Revelation 1. The Son of Man is manifested in his glory as God’s firstborn and as the King of Kings who is coming soon to take up his rule. He is also the ruler of the Church.
Although rarely used in full, the book’s title is A Revelation of John, but the subject of the revelation is Jesus Christ. The vision concerns the future, which climaxes with the revelation of Jesus Christ in glory to the whole world (I Cor 1:7, II Thes 1:7, Pet 1:7). It reveals him in a new light, even an unsettling light. If we dared to suppose that we already knew him quite well, this book forces us to think again.
Jesus communicates the revelation via an angel to God’s servant John, who, like the Son (John 3:31f), bears witness to what he has seen and heard. In that respect the revelation also comes from John. He is then to communicate it to God’s other servants. No one understands that Jesus is the Christ, king of all kings of the earth, unless the Father reveals it to him (Matt 16:17). So this revelation is not for the world, or for those who think it enough just to hold right belief, but for those who serve him.
The book is a prophecy and as such not a work of merely human composition. John was the appointed intermediary rather than the author. He wrote down ‘whatever he saw’, and in doing so bore witness to the witness of Jesus Christ in all Scripture, the written Word of God. Its very words are determined by God, whether or not John understands what he is reporting. In due course the book will be read out to the churches. Whoever hears it, in the sense of taking it in and responding to it, will experience God’s favour. Blessed, indeed, are those who hear the entire word of God (Luke 11:48). Jesus testified: “It is written: man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that goes forth from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). In using Deuteronomy to resist the Devil, he demonstrated what living by every word meant. He regarded everything written in Scripture as originating from the mouth of God. Through it, God was speaking to man (Matt 22:31).
Whether Scripture is to be accorded this sort of credence is no small issue. Nineteen centuries after the revelation, we might question whether the foretold events can truly be considered ‘near’, seeing they have still not happened. In John’s time ‘near’ could have been thought to mean ‘within decades’. In the AD 60s Christians had been tortured and killed, in AD 70 Jerusalem had been destroyed, and now there was again persecution: Jesus seemed to be saying that the suffering of his followers would soon be over. We can no longer take that line. While it is true that we must always be mindful of his coming again and that we might die at any time, the nearness of his return must surely be in relation to some greater span of time than that between his departure and the end of the 1st century, or even the whole history of Israel.
Revelation concludes the entire Bible, not just the New Testament. Its scriptural allusions are many, and most refer to the Old Testament, right back to Genesis. The last two chapters refer to the Bible’s first two chapters. What we are shown in this book is a summation of the whole purpose of him who encompasses all history, from Alpha to Omega (the first and last letters of the alphabet), from the Creation to Christ’s return. Before his departure Christ likened his future absence to a man planting a vineyard and leasing it to tenants, before spending a long time in another country (Luke 20:9). He had said from the outset that his return would be delayed, even though justice would be given ‘with speed’ (Matt 25:5, Luke 18:8). Peter too counselled that we should take the long view (II Pet 3). After all, more than 700 years had passed before Christ fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy about a man of suffering. In the greater context, ‘with speed’ or ‘speedily’ (there is little distinction) is best understood in relation to the whole span of created time.
Grace and peace flow from the Father, from the seven spirits, and from Jesus Christ. While apo, ‘from,’ normally takes the genitive, ‘who is and who was and who is to come’ is nominative, as if the whole phrase is a name, equivalent to ‘I am’ (Heb. ehyeh), the name of God revealed to Moses, cognate with Yahweh (Ex 3:14f). Some commentators identify the spirits before the throne with the Holy Spirit and see the greeting as trinitarian. However, in that case it is surely disconcerting that there are seven. Are we to conclude that God consists of nine persons? And why is the throne ascribed only to the first of the three? In fact, the New Testament is emphatic that God is one (Mark 12:29-32, John 17:3, Rom 16:27, I Cor 8:6, Gal 3:20, Eph 4:6, I Tim 6:15f, Heb 2:11, Jude 25). It confirms the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 indeed more times than the Old Testament does. If ‘one’ be supposed not to exclude three, the Bible nowhere says that God is three as well as one. In letter after letter, Paul greets his readers with the salutation, ‘Grace and peace from God our father and Lord Jesus Christ.’ He does not add ‘and the Holy Spirit’ because the Father and the Son themselves mediate grace and peace.
The Nicene Creed (AD 325) says that the Son Jesus Christ was ‘begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father’. In 381 the creed was revised and expanded to include the phrase ‘begotten before all the ages’ (gennethenta pro pantωn tωn aiωnωn). Unfortunately some translations render the Greek phrase as ‘eternally begotten’, influenced by the so-called Athanasian Creed (late 5th or early 6th century), which declared, without scriptural warrant and contrary to the earliest understanding of the Church (Miller 1822), that Christ was ‘coeternal’ with his father. But ‘eternally begotten’ is a contradiction in terms. Begetting is necessarily an action in time, and in reality the phrase denies his sonship – which is a serious matter (I John 2:22f).
God’s purpose is to bring many sons to glory (Rom 8:19, Heb 2:10), on earth as in heaven, Christ being the first. Already before the foundation of the world he had brought many sons into being (Job 38:7). Jesus himself is clear that he received his life from the Father (John 5:26). He was the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15, 3:10, Rev 3:14), created before anyone or anything else. He was the prωtotokos – from prωtos, ‘first’, and tiktein, ‘to give birth’ – in the same literal sense as he was later Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7). Being the first, he preceded the angels who saw his work at the beginning (Job 38:7). He received his glory from the Father before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). Through him – the one to whom God spoke at Creation – all things were created, in heaven and on earth, both the visible world and the invisible world of ‘thrones, dominions, principalities and authorities’, in order that in everything he might be prωteuωn (Col 1:16), might have pre-eminence. God alone has immortality (I Tim 6:16). To speak of three divine persons who are coeternal and coequal, albeit united in purpose, is to speak of three gods – an idea that might have been acceptable to the Roman and Egyptian world but makes no sense in the modern. (Ancient polytheism was itself a corruption of the truth that God was one and had many sons, as the ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt long ago demonstrated.)
Today the idea that God involved his son in the work of creation is further complicated by another alien creed, that of Darwinism. To declare that all things were created by God through him is mere lip service if the expression means particles ordering themselves into atoms, and atoms organising themselves over billions of years into plants and animals, even to the present day. Are we, with the Pope, to scorn the idea that God acted supernaturally, on the grounds that this would be to believe in “a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything”, and instead believe that creation itself is the magician, that it over time does everything? Since, on this view, ‘create’ means letting Nature do the forming and the breathing of life into forms, are we to believe that God is still creating? Even with a Christian gloss, Darwinism abolishes the Father and the Son quite as much as the Athanasian Creed does.
The Old Testament refers to the firstborn angel as ‘the angel of Yahweh’, the definite article highlighting his uniqueness. He was the only angel in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Zech 12:8, Col 1:19), the implication being that there existed a time before God chose to impart his fullness to another being. The angel who appeared to Moses in the midst of a bush was God, for the text goes on to say, ‘God called to him out of the bush.’ He is also identified with Yahweh in the passage telling of his appearance to mistreated Hagar (Gen 16:7-13), to Abraham in the dialogue about Sodom (Gen 18, where the angel is accompanied by two others), to Abraham as he moves to strike his son (Gen 22:11f) and to doubting Gideon (Ju 6:11-24). The angel was of one substance with the Father, just as a human son has the same nature as his father and is in that sense equal with him (John 5:18). Scripture describes the divine in terms of the human relationship because the human reflects the divine (Eph 3:15). Christ was divine (theos, John 1:1, Rom 9:5, without the definite article) because he was God’s son, not his son because he was divine (a meaningless notion) and coeternal with him. As Luke’s genealogy makes clear, he was the son of God in the same sense that Seth was the son of Adam (Luke 3:23ff).
I, today, have begotten you.”
The name ‘LORD of hosts’ (the capitals alerting us that ‘Lord’ substitutes for the Hebrew name Yahweh) signifies that there is a vast army of angels who belong to God, and he is at the head of them. But the commander of this army is a man (Jos 5:13), that is, an angel who has the appearance of a man. Joshua, when he sees who he is, worships him as God, and the commander does not rebuke him. Rather, he says, exactly as God said to Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you stand is holy.” Even the Hebrew word for ‘God’, El, can be plural, Elohim, though it normally takes a singular verb. The plural does not refer to the trinity but to the fact that he is Yahweh of hosts. As his sons, the angels share in his divinity (Ps 8:5 MT, Heb 2:7).
As the only son of God to undergo a human birth and live among us as a man, Christ bore witness to the Father, emphasising repeatedly that he was subordinate to him, not coequal (John 4:34, 5:19-36, 6:37f, 6:57, 8:28, 8:42, 8:54, 10:29, 12:49f, 14:10, 14:16, 14:26-28, 15:15, 17:2f, 17:24, 20:17, 20:21). “All things have been delivered to me by my father” (Luke 10:22, John 3:35, 17:7) – things that in the beginning he did not have. Dying and rising again, the first son of the creation became also the first son of the resurrection (Luke 20:36, Rom 1:4) and was exalted to the highest position of power and authority, at the right hand of his father. Although he was the appointed heir of all things, only then were angels, authorities and powers subjected to him (Acts 2:36, Heb 1:2-4, I Pet 3:22). Only then did he receive from his father the promise of the Holy Spirit, to pour onto and breathe into his disciples (John 15:26, 20:22, Acts 1:4, 2:33). Eventually, having subdued the earth, he will deliver the kingdom back to his father: the Son will be subjected to him who subjected all things under him (I Cor 15:24-28). For we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (I Cor 3:23). God is the head of Christ (I Cor 11:3). Although one with God, Christ modelled the obedience of a servant and a son. On what authority then do we undermine that model and substitute another Jesus, with all that implies for our walk with him (Heb 3:1, I Pet 2:21, I John 2:6)?
Points of translation are not necessarily academic quibbles. ‘Beget’ translates gennaω, the usual word for ‘bring into existence, produce, bear, generate’. It is the same word as when Jesus says (translated from Aramaic), “You must be born from above,” with Nicodemus replying, “Can a human being enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus might equally have said, “You must be begotten from above.” At his death, Jesus surrendered his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46) in order that he might be brought into existence anew and receive the glory that he had before the world existed; and we likewise (John 17). Psalm 2 was therefore also fulfilled in his resurrection (Acts 13:33) when he became the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Col 1:18). Our lives of faith are a kind of gestation, during which we retain our mortal bodies but are inwardly renewed; the moment of birth is the resurrection, when we emerge from the sleep of death into eternal life. It is then the waters break.
Christ was the first to be begotten anew of the Holy Spirit. He who repents and believes in the Son of God becomes a child of God like him (I John 3:2) and ‘puts on’ Christ like a garment, even as he is ‘in’ Christ, having been chosen in him before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). The believer is begotten this second time by God, by the seed of his word (I Pet 1:23, John 1:13, I John 3:9), not by the physical union of male and female. God is Father because he has given us of his spirit (I John 4:13) and thereby included us in Christ as his children. It is not that we have two divine parents, the Father and the Holy Spirit.
God is spirit (Gen 1:1, I Cor 2:11, John 4:24) and he has always been holy. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is mentioned only as ‘his’ spirit, that is, the Spirit of Yahweh (Isa 63:10f, 63:14). He inspired the prophets (Acts 1:16, Heb 10:15, II Pet 1:21), was a constant presence in the life of David (Ps 51:11) and was present in John the Baptist even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). The Holy Spirit that inspired the prophets was also Christ’s spirit (I Pet 1:11). At his baptism God endued him with power, so that Luke describes him as ‘full of the Spirit’, meaning the Spirit of Yahweh (Isa 11:2, 61.1, Luke 4:18). Jesus was not at any point two persons, Son and Holy Spirit; he was the Son of God because the spirit in him came from God.
Therefore, sharing in the spirit of the Son of God, we too are sons of God, by adoption (Gal 4:5f). We are baptised into the one name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit –the name of the Lord Jesus – because all three are involved in regeneration (Acts 2:38f, 19:5f). It really does not help our understanding to think of the Spirit as a separate person coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son. He has no personal name because he is not a distinct person. Revelation refers to ‘the Spirit’ a number of times but avoids the term ‘the Holy Spirit’; the focus is on Christ.
Right belief is not a matter of salvation, for ‘if anyone loves God, he is known by him’ (I Cor 8:3). Nonetheless we should align ourselves with Scripture and not be intimidated by false claims of orthodoxy. Knowledge is not a matter of repeating incomprehensible shibboleths. Many Christians today speak only of Jesus, because they have lost sight of the truth that the Son came to show the Father. Having only the vaguest concept of the Creator and of what he did through time to prepare for his son, they sound like a sect. Jesus is left without witness, testifying only about himself.
Belief and hope in a resurrection go back a long way. Egypt’s 1st Dynasty king Djer sacrificed 318 servants so that they could accompany him into the afterlife. It is implicit in Abel’s sacrifice of the firstborn lamb of his flock. When Moses asks God to blot him out of his book rather than refuse to forgive Israel’s sin, he is referring to the book that has the names of those destined for eternal life (Ex 32:31-33). The Psalms abound in references to the life hereafter, to say nothing of Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and Malachi (Appendix 2). When the book of Kings states that such-and-such a king died and slept with his fathers, it implies that one day they will awake. It was despite the testimony of the Scriptures that the Sadducees of Jesus’ day did not believe in the resurrection.
There will be persecution in the future if we are not already experiencing it, so it is important to know that Jesus loves us and has cleansed us from all sin. Our role is to serve him as priests among the peoples, to make God known (I Pet 2:9). One day he will receive everlasting glory and dominion, in accordance with Daniel’s vision of a man who would receive a kingdom that would never be destroyed (Dan 7:13f). We are that kingdom.
They pierced ‘me’: God himself. When he comes, the clouds around him will not be ordinary clouds (why would they be mentioned?) but clouds that darken and envelop the whole planet. It is again a reference to Daniel’s vision (Dan 7:13).
At the end of the section God himself reiterates that he is and was and is to come, now as ‘the Lord God’. In the Greek Old Testament ‘Lord God’ is the rendition of Yahweh Elohim, where ‘Lord’ replaces the personal name, as also in most English translations. The title is transitional. With the appearing of the Messiah, the two terms, Lord and God, become distinct: ‘There is one God, the Father, from whom were all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom were all things and through whom we exist’ (I Cor 8:6). Jesus himself affirmed the distinction (John 17:3). So does John when he says that we are priests to ‘his God and Father’. The very first sentence distinguishes between God and Christ.
But Thomas cries, seeing his healed wounds, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The substitution of ‘Lord’ for ‘Yahweh’ conveys the same mystery: it was the Son, together with the Father, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils and walked in the garden; hence the shift from ‘God’ (Elohim) in Genesis 1 to ‘LORD God’ (Yahweh Elohim) in Genesis 2. It was the Son together with the Father who appeared to Abraham as both Yahweh and the Word of Yahweh. The Father and the Son have always worked as one – both are Lord (Luke 2:9, 2:11). When God exalted his son to his right hand, he devolved his lordship to him: “Let the whole house of Israel know that God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36, 2:39). When Christ comes, it will be God who comes.
The essential question is not, whether Jesus is coeternal and coequal, but whether he is God. Israel was faced with much the same question, for then too God showed himself in humility. In the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Elijah told the people: “If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.” Although Yahweh had made it clear that he was God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, it was possible to see him as just one deity among many. He did not force himself on his people. Again and again, Israel preferred Baal, the life of the flesh. They did not understand how far God had stooped when he redeemed the nation and made her his own. At Mount Carmel he showed his power, and then they understood. They fell on their faces and cried, “Yahweh, he is God; Yahweh, he is God.” It was precisely Thomas’s cry. Only, when the fire came down there was no personal knowledge; there was fear, but no love.
Believers in Asia – the Roman province comprising the western part of Turkey – were being persecuted at the time of the revelation, and John himself had been exiled on an island 33 miles off the coast. He is told to record what he sees on a scroll. The whole work is then to be circulated among all the churches, partly to warn and partly to encourage. The order in which they are listed follows the road that connected them, from Ephesus north as far as Pergamum, and thence south-east towards Laodicea. Ephesus was where John lived and the city nearest Patmos. The voice is that of the angel charged with communicating the vision (Rev 4:1). What he will tell the churches will be similar to what Isaiah was charged to tell Israel, beginning with an assessment of their spirituality. “Lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression” (Isa 58:1).
‘In spirit’ (there is no ‘the’) indicates that John was transported without his body – so also 4:2, 17:3, 21:10. It recalls Ezekiel’s visions when he too was in exile and transported by the Spirit of God (Ezek 3:14, 37:1, 43:5). The Lord’s day is the first day of the week, when Christ rose. Christians were meeting on that day for fellowship and instruction already in Paul’s time (Acts 20:7), and The Didache indicates that it was known as the ‘Lord’s’ already by the end of the century. John, one supposes, was meditating on the Scriptures and seeking the Lord in prayer when he received the revelation.
‘Son of man’, a common phrase in the Old Testament, means a member of the human race, a descendant of Adam (‘man’ in Hebrew being the same word as the proper name). ‘One like a son of man’ recalls Daniel 7:13 and 10:16, but when Jesus called himself ‘the Son of Man’, it was to indicate that he was not merely like a man but actually a man: by descent the son of Adam, son of God (Luke 3:38), without particular allusion to Daniel. Here, while his form is human – imaging the female as well as the male – he is transfigured. He has the same appearance as the ‘Ancient of Days’, and as the angel that Daniel saw on the bank of the Tigris (Dan 10:5f). Again, the implication is that in him man and God are one. The Ancient of Days in Daniel’s vision is God, and it is he who comes at the end of the age (Dan 7:22); he whose origin was from long ago (Mic 5:2) is the ‘one like a son of man’ to whom all dominion is given. Narrative consistency is violated in order to convey the idea that the coming of ‘one like a son of man’ will be that of God himself.
The robe and the sash evoke the garments of the chief priest (Ex 28:4 LXX), role Christ fulfils on our behalf (Heb passim). The glowing bronze evokes the metal in the midst of the fire in Ezekiel’s vision of God (Ezek 1:4), in which the cherubim make a sound like that ‘of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty’ (1:24). The same sound will be heard when he comes again (43:2). The weapon imperfectly translated ‘dagger’ is a rhomphaia. It symbolises the deadly power of the Messiah’s tongue (Isa 11:4, 49:2) rather than the power of the written word (said in Heb 4:12 to be sharper than a machaira, the usual word for sword). In the only New Testament occurrence outside Revelation, it refers to the effect on Mary of her son’s violent death (Luke 2:35). In the Greek Old Testament, rhomphaia is a common translation of ‘sword’, although machaira is more common.
According to Isaiah (44:6), Yahweh is ‘the first and the last’. Now the speaker indicates that he is the first, the image of God at the head of Adam’s lineage, and the last Adam at the end of his lineage, to whom we are to be conformed (I Cor 15:45-49). John fell down as though dead; the speaker became dead – yet is standing before him. Having conquered death, he became a life-giving spirit (John 5:21, 17:2), because he gives of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not himself ‘the Lord’ or ‘the giver of life’, as the Nicene Creed alleges (misunderstanding II Cor 3:17f), nor does the New Testament ever represent him as worshipped or glorified; rather, the Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14). Hades is the Greek name for Sheol, the resting place of the dead. ‘Hell’ (KJV), connoting consciousness and torture, is a mistranslation. David was not condemned to torment when, like the rest of humanity, he ended up in Hades (Acts 2:25-29). Until the resurrection, when Hades will be unlocked, the dead know nothing (Eccl 9:5, 9:10).
John is told to record (1) the things he has seen already, (2) the state of things now (the subject of chapters 2-3) and (3) the things that will take place in the future (the subject of chapters 4-22). The seven lampstands are the seven churches. So far as the vision is concerned, there are no others. The Holy Spirit is sevenfold because he indwells the Church, which consists of many local churches. Jesus Christ, in the midst of them, shines with the brightness of the sun, but he is visible only to his servants. The light that people beyond their circle see is the light of their burning oil, be it bright or dim.