An Exposition of Revelation 1:1-3
Verse 1: The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to his servant John to reveal to his fellow servants what must quickly come to pass, having signified this by sending His angel to John.
The Book of Revelation itself begins with a significant issue of interpretation, the first of many in the book. We discussed last week in the message “An Introduction to the Book of Revelation” that the intent of the book was not to hide things but to reveal them. I think that Bass in “Back to the Future” is right in this assessment when he goes to great pains to demonstrate this very point. This is not to say that there are not things which are hidden in the book. This is especially true for the unbeliever. Revelation is for the servants of God, for them to understand.
But just what is meant by “Revelation of Jesus Christ?” Is Jesus doing the revealing, or is Jesus the one who is to be revealed. Most commentators choose the first option. They would understand verse one as saying that God gave a revelation to Jesus who gave it to John by means of an angel to give to the leaders of the seven churches to give to their charges. Besides being a cumbersome transmission process, there are theological issues in God giving a revelation to Jesus. It would make Jesus inferior to God. This seriously disagrees with the portrait of Jesus in Revelation as well as the rest of Scripture. If Jesus is fully God in Himself, what Calvin calls “autotheos”, then why would anything need to be revealed to Him? It is true that while Jesus was on earth, He did claim that only the Father knew of the events at the end of time, the Son did not. But Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. He is presented as “all-knowing” in addition to “all-powerful” and “all-present” in the Book of Revelation. So, because of this, I think the latter is preferable, that this is a revelation to us of the person of Jesus Himself.
The interpretation of the Book of Revelation is plagued with questions of translation of the text. I have looked over many of the grammatical constructions of the first verse and have tried to interpret its sense. Most take the “him” in the “which God gave Him” to refer to Jesus. It is true that “Jesus Christ” is closer to the “Him” in the text, but it could grammatically refer to John as well. As there are many grammatical peculiarities in the text of Revelation itself in addition to the fact that it reduces the theological difficulties associated with the traditional translation, I have chosen John to be the one who received the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ by means of one of the Lord’s angels to give to the seven churches. It is also a prophecy that Jesus will be revealed to the world as the one who was pierced, which every eye shall see, to set up His Kingdom.
We talked last week that it was important to understand the double fulfillment of prophecy, first as a sign to be fulfilled in the relatively near future, and then later in an ultimate sense which the sign points to. This, I feel is the key to Revelation. And the need for this understanding comes here in the first verse of the book. It speaks of certain events which must quickly come to pass. To the readers and hearers of Revelation, this means that the events described would happen in their lifetime. This same expectation occurs elsewhere in the New Testament. One example is the prophecy of Matthew 24-25 which Bass rightly compares with Revelation in its structure. Here it says that the current generation would live to see the fulfillment. I think that the hearers of both Revelation and Matthew did indeed live to see the first fulfillment of the prophecy in the destruction of Jerusalem. This acts as a sign to us of a future fulfillment of an even greater magnitude which may occur quickly, perhaps in our current generation. So God is not just warning the seven churches of Revelation, He is warning us as well.
Verse 2: This same John bore witness of everything he saw about Jesus Christ and the Word of God.
I have tried to give the idea of this verse which would be rather clumsy to translate literally from the Greek into English. What is emphasized in this verse is the witness John bore about Jesus and the Word of God. Both the verb “bore witness” appears in this verse as well as the noun “testimony”. This is one of the Apostle John’s favorite words as it is a major theme of his gospel as well. He bears witness about the Word of God as well as gives eyewitness testimony about Jesus Christ. John is one who likes to engage the senses. In the beginning of the First Epistle of John, he employs the senses of sight, sound, and touch when he says these things concerning the word of Life. In the Gospel we see the senses engaged in bearing witness, such as Thomas is invited to look and Jesus’ wounds and touch them as well. Here the eyes and ears are witnesses to Jesus. A witness in court is called to truthfully and competently tell the jury what he or she has experienced. What John is telling us is that he has held nothing back and that he was totally engaged in his testimony.
Verse 3: Blessed is the person that reads and those that hear the words of this prophecy and are careful to hold to everything that is written in it because the time is at hand (near).
Not many people could read in the world of John’s day nearly two thousand years ago. In fact, many of the affluent could not read and depended on trained slaves to read to them. Literacy among Jewish men tended to be somewhat higher as they were taught to read the Scripture, but for many, letters, and the Scripture itself had to be read to them. There was even an office in the early church called the “reader”. This means that most people heard the book of Revelation through their ears rather than to read it through their eyes. This means that whatever was written had to have not just the reader in view but the hearers. Revelation will do this by using the words to draw pictures which people could see with their mind. In other words, what we often take for granted in our multisensory world with video and sound had to be cast to the imagination of the listener’s minds.
John blesses those who either read or hear the words of the prophecy AND who continue to hold or keep them. This prophecy is the Word of God to them, as are all the Scriptures. God speaks and the universe is created. Jesus speaks and those dead in trespasses and sins come to life as a new creation. And at the end of time, yet once more, God will speak and the dead shall be raised.
What is meant to be kept? Obviously to keep to something, we must know what it is that needs to be kept. This reinforces the idea that at least to the believer that God does not want His people to be in the dark. Considering how difficult the Book of Revelation is, it almost wants us to throw up our hands into the air in frustration. I can’t tell you that I know how all or even many of the details of this book will/have worked out. But through much study, I do think that I have some general helps that we should be careful to hold on to.
1. As we discussed last week, the Book of Revelation has two endings. For the believer, it ends in a wedding. In Greek literature, comedies end in weddings. We must be careful that comedy has a meaning other than something which is funny. Rather it has more to do with a joyful ending. In story literature, it is the “and they lived happily ever after” ending. However, this is no fairy tale of myth for us but a living and real hope. The other ending is that of tragedy and judgment for those who do not believe. This is the other genre of Greek literature. They shall be forever excluded from the wedding banquet and the City of God. So we must be careful to keep thes words so that our end will be one of joy and not grief.
2. We also discussed last week that our salvation by God’s grace alone, by faith alone, by Jesus Christ alone. We are not saved by works, nor are we saved by knowing every little detail but rather by understanding the big picture. We can get lost in the details. The Jewish scholars all argued about the details of the coming of the Messiah, they were right in general but were so lost in details that they missed the event itself. Why weren’t they waiting at the manger in Bethlehem? So it is more important that we understand the big picture. If we miss on some of the details it is of much less consequence than missing heaven.
3. It is probably a good idea to treat what seems to be literal, such as the seven churches, literally rather than see them as seven church ages.
4. It is probably a good idea to treat what appears to be symbolic, symbolically, especially when John expressly says so. An example is when he says the incense is the prayers of the saints, then we need to focus on prayer, not incense.
5. When we can’t be sure whether to take something literally or symbolically, it is probably a good idea to keep an open mind.
6. One of the main themes of Revelation, as we shall see, is to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, no matter what. There are two major issues. Persecution of the churches by both Jews and Romans was immediately at hand or had actually started. The first temptation was to deny Christ altogether under this threat. The second temptation was to compromise the faith. The idea of this is that they were Christians, but to avoid controversy it was a good idea to give the devil his due. Because this was a more subtle threat, it actually was the greater danger. We should be warned as well.
Next week, we will pick up with verse 4.