The Christology of the Book of the Revelation
Listening in on popular ideas about the book of the Revelation, one gets the impression that this is a book about the Great Tribulation, or about The End of the World, or about the Battle of Armageddon, or about the coming of the Antichrist. But it is interesting to note that such items of interest get very short shrift. When we meet the villains in this book, they get very brief coverage, and each time they do their doom is announced and carried out in short order.
But it is obvious that if pride of place is given to anyone, it is Jesus Christ. He is the first person named and the last person named, and his presence is noted throughout the entire book. He is denoted in dozens of metaphors that in kaleidoscopic fashion paint a full orbed image of a glorified Christ.
The central issue in the Book of the Revelation is to answer the question, “Who is Lord?” It is not Caesar. It is not the Roman Empire. It is not the devil. It is Jesus Christ who lived, and died, and who lives forevermore. He is Lord! To remove all doubt about the central character in the story John gives his opening chapter to describe and honour him.
The Exalted One
The book begins with the words “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is how the first sentence reads: “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.” (1:1-2)
The word “of” can be tricky. Does it mean this is a revelation “about” Jesus Christ, or should it read, “from” Jesus Christ, or both at the same time? Whatever the nuances of this preposition, the book is certainly and primarily about him.
So if this book is about him, what words shall John use to begin painting his portrait? His opening words catch us by surprise. Here they are: “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 firstborn 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.” (1:4-6)
First, he closely identifies Jesus with God the Father, the one who is, and was, and is to come, and who in verse 8 is also called The Almighty. He also just as closely identifies him with the seven-fold Spirit. It is clear that grace and peace come from Father, Spirit & from Jesus Christ our Lord. Without saying it directly in this place, he is nonetheless inferring that Jesus is divine. We will see that spelled out in more detail throughout the rest of this first chapter and throughout the entire book. But this is not the surprising element in these opening words.
John chooses some very unusual phrases to identify what he considers central in our need to know about Jesus. He is “The Faithful Witness”, “The First born from the dead”, “The Ruler of Kings”, the one “who loves us and freed us… by his blood”, and “made us to be a kingdom, and priests…” These words combine images of humanity and divinity, suffering and sovereignty. These words take us to the Gospel events that speak of Jesus from Nazareth who bore witness in the world, and in consequence died, but who was raised and made The Lord of all, and in doing so demonstrated that he loved us and loves us still, and freed us from our sins, and then commissioned us to participate with him in establishing the Kingdom of God throughout the world.
For John, however, this is but the beginning. He has started with lodging Jesus in the church’s past. He died, rose and ascended. But that was 60 years ago, a long time ago in a place far away. John does not want us to forget those historical roots, but that does not tell the whole story. He will also remind us that Jesus will return. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him (1:7) but that is not now and may not be as soon as the suffering saints would like. But John is far from done.
He hears a loud voice behind him. This is what he saw: 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. (1:12-18)
John sees the ascended and glorified Christ, who is now exalted and vindicated by His Father. The one who is like the Son Man is portrayed in images usually reserved for God alone.
The Lord of the Church
To say, however, that Jesus reigns in heaven, is not of much comfort to the church that is not only beset before and behind with foes of all kinds, but is falling apart on the inside. The church across Asia Minor is plagued with all sorts of internal problems. So the ascended Christ has John write letters to seven churches. (2:1 to 3:22) In each of those letters it is clear that Jesus Christ has the power of command. There may be a question as to whether Jesus Christ is Commander in Chief in the world of that day, but there should be no question as to whether he is Lord in his own church. The church is composed of those people who have pledged their allegiance to him. They have been freed from their slavery to sin and death, and in the waters of baptism they have committed themselves to follow him.
The seven letters remind the churches that he knows what they are going through, externally and internally. Five of those churches receive words of commendation; five hear words of censure and warning. These words underscore that his is the right to rule in the church. It is of interest to note that a description of Christ appears at the beginning of each letter. It appears that the description of Jesus is tailor-made for each specific church.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” (2:1)
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.” (2:8)
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” (2:12)
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” (2:18)
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” (3:1)
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” (3:7)
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation.” (3:14)
The Lord of History
It is clear that Jesus Christ is head of his church and its Lord. But to stop there would be to seriously limit the message of this book. Lord of the heavens? Yes! Lord of the church? Yes! But he is also lord of history. Chapter 5 and 6 takes us to heaven, to the very throne room of God. God is seated on that throne, surrounded by heavenly creatures. It is a scene of stunning beauty and glorious song. In God’s hand there is a scroll. We are not told what is on that scroll because it is tightly sealed. It is noted that no one on earth, or in heaven, or anywhere else can open it and read it. John begins to weep for the sadness of it all.
But one of the 24 elders says “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8 When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:5-12)
And when the Lamb of God begins to open the seals we see the final outcome of history revealed, for the rest of the book will portray that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. (6:1 – 22:21) He will defeat every foe, and rescue, redeem and restore his church which will be composed of people from every nation in every age. Even the earth and the heavens will be renewed.
In conclusion then, the central message of this book is all about Jesus and his redemption of all things. If we keep in mind this central message, we will be less confused about the meaning of many of the details.