One like a son of Adam

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 OF JOHN
A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must happen speedily. And he communicated it by sending through his angel to his servant John, who testified of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, of all that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

‘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 for unbelievers or for those who think it sufficient to hold right belief, but for 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 Spirit in us (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 written Word of God. It is not a work of human composition. Its words are 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 it and lives by it will know God’s favour. 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 successive ages of all 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. God told Moses that his name was (Heb. ehyeh, Ex 3:14f), the supreme being who transcended time. Now the future is distinguished from the past by the fact of his coming: God himself is coming. The greeting cannot be trinitarian, since the throne is ascribed only to the first of the three, and the spirits before the throne are seven. 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), 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 bring grace and peace to the Church.

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, of like being with the Father’. In 381 the creed was expanded to include the phrase ‘begotten before all the ages’ (gennethenta pro pantωn tωn aiωnωn). Those words were then translated as ‘eternally begotten’, in accordance with the so-called Athanasian Creed (late 5th or early 6th century), which had declared, contrary to Scripture and to the earliest understanding of the Church (Miller 1822), that Christ was ‘coeternal’ with his father. ‘Eternally begotten’ is a contradiction in terms. Begetting is necessarily an action in time, and in reality the translation 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) and from him received his glory before the foundation of the world (John 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, both what was visible and the invisible world of ‘thrones, dominions, principalities and authorities’, in order that in everything he might be pre-eminent, prωteuωn (Col 1:18). God alone, whom no one has ever seen, has immortality (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, 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, 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, Col 1:19), 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).

He was begotten three times: once at the beginning, once in the incarnation, and once at his resurrection, that in everything he might be first. It was at the incarnation that Yahweh said to him (Heb 1:5):
“You are my son,
     I, today, have begotten you.”
Psalm 2, which Hebrews here quotes, is the only place in the Old Testament that refers to the begetting of the Messiah (unless we accept, in the light of Luke 11:49 and Matt 23:34, that the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 refers to him, equivalent to the Logos of John 1). ‘Today’ does not, of course, mean ‘eternally’ or ‘continually’. The psalm looks ahead to the ‘today’ when Mary would conceive her child by holy spirit (without the ‘the’), by the spirit of Yahweh: “Therefore the one begotten holy will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35). He alone among the angels became the human son of God: of the one God, excluding any idea whereby Jesus was one third the son of himself, or, as per the Nicene Creed, whereby the Holy Spirit rather than the ‘one God’ was his father! So the angel’s words to Joseph (Matt 1:20) were: “What is begotten in her is of spirit, holy [spirit],” that is, not of another man’s flesh, which could not be holy. He was the monogenes (John 1:14, 3:16), the only-begotten in the sense of being God’s only human son. Evidently Jesus was not the only son, since Scripture repeatedly testifies that before the incarnation there were many sons (Gen 6:2, Deut 32:8, Job 1:6, 38:7, Ps 29:1, 82:1, 89:6), albeit to the discomfort of translators who substitute ‘heavenly beings’ for ‘sons of God’. How could the angels not have been sons if they had an origin, and if we, as his sons, shall be like them in the resurrection (Luke 20:34-36)?

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 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, 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 ‘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, 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 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, 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’ spirit, 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 his 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, not the Holy Spirit, 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 (John 14:17f, 20, 16:25). 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, II Cor 3:17).

You are not in flesh but in spirit, if in fact God’s spirit dwells in you. If anyone does not have Christ’s spirit, he is not of him. (Rom 8:9)

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, 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 what we do not comprehend. 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 and testifying only about himself.

To him who loves us and has washed us of our sins in his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and so will those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth will wail because of him. Yes. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come. The Almighty.”

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. 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.

The Jews will wail because their forefathers pierced their Messiah with nails. But God will pour on them a spirit of grace and supplication (Jer 31:9, Zech 12:10). It will be a godly grief:
They will look on me whom they pierced and mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn.

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, 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 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 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 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.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance of Jesus Christ, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. I became in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a voice loud as a trumpet, saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

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 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, ‘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.

And I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me. And on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands one like a son of man, clothed in a robe, girt towards his breasts with a golden belt, and his head and hair white as wool, white as snow, and his eyes like a flame of fire, and his feet like burnished bronze, glowing as in a furnace, and his voice like the sound of many waters, and in his right hand seven stars, and issuing from his mouth a sharp two-edged sword, and his face like the sun shining in its power.

‘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 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).

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. And he laid his hand on me, saying, “Do not fear. I am the first and the last, and the living one, and I became dead, and behold, I am alive for ever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Therefore write down what you have seen, and what is, and what is to happen after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw on my hand and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are seven churches.”

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).

Mid-3rd millennium BC pyramids at Giza, attesting belief in an afterlifeBelief 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 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, 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. 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 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.