Revelation (Interpretation Commentary Series) by M. Eugene Boring
As the body of the letter begins in 1:9, John shifts to the narrative form which Revelation shares with apocalyptic in general (cf. J. J. Collins SBL definition, Apocalypse, p. 9). Narrative is often the characteristic mode of a letter, in which the writer recounts to the reader a narrative of events (cf. II Cor. 7:5–16; 12:1–10; Gal. 1:11–2:21). The opening section of John’s narrative is shaped by the questions implicit in any narrative: who? where? why? when? how? what?
Who? John is the only earthly member of the cast of the dramatic scene he is about to narrate. He chooses this point, instead of the letter greeting in 1:4, to identify himself. He needs no official titles; he is already known personally to his hearer-readers. He is the brother and fellow participant in the tribulation, the kingdom, and in the patient endurance which all Christians share “in Jesus.” John writes with the authority of a prophet, but John’s prophetic role does not have for him the dimension of over-againstness, does not separate him from the members of his churches. He writes as a pastor who shares the life of his congregations.
This life is lived in three spheres that John and his fellow Christians share “in Jesus.” By “tribulation,” John does not mean the ordinary problems to which human life is heir but that time of terrible trouble which in the apocalyptic scheme must precede the End. John interprets the social discrimination and government persecution which threatened the churches as the beginning of the eschatological woes, the labor pains that must precede the birth of the new world (12:1–6; cf. Mark 13:3–8 for a similar view, which explicitly uses the imagery of labor pains). By “kingdom,” John points not only to the future, when the rulership of God and his Christ will be manifest to all; his interpretation of the Christian life is not that of present tribulation but future kingdom: “Suffer now, rejoice later.” Jesus is already king though crucified. Christians share “in Jesus” now in the kingdom, which is present though hidden and manifest in this world in the form of the cross. The Christian life is a tension-filled unity of tribulation and kingdom, which will yield at the eschaton to the pure kingdom of God. Within this framework of understanding, the Christian life is marked by “patient endurance,” that is, by tenaciously holding on to the faith in the glad confidence that Christ’s lordship is real, though at present invisible to empirical observation.
This life John shares with his fellow Christians as they all share it “in Jesus.” As prophet, John does not mediate this life to them secondhand: They all share in it firsthand. John here takes up the Pauline way of understanding the Christian life as already participating in Christ, which he here designates “in Jesus” and later (14:13) “in the Lord.” When John thought of his self-identity, he did not think egocentrically of his own psyche, but of the reality of Christ who formed the horizon and purpose of existence for both John and his fellow Christians. One with such a sense of “self”-identity can face tribulation with confidence and a quiet joy, and can encourage others to do so.
Where? John writes from Patmos, a small island about seventy-five miles west of Ephesus. Archaeological evidence indicates that in John’s time Patmos was a fortified island belonging to Miletus, with a quality Greek school and shrines to Artemis and Apollos. There is no evidence of its being a “penal colony,” but the island was used by the Romans as a place of banishment for troublemakers, real and potential.
Why? John has been officially banished by the government for being a leader in the Christian movement, in John’s terms “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” his preaching activity. The grammar prohibits our understanding this phrase to mean that John had gone to Patmos for missionary preaching or in order to seek solitude to prepare for prophetic visions. The phrase “on account of” is always used in Revelation for the result of an action, not its purpose. John has been banished to Patmos because he had been preaching the Christian message. Since Antipas had been executed at Pergamum (2:13), and since John expected a bloody persecution to engulf all Christians everywhere, we may wonder at the relative lightness of John’s own sentence. Pliny’s letter (cf. Introduction) illustrates that Rome did not yet have hard and fast policies about how to deal with the new movement, and the severity of sentences apparently varied from governor to governor.
When? What John is about to narrate took place on “the Lord’s day.” Since this is the first occurrence of this term in Christian literature, we cannot be positive about John’s meaning. Though “the Lord’s day” has been interpreted as Easter and the eschatological Day of the Lord, it most likely refers to Sunday, the first day of the week, the new holy day of Christians, since earlier texts indicate that the church assembled to worship on the first day of the week as their holy day (I Cor. 16:2; Acts 20:7; cf. Pliny’s letter above). This was the day when Jesus’ resurrection was celebrated (Mark 16:2) and served to distinguish Christians from Jews, whose holy Sabbath was the seventh day, Saturday.
John’s vision comes at the time when he knows the churches on the mainland are gathered for worship. Were he not banished, he would be there among them and during the worship service would deliver his prophetic messages as they were inspired by the Spirit. Prophecy was not an individualistic gift to isolated individuals; it occurred in the community’s worship, where it could be critically evaluated and appropriated.
How? John describes the experience of receiving the vision as being “in the Spirit.” This refers neither to John’s own mood and personal feelings, which he does not discuss, nor to the general gift of the Holy Spirit to all Christians (Acts 2:38; I Cor. 12:13; Rom. 8:9–11), but to the special spiritual gift of prophecy (Rom. 12:6; I Cor. 12:10, 28; 13:2; 14:1–39). John does not describe the experience itself, but it involved both auditions (1:10) and visions (1:12).
As in the Old Testament, the prophetic vision comes from the divine initiative. John does nothing to cultivate it or manipulate it; there is no fasting, prayer, seeking. He does not seek it; it seeks him. The prophets were not mystics who sought “religious experiences”; they were messengers sought out by the God who willed to speak to his people.
What? John does not gaze at the scene and then note down what he sees, spectator-like; as a literary and theological artist, he consciously selects the language he uses to portray the vision. This language functions at more than one connotative level. First, there is the powerful, pre-conceptual impressionistic level. Quite apart from the details, the scene is overpowering in its grandeur as it presents the church’s Lord as the transcendent ruler of the cosmos. In the conviction that Christ is the fulfillment of the Scripture as a whole (II Cor. 1:20), John chooses the language of Scripture to paint this picture of the risen Christ. The details are carefully chosen: The “long robe” is the priestly garment, taken from Exodus 28:4, 27 (cf. Wis. Sol. 18:24), while the “golden girdle” is the royal emblem of the king (I Macc. 10:89). As elsewhere, John is aware that the messianic office of Jesus includes the prophetic-revelatory, the priestly, and the kingly functions. The dazzling white hair is taken from the “one that was ancient of days” in Daniel 7:9. John’s monotheism and theocentrism save him from the danger of identifying God and Jesus, or making them competitors, so he does not hesitate to use God-language of Jesus. The use of such language is an expression of his conviction that “God” is to be defined as “the one who has revealed himself definitively in Jesus.” On the other hand, the “feet … like burnished bronze” and the “voice … like the sound of many waters” are taken from the description of the heavenly messenger in Daniel 10:6 (cf. Ezek. 43:2). Since John is not thinking metaphysically, this combining of angel-language and God-language in his portrayal of Jesus is not problematical: both serve to express the transcendent glory of the exalted Christ.
The picture of the seven stars in Christ’s right hand also serves in the first instance to communicate the sheer cosmic magnitude of the church’s Lord. The same hand that holds the stars touches John—literally unimaginable, another indication that we have here no mere report but a scene fraught with symbolic meaning. The commission John receives comes from the one who holds seven stars in his hand. This motif is not taken from Scripture but has parallels in both the Mithras religion and the imagery of the Caesar cult. John probably chose it to express both an anti-astrology message and as a challenge to the claim of the Roman Caesars. The stars do not control our destiny and are not to be feared; Christ holds them in his hand. The claim that the Roman Caesars embody the rulership of the cosmos is a false imitation of the true cosmic ruler, Christ.
The only weapon borne by the exalted Christ is his word, the sharp two-edged sword that proceeds from his mouth. This is a scriptural motif taken from the promised deliverer in Isaiah 11:4 and the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 49:2. This corresponds to the fact that Christ’s primary action in this cosmic scene, like that of the Creator in the beginning (Gen. 1:1–2:4), is to speak. The figure speaks words appropriate only to the living God of Israel: “I am the first and the last, and the living one.” Again, there is no speculative interest here, but a particular message to the threatened Christians in John’s churches: The One who calls them to be faithful even at the cost of their lives (2:10) is the one who embraces all, who will be there at the End to vindicate and receive them, the one who has already gone before them through the reality of death. No aloof deity this, but one who says matter-of-factly that he has taken death into his own experience, has overcome it, has the keys of death and hades. In Hellenistic mythology the keys of Hades were often thought to be in the possession of Hekate, who controlled the revelatory traffic between the other world and this one (Aune, “The Apocalypse of John and Greco-Roman Magic,” pp. 484–89). John casts Jesus in this role. Death is portrayed here, as elsewhere in the Bible, as a personified power, the enemy that enslaves and robs (cf. 6:8; 20:14; I Cor. 15:26). Christians are not promised that if they are faithful they will be acquitted in the Roman courts and spared from the injustice of death; in and through death they are met by the One who has conquered death and abides as the living one.
Christ has appeared in order to commission John to write to the churches (1:11, 19–20). The Greek of verse 19 is best translated as referring to two items, not three: “Write your visions, both those that picture the present situation (chaps. 2–3) and those that picture the eschatological future that is already dawning (chaps. 4–22).”
The heavenly figure now explains that the lampstands among which he walks are the seven churches. Like the promised Servant (Isa. 42:6) and the Messiah himself (21:23–24), the church is pictured as having a mission, to be the bearer of God’s light to the nations (cf. Matt. 5:14–16). The church is not abandoned to carry out this mission alone; Christ walks among the lampstands.
John’s initial response (1:17) was to be struck down as one dead, overwhelmed with dread at the holiness of the awesome mystery he experiences. Here is no frivolous, superficially happy response; the response is of one who recognizes that he cannot traffic casually with the Almighty. Yet authentic response cannot remain immobilized, even by contemplation of God’s holiness. The hand that holds the stars touches him and gives him a job to do. Christ appeared, not to dazzle but to communicate a message. John obediently writes. We now turn to consider that message.
Boring, M. Eugene (2011-08-16). Revelation: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (pp. 18-23). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.