It is not uncommon for an author to alert his reader as to the general nature of his message and its purpose. This may come at the beginning or elsewhere within the composition. But somewhere, the author often states or hints at the occasion and purpose of writing. Revelation has in common with other literary works the feature of defining itself in the opening phases of the composition. If it is true generally, that authors reveal their intentions in writing, then attention should be given to the opening words of this work as well as other items that may have bearing on the purpose.
No determinations concerning a book's interpretation should be made until the occasion of writing, present circumstances, and the intent of the author are analyzed. No theory of interpretation should be adopted that distorts the image of the composition. And no conclusions should be drawn that cannot be substantiated by the book itself.
Taken as a whole, chapters 1-3 form the prologue to the entire book. The prologue sets the stage for what is to follow. It functions in a similar way as the prologue to the Book of Job. Here, instead of setting up the situation that led to a cycle of speeches, Revelation sets up the circumstances of seven churches that lead to a demonstration of God's sovereignty, Christ's redeeming work, and the assurance of victory to those who retain their faith.
The recipients of the seven letters share much in common. Their connection with the Lamb is noted in the individual introductions. They are all related to God through faith in Jesus Christ. What emerges as different is their particular circumstance. Some face persecution. Others have begun to rely upon themselves more than upon God. Still others find themselves being ravaged by false teachers.
The first three chapters of The Apocalypse provide both an introduction and the background for the main body of the book, which begins in chapter four. Following an introduction to the source of the contents, the intention of the material, the circumstance of the human author, and the specific audience to whom it is directed, The Apocalypse contains unique addresses to seven churches in the western region of Asia Minor. Here, the work assumes the nature of an epistle. For example, the salutation (1:4-11) is similar to other New Testament letters (1:4-11) and chapters 2 and 3 are cast in epistolary style. The symmetry of the section can be seen in the way the Lamb is initially introduced and the partial characteristics are employed in the letters to each of the seven churches.
The letters to the seven churches of Asia raise many practical questions. With respect to Sardis, one gets the picture that most of the congregations needed reformation. Questions that rise from this situation are numerous. Who is responsible for leading the reformation? What should be the attitude of the more "spiritual" toward those who are less spiritual? How should one continue with a church that is dominantly unspiritual? Then in Laodicea, the question that arises may have to do with continuance in a church that is indifferent. A minority cannot always bring about revival or set the path for reformation.
Although it begins as an epistle, the abrupt change in form at chapter 4 is anticipated from chapter 1, verses 1 and 12-20. What begins in epistle genre definitely shifts to apocalyptic genre. But the way the two are woven together alerts us to the plan of the composition. Further, the symmetry of the section (chaps. 1-3) can be seen in the way the Lamb is initially introduced and in the manner the partial characteristics of the Lamb are employed in each of the letters to the seven churches. Through this procedure, the reader is struck with the unity of the text and, more importantly, the unity of divinity.
If we do well in grasping the unique nature of the epistolary section, then we should be prepared to move into the apocalyptic section. The two are connected. First, the seven letters are addressed to seven historical churches. The spiritual character of those churches is assumed to reflect the words Jesus addresses to them. Hence, our start is rooted in history and actual events.
Reading Assignment. Read the first three chapters of Revelation at least three times. Move beyond the points that puzzle you and pick up as much of the overall theme as possible. Do not pause to try to figure out the meaning of the various symbols. But do note that pieces of the symbols introduced in chap. 1 are used selectively in the addresses to the individual churches. Be aware of the close identification of John with the churches. But more than that, observe the place of God and the predominance of Jesus throughout the passage.
a. The Lamb (Revelation 1). The initial chapter mixes literary genre. The entire Book of Revelation is encased in epistolary form (1:4-7; 22:7-21), yet as a "revelation of things that are coming into being, it partakes of the prophetic spirit. And its symbols demonstrate that the character of the work is heavily apocalyptic. It makes use of Old Testament quotations and casts some of these in poetic form. This makes the book a unique composition.
Besides its epistolary form, the first chapter has been developed on the order of Daniel 2. It reflects the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in wording.
Following a salutation, the emphasis of the chapter is on the Lamb. The Lamb, Jesus Christ, holds the key to the plight of the believers. Although his ultimate position is not detailed until chapter 5, there is no doubt of his prominent place in the book's message.
Whereas in the epistles, the christological discussion regarding Jesus is theological in tone, here in Revelation it is more practical. As ruler of the church, Jesus comes to the believers and shows his pleasure and displeasure in what they are doing. His presentation is unmistakable. He holds the authority to act on behalf of the saints, but he also holds them accountable for their conduct.
1:1-3. The opening to the composition establishes the setting. The book contains a message that had its origin with God, which he gave to Jesus. The plan of the revelation is to inform believers of what lies ahead in the "near" future. Perhaps the more accurate idea is best expressed as "the definite, imminent time of fulfillment, which has already begun (cf. Beale, The Book of Revelation in The New International Greek Testament Commentary, pp. 181-82, 185). But revealing the future is not an end in itself, except in that it points to the climax of God's intention to establish his spiritual kingdom as foretold in Daniel 2. The kingdom was indeed established, but the Roman Empire is still in place. That Empire shall not prevail against God's kingdom. Not only did God promise to form his kingdom during the days of the Roman Empire, he promised to shatter that human entity. The Apocalypse is not content to leave the formation of the church/kingdom at Pentecost; it is dedicated to demonstrating its ultimate victory over Rome and Satan who inspires it. The purpose is to provide the saints with a heavenly view of redemptive history. The objective of Revelation is to encourage faithfulness and stimulate behavior appropriate to the saints of God.
Elsewhere in the book one meets phrases like "I will soon come to you (Rev. 2:16), "I am coming soon (Rev. 3:11) and "I will come to you (Rev. 2:5). These expressions speak of divine action but they do not suggest end-time judgment.
In typical apocalyptic fashion, the message is borne by an angel, who brings it to a human. In this instance, the revelation is given to John the aged apostle. This message is nothing short of "the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. The Greek word translated "testimony is the word from which we get "martyr. Everyone who heeds the message is blessed, for the message pertains to a time described as "near (cf. also 22:10-11).
When we hear of an "angel involved in the revelation, we have reason to pause. Paul once said, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:8). The writer of Hebrews went to considerable length to demonstrate that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ was superior to the word delivered by angels at Sinai, because it is in Jesus that God has revealed himself ultimately (Hebrews 1-2). Paul warned against the worship of angels (Col. 2:18). So, how is it that we have the final message of the New Testament delivered by an angel? First, Paul's concern was for the preaching of a "different or "corrupted gospel. In Revelation, the message is from God through Christ and conforms to the gospel; it is not a corruption. In the second instance, the emphasis is on Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God. He is superior to angels; consequently, the message he brings from God is superior to that delivered by angels at Sinai. In Revelation, where we are dealing with apocalyptic, the angel is only a messenger for God and Christ. There is no "new or "different gospel being proclaimed. The messenger reveals what God and Christ want revealed. That message provides encouragement to those who bear "the testimony of Jesus Christ. As for the idea of angel worship, it is strictly forbidden in Revelation (22:8-9). So, there is no conflict between the idea that an angel is part of the revelation chain and other references to angels. The actual wording is "sending his angel, which sounds a lot like the Old Testament references to "the angel of the LORD. In the Old Testament, the angel of the LORD (Yahweh) is often indistinguishable from Yahweh himself. The emphasis then is upon authority, rather than one or more angels. What the angel delivers is from God himself.
1:4-8. The revealed message is directed specifically to seven congregations of believers. A customary greeting comes from God, the seven spirits before his throne, and Jesus Christ. The position of Christ as the faithful witness, the one who became triumphant over death, and the ruler over all earthly powers is established.
In view of Jesus' exalted position, John breaks out in praise. Jesus loves us, has freed us from sin, and made us a kingdom of priests. John draws from Dan. 7:13, a passage which is interpreted in the New Testament as having to do with the Messiah's exaltation and execution of God's will regarding the worldly order (Matt. 16:27; 24:30-31; 26:64, etc.). The Almighty confirms it.
The seven churches were found within the Roman Province of Asia, which included the western tip of Asia Minor (Western Turkey today). The salutation and benediction are common to what one finds in the New Testament epistles. The human author, John, wishes grace and peace on his readers (1:4; 22:21). But the grace and peace is not his; grace and peace come from God, the seven spirits, and Christ (1:4-5). This grace serves God's people in their faith quest in the face of opposition.
God is described as the One "who is, and who was, and who is to come, a most apt description for an eternal God. The "seven spirits before his [God's] the throne appear to be an expression in reference to the Holy Spirit (cf. 4:5; 5:7), perhaps to be equated with "the seven eyes of the LORD (Zech. 3:9; 4:10). Christ is noted as "the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Within the context of the faithful witnesses and martyrs who are much the subject of Revelation, Christ stands out as "the faithful witness. He is known elsewhere as "the firstborn from among the dead (Col. 1:18), that is one in whom resurrection is assured. All things have been placed under his feet (Eph. 1:18-21; Col. 1:16; Hebrews 1). In this one verse is wrapped the essence of the unity of God in three persons, whether expressed as "I am who I am (Exod. 3:11), "I, the LORD”with the first of them and with the last”I am he (Isa. 41:4), "Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me (Isa. 43:10), "I am the first and I am the last (Isa. 44:6).
The Holy Spirit is seen before the throne to indicate that the Spirit stands in the presence of God and executes his will among men. The Spirit also enables the saints in their spiritual warfare (see also Rev. 4:5; 5:6).
Jesus is the "faithful witness. He is the true witness, who withstood Satan and did not resist the cross. He is the witness par excellence and the example for the saints to follow. The expression also has Old Testament precedence (Psa. 89:27, 37).
The making of the saints to be "a kingdom and priests may be reflective of what God did with Israel at Sinai (Exod. 19:3-6), but it is also a present reality for the saints”the spiritual remnant of Israel (1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9-10). God has indeed accomplished his purposes in his spiritual kingdom. Christ's faithfulness in his mission has resulted in his being made king and priest over God's chosen ones.
The poetic verse that occurs in Rev. 1:7 reflects on Old Testament imagery. Coming on the clouds is typical for showing God in judgment. The "one like a son of man comeing with the clouds (Dan. 7:13) associates Jesus with divine judgment. The piercing and mourning draws from Zech. 12:10 and refers to Jesus. The background references indicate God's actions against those who oppose him and his will. The effect of the entire phrase calls attention to the position of Christ and the certainty of divine judgment against evil. The language is eschatological, but does not necessarily refer to a single end-time event (cf. Matt. 24:30). The coming the divine in judgment points to action relating to the rejection of the authority of God and Jesus. Such action can take place at any time and will certainly be climaxed at the close of history.
1:9-20. John identifies himself as a fellow traveler on the difficult path trod by believers. He too had participated in the sufferings that identify one with Jesus Christ. He himself has been exiled to the small island of Patmos off the Asian coast because of his faith. The suffering and exile were tied directly to his faithfulness to "the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, already mentioned in verse 2. It was his dedication to revealed truth from God and, specifically, to the truth that Jesus is the Son of God who gave himself for man's redemption and was raised to enable victory over sin that brought about suffering and exile.
It was on the Lord's Day (Sunday) when John heard the first proclamation, which he was instructed to write down and send to the seven designated churches. The similarity of John's posture with that of Ezekiel is evident. They both are "in the Spirit (see Ezek. 2:2; 3:12, 14, etc.). The surroundings of John are similar to those of Moses at Sinai with the trumpet blast (Exod. 19:16, 19-20). John stands in the same tradition.
The address to "seven churches suggests completeness. When seven is used elsewhere, it has the same meaning. In the book, we are dealing with the divine. What God does is perfect, complete. The seven churches are, therefore, a representation of his people.
The visions that follow fit the pattern found in the Hebrew Scriptures where apocalyptic is used: vision, response, and interpretation. The vision here "develops the themes of suffering, kingdom, and priesthood . . . and it introduces the new theme of Christ as judge. John's response is similar to that of Daniel: observation, fear, divine strengthening, and further revelation (Beale, The Book of Revelation in The New International Greek Testament Commentary, pp. 206, 213).
What John saw was seven golden lamp stands with Christ standing among them. The imagery depicts the glorious sight of one who has overtaken death's claim on humanity. No doubt, the lamp stands are reminiscent of the lamp stands in the tabernacle and the temple, where God met his people (Exod. 25:31-40; 1 Kings 7:49; Zechariah 4). The shape is replicated at the Arch of Titus in Rome. The readers would have recognized the significance of the lamps that provided light within the tabernacle and temple of God. They would also have known that the lamps become a symbol for the temple, the presence of God, and his faithful people. So, here the lamp stands are matched with the seven churches, but the lamps themselves represent the Spirit of God (Rev. 4:6; cf. Zech. 4:2-5). The connection between the churches and the Spirit should be obvious. The Holy Spirit empowers the churches. In doing so, the connection between the churches and God's spiritual rule is established.
Being described as someone "like a son of man recalls Dan. 7:13, where Daniel saw in a vision one of this description approaching the Ancient of Days (God). Surely, the scene is preparing John and his readers for some message that is coming from God. But the lamps will soon be identified more closely to God's people.
While it is tempting to attempt to identify the meaning of the different features of the clothing worn by the one "like a son of man, it is probably best to exercise restraint. The main point is, he is one of authority and functions here as high priest (1:13-16). However, it should be observed that, while not identical, the imagery is inspired to describe the Ancient of Days (God). Jesus is described in Revelation in a manner similar to the way God was described in Daniel 7:9-12.
The calendar is once more set forth in v. 19: "what is now and what will take place later. What is "now may refer to circumstances surrounding the seven churches. It may also pertain to the spiritual battle that is already engaged.
When studying apocalyptic, the reader should always pay attention to symbols that are interpreted in the text. At first sight, the significance of the seven stars (v. 16) and the seven lamp stands (v. 12) was a mystery to John. The stars represent the angels of the churches; the lamp stands represent the seven churches that will be addressed.
The word "angel is used in some translations; it is sometimes understood simply as the messenger to the churches, whether heavenly or otherwise. The most logical interpretation here is that Jesus held authority over the churches and he was sending them messages, which had heavenly content. Whether he intends the angels were heavenly beings who had special responsibility for the churches or were the metaphorical references to those who delivered the messages is disputed. One need go no further in trying to identify the angels here.