The Most Revealing Book of the Bible 1:1-20
1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
John begins by establishing the authority of his book. As we already have noted, he does so by invoking "apocalypsis Jesu Christus--which God gave to him." We noted, too, that this phrase probably is meant to carry a double meaning: Jesus Christ is both the revealer of the revelation and the one revealed in it.
The ultimate recipients, the ones for whose benefit the revelation is intended, are Jesus' "servants." Here is our first reference to Christians, or the church; such references constitute a very rich and important train of thought for John (and for us); we will want to give them particular notice. The Greek word could as accurately be translated "slaves"--that's what "servants" were in those days. In John's vocabulary a Christian is above all "a slave of Christ." Certainly, the term is not meant to carry any implications of "involuntary servitude"; but it does suggest the quality of dedication, loyalty, and obedience that his followers owe to the Master. They have been bought at a price.
The content of the revelation is to be "what must shortly happen." As we observed earlier, if this was meant as a calendar claim, it was a false one; those words were written in the first century to Christians of that day. However, as a basis for an eschatological stance, the words are always true and always urgent. When will the end come? John didn't know; and Jesus, the Revealer, had said he didn't know. But in your perpetual expectancy, you act as though it is soon; from a Christian perspective, these are things that "must shortly happen."
The revelation comes to John by means of an "angel." The word "angel" means "messenger," and we ought to keep our sights on this modest definition. The imagery of wings, halos, back-ground music, and unearthly beauty is a tradition that has developed since John's day; and indeed, we will discover in Revelation several passages expressly designed to keep angels down to the "messenger" or "servant" level. Angels do appear in the book with great frequency; but we dare not grant them any importance in and of themselves. As message bearers, their presence always should direct our attention to the message rather than to the bearer.
In receiving this revelation-message, John calls himself "Jesus' servant John." There is not the slightest doubt but that the author of the book was a man named John; there is nothing but doubt when it comes to identifying John. Most commentaries would spend a great deal of time in the introduction arguing about John. We choose to do it briefly here--largely because we don't know and care only little.
The traditional understanding has been that this is the Apostle John, disciple of Jesus, son of Zebedee, brother of James. That poses some difficulties, however. Our John does not name himself as the apostle and here would have been a most logical place for him to do so. He clearly is interested in establishing the authority of his book; and to have reminded the readers of his apostolicity would have contributed to that interest. Further, our author treats Jesus, the kingdom, the nature of history, etc., out of an entirely different frame of reference than does the author of the Gospel of John; and the experts tell us that the two even write quite different styles of Greek.
But these observations are presented not so much to eliminate John the Apostle as simply to keep the question open. The important thing is that this book is presented as a revelation of Jesus Christ and has been accepted by the church as such. Only asking whether what Revelation tells us about Christ jibes with what we know of him otherwise can test the claim. Having the identity of the human author would be of no help on that score; the book does not consist of historical report, so there is no relevance to the question of his being an historical eyewitness. Either Revelation carries its own authority (with the author named simply "John") or else it carries no authority at all; the identity of the author wouldn't change anything. In many cases we want to know the identity of the author for the light it would throw on the circumstances of the book's being written; but in this case we already are much more certain regarding those circumstances than we have any hope of becoming in regard to the identity of the author. He is John; that's as much as we need to know.
John says that he has "borne witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ." Both "bear witness" and "testimony" reflect the same Greek root martyr. John uses it here in reference to himself and to Jesus; a bit later he will use it in reference to Christians generally. It is one of his key concepts--and one, along with "slaves," to go into our collection headed "What does it mean to be a Christian?"
The word will be recognized as the source of our English word "martyr"; yet the translators are correct, the Greek word means "witness" or "testimony." But the English word means "one who is killed because of his faith"; how did we get from the one meaning to the other? The answer seems plain: time was that, when a Christian made his good witness for Jesus Christ, he was very likely to get himself killed in consequence. As a result, the meaning of the word gradually slipped off from the person's witness and onto the fact of his getting killed.
For the Greek of Revelation, the translators are correct in going for "witness"; but we need only to note with what consistency John mentions death in close proximity to his word martyr, and it is evident that the slippage already has started and the word must be allowed to point both ways at once. For John, then, martyr denotes a quality of "witness" that is so deep and dedicated that the testifier is willing to face death for the sake of it. John is clear that a primary call of the Christian is to be a "martyr"--not necessarily to be killed but to make the witness that risks it. We will see, too, that John's use of the term suggests that this witness goes beyond simply talking to others about Jesus to include living the sort of life that demonstrates that one is his slave.
John here uses the phrase "the testimony of Jesus (martyria Jesu)"; it becomes a specialized term to which he returns time and again. It seems to carry a double meaning: It can refer to the testimony Christians make to Jesus, the testimony that he is Lord, Savior, etc. However, it can also refer to a testimony he himself made (or makes). Jesus, too, is a witness--and what he witnesses to is the coming of the kingdom of God. These two interpretations of martyria Jesu are different but they are not in conflict; when we witness to Jesus as the Eschatological One, we also are witnessing to the kingdom to which he witnessed; one way we witness to him is by joining him in his witness. John will use the phrase to carry all these meanings-and likely does so here.
"Blessed is the one who reads ... " is a beatitude couched in the same terminology as Jesus' beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Seven of them appear scattered throughout Revelation. This "seven" may be accidental--but then again, it may not be. (By the way, if the message of this book is that the world will end in the last quarter of the twentieth century, what does John have in mind in calling first-century Christians to "heed" or "keep" it?)
And again, "the hour of fulfillment is near."
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it Is to be. Amen.
8 says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Asia Minor (see the map). There is not the slightest doubt that these were actual, down-to-earth Christian gatherings that John knew well and with whose people he was entirely familiar. John is writing to them, and there is nothing to indicate that he ever had any other readers in mind.
Before long, John's book will become quite esoteric--peopled with angels and demons, moving from heaven to hell, describing strange and incredible events--but it opens in the midst of ordinary, mundane reality: a leader of the first-century church writing to the congregations he probably had helped organize and of which he was in charge. This link with actuality, this anchor into normal history, is a vital orientation for understanding the book as a whole. There is no evidence at all to indicate that John intends these as anything except the actual congregations he names--not periods of world history or anything of the sort. When John speaks plainly, read him plainly; we will have problems enough when the going does get rough.
John greets his churches in the name of God. In so doing, he recognizes the basic "threeness" of God--although we should be aware that he was writing before the church had developed anything like the formal theological definition we call "the trinity." The titles he gives to the "persons" of God are of particular significance; consider that John is here introducing some of the major characters of his drama.
God the Father he calls "who is and who was and who is to come..." Primarily, of course, this is an affirmation of God's lordship over all of history--present, past, and future (which is John's particular interest). Also, it emphasizes the "comingness" of God, the fact that always there is more to be expected from him than what we have experienced thus far (another of John's particular interests). But still another meaning may be involved as well. The God of the Old Testament bore the name "Yahweh." It was derived from the root "to be," and in Exodus 3:13-14 is interpreted as meaning "I am," or "I am who I am." Now John adopts the ancient "to be" name of God but suggests that, under the revelation that has come in Jesus Christ, the name of God must be expanded to become three-fold (a good, God number, recall) and incorporate the past and the future of "was" and "comes" as well as the present of "I am." John's is a bold and thought-provoking stroke.
God the Holy Spirit John apparently refers to as "the seven spirits who are before his throne." This, also, may be a brand-new usage (John is nothing if not original); at least we are not at all accustomed to hearing the Holy Spirit referred to in the plural. And yet the way John uses the concept here and elsewhere strongly indicates that it is the Holy Spirit he has in mind. He seems able to treat the Spirit as either singular or plural--or both. And he may be onto a very important insight.
When referred to in the singular, it is, of course, the unity, the oneness, of the Spirit that is affirmed; there is but one Spirit of God. However, when referred to in the plural, an equally important truth about the Spirit is affirmed: he is not confined to one place at one time and one mode of operation. His oneness is not a limitation as ours is or even as the oneness of the historical Jesus was. The Spirit is more than and can be other than just speaking in tongues, or physical healing, or strange miracles. He is present and active not just among certain groups within the church or only within the church itself. He is singular, but he acts plural. And if plural, the only option is that he be a "seven." The Holy Spirit is completeness, harmony, order, and integrity; he is God.
(In this whole matter, John may be thinking the thoughts of his progenitors after them. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for "God" actually is a plural form.)
Jesus Christ comes last because John wants to give him particular emphasis; and I he titles are of particular significance. They form a three-fold sequence (Jesus also rates a God number) of which the sequence is as important as the titles themselves.
Jesus is, first, "the faithful witness (martyr)." This, I believe, is the only place in Scripture that such a title is ascribed to him; but it is as significant as any other. Jesus did maintain his faithful witness to the coming kingdom of God even unto death--death on a cross He was an authentic martyr; and this title describes his career during his public ministry, up to and including the crucifixion.
But because Jesus was faithful in his martyr-witness, God crowned it with a resurrection; so Jesus is also, John tells us, "the first-born of the dead." That term "first-born" clearly implies that others are to follow in consequence of Jesus' being born from the dead; Jesus' experience is not to be understood as his alone but as involving his followers as well. Although this relationship is specified only in this second title, other references make it plain that John understands it so regarding all three. Jesus was the faithful witness, but his followers are called to be faithful witnesses with him. If he is the first-born from the dead, they are to be the latter-born.
In consequence of his resurrection, John says in the third place, Jesus is "ruler of the kings of the earth." Jesus is Lord. Note the linkage between the three titles: each is dependent upon those that preceded it; each points to the one that follows it. Notice, also, that John says Jesus is ruler of the kings of the earth, not that he some day will become such. Yet when we get into John's account, the evidence would all seem to point the other way. "The kings of the earth"--who, we will see, represent earthly power and authority, militarism, exploitation, and repression--form a clique which plays a very major role in John's story; we will want to keep an eye out for them. After all, they did manage to execute Jesus; and John portrays them as playing bob with humanity and the church-even challenging God himself. How can John say that Jesus is their ruler?
We are here at the heart of John's message, particularly as he intended it for the seven churches. It is this: things aren't what they seem! From everything the seven churches could see (and most of us can see) it appears clear that "the kings of the earth" are where the action is; theirs is the clout that makes things happen; theirs are the actions determining the course of history. That we buy this view of things is confirmed by the assumption of contemporary Christian activism that, if things are going to be changed at all, they will have to be changed there. All our efforts are directed at influencing "the kings of the earth"--with very little to show in the way of accomplishment. (With all his talk about the kings of the earth, John gives not the slightest hint of any Christian call to be out trying to influence them--either to change or to subvert them. John, rather, little more than stands around and watches them fall to pieces from their own internal weakness.)
No, things are not what they seem! Contrary to their own inflated opinion, that crew does not hold the reins of history. John's very first notice of the kings of the earth is to proclaim that they have a ruler, they are being ruled. That ruler--because he is also the martyr-witness who has been born from the dead--already has won the decisive victory and established his control. Recall the pattern we described earlier: God's is real power clothed in apparent powerlessness; Evil's is apparent power which is really powerlessness. Things are not what they seem! Jesus is Lord--and that not only of us slaves who accept his lordship but of everyone else, up to and including the kings of the earth.
Although it is not said here, the pattern still holds: the things these titles say of Jesus are, each in its own way, reiterated in the experience of the Christian. Because he is ruler, we, in some sense, are too. We no longer have to be ruled by the kings of the earth and can't be forced to accept their premise that what they control constitutes the power of history.
"Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth": who ever has spoken more of the truth about him in fewer words?
John proceeds to dedicate his book to this Jesus Christ, ascribing praise to him particularly for what he has done in behalf of John and his readers. It was in giving himself on the cross that he demonstrated his love and won for them their freedom. He has made (not will someday make but already, in his death and resurrection, has made) of them a royal house of priests--and it is here, rather than with "the kings of the earth," that true royalty resides. The reference is to Exodus 19:6, where the promise is in the future tense and addressed to those who made the covenant at Sinai. John, no doubt, means to suggest that, through Jesus Christ, God's promises to Old Testament Israel are being fulfilled in the new Israel of the Christian church. Elsewhere, also, John calls the Christians "priests." Fundamentally, a priest is one who has been set aside for the service of God. This likely is all that John intends; he never gives any indication that he values cultic, liturgical, or sacramental modes of thought; and indeed, he specifically cuts the temple out of his New Jerusalem.
We need to make some explanation of the phrase "forever and ever" so that we can use it later. The translation--demanding, as it does, the sense of endlessness--is not wholly accurate; the literal reading is "aeons of the aeons." Now in most cases--as here--the implication of endlessness undoubtedly is appropriate. But we will find some instances in which the more literal understanding, namely that of a very long yet limited period of time, is called for. We need to keep the language free to express what the Greek actually says.
Rev. 1:7-8, returning to John's prime theme, proclaims Christ in his "soon-corning." Although his "comingness" is a constant quality in Christ, here the reference more specifically is to his parousia--the very event of his eschatological arrival. John will continually point to this event, announced here for the first time, and the description of it will mark the turning point of his book.
Parousia is the ordinary Greek term for a "coming," or "advent"--but it comes to be applied to the eschatological arrival of Christ that we commonly call "the second coming." But not just any coming in anywhere qualifies as a parousia; the Greek word carries specific connotations that can be helpful to us. A parousia is an entrance that immediately changes the situation into which the entrance is made. While the teacher is out of the room, a great, wild eraser fight gets going. When she steps back in, that's a parousia! Have you ever seen an eraser stop in mid-air? (Note that, although the word eschaton (the end) has not at all the same meaning as the word parousia [a coming], in Christian eschatology the one event is understood as the sign of the other. The two terms get used on an exchange basis, if not synonymously.)
The dominant theme of this present treatment of the parousia is its universality. Christ's appearance shall be of decisive effect for everyone—-not just those who await and desire it, John specifies, but even those who are so opposed to the presence of Christ that they took him out of the picture in the first place.
We already have said something about "universalism" (see above) and now need to say more. We are going to take special note of each of John's universalistic statements as we come to them; but we are not going to comment upon the overall character of his "universalism" until we have all the evidence in hand and can address the matter as a whole. However, we need to keep open minds and be aware that calling a text "universalistic" can suggest any one of a number of things. It could denote any of the following:
It quickly will become apparent that John has no use for the universalism of Nos. 3 and 4. We will now begin sorting out his texts regarding the other three possibilities. The present passage affirms at least No.2. Whether it intends to suggest anything more depends upon one's reading of the phrase "all ... will wail." That could mean that some people will be lamenting the crucifixion out of their love for Jesus, and others, unrepentant, simply because they will be punished for having killed him. However, it could as well mean that all had come to heartfelt repentance over Jesus' death and out of a love toward him. The phrase itself comes from Zech. 12:9-10; there it explicitly is not applied to all peoples--but it does just as clearly denote true repentance and love.
It would be unwise to try to draw a firm conclusion on the basis of this one verse; so leave the matter open and hold this passage to go along with many others to come.
In Rev. 1:8, God enters the scene to affirm what has just been said about the coming of Jesus. He takes as title the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, a way of saying, "I am the Lord of all and cover the whole." It should be noted that elsewhere John ascribes this same title to Jesus; he never allows any distinction of status or honor between God the Father and God the Son. Also, there appears again the threefold title of the God who is, who was, and who comes. The placement of this allusion to the coming of God likely can be taken as an indication of John's understanding that the parousia of Christ is the coming of God; when Christ comes, he is Immanuel ("God with us").
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea."
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Everything thus far has been prelude--although not by that token waste motion. John has been about the crucial work of defining his key concepts, setting his major themes, and getting us oriented for the book proper. It is most appropriate, then, that that book proper open with a scene in which the revealing Christ comes to John with his revelation.
"I, John, your brother": he still wants to be known as a brother, one with his hearers, rather than an apostle. The next phrase, a particularly significant one, could more closely be translated: "joint participant with you in the suffering and the sovereignty and the endurance (steadfastness) of Jesus." John is writing to Christians of the end-time (which is our situation, also) and is characterizing what is to be his and their experience during this period. He wants to say not merely that he and they are "joint participants" in these things but that together they participate in these things with Christ. The Christian experience is an extension of Jesus' own experience; and it is only because they are "with him" that they have any chance of coming through.
The three experiences named here have some correlation with the three titles earlier ascribed to Christ. His "suffering" was, of course, the other side of his martyr-witness. His "sovereignty" is the lordship of the risen Christ, his being ruler of the kings of the earth. The Christian is to share in both. The middle term of being "born from the dead" is not mentioned here; but it is the only way of getting from suffering to sovereignty, and John knows that Christians participate with Christ in this one, too.
The suffering and the sovereignty--we end-time Christians are caught between these two, we live out of a strange mixture of the two (as Jesus himself did). We usually think of the two as contradictory and incompatible--and yet we do experience both, and both together. Yes, in Christ we do know at least moments of sovereignty, times when we are on top of things. Yet there is always the suffering--so inextricably mixed in that there is no way to get the one without taking the other. And when, in our "celebrations," we try to pretend that things are otherwise, to act as though life is endless joy and gaiety, we know we are faking it. Yes, there is the suffering. Nevertheless, we know that, in Christ, suffering is never just suffering; there are elements of sovereignty, of victory over it even while hurting under it.
Always, in every experience, the suffering and the sovereignty. In some ways, life would be more manageable, easier to cope with, if it were one or the other--or at least if they were separated so that we could know which we were supposed to be doing at any given moment, suffering or reigning. But no, they come in, under, and through each other. And the only thing that can hold them together--rather, the only thing that can hold us together under the tension is John's third factor, the patient endurance, the steadfastness, of Jesus. Time and again, we will discover, it is this to which John calls his readers; it becomes one of his most consistent themes. From Jesus they must learn and by Jesus they must be enabled to hang in, hold on, and bear up. It is perhaps the Christian's greatest need--the patient endurance of Jesus.
And this emphasis, in itself, leads one to suspect that the reiterated proclamation, "He is coming soon," was never meant as a guarantee that it will all be over tomorrow. The two ideas belong together--just as we read both from the same chapter of Revelation. With his help we can endure--but, even so, come, Lord Jesus!
The one John meets in this scene is hard to pin down; he defies description, is too big for words. But where the meeting takes place is easy; it can be located on the map. Hear what John is saying as he works to anchor his celestial visions into this worldly, first-century Asia Minor; it is important to his purpose.
He was on Patmos (see map), he tells us, because he had preached God's word and--as every Christian is called to do--had borne his martyria Jesu, the martyr-witness that both testifies to Jesus and joins him in his witness. The assumption usually is made that John had been indicted by the state and was under detention in a penal colony on Patmos, doing forced labor in the mines. That conjecture may be correct; but note well, there is nothing of this in the text. We are in trouble when we start taking our conjectures as facts and then make of them a principle of interpretation.
In this case, the line of error goes so: John was arrested and imprisoned by the Roman state (the text does not say this). John's readers of the seven churches were under pressure from the Roman state to participate in Caesar worship (there is no text indicating this). The beast-riding whore of Rev. 17 is the Roman state (this will take more discussion but probably is not the case). The book of Revelation is basically a treatise on Christ and the state, with particular reference to the Roman state (it isn't so!). Yes, the state does figure in Revelation, in such symbols as "the kings of the earth," but always in general rather than specifically Roman terms and never as a major focus. So don't let John be captured by the current tendency to see the state as the focus of all evil.
"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day": this is the one and only reference in Scripture to the fact that Christians had made Sunday their day of worship--not that it hadn't happened earlier but that there just hadn't been occasion for saying so. John was "in the Spirit" (in the singular). That the voice is "like a trumpet" may indicate that it signals the beginning of the end; in John (and the Bible generally) trumpet calls are used to announce decisive moments. The seven churches to which the revelation is addressed are named specifically. A look at the map will indicate that the order marks the loop John normally would take in visiting his churches or a messenger take in circulating the scroll. That John is to write on "a scroll" suggests that the letters were circulated not separately to the individual churches, but all together, as they presently are in the book.
Among "seven golden lampstands" the Revealer takes his place; and these, we are told, represent the seven churches. Lamps, of course, are meant to give light; and the reference, most likely, is to the church's role as martyr-witness. The lamp thus constitutes a very good symbol for the church, and John will use it that way again elsewhere.
That Christ the Revealer is described as "one like the son of man" is important. The phrase comes from Dan. 7:13, where it identifies an eschatological figure who comes "with the clouds of heaven." That John here specifically applies the term to Jesus makes it as much as certain that, when he uses the phrase again at a later point, he still has Jesus in mind. The subsequent description is constituted from Old Testament allusions; and no matter how the imagery affects our modern sensibilities, it is intended to communicate great beauty and glory. Try reading it through the eyes of biblical man rather than your own.
In his right (his dominant) hand, he held "seven stars," which, we are told, are the "angels" of the churches, their heavenly messenger-representatives. John has his point covered two ways. When Christ is thought of as a presence on earth, his place is among the lampstands of the churches. When he is thought of as a being in heaven, he has the churches' angel-telephone right in his hand. Either way, Jesus is with his church and never away from it. This is a precious thing for end-time, suffering-sovereignty Christians to know--ourselves as much as those of the Asia Minor congregations.
"From his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword." That is one it would be good for us to know, whether we think it precious or not. It symbolizes the power of judgment--and it belongs. The historical Jesus demonstrated it. Used as he used it, it is entirely consistent with his love, grace, goodness, and mercy--is in fact a necessary concomitant of these. Discipline, chastisement, and judgment are very much a part of John's picture of Jesus; if they won't fit into yours, it's because yours isn't a picture of the real Jesus. Consider, too, that that "sword-tongue" goes back to Isaiah 49:2, where it belongs to the suffering servant of Yahweh. It can represent the stroke of sharp discrimination between truth and falsehood rather than simply slaughter and punishment.
As a fringe benefit, we have here a caution against simple-minded literalism. In verse 16, Jesus has a sharp two-edged sword for a tongue; in verse 17, he speaks--a neat trick indeed. Then "he placed his right hand on me"--the same hand that already had seven stars in it. Obviously, John does not intend that his images be interpreted simple-mindedly.
As Jesus comes to the Revelator, the very first words he speaks are, "Do not be afraid." That's just like Jesus--just what he did speak in Palestine, just what he speaks to us, just what end-time Christians need to hear.
"I am … the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." The Revealer's introductory words are crucial ones. They present the theme of "life and death," an important aspect of John's symmetrical method and a most pervasive theme of Revelation as a whole.
Jesus is "the living one," and it is his resurrection that qualifies him as such. To call him "the living one" says much more than that he simply is one who is alive--a number of us might qualify on that count. No, John is thinking in terms of the quality of life; we can outline the structure of his thought, which is merely touched upon here but developed further as the book proceeds.
"First-order life" is that quality of natural life that we all enjoy as a matter of course. It probably should be listed on the side of the Good, but it has no moral significance in itself. That a person is alive is no indication that he is good or approved of God; good people and bad people, believers and unbelievers: share this quality of life without distinction. Just so, "first-order death," although it is a counterpart to be listed under the Bad, is equally devoid of moral significance. Biological death comes to good and bad alike and apparently at random; bad people often live long, and good people often die young. Normally, the simple fact that a person has died says nothing one way or the other about the state of his faith and morals. Because they are of this neutral, chance character, John does not attach any great significance or give particular attention to life and death on this level. For example, he does not--as many thinkers do--see the moment of first-order death as marking either the ultimate consummation of the Christian's beatitude or the ultimate loss and prohibition of the same for the nonbeliever. For him, physical death is a comparatively minor transition.
What truly interests John is "second-order LIFE" and "second-order DEATH"--matters of totally moral significance. Here is a quality of LIFE that has nothing of death or "dyingness" about it. Such is not the case with first-order life; there, the moment of birth also marks the onset of deterioration, gradual death. And not only from a biological standpoint--our experience of life inevitably includes as well the deterioration and death of family relationships, other social relationships, the relationships of society itself; we often witness and sometimes experience a dying of morals and spirit. As the suffering and sovereignty are completely intermixed, so are life and death; for us, life is three parts death.
But John knows a quality of LIFE that has nothing of death about it--marked, therefore, he tells us later, by the total absence of tears and death and mourning and crying and pain. It is life, life, life--all life--nothing but LIFE! And once one enters this LIFE, he is totally and forever immune to the further threat of any sort of death. For John, the way to this LIFE--the only way to it--is resurrection. When, in his first appearance and speech in Revelation, Jesus says, "I am the living one," he actually is proclaiming: "I am the source of LIFE; it is in me--and only in me--that true, second-order LIFE is to be found; I am the LIVING one!" And it is because he was dead and now is alive for evermore that he qualifies as the living one; it was his death-and-resurrection that did it.
Consequently, it follows in John's thought, for us to be resurrected in Christ and with Christ is the one way for us to enter LIFE. I am sure John would not deny that, through Christ, one can begin to taste and experience second-order LIFE even in the midst of first-order life-and-death. Nevertheless, his main thrust is toward the total experience of LIFE that comes only upon a resurrection from the dead--and this, in turn, comes only through him who is "first-born from the dead" and into him who is "the LIVING one." For John, LIFE does not come as an evasion of death but as a going through it and coming out victorious on the other side. In this regard, it will be important to keep an eye on John's use of the concept "resurrection." Consistently, for him, it denotes this graduation into LIFE; he would never speak of a resurrection to judgment," "the resurrection of the unjust," or anything of the sort.
It is not mentioned here, but later John will complete his symmetry by speaking of second-order DEATH. It is death that carries total moral significance. The counterpart >of LIFE, it is an experience constituted of nothing but deterioration, damnation, tears, mourning, crying, and pain; it is death with nothing of life about it.
Because Jesus is "the LIVING one" who was dead but now is alive for evermore, he also can say, "I have the keys of death and Hades." "Hades," here, is not to be equated with what we normally call "hell." "Hades" is a Greek concept denoting merely "the realm of the dead." In this reference, then, death represents not so much an individual experience as an active power. "Death and Hades" signifies, therefore, "death and all that goes with it"--all the deterioration, brokenness, pain, and tears to which we already referred. John regularly presents "Death and Hades" as a pair--one of man's most fearful enemies.
But Jesus holds their keys. The intended picture is probably that of a jail cell. Through his resurrection, Jesus got the power over them, and they came under his charge. What freedom they still enjoy is at his sufferance; and when the right time comes (which isn't quite yet), he has everything necessary to lock them up and throw those keys far, far away. The important thing to note is that these words portray a victory won in the past but finally to be worked out at some point in the future. Yet certainly nothing like a new victory is called for. This is John's picture throughout. Death and Hades are still around (as we can well attest); but Jesus, even now, is Lord; he holds the keys. Things aren't what they seem!