fathom what size this must be. I do know that one light year is about 6,000,000,000,000 miles (six trillion). What is a million times this? And God reigns over it all! Truly we wonder why would care for an individual human being, one of more than six billion on earth, on a small planet in a small solar system in one of a multitude of galaxies, and so on. Truly we wonder with King David in the 8th Psalm “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you would visit him?” Yet He counts the hairs of our head. And those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will enjoy Him forever.
In this God’s power is demonstrated most perfectly. He is not just the God and Sovereign of the very large, but the very small as well. Did the Roman emperor know the name of all the subjects in the Empire? Did He die for their sins? They were all declared gods when they died? Where are they? Why didn’t they save their Eternal City, Rome? Did they not care? Perhaps they weren’t gods after all. But God knows us by name. For God to be All-In-All, He has to be God of all these details, as small as they might appear.
Steven Harken, the brilliant Cambridge physicist who is bound to a wheelchair because of Lou Gehrig’s disease and teaches from the same endowed chair once occupied by the Reverend Sir Isaac Newton wrote a book on “A Brief History of Time.” As far as human genius is concerned, it is a monumental work. In it, he tries to unify all of physics. Newton’s physics seemed to properly describe all phenomena between the very small and the very large. But they theory fell apart when trying to describe the infinitesimally small phenomena such as subatomic particles and the infinitely large phenomena. These things were better described by Einstein and His followers. So Hawken’s answer, with his conclusion that time curves upon itself, was to put these two theories together, placing a discontinuity between them. Hawken at the end of the book triumphantly claims that he has solved the universe.
What was this solution?—simply that the universe is expanding into insignificance, and that if there is a god at all, hesheit is irrelevant to it and has nothing much to do. What a depressing conclusion. The one who has solved the universe has found out the cosmic nothingness of even his own life. Here is the plaintiff cry of a man bound to a wheelchair and breathing apparatus, struggling to live even when he has nothing to live for..
How much better is it to believe in the One who so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son to die on the cross for us? If Hawken would only accept it, God is that discontinuity which unifies the universe and makes sense of it. The infinitely large God came to save the infinitesimally small, me. This God Who rules over a universe filled with stars that defy counting became the most insignificant of men, born in a manger to poor parents, despised in this world, rejected and crucified, the most horrible of punishments meted out to slaves and traitors to Rome. Yet, it is He Who was raised in power, King of Kings and Lord of Lords and is coming again. He is the Lord of the infinitely large, the infinitesimally small, and everything in-between. His is the Alpha, and He is the Omega. If only Hawken could accept that this same Jesus died for him, a man in a wheelchair and respirator. No longer would he need to make the claim that the universe and all that is in it must have and did come from nothing.
We have a choice to make. Do we follow the wisdom of this world and come to complete futility and despair, or do we believe in the God who can display his power and sovereignty on a cross which leads to eternal life?