This is the first in a series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation, which is to run concurrent with the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament“. Each note will focus on a short section or pericope, examining individual words, phrases and images carefully. The focus is critical and exegetical, but will, as necessary, also address wider theological issues and questions of interpretation. As a point of method, I should state up front that I do not assume any particular (traditional) approach to the book, nor any specific system of eschatology. My goal is to elucidate the text itself and the historical background of the language and imagery that the author/visionary uses. Such an approach should, at the very least, eliminate the more implausible and far-fetched interpretations which have been proposed over the years. At the same time, it should also have the positive effect of giving greater clarity as to what the images and symbols likely would have meant to the author and his original audience at the time.
Questions of authorship and dating for the book will be addressed at various points in the series. For a survey, you may consult any reputable critical commentary; one of the more thorough modern works is the volume (38A) by Craig R. Koester in the Anchor Bible commentary set (Yale: 2014). I have found this volume most helpful, especially for locating passages from Greco-Roman literature which are relevant for explaining the background of the text. References marked “Koester” in the notes are to this work.
The book of Revelation is usually regarded as having characteristics of a mixed genre. While it certainly shares many features of “Apocalyptic” literature (which will be discussed), it also follows an epistolary format. Indeed, the overall framework of the book may fairly be described as that of a letter, or epistle. Indeed, the first six verses serve as the epistolary prescript. Verses 1-3 are the superscription, establishing the author’s place and identity, while verses 4-6 are the author’s greeting to his audience. It is important to keep this framework in mind while studying the book.
“(An) uncovering of [i.e. by] Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to his slaves the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be in (all) speed [i.e. swiftly], and he signified (this) sending it forth through his Messenger to his slave Yohanan, who gave witness of the word of God and the witness of Yeshua (the) Anointed—as many (thing)s as he saw.”
a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”)—The verb a)pokalu/ptw literally means “take the cover (away) from”, i.e. “uncover”, often in the figurative sense of “reveal”—making known something which has previously been hidden. The verb occurs 26 times in the New Testament, primarily in the Pauline writings (Rom 1:17-18; 8:18; 1 Cor 2:10; 3:13; 14:30; Gal 1:16, et al). The noun occurs 18 times, again mainly in Paul (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 16:25; 1 Cor 1:7; 14:6, 26; 2 Cor 12:1, 7; Gal 1:12; 2:2; 2 Thess 1:7; also Eph 1:17; 3:3; and, elsewhere, in Luke 2:32 [vb. 2:35]; 1 Pet 1:7, 13; 4:13). The noun is largely absent from the Greek Old Testament (LXX), but the verb is used more than 100 times; its occurrence in Daniel ([Theodotion] 2:19, 22, 28, 30, 47; 10:1) is surely significant for the book of Revelation.
)Ihsou= Xristou= (“of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—This should be understood as a subjective genitive, i.e. Jesus Christ is the one doing the uncovering (cf. further below). The centrality of Jesus (here the title “Anointed” functions as a second name) in the visions which follow is made clear in the very first words of the book.
h^n e&dwken au)tw=| o( qeo/$ (“which God gave to him”)—That is, God the Father gives the revelation to Jesus (the Son), who, in turn, gives it to the visionary (John). This chain of relation is fundamental to most early Christian thought, and certainly features prominently in the Johannine writings. In the Gospel, especially, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that what he gives to believers was given to him by the Father (3:34-35; 5:26, etc); moreover, as a faithful and dutiful Son, he says and does only what he hears/sees the Father saying and doing.
dei=cai toi=$ dou/loi$ au)tou= (“to show to his slaves”)—The word dou=lo$ properly means a “slave”, though this can be somewhat misleading in terms of modern ideas and perceptions of slavery, which often imply oppression and lack of human dignity. The word, as applied figuratively among Christians, emphasizes the idea of belonging to a master. Christians are referred to as “slaves” of God/Christ numerous times in the New Testament (Acts 4:29; 16:17; 1 Cor 7:22; 1 Pet 2:16, etc); Paul and other ministers specifically refer to themselves this way (Rom 1:1; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1). Both positive and negative aspects (cf. Rom 6:16-20) of the word are utilized in the book of Revelation.
a^ dei= gene/sqai (“the [thing]s which are necessary to come to be”)—The plural pronoun (“the [thing]s which”) functions as a collective subject in the phrase “it [sg.] is necessary” (dei=); frequently in the New Testament, this verb refers to the will and/or command of God, as expressed in the Scriptures, or by way of prophetic revelation, etc. In the Gospel tradition, Jesus applies it to his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31 par; Luke 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). Here it specifically relates to the foretelling of future events. The verb of being/becoming, gi/nomai, emphasizes that the things made known in these visions will truly come to pass.
e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”)—The word ta/xo$, along with the related noun taxu/[$], is used a number of times in the book (2:16; 3:11; 11:14; 22:6-7, 12, 20), stressing two aspects or characteristics of the visions: (1) the events will happen soon, and (2) their appearance/fulfillment will be sudden and abrupt. In the New Testament, ta/xo$ (“speed, swift[ness]”) only appears in the expression e)n ta/xei, which means “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”, i.e., quickly, right away (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; Rom 16:20, etc). This expresses the early Christian belief that the end of the current Age, accompanied by Jesus’ return and God’s Judgment upon the world, was imminent. For more on this, see the next daily note (on verse 3).
kai\ e)sh/manen (“and he signified”)—This verbal expression is parallel to the earlier “God gave…”, and reinforced the chain of relationship mentioned above. As God gives the revelation to Jesus, so Jesus, in turn, communicates it to the prophet. The verb (shmai/nw) is related to the word sh=ma, “mark, sign”, and indicates that the message is communicated by way of signs—both language and images (on other occurrences of the verb in this sense, cf. Dan 2:45 LXX; John 12:33; 18:32; Acts 11:28). This stresses the symbolic character of the book, which has proven so difficult for interpreters over the centuries, but which also is the source of its enduring beauty and power.
a)postei/la$ dia\ tou= a)gge/lou au)tou= (“sending [it] forth through his Messenger”)—Jesus communicates the revelation through a heavenly Messenger (‘Angel’); cf. the wording in Malachi 1:1. Frequently in Apocalyptic writings, the message or vision comes by way of an Angel (Ezek 40:3-4; Zech 1:7-6:5; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3, etc; Koester, p. 212). Though the initial vision (vv. 10-18) comes directly from the risen Christ, the remainder of the visions in the book are conveyed by heavenly Messengers; the transition from Jesus to the Messengers occurs in vv. 19-20 and continues throughout the “letters” of chapters 2-3. The verb a)poste/llw conveys the concrete sense of something (or someone, i.e. a messenger) being sent (“set [forth]”) from (a)po/) another—i.e. the revelation comes from Jesus, and is conveyed by his representative.
tw=| dou/lw| au)tou= Iwa/nnh| (“to his slave Yohanan”)—On the figurative use of dou=lo$ (“slave”), and its use as a self-designation by early Christian ministers, cf. above. For the name Yohanan (‘John’), cf. the note in my earlier Advent/Christmas series “And you shall call his name…”. The identity of this “John” will be discussed in the notes on verses 4 and 9.
o^$ e)martu/rhsen (“who gave witness [of]”)—The verb marture/w, along with the related nouns marturi/a and martu/$, is used frequently in the New Testament, and conveys the important concept of giving witness. The apostles and early missionaries acted as witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection, and this idea was carried out more generally to the Gospel message and Christian life as whole. Jesus himself was a witness of God the Father, making the Father known to believers; this is a key theme in the Gospel and Letters of John (Jn 3:11; 5:31ff; 8:14ff; 10:25; 18:37, etc), and continues as a (Johannine) theme in the book of Revelation.
to\n lo/gon tou= qeou= (“the word/account of God”)—The object of John’s witness is expressed here by two parallel expressions. The first is “the lo/go$ of God”. The Greek noun lo/go$, as I have noted before, is extremely difficult to translate, consistently, in English. Properly, it is best rendered as “account”, and this is appropriate when it refers to the Gospel message, etc, as it frequently does in the New Testament (Acts 4:31; 6:2; 8:14; 1 Thess 2:13, etc). However, when it refers specifically to communication by God (to a prophet, etc), then it is generally better to use the conventional translation “word”. Both here, and in the next expression, the genitive (“of God”, “of Yeshua”) should be understood as subjective (i.e. the word comes from God) rather than objective (a message about God). It is a standard expression in Prophetic and visionary writings (Isa 1:10; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jer 1:2; Ezek 1:3, etc).
kai\ th\n marturi/an Ihsou= Xristou= (“and the witness of Yeshua [the] Anointed”)—An objective genitive here would mean that it is a witness about Jesus, i.e. the believer is acting as a witness of Christ. This idea certainly features prominently in the book, however, the overall context of these verses argues strongly in favor of a subjective genitive. Again, the chain of relationship, so familiar in the Johannine writings, is emphasized:
- God speaks, giving the message to Jesus
- Jesus bears witness to this message, communicating it to believers
- The believer (here, a chosen prophet), in turn, bears witness of the message to others
- Jesus bears witness to this message, communicating it to believers
o%sa ei@den (“as many [thing]s as he saw”)—This expression qualifies John’s witness, defining and explaining it in terms of the visions recorded in the book. The message is primarily conveyed visually, through images, which the seer (and/or author of the book) translate into written language. This relates back to the verb shmai/nw, “signify”, i.e. make known by signs.