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Studies in the book of Revelation: What God looks like

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 1:4-20

John, the writer identifies himself for the second time in verse four. He addresses the revelation from Jesus to the seven churches of Asia, which at that time was Asia Minor, the western region of modern-day Turkey. The churches are named in verse 11.

“Grace to you and peace” was a common biblical greeting. “Grace” translates the typical Greek greeting; “peace” translates “shalom,” the typical Hebrew greeting. Together, they offer the reader the grace of salvation and the peace which is its result.

The God John served on Patmos was the “one who is, and who was, and who is to come”

(1:4). The Lord God makes the same claim for himself in 1:8, as does Jesus in 1:17.

Hebrews 13:8 agrees that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

This description is an extension of God’s self-designated name YHWH (generally

represented in English as Yahweh), meaning the One who is, who was, and who ever

shall be (see Exodus 3:14). The One “who is to come” is the first reference in Revelation

to the return of Christ, continuing the promise Jesus made at his ascension (Acts 1:11).

John also sees “the seven spirits before his throne” (Revelation 1:4), better translated “the sevenfold Spirit”. Seven in apocalyptic language is the number of perfection and completion. So this description refers to the perfect Spirit, complete and powerful in every way. The Spirit serves “before his throne,” a reference to the Spirit’s role in leading us in worship before the Father.

Thus two of the three members of the Trinity are identified—the Son will come next. Now Jesus is described as “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). “The faithful martyr” would be another translation of the first phrase in the text.

“Firstborn” relates not to chronology but to significance and importance. The firstborn in

Hebrew culture was the most important of the children. Our text does not teach that Jesus was created (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim), but that Jesus is the “only begotten Son” of the Father in the sense that he is the Father’s first Son in significance or importance. In fact, he is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) at present, whether they know it or not.

While he rules the world, Jesus also loves each and every one of us personally. He has proven his love by freeing us “from our sins by his blood,” making us priests to serve his Father (1:5-6). “Freed us from our sins” is a completed action in the Greek, a past event with present consequences (1:5). We are already set free to serve God today.

Then one day our Savior will return to our earth and make complete our victory (1:7).

The entire world will see him, from the first-century enemies who crucified him to those alive at his return. Every person, across all time, in all nations of the world.

His very nature guarantees his eternal omnipotence, for he is both “Alpha” (the first letter in the Greek alphabet) and “Omega” (the last letter). He is the “Almighty,” the one who rules over the universe with infinite power (1:8).

Patmos

In Verse 9, John identifies himself again, this time as “your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.” And identified his location as the island of Patmos. John is different from the Jewish apocalyptic writers of the interbiblical period in that he identifies himself.

Early writers stated that John was exiled to Patmos; Victorinus said that he was quite old, and that he worked in the mines of the island. This was around A.D. 95. In 96, Domitian the Roman ruler died, and tradition affirms that John then returned to Ephesus.

Affliction, which John mentions, was thlipsis, and he was looking forward to basileia, the kingdom into which he desired to enter and on which he had set his heart. There was only one way from thlipsis to basileia, from affliction to glory, and that was through hupomone, conquering endurance. Jesus said, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13. Paul told his people, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” Acts 14:22). In 2 Timothy we read: “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2:12).

Endurance can only be found in Christ. He endured to the end and enables us to do so.

Patmos was a small, rocky island about of about16 square miles in the Aegean Sea, some 40 miles southwest of Miletus. It was a penal settlement to which the Roman authorities sent offenders. It was sparsely settled, and according to Pliny, was treeless. This probably meant hard labor in the quarries.

According to some theologians, his banishment would have been “preceded by scourging, marked by perpetual fetters, scanty clothing, insufficient food, sleep on the bare ground, a dark prison, work under the lash of the military overseer” (quoted in Barclay, 41).

He was in the Alcatraz of Patmos, worshiping “on the Lord’s Day” (1:10). This is the first reference in literature and in the New Testament to “the Lord’s Day.” While some have seen it as a reference to the future “Day of the Lord,” most interpreters identify the phrase with Sunday. The early Christians worshiped Jesus on the first day of the week, the day of his resurrection (see John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1Corinthians 16:2).

The Didache, the earliest compendium of Christian theology, identifies this phrase with Sunday as well (Didache 14). While the pagan world celebrated the first day of the week as Emperor’s Day, Christians worshiped Christ and not Caesar on the “Lord’s Day.”

Jesus in John’s vision

Then John heard a voice, like a trumpet, that told him to write what he would “see” (indicating the visionary nature of the book to follow), and send it to the seven churches (to be addressed specifically in Rev. 2—3). The seven churches are probably listed in the order in which they would be visited by a messenger with such letters.

Turning to see the one speaking, John saw the Christ for the first time in about sixty years. He could not go to his best Friend, Savior, and King, and so Jesus came to him.

The risen Lord was standing in the midst of “seven golden lampstands” (1:12), explained later as the seven churches of Revelation (1:20) and signifying the church’s work in sharing the light of God with the world (see Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus stands among his people, identifying with our mission and our struggles, still today.

John saw Jesus’ “robe reaching down to his feet” (Revelation 1:13). “Robe” translates the

Greek word also used in the Greek translation of Exodus 28:4 for the blue robe of the high priest. Jesus had been condemned by the high priest. Now he is the High Priest (see

Hebrews 4:14-16). The “golden sash around his chest” (Revelation 1:13) also points to the priesthood (see Exodus 39:29; Leviticus 8:7).

His white head and hair (1:14) signify wisdom and dignity (Leviticus 19:32; Proverbs 16:31). His flaming eyes symbolize judgment and vision (see Hebrews 12:29) and perhaps point to the burning bush where the Lord first revealed himself personally to Moses (Exodus 3).

Jesus’ bronze feet (Revelation 1:15a) show his strength, as bronze was the strongest metal known in the day. His loud voice (1:15b) suggests the power of a great waterfall and is symbolic of his authority over the entire universe. The seven stars in his right hand

(1:16a) are later identified as the “angels” of the seven churches—perhaps messengers to the churches, or even their pastors.

The “sharp double-edged sword” in his mouth points to the long and heavy sword used in military conflict, and to the powerful word of God (Hebrews 4:12). His brilliant face recalls the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2) and Moses’ shining face (Exodus 34:29).

John understandably “fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17a). For similar responses to the awesome glory of God, see Joshua 5:14; Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 8:17; 10:15; Matthew 17:6; Acts 26:14. Now the same Lord who holds the churches touched John and calmed his fear (Revelation 1:17b). As Jesus holds death and Hades (1:18), so Jesus holds his servant.

Conclusion

From the introduction to Revelation and its founding vision we learn four relevant facts.

First, Jesus can do today everything he has ever done. He was, is, and is to come. If Jesus could raise Lazarus, he can raise us. If Jesus could save a drowning Peter, he can save us.

Whatever you find Jesus to do in the Scriptures, you can find him to do in the world today.

Second, Jesus possesses every ability we need today. He has conquered death, Hades, and prison (see 1:18). He stands among his churches, holding their leaders in his hand. He is our royal King, our High Priest, and our Savior. And all his power is available to his people.

Third, Jesus deserves our awe and reverence. Compare John’s response to him with our typical worship attitudes and experiences. When was the last time you were awed by God? That was the last time you worshiped him fully.

Last, Jesus comes to those who cannot come to him. John could not leave Patmos, and so Jesus came there. Nothing can keep our Lord from his people. Wherever you find yourself, he finds you.