Revelation (Part 02): Framing the Message
Revelation’s author identifies himself as John. Although he writes to specifically seven churches, the book as a whole gives the impression that it is the revelation of Jesus for all God’s people. From that (and other stylistic details to be discussed later) we understand the intent not limited to the seven churches but rather that these seven are representative of the complete (total) church of God (much like the seven spirits of God mentioned in verse 4 represent the complete Spirit of God.
Who is this John? John the Apostle? John the Baptist? John Mark? Does it have to be a John we know? Maybe it is just some other influential leader no one has ever heard of before? Most less conservative scholars have settled on identifying the author as John of Patmos, some person who, although we don’t know exactly who he is, is certainly not John the Apostle. The reasoning is that the Greek of Revelation is different from the Greek of the Gospel of John (which, of course, they also believe was not written by John the Apostle). If you are scratching your head now, wondering how this is a coherent argument, you obviously have not dealt with liberal scholarly arguments much before.
The Greek of Revelation is somewhat different from the Greek of the Gospel (although many reports are exaggerated). The difference is usually defined as degree of elegance, with the Gospel getting the nod as the more elegant. Yet, even this difference is less than compelling if we understand the Gospel to have been published at the death of John and possibly edited by his own group of Greek disciples.
The two points that seem to me compelling to recognize the author of Revelation as the Apostle John are that he needs no qualification besides his name for his readers to understand who he is. And the earliest records we have witness that Revelation was accepted as written by John the Apostle by almost everyone. The three notable exceptions were Marcion of the 2nd century and Dionysius and Gaius of the 3rd century—all three had theological motives for dismissing portions of the New Testament books.
The date of the book is probably in the early 90s AD. Irenaeus (student of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John) stated that Revelation was written toward the end of Domitian’s reign. Domitian was Caesar from AD 81 to 96. Countering this, early date proponents point to four items of internal evidence: (1) verse 1 says the events would quickly take place, (2) verse 7 speaks of coming with the clouds and the tribes of the earth mourning in the same manner as Matthew 24:29-30, which discusses the fall of Jerusalem, (3) the sixth king of the seven-headed beast described in Revelation 17, and (4) the destruction of Jerusalem is not literally mentioned in Revelation, and surely it would have been if it had already taken place. None of these arguments is compelling, however, as we will see in our discussions as we move through our study.
For our study of Revelation we will take an approach that attempts to see a framework first before coming into the detail. Much of the difficulty with the study of Revelation, I think, is because the minutiae are examined first and in segregated parts. Interpretation is given to each set of minutiae and then an attempt is made to lash it all together in fanciful ways in order for the book as a whole to make sense. I believe a better approach would be to look at the whole first—the introduction and ending and connecting elements, and then, once the structure and purpose are in view, to grapple with the specific elements within, determining connection to that overall structure.
The first area to be reviewed, then, is the prologue—Revelation 1:1-8. To whom is the book addressed? We find in the very first verse that this revelation is to show God’s servants what must take place. So, the book is for the people of God. We may wonder at the identifier—servants (or slaves, Greek doulos). In the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples, “I do not all you servants (Greek doulos) anymore, because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from My Father” (John 15:15). We could make the argument that the fact that God’s people are just at that time being given this revelation means that they were not yet on the cusp of changing from servant to friend, but that kind of literal, legalistic justification seeks a quality of inerrancy that settles on a somewhat inferior level to that of a more complete understanding of truth.
By his definition, Jesus is a friend of God, but he is also called the Servant of God (Acts 3:26)—and, at other times, the Son of God or the Word of God, but all depending on the context and intent of the revelation. Yes, God’s people are his friends, but they are also his servants. A servant is one who is devoted to another to the disregard of his/her own interests. This is exactly how we should understand ourselves when following God’s course in his truth, goodness, and beauty. We disregard the narrow, faulty scheme of our own solitary interests for those greater interests of God for us all.
In this first verse we also see God following a message pattern that, although not always seen fully when God communicates through his prophets, is seen in a more formal sense, and is outlined here for a specific purpose. We learn that God gave to Jesus who showed his prophet John through an angel so that John could relay the message to God’s servants. It is a heavenly pattern to show importance, uniqueness, and completeness, I believe, through the whole involvement of all the spiritual world of God’s domain to all the physical world of God’s domain. And John acts just as OT prophet in receiving from that spiritual domain to deliver it to the physical domain—from the divine to the human.
Interestingly, John states the more formal address in verse 4. In this verse, the addressee includes the seven churches in Asia. Immediately we may conclude (as almost everyone does) that the seven named churches are not the sum total of God’s intent for this book. Certainly they were the churches with whom John must have been most familiar. John resided in Ephesus and no doubt traveled around—even in his old age—to these other cities grouped in fairly close proximity. No doubt Jesus’s chapters 2 and 3 particular messages to these churches spoke of actions and motivations and histories specific to these churches. Yet, in the greater scheme of the book, we find God’s direction and intent, from the first verse address to God’s servants through to the Book of Life holding the names of all the saints, in universal context to all Christians, indeed, of all time. The designation of “seven” churches fits in well with the apocalyptic nature of the book and the frequent expression of the number seven to express completeness.
We have discussed briefly from whom the book comes. Of course, John is the author (verse 4), but he leaves no doubt that it is both God and Jesus that are delivering the message (verse 1), and that understanding is supported in verses 10 and 11 as Jesus gives John the command to write.
The prologue also provides us with the purpose for the book. We find out right away in verse 1 that God wants to show his servants the revelation of Jesus Christ. To understand that statement fully, I believe, we need to remind ourselves of the Kinship Theology foundational principle for creation. God created his image bearers for the purpose of everlasting love relationship. On this foundation everything depends. Every thought of Scripture—every action—every purpose—must find its way inexorably back to the foundational principle. If it any idea, scheme, or interpretation cannot see its support in that foundation, it is not truth. So then, God’s intention for showing this revelation of Jesus Christ is for that purpose—it supports our everlasting love relationship with our God.
Therefore, we must understand God’s activity and desire here as necessary for our relational benefit. Notice first that we’re not told this is the revelation of Jesus the Son of God or Jesus the Word or Jesus the King of kings. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, which gives us an emphasis on the anointed, chosen mission of Jesus to be the faithful Servant Rescuer (see Isaiah). The rescuing was planned from the beginning, worked its way through the OT covenantal system, through Abraham, Moses, and David, to the virgin birth, the cross, the resurrection and pointing to the glorious return. This is all the Messiah’s mission of rescue. What then might we suspect to see in this revelation of Jesus THE CHRIST? It would seem that God’s intent then in this book—this last one of the Bible—is to put together everything that we have seen through his Word pertaining to his rescue of us to fulfill his purpose of everlasting love relationship.
In other words, from this hint already, we should broaden a possibly limited perspective that God is just going to show us some end feature of Jesus’s return. Rather we should, I believe, expect to see the entirety of God’s rescue mission through the Messiah Jesus.
Again, in the first verse, we find that what we will be shown in the revelation of Jesus Christ are things that “must quickly take place.” Only Preterists, those who believe that all of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century, understand this “quickly” or “shortly” to mean that all events must start and end within that generation’s span. Other views sometimes characterize this as a series of events that must quickly begin rather than that all of the events must also quickly complete. But I think both these ideas miss the point.
The revelation is of the mission of Jesus Christ. The mission began not only in OT promise, but in OT interaction of God in revelation and response relationship. And it happened in the context of a world filled with sin. As God intensified his activity with those who responded to his revelation in faith (e.g., Seth’s line, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), a more distinct difference and line of antagonism grew as the conflicting bases of truth, goodness, and beauty (i.e., God or Humanity) continued at odds. This conflict with sin came to a monumental head when Jesus was born into this world as a human, walked with God, and gave himself to die at the hand of the sin-swept, evil-minded, self-loving and exalting horde. And Jesus promised this same hating, persecuting treatment to run rampant against all those who embraced in faith this ultimate revelation of God’s rescue.
This build up of Christ’s kingdom is specifically characterized in the Bible as different—different from the world, different from the power/authority-minded perception that is right and true and good by the evil environment this world bathes in. Christ’s kingdom is subversive to this world system precisely for two reasons: willingness to offer grace and willingness to endure suffering.