The book of Revelation, called in Greek the Apocalypse, exercises a peculiar fascination for many folks, and repels others with its violent imagery and coded language.
Thus attending to its original context is essential for interpreting it properly; if we do that, however, we find a revolutionary message that speaks directly to our own "apocalyptic" times.
So today's lesson must be read in its context (1:4a, 9-11), which focuses on the book's author and addressees. This is not a timeless, abstract vision that floats six feet above the ground; this is a word rooted in the experience of a specific person, John, who has been exiled for his faith to the island of Patmos, off the coast of present-day Turkey (1:4a, 9).
This historical person speaks as Christ's messenger; when his letter was read aloud in the churches, people understood that Jesus Christ was testifying to the glory of God (verse 2). And he speaks to real churches, which are tempted, struggling, experiencing intense hostility from their neighbors, and he personally shares their suffering (1:9-11).
Furthermore, John takes conflict and suffering as the norm for Christian life and expects these churches to do the same. This expectation threads through the entire New Testament witness: to own Jesus as one's Lord is to come into conflict with all other "lords" that would claim our allegiance, whether they be the idols of economic success, social status, or simply apathy and personal safety. Revelation is a word of encouragement for those who are suffering, and a word of exhortation for Christians who acquiesce to the status quo in order to avoid any unpleasantness.
Thus today we hear that Jesus is "the ruler of the kings of the earth" (verse 5), and that Christians are "a kingdom" (verse 6). That is, we are members of the king's household. We are such, however, only because we are Christ's slaves ("servants" in the NRSV), just as John is a slave of Christ (verse 1). John's own auditors may well have been slaves in large households; his words remind them that they have a different, greater master than their earthly masters.
This simple observation should undercut all boasting and power mongering on the part of the church. Humility, not "lording it over others," is the order of the day. Again, Revelation is speech by and for the oppressed, those suffering under the sword of Rome, not for a successful, affluent or powerful church.
Verses 4-8 comprise the second of three introductions to the letter (1:1-3; 1:4-8; 1:9-11). The first tells the readers how to understand what follows, as God's direct message to them. The third gives the historical setting for the revelation. The second, today's lesson, is a tri-partite salutation that focuses on Christ's saving work.1
God is the one who was, who is and who is to come. Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn, and the rule of earthly kings. His action on our behalf is also set forth in a triad: he loves us, has freed us from our sins and made us a kingdom and priests to God, and will come with the clouds. At his coming, everyone, all who pierced him, all the tribes of the earth, will see and acknowledge him. All of this is under the rule of God, who is, who was, and who is to come.
Notice how this tri-partite scheme encompasses past, present and future. In the present, the overwhelming fact is that God loves us. There is no more profound truth than the simple truth of the old children's song, "Jesus loves me, this I know." The knowledge of God's love in the present moment will sustain us through conflict and suffering. That knowledge is grounded in Christ's past liberation through his own suffering on the cross (verse 5b), and the certainty that ultimately God will rule over all that now opposes God's reign of peace: "he will wipe every tear from their eyes" (21:4).
The flow of the passage is interrupted by abrupt changes, in part due to a shift in speakers. This is typical of prophetic speech, in which the voices alternate between those of God, the prophet and the people. In public worship, Revelation may have been read aloud responsively. In any case, the passage invites us into a conversation with John and with God in Christ; sermons on the passage also should invite our parishioners into such a conversation.
The main subject of this conversation is Jesus Christ, who therefore is the main subject of our sermons as well. As such, Jesus is the "faithful witness" whose loyalty to the death testifies to God's faithfulness (verse 2), and is the basis for his position as the "firstborn of the dead." In 3:14, Jesus is again called "the Amen, the faithful and true witness." Here the emphasis falls on the certainty and reliability of Christ's revelation of God's character.
Furthermore, the words translated as "testimony" and "testify" in 1:2 are forms of martyr, the Greek word translated as "witness" in 1:5; in his own witness to God's faithfulness, Christ himself suffered martyrdom, and John's understanding of witnessing to Christ also involves potential martyrdom.
In 2:13, a Christian in Pergamum named Antipas, who was killed for his faith, is called "my witness, my faithful one." This pattern repeats throughout Revelation (11:3, 7; 17:6, 14), so that faithfulness to Jesus is understood as "the ultimate wager" of loyalty to the point of death.2
In some contemporary global settings, such a wager obviously accompanies Christian faith, but not usually in ours. Yet the violence and greed of our culture in fact do test our faith, sometimes in shocking and unexpected ways. So preaching this text requires us to search out particular, local points of conflict and opposition to the reign of Christ in the immediate realities of our congregations.
1For a user-friendly guide to Revelation, see Paul Minear, I Saw a New Earth (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2003).
2Minear, I Saw a New Earth, 12.