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Note of the Day – August 5 (Revelation 1:17-20)

Revelation 1:9-20 (continued)

Revelation 1:17-20

The previous daily note examined the visual details of the initial vision in verses 9-20 (vv. 12-16). There I pointed out that the figure of the vision was depicted and described with both heavenly and divine characteristics. The details (and language used to describe them) are drawn largely from four passages in the Old Testament:

Central to the vision, with its identification of the figure as “(one) like a son of man” (v. 13; Daniel 7:13f), is the description of “the Ancient of Days” in Dan 7:9-10. In this regard, there is an interesting variant reading in the Greek of Dan 7:13, for the Aramaic

“…(one) like a son of man was coming and reached unto [du^] the Ancient of Days”

where the preposition du^ is translated by the corresponding e%w$ (“unto, until”). However, some manuscripts of the LXX instead read the particle w%$ (“as”):

“…(one) as a son of man was coming and came near as [w($] the Ancient of Days”

which could be taken to mean that he had the likeness or appearance of the Ancient of Days.

In the verses which follow (vv. 17-20), the heavenly/divine figure addresses the seer John. It is introduced with a notice of the traditional reaction of fear to seeing a heavenly being (Ezek 1:28; Dan 8:17; 10:9-10; Tob 12:15-16; Mark 16:5 par; Luke 1:12; 24:5, etc), followed by the similarly traditional words of reassurance mh fobou= (“you must not be afraid”, “do not fear”), as in Lk 1:13, 30; 2:10; John 6:20 par; Acts 18:9; 27:24, etc.

The figure makes a declaration (“I am”, e)gw/ ei)mi) which is associated with God (YHWH) and which reflects divine attributes, following the pattern in 1:4, 8 (cf. also 21:6). There are two specific titles involved:

Two points must be noted in relation to this declaration: (1) this heavenly/divine figure is identified (implicitly) with the risen Jesus, and (2) the declaration is defined in terms of Jesus’ resurrection:

“…and I came to be dead, and see! I am living [zw=n] into the Ages of the Ages”

This is important, as it reflects the early Christian mode of thinking which identified Jesus’ deity primarily with his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). This can be seen especially in examples of the earliest Christian preaching and (Gospel) proclamation—e.g., Acts 2:24-36; 3:15-16; 7:55-56; 13:30-37ff; Rom 1:4; Phil 2:9-11, etc. Being exalted to divine/heavenly status, Jesus shares divine attributes and titles, such as “the Living One”. He also shares precisely the eternal Life which God possesses, and, as such, he lives “into the Ages of Ages” (i.e. forever)—cf. Dan 4:34; 6:26; 12:7, etc.

The final phrase of this declaration sharpens the eschatological context, touching upon the idea of the end-time Judgment. The risen Jesus how has authority over death and the dead (i.e. those who are dead):

“…and I hold the keys of Death and of the Unseen world (of the dead)”

Death is depicted primarily as a place—the traditional Hades (a)i+/dh$, or ai%dh$, a%|dh$), the “unseen” realm (below ground) where the dead reside. In figurative (and mythological) language, this realm is ruled over by a figure personifying Death itself. To say that Jesus “holds the keys” is a symbolic way of describing the power/authority he has (cf. Isa 22:22; Rev 3:7), as the living one, over death. In traditional Jewish thought, a heavenly being (Angel) typically had power over Death/Hades (cf. Apocalypse of Abraham 10:11, etc), an idea with a very long history (cf. Exod 12:23ff; Num 22:23ff; 1 Chron 21:12ff; and many other passages). This specific image of Jesus holding the key of Death is repeated in 9:1; 20:1, emphasizing its eschatological significance. The end-time Judgment was often closely connected with the resurrection of humankind, which by the time of the book of Revelation was typically applied to both the righteous and wicked together.

Following this declaration, in verse 19, John is given (again, v. 11) the command to write down the things he sees and hears: “Therefore you must write the (thing)s you see…” The verb ei@de$ is an aorist form, which often indicates past action (“saw”), and might, from the standpoint of the book and its publication, refer to the things which John saw. Along these lines, it is probably better to view the aorist form as referring to the visions taken as a whole, reflecting an “external” view. These visions are qualified here two ways:

  • “the (thing)s which are” (a^ ei)si/n)—present
  • “the (thing)s which are about to come to be” (a^ me/llei gene/sqai)—immediate future

The context makes clear that the “future” events should be understood as occurring (close) after events of the present time (i.e., from the standpoint of the author and his original audience). Note the wording: “…are about to come to be with [i.e. after] these (thing)s”.

Finally, in the concluding words of verse 20, the risen Jesus offers a partial explanation of the first vision, its secret (musth/rion). This is an important aspect of eschatological (and apocalyptic) language—the revealing of something which has been secret, or hidden. In this instance, as in the parables of Jesus (Mark 4:11ff par), it is the specific symbols which are interpreted; two symbols are involved:

  • “the seven stars…upon my right hand”
    = “(the) Messengers of the seven congregations”
  • “the seven gold lamp(stands)
    = “the seven congregations” (contrast this with Zech 4:2ff)

There is a close connection here with the earlier reference to “the seven Spirits” in verse 4, which, as I have previously discussed, are best understood as heavenly beings (i.e. Angels). Note the symmetry:

  • Seven Spirits [Angels] before the throne of God (i.e. the ‘Ancient of Days’)
    —Seven stars (= heavenly Messengers) in the right hand of Jesus
  • Seven Lamps [Believers] surrounding the heavenly/divine figure (i.e. ‘one like a son of man’)

As in the introduction (vv. 1-3), Jesus serves as the intermediary:

  • God gives the message to
    • Jesus Christ, who gives it (through his Messenger[s]) to
      • Believers (through a chosen prophet)

This interplay continues into the “letters” which follow in chapters 2-3, as will be discussed in the next note. In the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, Angels are often ‘assigned’ to particular peoples or nations (Dan 10:13, 20-21; 12:1), and also to specific individuals (cf. Tob 12:14-16; 1 Enoch 100:5; Matt 18:10; Acts 12:15, etc). The idea that certain heavenly Messengers are designated to groups of believers (congregations) in various locations is fully in accordance with this line of tradition. As previously noted, the picture of seven Angels is also traditional (1 Enoch 20:1-7; Tob 12:15; 4Q403).

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