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.
The book’s title is the Revelation of John (‘of’ in the sense that he wrote it down) but it is given to Jesus Christ (‘of’ in the sense that he owns and communicates it). ‘Revelation’ (apokalupsis, whence the word ‘apocalypse’) has the sense of an unveiling. Its subject is the events that ‘must’ take place, climaxing with the revelation of Christ to the whole world (I Cor 1:7, II Thes 1:7, Pet 1:7). It is expressly a prophecy, and makes good his promise that the Spirit would declare to his disciples what was yet to come (John 16:14). The book is not for the world or for those who think it sufficient to hold right belief, but for those who serve him. It reveals him as the Christ, the coming king of all the earth. Flesh and blood cannot see him; only his father, the Spirit in us, can make him known (Matt 16:17). But the vision will unsettle even those who thought they knew him.
John wrote down what he heard and saw, and in so doing bore witness to the witness of Christ in all Scripture, the written Word of God. It is not a work of merely human composition. Its every word is as determined by 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 and lives by it will know God’s favour. Jesus testified: “Not on bread alone shall man live, 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. Through what was written God spoke, and spoke to every reader (Matt 22:31).
Whether Scripture is to be accorded this degree of authority is not a minor issue. Nineteen centuries after the revelation, we might question whether the foretold events can be considered near, seeing that they have 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 should always be mindful of his coming back and that, whenever that happens, we might die at any time, the stated nearness of his return must relate to some greater totality than the time between the 1st century and the 21st.
Revelation concludes the entire Bible, not just the New Testament. Its scriptural allusions are many, and most refer to the Old Testament, from Genesis through to Malachi. The last two chapters refer to the Bible’s first two chapters. What we are shown 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. So Christ likened his future absence to a man planting a vineyard and leasing it to tenants, before going off to spend a long time in another country (Luke 20:9). He said from the outset that his return would be delayed, even though justice would be given soon (Matt 25:5, Luke 18:8). Consider how long Israel had to wait before his first coming. Peter too counselled that we should take the long view (II Pet 3). In the greater context, ‘soon’ is best understood in relation to the whole of created time, consisting of many ages (Heb 1:2, 11:3).
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. God told Moses that his name was (Heb. ehyeh, Ex 3:14f), encompassing all time. Now the future is distinguished from the past by the fact of his coming. God himself is coming. Some take the greeting to be trinitarian, but if so, it is disconcerting that the Spirit should be sevenfold. And why is the throne ascribed only to the first of the three? 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 2:5, 6:15f, Heb 2:11, Jude 25), confirming the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 more times than the Old Testament itself does. The Bible nowhere states 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.’ Peter and John likewise. They do not add ‘and the Holy Spirit’ because the Father and the Son themselves mediate grace and peace to the Church. The two are ‘one’ in the sense that a son may be one with his father (John 10:30).
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). 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).
Jesus himself stated plainly that he received his life from the Father (John 5:26, 6:57). He was the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15, Rev 3:14), created before anyone or anything else. He received his glory from the Father before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). 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, both things visible and the invisible world of ‘thrones, dominions, principalities and authorities’, in order that in everything he might be prωteuωn, pre-eminent (Col 1:18). God alone has immortality (I Tim 6:16). To speak of three 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. Indeed, ancient polytheism was itself a corruption of the truth that God was one and had many sons (Schmidt 1931, 1939).
Today the idea that God involved his son in the work of creation is further complicated by another alien creed. We may affirm that all things were created by God through him, but that is just 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, 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? If ‘create’ means letting Nature do the forming and the breathing of life into forms, do we think 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 (Ex 23:21, Zech 12:8, Col 1:19), and by implication 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 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, note also 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.”
The name ‘LORD of hosts’ signifies that there was a vast army of angels who belonged to God, 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, just 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 MT, Heb 2:7).
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, 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). “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 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 power. Only then did all angels, 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). God is the head of Christ (I Cor 11:3). 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 ‘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 17:22). 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 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 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 judges and the prophets (Jud 3:10 passim, 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). The Spirit that inspired the prophets also was 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). Jesus was not this point, if not from birth, two persons, Son and Holy Spirit, as trinitarianism would nonsensically imply; he was the Son of God because the spirit in him came from God.
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 the Spirit, 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 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 align ourselves with Scripture and not be intimidated by false claims of orthodoxy. Knowledge is not a matter of reciting incomprehensible shibboleths. Many Christians 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 the sacrificial system that God instituted for the first human beings (Gen 3:21, 4:4). When Moses asks God to blot him out of his book if he will not forgive Israel, he is referring to the book that contains 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 did not believe in the resurrection.
There will be much suffering in the future if we are not already experiencing 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, to make God known (I Pet 2:9). Serving him as king, we are his kingdom, in advance of the day when the whole earth will be his kingdom.
When he comes, all the peoples will see him (Matt 24:30). ‘All the tribes of the earth’ (or ground – same word in Greek) alludes to Genesis 12:3, where God promised that in Abraham ‘all the tribes of the ground [adamah]’ would be blessed. ‘Tribes’ alludes to the peoples that spread across the earth after the Flood-Cataclysm, ‘ground’ to the dust from which Man was taken. 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 will not be ordinary clouds (why would they be mentioned?) but clouds that envelop the whole planet (Dan 7:13). John emphasises that these things must be, and assents to it.
They pierced ‘me’: God himself. The prophecy refers both to the day of crucifixion (John 19:37) and to 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 cries, seeing the healed wounds, “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 who 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: “Let the whole house of Israel know that God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36, 2:39). Nonetheless, in Revelation 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 Baal and the life of the flesh. They did not understand how far God had stooped when he redeemed the nation to make 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.
While it must have been true that believers were being persecuted, John is saying that tribulation and the need to endure are normal aspects of life in Christ’s kingdom. The book will enlarge on these aspects. Patmos, to which John has been 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 is loud as a trumpet 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 and continuing with prophecies about the Messiah’s salvation and vengeance, about the restoration of Israel, and about 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 bodily sees, hears, speaks, writes, turns, falls prone. In Ezekiel’s case, spirit (no definite article, ‘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 contemporaneous text called The Didache, 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, however counted, still holds. John, one supposes, was meditating on the Scriptures and seeking God in prayer.
‘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 the son of Adam who was raised as seed for Eve in place of the one who died (Gen 4:25, 5:3). 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’ (Dan 7) and 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 who is ‘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 ‘one like a son of man’ will be that of God himself.
The long robe (poderes) is a garment particular to the chief priest (Ex 28:4 LXX), a role Christ fulfils on our behalf (Hebrews passim). 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 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 imperfectly translated ‘dagger’ 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 the deadly power of the Messiah’s tongue (Isa 11:4, 49:2) rather than the living power of Scripture (said in Heb 4:12 to be sharper than a machaira). The sword in his mouth is an offensive weapon.
John’s prostration, the touch of the hand and the words “Do not fear” again imply that the unnamed speaker is the person Daniel saw at the Tigris (Dan 10:10-12). 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 (John 1:4, 17:2). The Holy Spirit is not, as the Nicene Creed alleges (misunderstanding II Cor 3:17f), ‘the Lord’ or ‘the giver of life’, nor does the New Testament ever represent him as worshipped or glorified; rather, the Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14).
Hades is the resting place of the dead, equivalent to Hebrew Sheol (Gen 37:35 etc). ‘Death and Hades’ are one idea, denoting both the condition of death and the place (as frequently, e.g. 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 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 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.