If I gave a copy of Mark’s gospel to a complete stranger to Christianity, I guess on reading it, she’d have some idea about what we believe. But give a stranger a copy of the last book in the Bible, Revelation and tell him that’s what we believe, I think he’d run a mile!
Someone has dubbed it The most revealing book of the Bible, but just what does it reveal? It’s full of blood and fire, thunder and lightning, strange beasts, vials of wrath and other horrors. It features a bottomless pit, yet it ends in a city of gold.
Before we open its pages, we need a little background. We can gain a little comfort from Martin Luther’s words taken from his preface of 1552 to the book, My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.
It has, of course, been the playground of fanatics, who have used its symbols to predict world events to come. Those who saw the ten headed beast as the Common Market, were silenced as the European Union manifested itself and added country after country to its grouping.
We will attempt a more sober assessment of this, probably the most difficult book of the Bible to understand.
Who wrote it? Early Christian writers attributed it to the Apostle John, ( although the church historian, Eusebius tells us that some thought it to be so unintelligible that it must have been written by John’s arch enemy, Cerinthus). Justin Martyr, whose writings are early in the 2nd.c, reports a strong tradition that the author was John, However, it would take too long to go over all the arguments.
The genre is something new. Apocalyptic. New to Christians, but not to Jews and since th earliest Christians were Jews it is likely that they were acquainted with Jewish books of this sort, books like 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras, written perhaps 200 or 100 BCE. However, 1:3 calls the book prophecy.
There was, as you might expect, some opposition to its inclusion in the canon. The Western church admitted it earlier than the Eastern. Athanasius (4th.c) was happy with it and it is listed by the Third Council of Carthage (397 CE) as canonical and finally the Eastern church at the Third Council of Constantinople (680 CE) accepted it as Scripture
Adela Yarbro Collins has called the book a revelatory narrative and this perhaps best describes the book we are going to read. Read is the important word here. The early church had few readers and few manuscripts, so as we transport ourselves into the world of the 1st.c. of the Christian era our ears, rather than our eyes, with our minds active in imagination are to be the vehicles of our understanding of this exciting book. The first 3 verses promise blessing on those who listen and heed the words.
We are promised an unveiling of things soon to take place, and since we are a 1st c. audience it must be sometime soon. A 21st.c reader must assume that these things have already taken place, or at least take place in a sphere outside of time.
Verse 1 depicts an activity in heaven. Jesus, now ascended, has more revelations of God’s plans and wants to show these to his followers. John receives a vision, but he needs an angel to explain its meaning. This done, he commits his vision to writing.
Which church received the writing? Presumably seven copies were made and sent to the churches specified in chapters 2-3. Or only each church received its individual message plus chapter 1.. Or perhaps there was one copy circulating, beginning at Ephesus and finishing at Laodicea. What we do know is that this book speedily circulated out from ancient Asia minor (modern day Turkey) to the whole of the known world.
V.3 invokes a blessing on the reader. The Reader, would be (as now in Anglican churches) a church leader, the congregation obedient listeners.
In vv4-8, a letter begins in the usual style.
Do we have in vs. 4-5 a glimpse of the Trinity? The description of the Godhead is clear enough, and reminds us of God’s revelation to Moses in the burning bush, where he gives the name YHWH (Ex.3:14), but who are the seven spirits. Is this an echo of Isaiah 11:2 in the LXX- the sevenfold description of the Spirit? The seven spirits reappear in the narrative.
In v.5 Jesus is described as the faithful witness .its Asiatic Christians would be facing persecution and so for them, Jesus is the example they are to follow. Then he is described as the firstborn from the dead (Col 1:18) and ruler of the Kings of the earth (Psalm 89:27)
V.6 erupts into a doxology, praising Jesus for our redemption and takes us back to Sinai, where God pronounced the newly born Israel to be a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6)
V.7 takes us back again to the Old Testament, to the mysterious figure of the son of man (Dan 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 concerning the people of Jerusalem. It must be remembered that for those who heard this for the first time, at least some would have been Jews steeped in their Bible and these echoes from it would have resonated with them far more than they do with us and is perhaps a reminder that we should pay more attention to what we call the Old Testament.
In v.8, God speaks declaring himself the and the- or the Aleph & the Tau – which included all the letters in between, so that he is the eternal, the Lord of time and timelessness.
Vv 9-20 give us John’s first vision. He introduces himself as an exile on Patmos, a small island in the Aegean sea, possibly used as a penal settlement by the Romans- banished because of his communication of the Christian faith. It happened on the Lord’s day Possibly, this is the first mention of Sunday- the day of resurrection, or it could refer to Easter day. However, it is a day of worship. The trumpet voice instructs him to write his vision, then send it out to the seven churches
Again we return to the Old Testament for similarities to John’s vision. Ezekiel 1:26-28 and Daniel 10:4-21 need to be consulted here .
But this vision has more Old Testament links. The first thing John sees are seven golden lamp stands. In the Temple (which had been destroyed about thirty years before ) stood the golden menorah, the seven branched candlestick commanded in Exodus 25:31. Verse 20 will tell us that these separate lamp stands signify the seven churches.
The visionary sees a figure, who is obviously the ascended, glorified Christ, dressed as the High Priest. The word to describe his robe is which is a hapax legomenen (word that only occurs once in the New Testament), but it occurs seven times in the Greek translation (LXX) six times with reference to the High Priest’s robe. The description of his hair takes us back to Daniel’s vision of the Ancient in Years (7:9)
He holds the seven stars in his right hand. Perhaps in view of v.20, these are the leaders of the seven churches.
The risen and ascended Christ is the Lord of the churches, but there is judgment in his mouth. In his brilliance he is the Christ the favoured three saw on the mount of Transfiguration.
Appropriately as one who has seen a vision of God, John falls as if dead. But the right hand restores him and he hears words of comfort.
V.18 repels the fear of death. Pagan gods hold out no comfort. Rome with all its might will pass, but Christ reigns over eternal life. The Jews believed that only God had power over death and Sheol, so this is a firm statement of the divinity of Christ.
V.19 seems to make a division of the immediate past (the vision), the present (perhaps the condition of the churches in chapters 2-3 and the future (the rest of the book).
The concluding verse of the chapter makes plain what has occurred earlier in the chapter. The seven stars are the angels- perhaps the officials who would bear the letters (cf Phoebe in Romans 16:1) V.13 tells us that one like the son of man was among the lamp stands-an assurance that Christ is still close to his churches.