Previous post here.
4 JOHN to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
This is fairly standard language for the opening of a letter (compare Paul’s letters). We can’t prove if this is (or is not) the same John as any of the other Johns mentioned in the NT.
Again, seven is symbolic. In this case, it appears that the letter is literally sent to seven churches but also that it is symbolic of the letter being sent to the whole world (seven=whole, complete). These seven churches are mentioned in the order in which they occur along the road. Presumably, given the cost of creating texts (our best estimates are that a gospel would cost something like $600 in today’s money to produce) and the poverty of (most) of the congregations, there was one copy of the letter that would make the rounds from city to city. (Aren’t you grateful to have access to the scriptures?) Think about this from the perspective of an individual member of the Christian congregation in one of these cities: you would probably hear the letter read a few times (in its entirety) and then the letter would be on its way and you would never have any contact with the text again. This may be one of the reasons for the vivid visual images in the letter: it is an understatement to say that they stick in the mind, and you would presumably be able to visualize and ponder them over the months ahead.
This is Asia Minor (currently Turkey), not Asia the Continent.
Grace and peace is the standard letter-opener for Christians (see Paulâ€™s letters) and is a neat combo of a Greek welcome (grace) and a Hebrew one (peace)â€“very multicultural.
â€œWhich is, and which was, and which is to comeâ€ is a pretty intriguing title for deity. One referent would be the title from Exodus 3:14. You’ll notice as we go through the letter that many references are made to God’s power in the past, present, and future. I believe this would have been very reassuring to the early audiences, who saw ample evidence of Rome’s power in the present and may have been able to weigh that against what they know of God’s power in the past and what they see in Revelation of God’s power in the future to conclude that God does have power in the present. As I sit here listening to my kids fight in the next room, I wonder what it means to think that God has power in the present in my life.
Whatâ€™s up with the seven spirits? It may be a symbolic reference to the completeness of the Spirit (again, seven=whole, complete). There may also be a reference to Isaiah 11:2, where, depending on how you count and parse, you could end up with seven spirits. It may also refer to the seven spirits mentioned in Revelation 4:5, but more on that later. We can’t (at least, I can’t) pin this down with any certainty, but what is clear is that these seven spirits (which, however you slice it, are complete and spirit-ful) are before the throne of God. In other words, the image points to the majesty of God.
Remember that a throne is a symbol for power. We begin to see images (God on a symbol of power, seven spirits before it) that build up in the audience’s mind an understanding of the idea that, despite what they see when they look around, God is powerful. This is such a simple idea that we take it for granted, but, surrounded by images of Rome’s glory, they would not have. What difference would it make to us to realize God’s power?
5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
“Witness” could also be translated as martyr.
Firstborn of the dead is an interesting, paradoxical concept.
â€œPrinceâ€ should be translated as â€œruler.â€ In other words, Jesus is the ruler over the kings of the earth. This would have been a very counterintuitive and very important concept for the first Christians to understand.
“Unto” seems kind of weird here but the thought continues into verse 6, so that we have “Unto him that loved us . . . be glory and dominion, etc.”
Modern readers can get so hung up on the ick-factor in Revelation that they can miss the simple, powerful declarations: Jesus loved us.
Weâ€™ve heard the sentiment of sins washed in his blood so many times that we donâ€™t think about it any more. Stop and think it through: Do you know anyone who washes her laundry in blood? This is a paradoxical image that forces the reader to confront the illogicality and miraculousness of the atonement. There is also good support for the word “freed” instead of “washed” here, but I lean toward washed.
This verse picks up lines from Psalm 89:27 and 37. Go read it (and the verses in between) because the verses in between are a good summary of some of the major themes in the whole Book of Revelation.
6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Again, language that we hear too often can lose its meaning. Think for a moment how an ancient average Joe would have thought of a king and priest. Think now of the promise that God had made the average Joe a king and priest. Additionally, the idea that they are kings and priests means that the promises made in Exodus 19:5-6 have been fulfilled. Knowing that God has fulfilled promises should help the audience have faith that God will continue to do so.
“Amen” means “truly.”
7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
“Behold” draws the readers’ eye, as it were (think of the angel with Nephi), calling their attention to something.
The reference to the clouds is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13. This is one of those moments when a literal reading leads you astray: the point isn’t that Jesus will return with overcast skies (Who cares? What difference does that make? Does it mean you can sin when it’s sunny because you know you have time to repent?) but rather serves to call the audience’s mind to Daniel, where Daniel has a dream; the point is that Jesus Christ is the “one like the Son of man” in Daniel. This may be an obvious point to us, but this fragile audience needed reminding that Jesus Christ (1) had been prophesied of in the Old Testament, (2) was in fact the Son of Man, and (3) would in fact return to the earth. The next verse in Daniel is also extremely important in making this point: “And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Even in the face of Rome. This is, by the way, exactly the sort of place where we would expect a somewhat cryptic allusion: it keeps the Romans listening in from hauling the Christians off for saying that Christ’s kingdom, and not Rome’s, was the everlasting kingdom–a sentiment which is clearly treasonous and would have been treated that way.
The rest of the verse quotes Zechariah 12:10. Notice the extremely subversive nature of Zech 12:9!
“Even so, amen” combines Greek and Hebrews phraseology, just like grace and peace did above. So that makes a nice bookend around this section of text and amplifies the theme of inclusion of the “whole” world that the “seven” churches points to. The plain meaning (i.e., a modern translation) of even so would be something like “and so shall it be.”
8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. This idiom suggests “everything”–not just the endpoints. In other words, the Lord here is saying “I am the everything;” in Hebrew thought, alpha and omega in some sense included all of the letters in between. The words “the beginning and the ending” are not in the oldest manuscripts and appear to have been added to benefit those who didn’t know what alpha and omega meant!
9 I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
A good synonym for “tribulation” would be ‘suffering.’ This verse suggests a similar experience to other visionary prophets (see Daniel 10, Isaiah 6, and Ezekiel 1). It makes better sense to read “patience in Jesus Christ” than “of.” “For the word of God” means “because of the word of God.”
The Patmos location suggests exile or a penal colony.
10 I was in the Spirit on the Lordâ€™s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Better translation: a loud voice, like a trumpet. The image comes from Exodus 19:16 and suggests that, similar to that text, this one will describe an encounter between God and the prophet.
11 Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
“I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” and “which are in Asia” are not in the best manuscripts.
Again note that John will see things. I’ll say more about the cities when we get to the letters addressed to each one.
This is really not an ideal ending place because we are in the middle of a visionary experience, but I didn’t want the post to get too long.
Summary thoughts: Seven is the key number here, but there are a lot of what I call “hidden threes.” Meaning: the number three isn’t mentioned but things that describe deity occur in threes. Example just from this chapter:
v4 describes God: was, is, is to come
v5 describes Jesus: faithful witness, first begotten, prince of kings
v5-6 describes what Jesus does: loved us, washed us, made us kings
v17-18: describes Jesus: first and last, liveth and was dead, alive forevermore
There are many more examples throughout the Book of Revelation of the tendency to describe deity with three descriptors. (Look for them!) Three, as a symbolic number, signifies deity, so this is the author’s way of emphasizing the divinity of Jesus Christ and God; neither of which, of course, would have been accepted as divine in Roman society. We have our difference with other Christians, but belief in the divinity of Jesus and God isn’t one of them (speaking in general terms, of course). So perhaps we don’t dwell on how very significant these doctrines are. Living in a world where people didn’t believe that Jesus was anything but a criminal peasant and where the God of the Old Testament wasn’t anything more than the tribal deity of a vanquished people would have brought those beliefs into sharp focus. How can belief in the divinity of God and Jesus be as meaningful to us?