A Bible Lesson on Revelation 1

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is the first of a series of lessons on parts of the book of Revelation.  Revelation may be the hardest of all books of the Bible for us to understand.  It is loaded with word pictures that we cannot (and were not meant to) quite pull together.  And typically, we’re not really conversant enough with the Old Testament Scriptures to pick up on all the allusions that are used.  And, I think, we often try to read it as if were a puzzle to be solved instead of a letter meant to give us courage and assurance that in the end, it is God who will have the last word.

The best guess is that the book was written around 90 AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.  By this time emperor worship was a serious part of life in the Roman world, and Domitian was ruthless in requiring it.  It is interesting and important to realize where this whole thing came from and what it entailed.  The Roman armies had actually brought more sanity to life than had ever been known in the pagan world.  Life was stable, there were sane laws and ways for people to lead ordinary lives without worrying much about attack by local criminals or foreign barbarians.  Worship of first Rome, and then the emperor, was something that initially was the misguided response of the people themselves to the Pax Romana.  Some of the early emperors actually forbade the practice.  But Domitian was quite brutal about requiring it.  People had to once a year burn incense to him and declare him to be “lord.”  They were then free to turn around and practice whatever religion they chose, as long as they had acknowledged Caesar first.  It was really a political matter.  (Its arguable that this is really, in fact, not all that far from where we’re headed.  As long as one bows down to the grand god of tolerance and pluralism it’s then OK to do whatever peculiar religious thing one wishes.  But one must first swear allegiance to the notion that the “pluralist”/secular government is supreme.)  Christians, of course, refused to acknowledge anyone but Christ as Lord, and that  led to their intense persecution across the whole Roman empire.  A reasonable question was then, how could this small, completely uninfluential bunch of Christians withstand the force of the Roman government?  No nation to that time had managed to stand against Rome.  How in the world could the church do so?  Those are the circumstances and questions to which Revelation is addressed.

Revelation 1:1  The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,

This is the revelation of Jesus Christ, the unveiling of truth belonging to Jesus, truth from God that Christ makes known to you and me.  Is this completely new truth outside of the Old Testament and other New Testament Scriptures?  No.  But nevertheless, this is truth that you and I, mere mortals would not have reasoned our way to on our own.  This is God’s truth that we can only know because He makes it known to us.  And here He has used an angel and John to bring it to us.  This is probably John the Apostle, though he doesn’t identify himself as such.

2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

Blessed is he who reads aloud.  The notion is the public reading of this book, in keeping with standard practice in Christian churches of the day.  The Scriptures and letters were read aloud and here a blessing is invoked on the ones that will read.  And so too is there a blessing for those that will hear and take it to heart.  It never suffices to hear only.  We must take the truth to heart.

4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood

6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Here is quite a salutation.  This is written to the seven churches.  There were more than seven in the Roman province of Asia by this time.  But seven is a number of wholeness and completeness, and this should probably be read as a symbolic reference to the whole church.  In fact the particular seven churches that are mentioned are in towns arranged in a kind of circle in that area (again giving us a picture of completeness).

John says “Grace and peace.”  May God’s unmerited favor and wholeness rest on you.

From whom does this ultimately come?  It comes from the whole of the Trinity, from the great “I AM,” the Spirit, and the Son.  The “seven” used in regard to the Spirit is not meant to teach that somehow the Spirit of God is fragmented, but again there is the notion of completeness and probably also the notion that this same Spirit is actively at work in all of the churches to whom this letter is addressed.

Jesus is described as the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  We’re reminded that Jesus was completely in harmony with and submission to the Father, that He was raised, and lest you persecuted Christians are tempted to think otherwise, He currently reigns over the affairs of men.

He loves and has freed.  Notice the tenses.  He currently and into the future loves.  His action on Calvary once and for all freed us in the past from the bondage of sin.  It is done.  And that righteous action has made us to be kings and priest–you and me, fallen, frail human beings.  We’ve been made to be kings and priests.  That’s a “hallelujah” or “amen” and John breaks into one.  To Him be glory and power forever, Amen!

7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

John flashes ahead to the second coming.  He sees Jesus just as Paul promised in 1 Thessalonians.  He is coming in the clouds with every eye on earth looking at Him.  And not all will be glad at His coming.  John is, by the way, essentially quoting from Zechariah 12:10 here, alluding to the piercing of Christ on the cross and looking a head to His return.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

“I AM the A and the Z,” the whole story.  Nothing exists independent of Him.  This wonderful God always has been and always will be, and in all things He is sovereign.  He is the Almighty.

9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John identifies himself and starts to say how it is that he came in possession of this revelation.  He is a brother, a fellow servant of Jesus, and what’s more, he’s been through the same kind of persecution that the recipients of this letter have endured.  He’s not standing outside their experience giving advice from an easy chair.  He’s on the island of Patmos for the sake of the Gospel.  Patmos was used as a penal colony by the Romans.  People speculate that John (since Christians were considered serious criminals at this point) may well have been doing forced labor in the quarries on Patmos. at an age exceeding 80!  Even if this is not the case, the best circumstances for exiles here would hardly have been livable.

10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet

It was on the Lord’s Day, on a Sunday.  This terminology had likely grown up in contrast to the terminology “the emperor’s day” when all were supposed to pay him homage.  And I was in the Spirit and heard a loud voice.

11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

In addition to being arranged in a ring in the center of the Roman province of Asia, these towns were also postal hubs.  They were centers from which this letter could go out into the whole of the province.

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,

“See the voice” is an interesting turn of phrase, especially in light of the fact that Jesus is the “Word” of God.  There had been in the Jewish temple a golden candlestick that held seven candles.  Here the seven are separated, dispersed, but not really so in essence, since:

13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.

Here is Christ, standing in His church.  It is a standard and important thing to note that the lampstand only holds the light.  The light is really that of Christ.  The terminology “like a son of man” goes back to Daniel 7:13.  The long robe and golden sash are appropriate for either the high priest or for royalty.  Christ is both, our high priest and the King of kings.  Again, there is a picture of such a person in Daniel 10:5-6.

14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire,

15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

The whiteness is clearly a picture of the complete purity/holiness of God, and John sees clearly that Jesus shares the holiness of the Father.  Ezekiel 43:2 characterizes the voice of God as being like the roar of rushing water.  Daniel 7:9 pictures the Father as having hair white as wool.  The Father and Son are one God.

16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

John saw the seven star “in his right hand,” in a place of favor and protection.  The strong Son of God holds in His right hand the seven churches.  They are not perfect, but they are under His protection.  This is a dazzling, overpowering picture, terrible and fearsome for the enemies of Christ.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last,

18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

Even John, not an enemy but rather a servant of Christ, is overpowered.  He faints away.  But there is comfort in this powerful One and Christ revives John and commissions him to write, to write what presently is and is to come.

19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.

20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

This is the “mystery” in the sense that it is something we would never have worked out for ourselves, but that Christ has now made known.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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