Commentary on Revelation 1:4-8
Although the Book of Revelation is the climax of the Bible, the lectionary assigns very few readings from it.
This neglect is particularly regrettable in the early twenty-first century when many Christians assume that Premillennialism — represented by The Late Great Planet Earth and the “Left Behind” series — is the only way to understand apocalyptic theology in general and the Book of Revelation in particular. The lections from the Book of Revelation on the Sundays after Easter give the preacher a sustained opportunity to help the congregation explore alternative interpretations of the last book of the Bible in particular and apocalypticism more broadly. I turn first to brief background on the Book of Revelation and then consider the reading for today, Revelation 1:4-8.
John was a prophet who may have had a prophetic circuit among the congregations in the Jesus movement named in Revelation 1:11 in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). John claimed to receive the Book of Revelation as a vision. The prophet believed that God was moving present history — the old age– towards its final phase that would include the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the final and full coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
John was imprisoned on Patmos for “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Civil authorities likely perceived him as a threat to the pax Romana because he refused to accede to the attitudes and actions of the Roman Empire. John likely refused to participate in worship at an imperial shrine where people swore allegiance to Caesar.
For a long time, many scholars thought the Empire was persecuting the congregations to whom John wrote so that John encouraged the communities to remain faithful during persecution. However, there is no evidence of wide-spread persecution at the time John wrote (roughly 92-95 CE). A good bit of scholarship now thinks that John believed that many followers of Jesus were accommodating too much to Rome. They went along with the idolatry, injustice, and violence of the empire. Some may have participated in the imperial cult and in other activities related to the Empire.
John wrote with two purposes. One is to encourage the faithful to remain faithful, that is, to endure (hypomone). The other is to urge those who were accommodating to repent, to come out of the Empire, and to become a part of the movement towards the new Jerusalem. They, too, would then need to endure. Difficult days were ahead as the faithful would live through the violent collapse of the Empire. John anticipates persecution to increase in the near future.
The stakes are high. Those who witness faithfully will dwell in the new heaven and the new earth. Those who continue to compromise with Rome will join Satan and the beast in the lake of fire.
Revelation 1:4-7 is set up like the beginning of a letter typical of the period, indicating the writer (John), the addressees (the seven congregations), a greeting, and a thanksgiving. In many Greek letters these pieces provide little more than basic data. But John infuses them with theological content that establishes the authority of the Book of Revelation and that previews the message of the book.
Whereas the usual Greek letter begins with “Greeting” (chairein), John, like other letter writers in the Jesus movement, transforms this “Hello” to a word of grace (charis) and peace in the hope that the letter will mediate grace and peace to the recipients.
The designation for God in 1:4 and 1:8 as one “who is and who was and who is to come” points not only to God coming again into history but also to the difference between God and the gods of whom the Romans said they were, are, and shall be. The “shall be” indicates that the Roman gods aim to maintain the social order as it is. The notion of “is to come” reveals that God is coming into history to complete reconstruction of the world.
John opens the door to a three-point sermon that summarizes the Christology of the Book of Revelation by describing Jesus as the “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the [rulers] of the earth” (Revelation 1:5a). To witness is to point to the cosmic transformation already underway. The resurrection means that the power exhibited through the witness is still at work. Consequently, all other rulers — including those of the Roman Empire — will be accountable to Jesus for the degree to which they rule in ways consistent with the values and practices of the Realm.
John opens the door to another three-point sermon on the work of Christ in Revelation 1:5b-6. Jesus loves us. In the Bible, love is an act of the will for the good of the community, in this case, destroying the Empire and bringing the Realm. This act will free the world from domination by Satan (the dragon) through the beast (the Empire). Jesus makes the church a community of priests whose common life, like that of Israel, represents God’s purposes in the world.
According to Revelation 1:7, the return of Jesus at the apocalypse will be a public, history-shaping event. In the Book of Revelation, the word “earth” usually has a negative connotation. The “tribes of the earth” is, hence, a description of those who have aligned themselves with Rome and have resisted the possibilities. They will wail with sorrow as they realize that condemnation is upon them.
In Revelation 1:8, God uses the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega, to indicate that God is absolutely sovereign, in control of history from beginning to endll. The congregation can count on the message of the Book of Revelation because it comes from God. This is good news and sobering news. The Book is a road sign pointing to the both the promise of the new Jerusalem and the danger of the lake of fire.
Scholars often date the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west as 476 CE. However, empires continued and are present today. The preacher might help the congregation consider the degree to which it witnesses faithfully for the new heaven and new earth amid the transnational capitalist empire of the early twenty-first century, or is complicit in empire attitudes and actions, and needs to repent and “come out.” If there latter, the preacher might take a clue from the passage for the tone of the sermon so that the sermon itself can become an instrument offering grace and pointing the way to peace.