Revelation chapter 1. The Son of Man is manifested as the firstborn Son of God. The meaning of ‘what must take place soon’.
The opening sentence serves as the title – there is no ‘the’ before ‘revelation’ (apokalupsis). The book reveals Jesus Christ in advance of his being revealed to the whole world (I Cor 1:7, II Thes 1:7, Pet 1:7). It is primarily about the future, ‘what must take place soon’, and it is a revelation not least because it shows him in a new light, even a strange, unsettling light. Before digesting it, we might have dared to suppose that we knew him quite well. The book forces us to think again.
In this age no one understands that Jesus is the Christ unless the Father reveals it to him (Matt 16:17). So the revelation comes from God, who gave it to his son, who bore witness to what he had seen and heard (John 3:31f), just as his servant John bore witness to what he had seen and heard (I John 1:3). And John is to pass it on to Christ’s other servants. The 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 day when every eye will see him, Gentile (Ps 97:6, Isa 40:5, 52:10) and Jew (Zech 12:10), will be a day of mourning.
Being a revelation, it is not a work of human composition, so that we can say that John was its author. He was simply the appointed intermediary. He wrote down ‘everything he saw’ and in the writing of it bore witness to the witness of Jesus Christ in Scripture, the Word of God. It is a work of prophecy because its content, even its very words, are determined by God, whether or not John understands what he is communicating. It is evidently not a letter, despite the epistolary greeting. In due course the book will be read out to the churches. Whoever hears it, in the full sense of taking it in and responding to it, will experience God’s favour. Indeed, blessed are those who hear the entire word of God and keep it (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 the word meant, and indicated that all Scripture originated from the mouth of God.
Whether Scripture is to be accorded this sort of credence is no small issue. Nineteen centuries after the revelation, we might question the rightness of stating that the foretold events will happen soon, seeing that they have not yet happened. In John’s time ‘soon’ could have been understood to signify ‘within decades’. In the 60s Christians had been tortured and killed, in AD 70 Jerusalem had been destroyed, and now there was again persecution: God seemed to be affirming that their suffering would not continue long. We can no longer take that line. Apart from the truth that we must always be mindful of his coming again, and that we might die at any time, ‘soon’ must be in relation to some greater span of time than that between Christ and the end of the first 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, from the Creation to Christ’s return. Peter himself said that we should take the long view (II Pet 3). After all, more than 700 years passed before Christ came to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy about a man of suffering: the distance between our time and AD 1300. In the greater context, ‘soon’ is best understood in relation to the whole span of created time. Note that ‘soon’ (en taxei) refers to the time before an event or action, ‘quickly’ (taxu) to the speed of the action itself.
‘Church’, ekklesia, means congregation, from ekkalein, to call out. The book is addressed to the seven churches in Asia, the Roman province that comprised the western part of modern Turkey, not the continent known today by that name. Although there were other churches in the Roman world, including Asia itself, seven are singled out as representative of the churches in Asia, and arguably of the whole Church.
Some commentators see the greeting as trinitarian. Grace and peace come from (apo) God the Father, from the seven spirits, and from Jesus Christ. While apo normally takes the genitive case, ‘who is and who was and who is to come’ is nominative, as if the whole phrase is a name, equivalent to ‘I am’, the name revealed to Moses (Ex 3:14). The seven spirits before the throne are commonly identified with the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, that there are seven is surely disconcerting from a trinitarian viewpoint. Are we to conclude that God consists of nine persons? And why is the throne ascribed only to the first of the three? Yahweh our God is one (Mark 12:29-32, John 17:3, I Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6, I Tim 6:15f, Heb 2:11); in confirming the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 the New Testament could hardly be more emphatic. His purpose is to bring many sons to glory (Rom 8:19, Heb 2:10), on earth as in heaven. Already before the foundation of the world he brought many sons into being (Job 38:7).
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). The Latin version, sung in the Roman Catholic Mass, has ‘born of the Father before all the ages’ (ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula). Unfortunately, some translations render the Greek phrase ‘eternally begotten’, influenced by the so-called Athanasian Creed (late 5th or early 6th century AD), which declared, without scriptural warrant, that Christ was ‘coeternal’ with his father. ‘Eternally begotten’ is meaningless, a contradiction in terms, and since begetting (or giving birth) is not something that goes on eternally, in reality it denies his sonship – which is a serious matter (I John 2:22f). The same applies to the Athanasian Creed’s declaration that the Son is uncreated and coequal with the Father. Scripture is clear: the Son 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 firstborn, prωtotokos – from prωtos, ‘first’, and tiktein, ‘to bear children’ – in the same literal sense as he was later Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7). Being the first, he preceded the angels who already existed on Day One when quasars lit the universe (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 have pre-eminence, be prωteuωn (Col 1:16). To speak of three divine persons who are coeternal and coequal is to speak of three gods – an idea that might have been acceptable to the Roman world but makes no sense in the modern. (And note that ancient polytheism was itself a corruption of the truth that God was one and had many sons.)
Today the idea that God involved his son in the work of creation is further complicated by another creed, that of Darwinism. For what did does it mean that all things were created by God through him, if the expression means no more than particles ordering themselves into atoms and molecules, and molecules 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? Let the reader ponder these things. 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 Yahweh, God, for the text goes on to say, ‘God called to him out of the bush.’ He is also identified with/as Yahweh in the passage telling of his appearance to Hagar (Gen 16:7-13), Abraham (Gen 22:11f), Gideon (Ju 6:11-24) and other such passages. 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). The basis of Christ’s claim to be divine was his sonship: he was divine 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).
Today I have begotten you”?
The name ‘Yahweh of hosts’ signifies that there is a vast army of angels who belong to God, and he identifies himself with 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, nonetheless worships him as if he were God, and the commander does not rebuke him (as John was rebuked when he began to worship an angel). Rather, he says, as God said to Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” Even the Hebrew word for ‘God’, El, can be plural, Elohim, though it 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 (Heb 1:5, John 1:14), the 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) – things that in the beginning he did not have. Dying and rising again, the first son of the Creation (Rev 3:14) became also the first son of the resurrection (Luke 20:36, Acts 26:23) and was exalted to the highest position of power and authority, at the right hand of his father. Only then were angels, authorities and powers subjected to him (Acts 2:36, Heb 1:4, I Pet 3:22). The one through whom all things were made became the heir of all things (Heb 1:2). He received from his father the promise of the Holy Spirit, which was then his to breathe into and pour out onto 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, he modelled the obedience of 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)? Being in Christ, are we to claim that we too are coequal with the Father?
Points of translation are not necessarily academic quibbles. ‘Beget’ translates gennaein, the usual word for ‘bring into existence, produce, bear, generate’. It is the same word as in ‘God sent forth his son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Gal 4:4), and as when Jesus says (translated from Aramaic), “You must be born [or generated] from above,” with Nicodemus replying, “Can a human being enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” If the subject of Psalm 2 were female, we would translate, “Today I have given you birth.” Conversely, 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, Rom 1:4) when he became the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Col 1:18). Our lives of faith are a kind of gestation in the womb, 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, into glory. It is then the waters break.
Christ was the first to be begotten anew of the Holy Spirit (John 7:39). 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. Like an embryo in the womb, he receives Christ’s breath of life, which could not be given until Christ relinquished his body. The Spirit is a deposit, a seal of guarantee (II Cor 1:22), giving us the right at resurrection to receive a new body. 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. He inspired the prophets (Jer 1:9, II Pet 1:21), was present in John the Baptist even from his mother’s womb (Lu 1:15), and was a constant presence in the life of David (Ps 51:11). He begot Jesus in the womb and endued him with power at his baptism (who was not at any point two persons, Son and Spirit). As a separate person the Holy Spirit originated only from the time that God gave him, through his Son, to the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit was the gift of his spirit (Joel 2:28), not the visitation of another coeternal person of the godhead. The Holy Spirit that inspired the prophets was the Spirit of Christ (I Pet 1:11). In us the Spirit begets, searches, convicts, sanctifies, comforts, inspires, empowers, intercedes. He is distinct by virtue of having been given, of having been sent, so that Jesus speaks of him at one point as a separate person, ‘the Parakletos’, the Advocate or Helper (John 14:16, 16:7). But this is a figure of speech (John 16:25), for in reality it is Christ who comes (John 14:18, 17:23); he is the Parakletos (I John 2:1). And since Christ is in the Father and the Father in him, they both make their abode in us and make themselves known to us (John 14:23). We know the Father through receiving of his own spirit, and of his Son’s spirit (John 5:26, Rom 8:9, II Cor 3:17, Gal 4:6). We are baptised into the one name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit because all three are involved in regeneration (Acts 2:38). ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is an affirmation of genealogy, not trinity. Through Christ we have access in the Spirit to the Father (Eph 2:18). 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.
Right belief is not a matter of salvation, for ‘if anyone loves God, he is known by him’ (I Cor 8:3). But is it not time to align ourselves with Scripture and not be intimidated by false claims, false assumptions 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 God 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 with the names of those destined for eternal life (Ex 32:31-33). The Psalms abound in references to the life hereafter (Ps 16:10, 17:15, 22:29, 23:6, 27:13, 34:22, 37:11, 18, 22, 28, 29, 49:15, 65:2, 71:20, 73:24, 89:36, 102:28, 103:3-5, 17, 116:9, 133:3), to say nothing of Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and Malachi. When the book of Kings states that such-and-such a king died and slept with his fathers, it expresses the belief that one day they would 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 not where we live now, so it is important to know that Jesus loves us and has cleansed us from all sin. As God promised to Israel, one day we will be a kingdom of priests among the peoples (Ex 19:6). The ascription of everlasting glory and dominion to Christ (balancing the benediction of grace and peace to his Church) alludes to Daniel’s vision of one who receives a kingdom that would never be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14). When he was crucified, some mourned because they had lost their king (John 19:37); they wept as for an only, firstborn child (Zech 12:10). In the future all the earth will see him. They will wail because his coming inaugurates the great day of his wrath. The clouds that appear with him are not ordinary clouds (why would they be mentioned?) but clouds that darken and envelop the whole Earth.
John’s greeting is similar to Paul’s at the beginning of his letters: ‘grace and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ God is characterised as the one who is, and was, and is to come. He himself repeats this declaration at the end of the section, but now John calls him ‘the Lord God’. In the Old Testament Yahweh is frequently so named. After the birth of Jesus, the two terms are kept distinct: “Let the whole house of Israel know that God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). ‘There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist’ (I Cor 8:6). As in the title ‘Son of God’ itself, God is being referred to as distinct from the Son. Jesus himself affirmed the distinction (John 17:3), and John does here when he says that Jesus has made us priests to ‘his God and Father’. The very first sentence distinguishes between God and Christ. But Thomas cries, seeing his wounds, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Unknowingly the Septuagint’s substitution of ‘Lord’ for the name ‘Yahweh’ – followed in nearly all English translations – 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 are ultimately indistinguishable – both are Lord (Luke 2:9, 2:11). 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 god among many. He did not force himself on his people. Again and again, Israel preferred Baal. They preferred 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, there was no personal knowledge; there was fear, but no love.
John received the revelation at a time when believers were being persecuted and he was an exile on Patmos, 33 miles off the coast. Not only the message addressed to each specific church but the whole book is to be circulated among them, 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, 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. What he will say to 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). Like Jeremiah, John is told to write what he has heard in a book (Jer 30:2, cf. Isa 30:8).
The Lord’s day is the first of the week. Christians were meeting for fellowship and instruction on that day already in Paul’s time (Acts 20:7), and The Didache indicates that the day was known as the ‘Lord’s’ already by the end of the century. John sees it as significant that he received the revelation on the same day as the resurrection. ‘In the Spirit’ recalls Ezekiel’s visions as an exile (Ezek 3:14, 37:1).
‘Son of man’, a common phrase in the Hebrew scriptures, means a member of the human race, a descendant of Adam (‘man’ in Hebrew being the same word as the proper name ‘Adam’). ‘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, as if he were God himself (Ezek 1:26). 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 high priest (Ex 28:4 LXX), a role that Christ fulfils on our behalf (Heb passim). The sound of the cherubim in the vision was like that ‘of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty’ (1:24). 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 (which, in Heb 4:12, is said to be sharper than a machaira, the usual word for sword). In the only New Testament occurrence of the word outside Revelation, it refers to the effect on Mary of her son’s violent death (Luke 2:35). However, although machaira is more common, rhomphaia is a common translation of ‘sword’ in the Septuagint (Heb. chereb).
John’s reaction is the same as Daniel’s: “I was on my face, unconscious.” And Jesus’ response is the same: “A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees” (Dan 10:10). According to Isaiah (44:6), Yahweh is ‘the first and the last’. Now the one speaking 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). Having conquered death, he became a life-giving spirit (John 5:21, 17:2), because he gives the Spirit. 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 everlasting torment when, like the rest of humanity, he ended up in Hades (Acts 2:25-29). Until the resurrection 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.