Commentary on Revelation 1:4-8
Depending on your congregation, preaching from Revelation may constitute an oddity, causing congregants to scratch their heads about where this might be going, or worse yet, the topic becomes a triggering event.1
Let’s look closer at Chapter 1: there are three lessons that are worth drawing in this opening chapter and section in the lectionary.
We are not the intended audience
First, we are not Revelation’s intended audience (“John to these seven churches that are in Asia,” Revelation 1:4). What is it like to read letters from another time, written to people we don’t know and who aren’t like us? Revelation was not written for you and I. It was not written to predict our time or represent our world. When we make it about us and about predicting our time we not only miss the whole point of the book, we get caught in what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls “paranoid fantasies.”
Schüssler Fiorenza puts it this way:
Something very strange happens when this text is appropriated by readers in a comfortable, powerful, majority community: it becomes a gold mine for paranoid fantasies and for those who want to preach revenge and destruction.2
John is writing to churches he has an intimate knowledge of, all living in a particular time and place (probably under the emperor Domitian AD 81-96. Domitian made Nero look like a favorite uncle compared to him). John is not pretending to write to them but actually writing to us. No pastor does such a thing. Pastors write, speak, and pray for the communities we love. The ones we are concerned about. The ones we believe can and are the golden lampstands in their place and time.
“Where you live, where you pray is essential to who God is and reveals (Godself) to be.” -Eugene Peterson
John’s churches are made up of a persecuted minority: people indigenous to the area, a mix of Jewish and Gentile, all following the testimony of Jesus, living under Roman occupation. They are on the margins of the empire, poor (as the subjects of imperial occupation are), and religiously persecuted by Rome. John’s message to them during this time is to “patient endurance” (Revelation 1:9); resist assimilation into the ideology of empire (see also 3:1-8; 14-22).
Because of the historical, contextual, and experiential difference between the first readers of John’s apocalypse and us, we cannot assume to understand all of the symbolism and allegory taking place in the text. John is smuggling notes out from Patmos to these churches, using Biblical language, images, and symbolism that Roman readers would not automatically understand. This is one way to pass notes under the nose of the authorities without getting caught.
When I was in seminary, my New Testament Professor Marianne Maye Thompson talked about Revelation as a kind of political cartoon. Until we are well-acquainted with the people and events it was written for and about, the joke is lost on us.
Reading the letter, as best we are able, with empathy for those first hearers, helps us recognize that it isn’t about us; this is a letter from their pastor and spiritual leader to them in the midst of great suffering and challenge, shaping their imaginations by “the lamb that was slain”. I think starting here, recognizing this distance with the first hearers, allows us to find our own way into this text as people of faith today, living in another time of empire.
Apocalyptic literature requires a different set of eyes for reading
Second, John writes apocalyptic literature beautifully, as a skilled practitioner within his own tradition. John’s vision is not as an end-time prediction but an apocalyptic unmasking. Apocalypse means to unveil or unmask, to show what lies underneath the surface.
David Dark, in his fantastic book, Everyday Apocalypse, writes:
“Apocalyptic shows us what we’re not seeing. It can’t be composed or spoken by the powers that be, because they are the sustainers of “the way things are” whose operation justifies itself by crowning itself as “the way things ought to be” and whose greatest virtue is in being “realistic.”3
Therefore, this is not a book of prophecy, but it is a prophetic book from Jesus through John, speaking as all biblical prophets do, against superpowers that oppress the most vulnerable and seek to take the place of God. John employs the power of apocalyptic writing used by other biblical prophets like Daniel, Enoch, and some portions of minor prophets like Joel, Amos, and Zachariah to “invest the details of the everyday with cosmic significance while awakening its audience to the presence of marginalizing forces otherwise unnamed and unchallenged.”4
The struggle against the powers for John’s congregations is now. John writes to people who are the vulnerable ones in their context. If God has a preferential option for the poor, Revelation is a love letter to those poor suffering at the hands of the powerful. His vision of Jesus is meant to unmask what is really going on so that they are able to see things in context and understand the larger picture and how to sustain and resist.
Consider the character of John
Third, Besides John’s connections to these churches and skillful writing of apocalyptic literature, we also know that he is imprisoned on the island of Patmos, a kind of Roman Alcatraz. An island that housed the Roman Empire’s prisoners of state. We do not know for sure what put John on Patmos but we know that it was due to persecution (1:9). I think we are safe to infer after reading Revelation that John’s scathing critique of Rome would be enough to land him in trouble with the authorities, not unlike what the Civil Rights leaders experienced when their hotel rooms and phones were being tapped and recorded.
I like what Daniel Berrigan says of John in his book called, The Nightmare of God:
In a slave camp, in exile on a rock. Because, as he said, he preached God’s word, the truth Jesus revealed. What kind of preaching brings that kind of punishment? … Was he a kook, a vaporized freak, a non-sequitur in a chain of logic, a broken link? We ask the question because it seemed as though the early church was facing the same question, at least by implication…No, he suffered for Jesus and thereupon, in a link with all who suffer for the faith, he was granted this visionary sequence. Thus a logic of suffering vision held firm, hand to hand…The seven churches evidently also deserved the vision of John, welcomed it, and believed it. Thus the vision is for the community, not for John alone.5
Revelation is about a clash of powers (God and Empire)
I have done a lot of re-framing in this article, addressing how some of the issues in chapter 1:4-8 are important if we choose to step into the text of Revelation. John is setting the reader up to emulate the resistance of Jesus when he says: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Jesus Christ, the anointed one, the one who announced good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives, liberation for the oppressed and God’s jubilee (Luke 4:16-21), and was himself crushed by empire, he is the faithful one, the ruler of all the kinds of the earth, who calls his people out of empire in Revelation.
Another striking phrase is “the firstborn of the dead,” possibly a nod to the end of the Gospel of John (20:1-18) where the resurrection takes place on the “first day of the week,” that revelation taking place in a garden, and Jesus appears to Mary as a gardener (hint hint wink wink: new creation). Revelation sees Jesus as the firstborn of the dead inaugurating a new creation, a new social order, a new ethic, a new way of relating not only to one another but to imperial powers as he did in the Gospels and as he does (in the form of the lamb) in Revelation. That Jesus is the one who appears victorious in Revelation 1, ready to lead his people.
There is much more to explore here, even in just a few short verses. Help your congregation hear this text in a new way, not about the end of the world but as a letter or handbook for how the early church resisted the empire. I’m reminded of another letter sent out from the prison walls of Birmingham, Alabama. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Prison. A letter calling the church to be faithful and not assimilate in the face of the siren song of empire. What are the ways in which Jesus’ faithfulness against the empire challenges our own comforts and positions we take today?
- A word of introduction to the author’s approach on Revelation:
I’m not trying to make light of trauma when I say Revelation may be “triggering” for folks. The book of Revelation is not just a book that has scared children for generations; scary things have been said and done by Christians in the name of Revelation for a long time. Well-known atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called it the most rabid outburst of human vindication he’d ever read. The Evangelical authors of the Left Behind series turned Revelation into a pop-cultural icon and cash cow, featuring eternal torture and punishment of the many, while the few of God’s chosen got to experience all the luxuries of heaven.
I used to joke that my New Testament canon ended one book short. It was easier to just pretend Revelation was not there. Recently, that has all changed for me. Spending time with folks at the Kairos Center, at Union Theological Seminary, and the likes Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis (Director of Kairos and co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign), Aaron Scott, Willie Baptist, John and Colleen Wessell-McCoy, and many others, my interpretative framework for understanding the Bible, not just Revelation, has dramatically shifted. As Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis has said,
“[The Bible is…] a collection of stories of poor people uniting across differences to build a social movement, and winning.”
Another reading of Revelation is possible and necessary. What if instead of reading it as predicting end times, we read it from the perspective of those who were poor and oppressed by the Roman Empire? Preaching Revelation today provides not only an opportunity to address the spiritual violence done by those misusing this text, but also provides a very real, historical example of how the early church critiqued empire and what they understood God’s liberating alternative to be.
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Visions of a Just World (Fortress Press, 1992).
- David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, (Brazos Press, 2002), 6.
- Dark, 7.
- Daniel Berrigan, The Nightmare of God (Wipf and Stock, 2009), 4.