Ch. 1. 1-8 Introduction and 1.9-3.22, The First 'Week'
1) Before we move into the text, it might be well to consider briefly the sort of imagery, or metaphorical language which is such a striking characteristic of Revelation.
Right at the beginning, before John records his letters to the Seven churches, we get a “description” of the Son of Man. But what do we make of eyes like a flame of fire and feet like polished bronze? What can we do with a city that has gates that are pearls (21.21), or horses that have human-like faces, but women’s hair, and scorpions where one might expect a tail (9.7f)? Is the author asking us to visualize these creatures?
2) A consideration of the way Hebrew writers regularly describe things and people is of immense help here. In a book called Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, T. Bowman makes some helpful points. He notes that few ‘realistic’ descriptions (in our photographic sense) are found in the O. T. Rather, the writers give us “impressions of the thing perceived” (p.74). The descriptions of buildings are much more concerned with their use than with how they would look in an architectural drawing. In the case of people, he notes how few complete descriptions we have (note this also of the gospel writers in the case of Jesus); what references we do have, are there because the detail is very important to get across the character of the person (e.g. I Sam. 9.2; 16..12).
One of the most descriptive books in the O.T. is the Song of Solomon, originally a secular love poem that was made into an allegory of Yahweh’s love. The “portrait” of the beloved is anything but a photograph, or even a fairly impressionistic painting.
In 4.4 her neck is like a tower. Look at 4.1 ff. and 7.2f. This is not a picture of her outward appearance but of her character. She is seen as inaccessible, pure, but surrendering the “stronghold” (of her virginity) to the lover. She also has promise of child-bearing (of great importance in Hebrew culture); see 7.2 and 4.2. When we apply this insight to Revelation, we may be helped to understand some of the extravagant language. The visions are, in a sense, mis-named, because we are not asked to see them with our eyes but with our minds. They are “conceptualizations”, a word I do not like all that much but which is more accurate than ‘visions’
3) Chapter 1, vv1-8
The first three verses are a formal preface; cf. Jer. 1.1-3 The source of the ‘revelation’ is God, but mediated through Jesus and a further “angel”, and so, though there is a definite air of the Prophets, there are also immediately apocalyptic elements (angel; “time is near”)
vv 4-6 are parallel to the beginning of the letters we find in the NT., and show that the author is firmly in the Christian tradition. (cf. Rev. 1. 5b & 6 with Gal. 1.3-5). The theology, too, is firmly main-line N.T. with its emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus and the priestly nature of the church (cf. I Cor. 15; I Pe.2.9).
vv 7-8 however, move to the main theme of the book, but even here John is not producing new radical teaching. The idea of Christ coming “on the clouds” is found in Mt. 24.30; 26.64; Mk.13.26 & 14.62. The words go back, ultimately, to Dan. 7.13, and there is a great deal of discussion among scholars about the original use of them in the gospel narratives. Were they actually used by Jesus, or did the earliest Christians introduce them to explain their faith in the final victory of Christ? In any case, by the time John the Seer wrote, they were firmly embedded in the Christian tradition.
John’s imaginative grasp of the O.T. is indicated by his use of Zech. 12.10 in v. 7. It is a profound thought. The victory has been won, God’s reign is inaugurated, but “the tribes of the earth” do not acknowledge it. They continue every-day life, “eating, drinking, buying, selling”; (Lk.17.26ff). In the interim, the Saints alone, (i.e. Christians) know that the only valid rule is God’s rule. In the end, insists John, all will be forced to acknowledge that fact. This exclusivism is fairly typical of The Book of Revelation, in line with much in first century Judaic Apocalypses, except that there, the saved were pious keeper of the Torah. It is not, however, the predominant view of the N.T. (e.g. the Synoptic traditions of Jesus’ table fellowship; Paul’s “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek).
v.8 The emphatic voice of God ends the introduction. The statement is the shortest possible statement of the process of creation, history and the end.
4) Chapter 1 vv 9 - 20
The First section (week) begins with the appearance of the Risen and Ascended Christ. (Tech. name for this is Christophany).
The Lord’s Day; Christians now keep the first day of the week, not the seventh (Sabbath). An indication of the late date of this book. Church and synagogue are now quite separated. “Son of Man” Jesus’ title for himself; very frequent in Mk. See Dan. 7.13; 10.5,16).
We are introduced to the Seven churches to whom letters are to go.
For the seven lamp stands look up Ex. 27.20-21; they are ‘menorahs’.
For the sword as a metaphor for the Word of God, see Isa.49.2, and in the N.T., Heb. 4.12 and Eph. 6.17.
His face shines because he is the risen one, but it shone also at the Transfiguration (Mk ch. 9);. the whole passage is a kind of mediation on the person and work of Christ, ending with a magnificent statement of the central belief of Christianity. There is a tension in the N.T. between, on the one hand, the Man of Nazareth transfigured, and on the other, the Glorious God "personalized"
5) The Seven Letters (chs 2 & 3)
Each one consists of (i) a description of Christ taken from the opening vision; (ii) a commendation and or (iii) a warning; (iv) a promise to those who “overcome” (the power of evil).
Although the book opens with a typical Letter introduction, these seven messages do not; they are more like “the edicts and decrees issued by....Roman Emperors” (Note in HarperCollins Study Bible p. 2311). The same source comments that the messages are full of moral exhortation, which is not a usual feature of apocalyptic.
The seven churches were all within a hundred miles of Ephesus, the chief city of the Roman Province of Asia Minor (roughly modern Turkey).
First Message: to Ephesus
The church founded by St. Paul is commended for its faithfulness, but its first love seems to have cooled. The presence of conflicting views and divisions in the church have been with us for too long. There are several references to sects which are otherwise unknown to us (e.g. vv.6 and 14) Commentators in the 3rd-4th centuries made guesses which have no more validity than the ones we can make. The unfortunate convert called Nicolaus in Acts 6.5 is accused with no evidence of being the founder of the sect in v. 6.
The first message parallels the opening section and has Christ in glory, a kind of Sunday.
Second Message: to Smyrna
The city was a center of the Emperor cult and that may explain the references to coming suffering. They are financially poor, but spiritually rich.
An interesting link between this second message and the second Week is to be seen. Here coming martyrdom is predicted, but those who persevere will gain the “crown of Life”.
Compare chs 6-8 where the whole theme is judgment and the ‘sealing’ of those who have “come out of the great ordeal” (7.14)
Third Message: to Pergamum
Another important center for Emperor worship and this may explain the reference to ‘Satan’s throne’. Yet another unorthodox group is named. Several late sources refer to the “error of Balaam” (see Num. 22-24; 31.16; II Pe. 2.15-15 & Jude 11). Probably idolatry and fertility cult practices were involved.
The reference to a specific martyr (Antipas) may connect this third message with the third Week where we find the witnesses killed for their preaching in the wicked city; here it is not Rome, but Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified (11.3; 7-8).
Fourth Message: to Thyatira
Jezebel was regarded by the O.T. writers as a disaster, perverting the true religion of Yahweh and leading the king astray. (I K 18-19 & II K 9) The very ancient religion of the Middle East (Canaan, Asia Minor, Greece) was agricultural/fertility. The King & Queen were regarded as divine. Sexual rituals were a normal part of the fertility cults.
A parallel with the fourth Week is that there the opposite of Jezebel appears - the mother of the Messiah. Later in the chapter (14.8) the “great whore” Babylon is cast down. Note also there are those in Thyatira who are said not to have known” the deep things of Satan”, (which are revealed in chs 13 & 14) and deep satanic mysteries are hinted at in the fateful number of the beast.
Fifth Message: to Sardis
A harsh judgment, and again the main problem seems to be the pervasive influence of the old religion (cf. “soiled their clothes”, a fairly common metaphor for sexual impurity). For the “book of life”, see 13.8; 17.8; 20.12; 21.27; Dan. 12.1; Lk. 10.20; Phil. 4.3).
The fifth Week is taken up with a series of apocalyptic judgments - the seven last plagues, and one might suppose there is no parallel to be found in the fifth message, but in fact, it is one of the more striking ones. In the midst of the din of apocalyptic battle, the author puts in parenthesis a word of Jesus, “See I am coming like a thief” (16.15) which is also quoted here (3.3) cf. also Mt 24.42-44; I Thess. 5.2.
Sixth Message: to Philadelphia
This message concentrates on an Advent theme; it anticipates the final end, the Sabbath day’s rest when God’s plan shall be completed. It looks forward to the final bliss of the New Jerusalem (Rev chs 19-210 The sixth day is, of course, Friday, the day of Christ’s death, and victory, the day when the veil of the Temple was torn open for all to enter. We hear promises of joining in that victory in the message and in the sixth Week.
“My new name” may be an allusion to Isa 62.2 &65.15).
Seventh Message: to Laodicea
There is no full “Week” at the end of Revelation, but the end of the book points forward to eternal life with God, and this message gives the title of Jesus as the “Amen”. Moreover, it has clear allusions to the Eucharist where Jesus comes to join his faithful people, and it calls the faithful to become part of the final rule of heaven (“sit with me on my throne”). It is worth comparing vv 20-22 with 22.12-17.
As we look at the conditions of the church revealed in the seven messages, what parallels can we see with the contemporary Church? Do they speak of opportunities? What do the titles of Jesus suggest for Christians today?