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Revelation 1

Saint John on Patmos by Hieronymus Bosch

The medieval mind associated each of the four gospel writers with one of the four living creatures in Revelation 4:6-8.  John himself was analogous to the eagle because (as they thought in medieval Europe) the eye of an eagle is so strong that it can stare directly into the sun without being harmed.  John was like the eagle in that he had the strength to behold the sometimes disturbing and enigmatic but ultimately sublime and triumphant visions recorded in Revelation.  For me, Bosch’s John on the Island of Patmos captures this strange mix very well.  Notice the eagle at the bottom left warding off the weird looking demon.

Introductory note: As a genre of literature, John’s Revelation is apocalyptic writing, in the tradition of Old Testament books like Daniel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel.  I think, therefore, that one should look to the imagery and expressions in these older books for help in interpreting the prophecies of Revelation, and I will attempt to do this where I can.

 

Chapter 1

v. 1: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ…to show…what must soon take place” was given by God to Christ[1] who gave it to his angel to give to John.  So the immediate deliverer of The Revelation was an angel.  See also 22:8.

v. 2: The “who” of “who testified” refers to John.

v. 3: The phrase “for the time is near” is the second one so far that emphasizes the nearness of the events to which The Revelation refers, but such vague references to time are mysterious and elusive.  They do not necessarily imply that the events of The Revelation have already happened by our time (the twenty-first) century.  One might reasonably assume that 2,000 years should encompass whatever time John described as “near;” however, I think Oecumenius’s words on this subject are true (and a little funny, given how much nearer to John’s time he was than we are):

But what does he mean by adding ‘what must soon take place’ since those things which were going to happen have not yet been fulfilled, although a very long time, more than five hundred years, has elapsed since this was said?  The reason is that all the ages are reckoned as nothing in the eyes of the infinite, eternal God.  ‘For a thousand years’ says the prophet ‘in your sight, Lord, are as yesterday which is passed, and a watch in the night.’[2] (22)

If (as seems very likely) some parts of The Revelation refer to the final judgment and redemption of all creation, at least some of the prophecies of this book have not yet come to pass.  But time itself is an elusive concept, and if Einstein is to be believed, its length is relative, so the fact that John calls events “near” which have not happened 2,000 years later should not surprise us too much.  Peter, while specifically addressing the issue of the end of the world, says that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2nd Peter 3:8).  There are many reasonable ways of interpreting John’s assertion that “the time is near.”  Below are two:

1) He may mean that the events which he describes in The Revelation will happen in the current age of creation, as God divides time for us in the Bible.  The current age is the age of the Messiah, which, in other places of the Bible, is called “the last days” because it is the last age of creation.  It was ushered in with the coming of the kingdom of the Messiah[3] on the day of Pentecost[4] after Jesus’s resurrection and will be closed with the second coming and the final Judgment of the world.  Anything that happens in this last age may be “near” in that it happens in the present age (an age we share with John), rather than some future one.

2) I have often wondered if, after we die, our experience of time will be very different than what it is while we live.  Death is frequently compared to sleep in the Bible.[5] What if the analogy extends to our experience of time while we are dead?  While we sleep, we are oblivious to the passage of time.  If the same is true of death, we may be resurrected thousands of years after we die, and yet it may seem like we were alive just the day before.  If we do experience time in this way, then Judgment Day (as well as the fulfillment of all the prophecies in this book) is only as far away from any individual as is that person’s death.

v. 4: Many people say that seven is a number indicating wholeness or completeness; in keeping with this idea, I believe these seven churches symbolize all churches, Christ’s Church as a whole, but I also believe that John specifically address the churches in Asia Minor because he had personal contacts with them.

B.W. Johnson believes that these “seven spirits” are synonymous with the Holy Spirit; the Oxford commentary suggests this might be true but also says they may be angels.  Oecumenius believes they are angels.  Since, in the immediate context of these chapters, John says that there are seven angels associated with the seven churches (v.20), I believe that the seven spirits here are “the angels of the seven churches.”[6] These angels must be guardians or stewards of their respective churches.  The book of Daniel describes a similar relationship between angels and groups of humans.  In Daniel 12:1, the angel Michael is described as the guardian angel of the kingdom of Israel.  In Daniel 10:12-13, the angel Gabriel says that Persia’s guardian angel fought with him for twenty-one days.[7] That angel, the “prince of Persia,” was obviously evil, but these “angels of the seven churches” are good, like Michael: they offer grace to the churches (v. 4), and they are before the throne of God.

v. 6: It is interesting that here John distinguishes between Christ and God, emphasizing Christ’s submission to the Father (“serving his [Christ’s] God and Father”), but in v. 17 he describes Christ as being synonymous with the Father.  When Christ says of himself, “I am the first and the last” (17), this is a direct reference to the words of the Father in v. 8: “I am the alpha and the omega.”  See also notes on vs. 17-18.

v. 7: Compare this imagery with Daniel 7:13 and Matthew 26:64.  Note also that Christ left the earth in a cloud (Acts 1:9).

v. 8: This phrase, “who is and who was and who is to come” is also used in v. 4, and its sentiment is possibly in v. 18.

vs. 9-10: John describes his circumstances at the time of this vision.  He says he was on Patmos when he had the vision (meaning, I suppose, that he is there no longer as he writes it down).  He also alludes to the fact that he was exiled there because he is a Christian and a teacher of Christianity.  The vision came to him on Sunday, “the Lord’s day,” while he was “in the spirit.”  I am not sure what happens to one’s mind or spirit or body when one is in the spirit, but at the very least, the phrase suggests that one is uniquely prepared to receive divine communications while in the spirit.  I wonder if he was worshiping God to begin with (on the Lord’s day) and that that circumstance put him “in the spirit.”  It is interesting to me that John hears the voice “behind him.”  I am not sure why.  Isaiah 30:21 uses a similar expression.  There God speaks from behind to call his people to turn back from their sins, but that interpretation does not seem appropriate here because John’s sins are not mentioned.

v. 12: I assume that these lampstands looked like the original lampstand made for the tabernacle.  This single lampstand is described in Exodus 25:31-39.  Solomon made ten such lampstands for the temple. (II Chron. 4:7).

Vs. 12-16: This vision is an allegory, as Christ explains in v. 20.  John sees the vision and falls down as though dead.  Then the vision passes,[8] and Christ assumes a less frightening form, encourages John, and explains the vision to him.  As for the vision itself, it draws heavily upon imagery from Daniel:

Revelation 1:13 “I saw one like the Son of Man…”

Daniel 7:13 “I saw one like the Son of Man…”

 

Revelation 1:13 “…clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.”

Daniel 10:5  “…clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz about his waist.”

 

Revelation 1:14 “His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow.”

Daniel 7:9 “[A]n Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool.”

Revelation 1:15  “[H]is feet were like burnished bronze…and his voice was like the sound of many waters.”

Daniel 10:6 “[H]is arms and legs [were like] the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.”

Revelation 1:14  “His eyes were like a flame of fire.”

Daniel 10:6 “…his eyes like flaming torches…”

Notice also that John’s reaction to the vision is similar to Daniel’s.

 

Revelation 1:17 “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”

Daniel 10:8-9 “My strength left me and my complexion grew deathly pale…and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground.”

And so is his recovery.

Revelation 1:17 “But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid…’”

Daniel 10:10 “But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees.”

This vision of Christ in Revelation combines the imagery used to describe the Ancient One of Daniel 7:9 (God The Father), the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 (the Messiah), and the mysterious, unnamed figure of Daniel 10:5-9.  This last figure is either the Messiah or Gabriel.  I tend toward believing it is the Messiah. [9] Thus, by combining Daniel’s imagery of God the Father and the Messiah, John emphasizes the paradoxical nature of Christ, which is at once divine and human.  See also notes on v. 6.

Below is how I think the imagery should be interpreted:

The Son of Man is Christ. Christ says the stars of the vision were in “my right hand” (1:20).

The fact that Christ is “in the midst” of the churches indicates his living presence among his believers.

I believe the robe and sash he wears are priestly garments and thus allude to his role as an intercessor between us and God.  I say this because the parallel section of Daniel 10:5 describes the robe as made of linen, which was used by the priesthood (Leviticus 6:10).  As for the sash, I suspect that it alludes to the sash or belt of the high priest, but I am not sure.  Exodus 28 describes the garments of the high priest and uses two terms for belt: abnet (Strong’s Concordance entry 73) is 28:4,39, and chesheb (Strong’s Concordance entry 2805) is 28:8,27,28.  Neither of these belts is described as being completely golden (as the sash here in revelation is), and Christ is not dressed in all the garments of the high priest here, but I still think the suggestion is that he is the high priest.

His white head and hair refer to both his purity and his wisdom.  (White hair is a sign of age and thus of wisdom.)  The whiteness of his appearance and the shining of his face like the sun are reminiscent of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-3), which John himself had witnessed years earlier.

The sharp two-edged sword coming from his mouth is the spiritual force of his words.  See the same image used in Hebrews 4:12.

The imagery of golden lampstands is from the original golden lampstand of the tabernacle (see note on v. 12), and the lampstands themselves represent the seven churches of Asia (1:20).

For the overall purpose of the vision, see notes on 2:1.

Vs. 17-18: I think these verses mirror v. 8, perhaps not exactly (except in the first clause) but enough to suggest a parallel.[10] See notes on v. 6.

v. 8 “I am the alpha and the omega”        v. 17 “I am the first and the last”

v. 8 “who is”                                                       v. 18 “the living one”

v. 8 “and who was”                                          v. 18 “I was dead”

v. 8 “and who is to come”                             v. 18 “I am alive forever and ever”

v. 8 “the Almighty”                                         v. 18 “I have the keys of Death”

v. 18: When Christ says he has the keys of Death, I believe this is intended to be comforting, not threatening.  He is not saying, “Obey me or I will slay you,” but rather he is saying, “Take heart; I have made a way for the dead to escape from the land of the dead and enter into the Kingdom of Life.”

v. 20: Christ says John “saw” the vision.  I take this to mean that at the time John is talking to him here, the vision has passed.


[1] This implies that Christ’s knowledge, even after he ascended into heaven, was not all encompassing.  Only God The Father is all-knowing.  See Matthew 24:36.

[2] He refers to Psalm 89:4.

[3] See Daniel 2 and notes.

[4] The coming of the kingdom is described in Acts 1-2.

[5] See, for instance, John 11:11-14 and Revelation 3:1-3.

[6] See also 4:5 and 5:5.

[7] See note on Daniel 10:13.

[8] Notice in v. 20 Christ says, “As for the seven stars that you saw….”  The past tense here indicates that the vision has passed.

[9] Even if it is Gabriel, the use of that imagery is appropriate to describe Christ here in Revelation because Gabriel’s appearance in Daniel 10:11 is to describe the events leading up to the coming of the Messiah.

[10] Note how John also uses similar phrasing in 17:8 to suggest an ironic parallel between Christ and his antithesis, Beast I.  John does something similar when he describes the mark of God’s name on the foreheads of the faithful (14:1) and the mark of the Beast’s name on the foreheads of the unfaithful (13:16-18).

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10 Responses to “Revelation 1”

  1. […] [2] See note on Revelation 1:4. […]

  2. […] [2] See note on Revelation 1:4. […]

  3. […] Revelation of Jesus Christ…to show…what must soon take place” was given by God to Christ[1] who gave it to his angel to give to John.  So the immediate deliverer of The Revelation was an […]

  4. […] Revelation of Jesus Christ…to show…what must soon take place” was given by God to Christ[1] who gave it to his angel to give to John.  So the immediate deliverer of The Revelation was an […]

  5. […] explains in v. 20.  John sees the vision and falls down as though dead.  Then the vision passes,[8] and Christ assumes a less frightening form, encourages John, and explains the vision to him.  As […]

  6. […] mirror v. 8, perhaps not exactly (except in the first clause) but enough to suggest a parallel.[10] See notes on v. […]

  7. […] explains in v. 20.  John sees the vision and falls down as though dead.  Then the vision passes,[8] and Christ assumes a less frightening form, encourages John, and explains the vision to him.  As […]

  8. […] mirror v. 8, perhaps not exactly (except in the first clause) but enough to suggest a parallel.[10] See notes on v. […]

  9. […] [1] Since, in the Greek, the word translated as angel means “messenger” and is sometimes applied to humans who bear messages, Johnson believes these epistles are addressed to single evangelists who presided over each church, but this seems a stretch to me.  Angels (the supernatural kind) are all throughout the book of Revelation.  Why should “the angel of Ephesus” be anything other than a supernatural being like the rest?  No translation that I have seen renders them as humans.  See also note on 1:4. […]

  10. […] [1] Since, in the Greek, the word translated as angel means “messenger” and is sometimes applied to humans who bear messages, Johnson believes these epistles are addressed to single evangelists who presided over each church, but this seems a stretch to me.  Angels (the supernatural kind) are all throughout the book of Revelation.  Why should “the angel of Ephesus” be anything other than a supernatural being like the rest?  No translation that I have seen renders them as humans.  See also note on 1:4. […]

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