The title, “Revelation of Jesus the Messiah,” is ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so. It may mean the revelation about Jesus, that is, the unveiling of the story at which Jesus stands at the center. Or, it may mean the revelation that belongs to Jesus, that is, the Father has given this story to Jesus for the purpose of disclosure. Perhaps, however, we overanalyze the grammar when it is likely that the point encompasses both: the story the Father gave Jesus to disclose to the churches is about the central role Jesus plays in the cosmic drama of redemption.
Something once hidden is now–in this drama–revealed. The book unveils what lies behind the scenes. We get to peek (more than peek!) behind the curtain. The drama discloses that the Messiah, by the will of the Father, is actively redeeming, claiming, and moving within the world even when the world appears Godforsaken.
The Messiah’s servants (slaves) are oppressed and marginalized. Some of them lament, others compromise. Some are martyred, others accommodate the culture for economic profit. While the martyrs bear witness, others drink the wine of Babylon’s adulteries.
John, however, is a faithful witness. He is the slave to whom the Messiah sent an angel to reveal what is to come. John has testified, as in a courtroom, to the “word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” He has endured a trial and faithfully testified to the truth. Exiled for his faith, he has participated in the witness (marturian; martyrdom) of Jesus Christ. He has suffered with the Messiah and he has joined the witness of Jesus to persevering obedience.
John has seen the Apocalypse, the drama; it was shown to him. And now, through writing it down, he shows it the servants or the churches of God and his Christ.
Revelation 1:1-3 functions as a superscription to the whole document. It was, it seems, tacked on to the front of the finished product to identify its nature. It is an Apocalypse; it unveils the drama of the Messiah’s reign to the oppressed and marginalized servants of God. It is like a movie played on a cosmic stage. Originally, John had a private viewing, but now–written–the movie is available to the whole church, starting with the seven churches of Asia Minor.
The story is not for private consumption. On contrary, the superscription assumes it will be read orally to a community of hearers. We might imagine a public reading of the drama in the assembly of Christians at Ephesus, or Smyrna, or any of the seven churches of Asia and beyond. The Apocalypse is intended to be heard, even performed by a virtuoso of oral interpretation (a lector).
The first of seven beatitudes in the book blesses the oral reader/interpreter as well as the hearers. Blessing, of course, is not a state of self-actualized happiness but the reception of divine grace that empowers us to bless others. The hearers are blessed as keepers–they do what they hear.
The Apocalypse intends transformation. The reading does not bless the status quo, but the obedient. The Revelator calls the hearers to action, to faithful obedience. This is no mere message of comfort and hope but a demanding call to discipleship, that is, to follow the Lamb.
The blessing, however, has a sense of urgency rather than complacency. This is no time to stand around, watch and wait. “The time is at hand.” The drama will happen “soon” (or, when it happens, it will happen “quickly”).
Exegetes and interpreters have haggled over the meaning of this “nearness” for centuries. Some think it means that everything in the Apocalypse will happen within, say, a generation. Others, think it is simply about imminence as we are always standing on the precipe of the cliff ready to fall off (even though we have been “on edge” for almost 2000 years). Neither seems to entirely fit.
Clearly, as preterists are quick to point out, the drama of Apocalypse impinges on the lives of the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia. Whatever is unveiled applies to them and this is why John (unlike Daniel, cf. Daniel 12:9) is forbidden to seal the Apocalypse as if its events are distant (Revelation 22:10). Something about this Apocalypse is about to happen right then in the experience of these seven churches. In other words, the drama is about to begin or has already begun. [Fair (Conquering with Christ) calls this proleptic eschatological language.]
That appears to be the major force of the double emphasis (“soon” and “near,” which also occurs in Revelation 22:8, 10, 12). The drama is no distant fairy-tale or meaningless hope in the present. The drama has begun; the curtain has opened. This functions not only to mark time in some sense but, more importantly, calls the church to action. They must hear and obey precisely because the drama has already begun. The church cannot sit on the bench but must enter the game and play out the story as it unfolds. The church is called to urgent action.
The Apocalypse is a “prophecy” not only in the sense of describing events future to the original hearers but in confronting those hearers with the demands of discipleship.While the prophets of Israel peeked behind the scenes and saw the future in some cases, their main function was to prosecute, rebuke, and confront the people of God. They called Israel to renewal and recommitment; they called them out of their injustices and idolatries (cf. Amos). And so does the Apocalypse.
The superscription reminds the oppressed and marginalized church that they don’t know everything (thus they need a “revelation”) while also offering them the hope that God will yet reveal something to them in the hearing of the “revelation of Jesus the Messiah.” But this hearing will demand something from them. Hearing the drama holds the promise of blessing but only for those who follow the Messiah in faithful obedience. The church must decide, and there is no time to wait. The drama has already begun!