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.
‘Revelation’ (apokalupsis, whence the word ‘apocalypse’) has the sense of an unveiling. The subject is the events that ‘must’ happen, climaxing with the revelation of Christ to all the world (I Cor 1:7, II Thes 1:7). The book is a prophecy, and makes good his promise that the Spirit would declare to his disciples what was yet to come (John 16:14). It is not directed to unbelievers or to those who think it sufficient to hold right belief, but to those who serve him. It reveals him as the Christ, the anointed king. Flesh and blood cannot see him; only his father can make him known, the veil-removing Spirit (Matt 16:17). But the vision will unsettle even those who thought they knew him.
In writing down what he heard and saw, John added his witness to the witness of Christ in all Scripture. The book is not a work of human composition. Its words come from God, whether or not John understands what he reports. And it is to be read out, so that the whole congregation receive it. Whoever hears it and lives by it will know God’s blessing. Jesus testified: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that issues from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). In quoting Deuteronomy to resist the Devil, he demonstrated what living by every word meant. He regarded all Scripture as the voice of God, and through it God spoke to every reader (Matt 22:31).
Whether Scripture is to be accorded this degree of authority is no minor issue. Nineteen centuries after the revelation, we might question whether the foretold events can be considered near, seeing that they have still not happened. ‘Near’ most naturally means within decades. In the AD 60s Christians in Rome had been tortured and killed, Jerusalem’s Christians had fled the city, and now there was again persecution: Jesus seemed to be saying that the suffering would soon be over. We can no longer take that view. While it is true that we might die at any time, regardless of when he returns, we might die at any time, the nearness of his return must relate to some greater totality than the last two millennia.
Revelation concludes the entire Bible, not just the New Testament. Its scriptural allusions are many, and most refer to the Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi. The last two chapters refer to the Bible’s first two chapters. It gives 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 the new Creation. Reflecting on God’s patience, and perhaps also on how patiently Israel had had to wait for prophecies of Christ’s first coming to be realised, Peter cautioned that we should take the long view (II Pet 3). According to Christ himself, his return would be delayed, even though justice would be given soon (Matt 25:5, Luke 18:8). From every perspective, ‘soon’ seems best understood in relation to the ages of all created time.
‘From’, apo, normally takes the genitive, whereas ‘who is and who was and who is to come’ is nominative, as if the whole phrase is a name. God told Moses that his name was (Heb. ehyeh, Ex 3:14f), or ‘I am’, the supreme being who transcended time. Now the future is distinguished from the past by an action: the one on the throne is coming. The greeting cannot be trinitarian, since the throne is ascribed only to the first of the three. The New Testament is emphatic that God is one (Mark 12:29-32, Rom 16:27, I Cor 8:6, Gal 3:20, Eph 4:6, I Tim 2:5, 6:15f, Heb 2:11, Jude 25), re-affirming the Old Testament’s solitary declaration (Deut 6:4) many times. In letter after letter, Paul greets his readers, ‘Grace and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ distinguishing between God and his son and seeing no need to add ‘and the Holy Spirit’. Peter and John in their letters likewise. But here the salutation does seem to encompass the Spirit. Why he is sevenfold will become apparent later.
According to the Nicene Creed, agreed by a church council in AD 325, Jesus Christ was ‘begotten from the Father, light from light, very God from very God, begotten, not made.’ But if this indicated that he had an origin, the declaration ended by warning, ‘Those who say that the Son of God once was not… or say that he is created, the holy catholic and apostolic Church curses.’ They were having the same trouble understanding how God could have a son as the Jews had, and as Muslims would have. In 381 another council withdrew the anathema and added ‘before all the ages’ after the first ‘begotten’. Later the amended phrase was translated ‘eternally begotten’, in accordance with the so-called Athanasian Creed (late 5th or early 6th century), which, contrary to the earliest understanding of the Church (Miller 1822), declared that Christ was ‘coeternal’ with his father. Like the beginning and end of the original Nicene formulation, ‘eternally begotten’ was, by normal logic, a contradiction in terms and amounted to a denial of his sonship, for begetting is necessarily an action in time. But by then such controversies had lost sight of the simplicity of the words from heaven, “This is my beloved son.”
Jesus himself attested that he received his life, and with it his glory, from the Father, before the foundation of the world (John 5:26, 17:24). He was the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15, Rev 3:14), created before anyone or anything else. God had brought many sons into being (Job 38:7), but he preceded them; he was the prωtotokos – from prωtos, first, and tiktein, to give birth – in the same literal sense that he was later Mary’s firstborn (Luke 2:7). Through him – the one to whom God spoke at Creation – all things were created, including all institutions of authority and power, in order that in everything he might be pre-eminent, prωteuωn (Col 1:18). God alone, whom no one has ever seen, or can see, has immortality in the sense that he never came into being (John 1:18, I Tim 6:16). To speak of three persons, coeternal and coequal, is to speak of three gods, a notion that might have been acceptable to the pagan world but makes no sense in the modern. Indeed, polytheism was a corruption of the more ancient understanding that God, the Creator of the world and father of many sons, was one God (Schmidt 1931, 1939).
Today the New Testament’s revelation that God involved his firstborn in creation is complicated by another creed that denies that he created the universe at all. To affirm otherwise is lip service if what we have in mind is particles ordering themselves into atoms, and atoms organising themselves over billions of years into plants and animals. Are we, with Pope Francis, 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? If ‘create’ means letting Nature do the forming and the breathing of life into forms, do we think that God, unbeknown to science, is still creating? Even with a Christian gloss, Darwinism abolishes the Father and the Son quite as much as the Athanasian Creed does.
God called himself ‘LORD of hosts’ because a vast army of angels belonged to him, and he was at the head of them. But the commander of this army was a man (Jos 5:13), an angel having the appearance of a man, who would go before Israel to fight for them in the name of Yahweh (Ex 23:20-23, Isa 63:9). Joshua, when he saw who he was, worshipped him as God, and was not rebuked. Rather, the commander said, as God had 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, 97:7, Heb 2:7).
The Old Testament refers to the commander 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 (Ex 23:21, Zech 12:8), and by implication there existed a time before God chose to impart his fullness to another being. He was the angel who appeared to Moses in the midst of a bush, for the text goes on to say, ‘God called to him out of the bush.’ He is also portrayed as one with Yahweh in the passages telling of his appearance to mistreated Hagar (Gen 16), to Abraham in the dialogue about Sodom (Gen 18, where the angel is accompanied by two others), to Abraham as he moved to strike his son (Gen 22) and to doubting Gideon (Jud 6). He was of the same nature as God, just as a son is of the same nature as his father and in that sense equal with him (John 5:18, and the next verse). Scripture describes the divine in terms of the human relationship because the human reflects the divine (Eph 3:15). Christ was theos (John 1:1, Rom 9:5, without the definite article) because he was God’s son, a son in the same sense, his genealogy indicates, as Seth was Adam’s son (Luke 3:23ff).
I, today, have begotten you.”
As the only divine son to 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, 10:18, 10:29, 12:49f, 14:10, 14:16, 14:26-28, 15:15, 17:2f, 17:24, 20:17). “My father is greater than I.” “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 creation thereby also became 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 power. Only then did all authorities and powers become subject to him (Matt 28:18, Acts 2:36, Heb 1:2-4). 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 2:33). We are priests to ‘his God and Father’. 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, 11:3). God is the head of Christ. Although one with God, Christ modelled the obedience of a son and servant. On what authority then do we undermine that model and substitute another Jesus, with all that implies for our walk with him (Heb 3:1f, I Pet 2:21, I John 2:6)?
Points of translation are not necessarily academic quibbles. ‘Beget’ translates gennaω, the usual word for ‘bear, produce, bring into existence’. 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, he 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 17:22). Psalm 2 was therefore also fulfilled in his resurrection when he became the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Acts 13:33, 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 Holy Spirit. He who repents and believes in the Son 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). His beginning is also our beginning. We are begotten through the seed of God’s word (I Pet 1:23, I John 3:9), so that it may be said of us too, “What is begotten in us is of spirit.” In this way God becomes our father. It is not that we have two divine parents, the Father and the Holy Spirit.
God is spirit (John 4:24) and he has always been holy. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is mentioned only as his, Yahweh’s, spirit (Isa 63:10f, 63:14), in the same way as we might speak of our own spirit without implying another person. He inspired the judges and the prophets (e.g. Jud 3:10, Neh 9:30, Heb 10:15), was a constant presence in the life of David (Ps 51:11, Acts 1:16), and was present in John the Baptist even from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). That same spirit 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, again signifying the Spirit of Yahweh (Isa 11:2, 61:1). Jesus was not from this point, if not from birth, two persons, Son and Holy Spirit, as Trinitarianism would imply; he was the Son of God because the spirit in him came from God.
As a separate person the Holy Spirit originated from the time that God gave him to the Church. The gift was the gift of God’s own spirit (Joel 2:28, Matt 10:20, II Cor 1:22, I Thes 4:8), not the visitation of another person of the godhead, unable, despite his co-equality, to give himself. When Jesus assured his disciples that they would be given the words to say before kings and governors, he said, according to Matthew, that the Father would speak through them (10:20); according to Mark (13:11), that the Holy Spirit would; according to Luke (21:15), that he himself would. When he rejoiced in spirit (‘holy’ is not well attested) that his disciples saw things hidden from the wise and understanding, he thanked the Father for revealing such mysteries (Luke 10:21f, cf. John 11:33). When he spoke of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, he was referring to the ‘Spirit of God’ (Matt 12:28) in himself (Mark 3:30); the blasphemy consisted of attributing his acts of power to the work of demons. In us the Spirit begets, searches, convicts, sanctifies, comforts, inspires, empowers, reveals. He is distinct by virtue of having been given, of being sent. He is separate because he dwells in us, even though we remain one person. When Jesus referred to him as the Parakletos (John 14:16, 16:7), the Advocate who stands alongside and intercedes with the Father, he was telling us his function, not his name. In reality, the Paraclete is Christ (I John 2:1); it is he who comes to us and intercedes for us (John 14:17f, 20, 16:25, Rom 8:34). The Holy Spirit who forbade Paul from speaking the word in Asia and Bithynia was ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ (Acts 16:6f). Christ being in the Father and the Father in him, both make their abode in us and make themselves known to us (John 14:23). We know the Father through receiving of his spirit, and his Son’s spirit (John 5:26, Gal 4:6).
I bow my knees before the Father… [in prayer that] he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner man, Christ dwelling through faith in your hearts … (Eph 3:14-17)
The fellowship of the Holy Spirit (II Cor 13:14) is explicitly fellowship with the Father and the Son (I John 1:3).
Therefore, sharing in that Spirit, we too are sons of God. 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 and no independent authority (John 16:13), and while Revelation refers to ‘the Spirit’ a number of times, it 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 not be intimidated by anathemas and false claims of orthodoxy. Knowledge is not a matter of reciting what we do not comprehend. Many believers 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 and testifying only about himself.
There will be much suffering in the future if we have not yet experienced it, so we need to know that Jesus loves us and has cleansed us from all sin. Our role is to serve him as priests among the peoples by making God known. As such, we are his kingdom (Ex 19:6, I Pet 2:9), in advance of the day when the whole earth will be his kingdom.
When he comes, every people will see him (Matt 24:30). ‘All the tribes of the earth’ (or ‘ground’ – the same word in Greek) alludes to Genesis 12:3, when God promised that in Abraham ‘all the tribes of the ground [adamah]’ would be blessed. ‘Tribes’ (bigger than family, smaller than nation) alludes to the peoples that spread across the earth after the Flood-Cataclysm; ‘ground’ alludes to the dust from which Man was taken. Temporarily the blessing will have gone. The Gentiles will wail because they have rejected him and on them has come the day of wrath. The clouds (Dan 7:13) will not be ordinary clouds – why would they be significant? – but clouds that envelop the whole planet. John emphasises that these things must be, and assents to it.
They pierced ‘me’: God himself. The prophecy refers to both the day of crucifixion (John 19:37) and that future day.
God himself reiterates that he is, and was, and is to come. In the Greek Old Testament as in English translations, ‘LORD God’ is the rendition of Yahweh Elohim, where ‘Lord’ (capitalised) replaces the personal name. 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), as Jesus himself affirmed (John 17:3). The very first sentence of Revelation distinguishes between God and his Christ.
But Thomas, seeing the healed wounds, cries, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The substitution of ‘Lord’ for ‘Yahweh’ conveys the same mystery: it was the Son, the image of the Father, who breathed into Adam’s nostrils and walked in the garden; hence the shift from ‘God’ in Genesis 1 to ‘LORD God’ in Genesis 2. It was through the Son that the Father appeared to Abraham as both Yahweh and the Word of Yahweh, and delivered the Law to Moses (Acts 7:38). The Father and the Son have always worked as one – both are Lord (Luke 2:9, 2:11). When God exalted his son, he devolved his lordship to him: “God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36, 2:39). Nonetheless, in the last book the title ‘Lord God’ returns, and refers specifically to God the Father.
The essential question is not whether Jesus is coeternal and coequal, but whether he, a man, is God at all. Israel was faced with much the same question. In the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Elijah told the people: “If Yahweh is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” Although Yahweh had made it clear that he was God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, it was open to Israel to see him as just one deity among many. He did not force himself on them. Again and again, Israel preferred the life of the flesh to the spirit. They did not understand how far God had stooped when he redeemed the nation to make them his own. At Mount Carmel, as before on Mount Sinai, 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.
John is saying that tribulation and the need to endure are normal aspects of life in the kingdom. The book will enlarge on these aspects. Patmos, to which John, according to Irenaeus, was banished, lies 33 miles off the coast of Asia, the province now known as western Turkey, and the order in which the churches are listed follows the road connecting them, from Ephesus north as far as Pergamum and thence south-east towards Laodicea. Ephesus was where John lived and the city nearest Patmos.
John hears a voice behind him just as Ezekiel did when he was in exile (Ezek 3:12). But the voice has the loudness of a trumpet (a ram’s horn in Old Testament times) rather than a great earthquake, recalling what Isaiah was told: “Lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression” (Isa 58:1). What the churches will hear will be similar to what Isaiah was charged to tell Israel, beginning with an assessment of their spirituality, continuing with prophecies about the Messiah’s salvation, vengeance, and restoration of Israel, and ending with the new Jerusalem (Isa 58-66).
‘In [the] spirit’ (also 4:2, 17:3, 21:10) signifies that John was transported outside his body, but he still sees, hears, speaks, writes, turns, falls prone. In Ezekiel’s case, spirit (no definite article, and ‘of God’ implied) entered him and lifted him up (e.g. Ezek 2:2, 3:14). Hebrew never refers to ‘the’ Spirit of God.
The ‘Lord’s day’ is most naturally understood as the first day of the week, when Christ rose. According to a roughly contemporary text called the Didache (Teaching), believers were already meeting for a meal and the sacrament of bread and wine on a day known as the ‘Lord’s’. The command to rest and to remember God’s deliverance every seventh day still holds. John, one supposes, was meditating on the Scriptures and seeking God in prayer when the vision came.
‘Son of man’, a common phrase in the Old Testament, is a Hebraism. In Greek and English the phrase makes no sense, because one cannot be the son of a collective noun; it makes sense in Hebrew because man, Adam, has three possible meanings: ‘mankind’ (Gen 1:26, 6:1), ‘human being’ (Gen 2:7), and the name Adam (Gen 3:17). ‘Son of Adam’ in Hebrew thus means descendant of the first man or simply ‘man’ – Ezekiel is so addressed 93 times in total. By styling himself ‘the’ Son of Man, Jesus indicated that he was the archetypal man, ‘the man’ (John 19:5), and thus representative of all mankind. He was typologically the son of Adam given to Eve in place of the one who was slaughtered (Gen 4:25). Here, while his form is human, imaging the female as well as the male, he is transfigured. The same similes of snow and wool are used in Daniel to describe the garment and hair of the ‘Ancient of Days’, also the angel’s appearance on the bank of the Tigris (Dan 10). The Ancient of Days is God, and as a consequence of receiving his glory and authority, the ‘one like a son of man’ in the vision becomes the Ancient of Days, for it is the latter who comes at the end of the age (Dan 7:22). Narrative consistency is violated in order to convey the idea that the coming of the one like a son of man will be that of God himself. The paradox has already been conveyed in v. 4.
The long robe (poderes) is a garment particular to the chief priest (Ex 28:4 LXX), a role Christ fulfils on our behalf. The belt is golden, like the angel’s (Dan 10:5), but worn as a woman would wear it, below the breasts (mastoi). The glowing bronze evokes the metal in the midst of the fire in Ezekiel’s vision of God (Ezek 1:4), and the voice evokes the cherubim in the vision, for they sounded like ‘many waters, like the sound of the Almighty’ as well as like an earthquake. The same sound will be heard when Yahweh comes again (Ezek 43:2). The weapon in his mouth is a rhomphaia. In the Septuagint, rhomphaia commonly renders ‘sword’, though machaira is more common. In the only New Testament occurrence outside Revelation, it refers to the effect on Mary of her son’s violent death (Luke 2:35). It symbolises here the deadly power of the Messiah’s tongue (Isa 11:4, 49:2) rather than the living power of Scripture (Heb 4:12).
John’s prostration, the touch of the hand and the words “Do not fear” imply that the unnamed speaker is the person Daniel saw at the Tigris. In Isaiah (44:6), Yahweh king of Israel was ‘the first and the last’, but here Jesus takes the title, being before Abraham and also the last Adam (I Cor 15:45). Having submitted to death, he stands before John in assurance of the resurrection. He who gave Adam temporary life has received authority to confer eternal life. The Holy Spirit is not ‘the Lord’ or ‘the giver of life’, as the Nicene Creed declares (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).
Belief in resurrection goes back a long way. Buried with Egypt’s 1st Dynasty king Djer were 318 servants killed so that they could accompany him into the afterlife. It is implicit in the sacrificial system that God instituted for the first human beings (Gen 3:21, 4:4). When Moses asked God to blot him out of his book if he would not forgive Israel, he was referring to the book that contained the names of those destined for eternal life (Ex 32:31-33). The Psalms abound in references to the life hereafter, and there are more references in 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 did not believe in the resurrection. In Jesus the hope was validated.
Hades is the resting place of the dead, equivalent to Hebrew Sheol (Gen 37:35 etc). ‘Death and Hades’ is one idea, denoting both the condition of death and the place (Hos 13:14). ‘Hell’ (KJV), connoting consciousness and torment, is not an accurate translation. David was not condemned to torment when, like the rest of humanity, he ended up in Sheol/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 lampstands are seven churches; there were others, so not ‘the’ seven (although ‘the’ in v. 11). The Holy Spirit is sevenfold because he indwells the sevenfold Church, a single body composed of many local congregations. Jesus Christ, in the midst of them, shines with the brightness of the sun, but is seen only by his servants. The light that people beyond their circle see is the light of their burning oil, be it bright or dim.
The above is an excerpt from When The Towers Fall. If you like what you have read, buy the book (royalties were ploughed back into reducing the selling price). Revelation is a prophecy for our time, and the book is a prophetic exposition of it. ‘What is to happen after this’ (v. 20) will happen very shortly. Jesus has told us about the last days in order that we should be prepared for them (“watch and be ready”), for they will try our faith, and many will fall away.