Commentary on Revelation 1:4b-8
In the opening of the book of Revelation, grace (charis) and peace (eirene) are given to the churches to which the author of Revelation writes.
The gifts themselves are interesting. Charis recalls the patronage system of the early Roman world, in which a patron displayed generosity to his clients, and expected loyalty in return. Eirene reminds one of the Hebrew shalom, the notion of wholeness and peace that is often associated with a deep and meaningful relationship to God.
Through the mention of these two gifts, the author of Revelation indicates from the very beginning that the gift of peace associated with being a Christ-believer also comes with a sense of belonging to and owing faithfulness to a patron. We will see that in the context of the Roman Empire, the way that Revelation reconfigures the concepts of sovereignty, loyalty and patronage is far from innocent.
The gifts of grace and peace are described as having a triple origin. The reader easily identifies God as the one who is, was, and is coming (Revelation 1:4). God explicitly characterizes Godself in this manner in Revelation 1:8. The gifts also come from Jesus Christ, who is then described with several titles (1:5) and who becomes the focus of the passage in Revelation 1:6-7. Finally, they are sent from the “seven spirits” who are described as being in front of God’s throne (1:4).
Under the influence of Christian trinitarian thought, it is tempting to associate these seven spirits with the Holy Spirit, and to see here a trinitarian formula. In fact, the identification with the Holy Spirit, though probable, is not certain. Because of the number seven, which usually indicates plenitude and completeness, it is possible to see here a reference to the Spirit in its plenitude, perhaps under the influence of Isaiah 11:2, which describes six attributes of the spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and fear of the Lord), to which the Vulgate adds a seventh: piety. In any case, the passage emphasizes the provenance from Jesus Christ, describing him at length and pursuing the description by a doxology.
Jesus at the Center
The author of Revelation uses three titles to describe Jesus: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. All these titles reveal something important about the way the author of Revelation understands Jesus.
He is faithful witness; as Revelation 1:1 indicates, Jesus is the beneficiary of a special revelation, coming from God. He is thus the witness par excellence, who can authentically reveal God’s purpose to the community, enabling it to become witness in its turn. Jesus’ role as witness (also a messianic title in Isaiah 55:4) empowers the community to be a similar witness in the world.
Jesus is also firstborn of the dead. Literally, this is in fact not the case. There are stories of resurrection before the ones recording Jesus’ resurrection. But the author of Revelation, by making Jesus the firstborn of the dead, insists on the eschatological role of Jesus. Through his death and his resurrection Jesus has begun the new aeon. His resurrection functions differently. It is not just a return to life; it is truly the beginning of something new.
Finally, the author of Revelation describes Jesus as ruler of the kings of the earth. Of all the titles, this one, especially when it is combined with the use of pantokrator to describe God in verse 8, has the most subversive potential of the three. In the context of the Roman Empire the ruler of the kings of the earth, the pantokrator, was the Caesar, the emperor to whom each inhabitant of the Empire owed not only obedience but also loyalty. When the author of Revelation describes Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth, and God as the pantokrator, creating a nation for Jesus and for God (Revelation 1:6), he challenges some of the imperial ideology current in the world of the first century.
The challenge is not only about who truly rules the world, but also about issues of loyalty: to whom should the people of the provinces of Asia show ultimate faithfulness? Imperial ideology, through statutes, coins, inscriptions, buildings, statues, loudly proclaimed that the Caesar was the ultimate patron. More discreetly, the author of Revelation aims to replace Roman imperial ideology with his own hierarchy. The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, working for God, and the people should pay homage to this ruler, and not the emperor.1 The doxology that follows establishes the terms of the relationship between Jesus and human beings.
Relationship to Jesus
If the preceding verse presented who the author of Revelation thought Jesus was, the second half of verse 5 as well as verses 6 to 7 connect the figure of Jesus to humanity, and what this figure means for human beings. The first two statements, “the one who loves us and freed us from our sins,” represent ideas with which contemporary Christians are usually familiar. They depict a comfortable picture of Jesus as the one who displays love, enables freedom from sin and thus effectuates the salvation of the believers.
In the statements that follow, a slightly different picture of the work of Christ emerges. Christ creates a kingdom and establishes priests for God his Father. The dominant imagery here is connected to ruling and to giving proper worship to the ruler. In a way, the author of Revelation creates a new patronage system. It is not to Caesar that the Christ-believers owe their allegiance. It is not around the emperor that they should unite. Rather, they are a nation composed of various tribes who recognizes first and foremost the authority of the Pantokrator God, the one who is beginning and end, and to whom they dedicate their worship.
In contrast to the message carried by Roman imperial ideology, the Christ-believers are called to become united under the rule of Christ. Today this reminds us that empire and Christianity do not always align, and that we might find ourselves in a situation where our allegiance to Christ may lead us to resist a political regime, an economical organization, or cultural systems.
1Interestingly, the author of Revelation does not seek to put into place an alternative to Roman hierarchy. The imperial ideology in a way suits him as long as one understands that the true emperor is in fact Jesus and not the Caesar. Despite his severe criticism of Rome, thus, the author of Revelation in fact reproduces an imperial organization, with a different ruler.