Titled as an “Apocalypse” and described as a “prophecy” in the superscription, the text begins like a letter. It has all the typical elements of standard letter openings from that era but it is also thoroughly Christian, even with a Triune salutation.
Audience: Seven Churches of Asia
Salutation: Grace and Peace from
- the One
- the Seven Spirits
- Jesus the Messiah
Doxology: Eternal Glory and Power to Jesus
Theme: Jesus is coming
Declaration: Thus says the Lord God, the All-Powerful
The audience knows the author. He simply introduces himself as “John” which means that he was well known in the Roman province of Asia. Early Christian tradition in the second century identifies him as the Apostle John, the beloved disciple (e.g., Irenaeus, Justin Martyr [according to Eusebius], Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian). That is impressive late second and early third century evidence and geographically diverse. But other early Christians (e.g., Dionysius in the mid-third century and Eusebius in the 4th century) thought the language wasso different from the Gospel of John that it could not be the same person. Whatever the conclusion, it does not substantially affect how we read the Apocalypse. John–known in Asia Minor–is a fellow-sufferer, a leader of the Christian movement who has seen a vision, and has been given the Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah.
The audience situates the context of the Apocalypse in the Roman province of Asia Minor. The seven churches are identified in chapters two and three, but these are not the only churches in the province (e.g., Colossae). Why these seven? Some suggest it because they were all connected by a circular road or perhaps they were particularly under fire in ways others were not. But it seems more consistent with the nature of an Apocalypse that seven churches were chosen because the number is symbolic (one of many septets in the book)–these seven churches represent the whole church in Asia Minor, perhaps the universal church itself. The Apocalypse, in effect, is addressed to the whole church though specifically contextualized by the life and experience of the churches in Asia Minor.
The salutation, unlike any other in the New Testament, is triune: Father, Son and Spirit (cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation). Each is characterized in a plurality of ways.
- “The one who is, who was and who is coming” (ESV). The Greek is not standard grammar (apo should be followed by a genitive rather than a nominative), but John does this in order to reproduce the Greek translation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14. In other words, John identifies the Father with Yahweh, the God of Israel. The threefold characterization underscores that Yahweh knows the beginning from the end (the Alpha and the Omega in 1:8), eternally God and eternally present.
- The identity of the “seven spirits before His throne” is more disputed though I think the Triune context clarifies it. While some identify the spirits with the seven angels of the churches or the seven principal angels around the throne (as in some early Jewish literature) the context here–as part of the inner divine circle (cf. Revelation 4:5) and sandwhiched between Father and Son–points us to the Holy Spirit (cf. the language of Isaiah 11:2-3; Zechariah 4:2, 6. 10). “Seven” reminds us of the fullness of the divine presence in the person of the Spirit.
- Jesus the Messiah is characterized in three ways. The total effect is to underscore the significance of his death (martyrdom), resurrection (firstborn from the death), and ascension (present reign). This is the firm ground upon which the drama is built–the identity of Jesus means that the kingdoms of the earth have no power over him, and ultimately over his followers. While Ceasar may claim power, it is the Messiah who truly exercises divine power.
- “the faithful witness” — while “witness” (martus) certainly includes his death, it also points to the living witness of his faithful obedience to the Father. He was faithful even unto death (cf. 2:10).
- “firstborn from the dead” — this does not necessarily mean he was the first one to be raised from the dead (though that is true in terms of new creation), but may also mean that among those raised from the dead he is the preeminent one. He is the “firstborn” in terms of inheritance, authority, and power as well as the first to emerge from the grave as a new creation.
- “ruler of the kings of the earth” — probably an allusion to Psalm 89:27, Yahweh’s “firstborn” king rules over all other kings. This description is particularly apt as the conflict within the Apocalypse is between the reign of God and earthly powers (kings). Jesus is the true king, not Caesar.
The doxology is offered to Jesus which reflects an early worship of Jesus as a participant in the divine fellowship. Jesus is praised because he is the one who has acted redemptively on behalf of the people of God. He is the one who loved, freed (by his blood), and appointed us a kingdom of priests. The eternal (“forever and ever”) glory and dominion (power) belong to him. The focus of the doxology is Christocentric though the goal (telos) is the Father. Jesus acts so that he might offer (or, we might become) a kingdom of priests to “His God and Father.” The ultimate goal is the Father but this is accomplished through Jesus the Messiah. The doxology draws attention to Jesus as a central figure in the drama of redemption.
The language of love, freedom (release from sin), and constituting a priestly kingdom stand in contrast to the kingdoms of the earth. While Caesar may claim a benevolent disposition toward his subjects, praise belongs to the one who has actually loved, freed, and created us. This is something Jesus did by “his blood” (that is, by his faithful witness). The church is a priestly kingdom just as was Israel (Exodus 19:6). The language assumes a continuity between Israel and the Church as the reign of God within the world.
Revelation 1:8 (the thus “says the Lord God” or declaration) functions as an inclusio as it repeats the identity of Yahweh (“who is, who was, and who is coming”). But it also serves to ground the reality and certainty of the “motto” or “theme” present in Revelation 1:7. Yahweh, the eternal God, is the beginning (Alpha) and the end (Omega). Yahweh is sovereign and will accomplish whatever is promised. God is Almighty (pantokrator); the Lord is all-powerful who rules all other powers. Revelation 1:7 is the promise guarenteed by God’s omnipotence.
The dramatic (and thus thematic) nature of the oracle is announced by the interjection–“Behold!” In other words, pay attention to this! Watch this! The presence of the interjection in the salutation underscores the significance of what follows for not only for this section but for the whole book. This is a thematic announcement soleminized by the word of the Lord God Almighty.
John constructs a poetic announcement built on Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10. Jesus is coming with glory (clouds) and the tribes of the earth will mourn. The motto is as simple as this: Jesus is coming. But that is also complicated. What does the text mean by “coming” and how is this played out in the rest of the Apocalypse?
When Jesus addresses the seven churches, twice he promises to come in judgment upon their sins–not in a distant eschatological future, but in the immediate present (Revelation 2:5, 16). The present coming of Jesus anticipates the future coming, but it appears that the “coming of Jesus” is, as Beale (Revelation, 197) argues, “a process occurring throughout history” that culminates in the final eschatological coming of Jesus. Each coming (or visitation) within history, however, is a proleptic experience of the final one (what Christians normally call the “second coming”). Each coming, then, as Fair notes in his commentary, is described in eschatological language as a prolepsis of what is to come.
The theme (motto) is focused on the coming of Jesus in judgment against the “tribes of the earth.” They will lament his appearance, and the “tribes” lament the judgment of God throughout the Apocalypse (cf. Revelation 11:9; 13:7; 14:6) though there are also “tribes” that rejoice in the victory of the Lamb (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9). This fits with the context of Zechariah 12 since it envisions a day when God will judge the nations and pour out grace on the righteous.
The motto, then, anticipates the final eschatological coming of Jesus, but also prepares us to hear the Apocalypse in its setting. When God comes in judgment–whether against the church or the “tribes of the earth” within history–it is a proleptic experience of the final coming of Jesus. The seven churches, then, will experience within their own history the mercy and judgment of God in the present as a manifestation of God’s ultimate goal–to cleanse the earth and redeem it. The nations of the earth, particularly imperial Rome within the situation of the seven churches, will also experience the mercy and judgment of God. Each of these, however, bear witness to the final victory of God in the promised eschatological return of Jesus.
Yahweh–who was, is, and is coming–is coming in the person of Jesus who is the resurrected, ascended, and enthroned Lord that rules the kings of the earth. God is continually coming, visiting, acting, judging, and redeeming. As Jesus executes his reign, he comes again and again. No one will escape his notice (eveyone will experience this continual presence of God) and he will judge all the tribes of the earth.
The one who loved us, freed us and made us a priestly kingdom is also the one who judges the earth. His people will praise him and the nations will lament “on account of him.”
Living in a hostile culture, threatened on every side, and tempted to accomodate the pressure through compromise and syncretism, the church may have felt abanonded. God’s response is the “Apocalypse of Jesus,” and the primary theme is: Jesus is coming. This is no mere distant future promise to a struggling chruch in the late first century. Rather, it is the assurance that Jesus is and will continue to act on behalf of his people as he exercises the reign of God in the world and will ultimately set things right in the creation despoiled by evil.
“Jesus is coming” is a theodic statement–God is present within history and God will set things right. The church can trust this promise both now and for the future.