1:4 John to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia:
While the book of Revelation is an apocalypse when it comes to its genre, it is not a pure apocalypse (1) in that it is set in the context of a letter. We can see this clearly in the following verses. The Book of Revelation is not really a book; it is in fact a letter addressed to churches in the province of Asia. By its own witness, this apocalyptic letter also contains prophecy (Rev. 1:3, 22:7).
It is common to think of prophecy as predictions, but to an Israelite mind prophecy is primarily a proclamation of previously known truth, a call to return and not to forget the important matters. Thus, the Book of Revelation can be called an apocalyptic letter containing prophecy, combining at least three genres in one document (apocalyptic, epistolary and prophetic).
While it is not possible to say with full confidence who exactly was this John who wrote Revelation, it is clear that his identity was known to the seven historic churches mentioned in the letter. The author must have been authoritative enough to be accepted since the Revelation of John was not the only apocalypse at that time. However, the authorship of John the Apostle is early and strongly attested. Several 2nd century congregational leaders (such as Melito, bishop of Sardis (c. 165CE) (2) and Irenaeus of Smyrna (c. 180 CE), (3) whose churches were among the original recipients of the letter of Revelation (4)) explicitly mention that the letter was believed to be from John the Apostle.
The case for Johaninne authorship of Revelation ironically is stronger than that of the Gospel of John. The most significant argument in favor of another author (meaning that the author of the fourth gospel and Revelation is not the same person) is that the Greek of Revelation is significantly lower in quality than the Greek of the Gospel of John. This, however, could be easily resolved by positing that John used a scribe for the composition of the Gospel (as did Paul (5) among many others in Roman antiquity), but that no scribe was available to him as he composed the book of Revelation since it was written when he was under house arrest on the Island of Patmos. In other words, he was left with his own limited Greek language skills.
All seven churches mentioned in the letter are located within the system of Ancient Roman roads. It was therefore actually possible for the letter to make a full circle of all the locations after it was originally delivered and be read in the individual congregations.
Not all known congregations in Asia were addressed (for example, the congregation at Colossae). The letter is tied to the importance of the number seven, pointing to the symbolic nature of the churches. It is likely that the seven actual historic congregations symbolize all the churches existent at the time of John and even beyond that historical setting.
Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come, …
The passage is an allusion to Ex. 3:14 according to the Greek language Septuagint version where God refers to himself as “he who is” (ὁ ὤν). The Greek is translated from the divine self-description in Hebrew אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (I am who I am). John uses the same wording only in this place in Greek (6). God’s unpronounceable name YHWH is believed to be connected to the verb “to be” in Hebrew. It is a composite of past, present and future aspects all present in one word, “who is and the one who was, and who will be.” The hint is deliberate.
This passage is one of many places where it could be said that the Greek used by John is poor. Note the comment above about the authorship of Revelation and possible absence of an assisting scribe on Patmos). Since not all portions of Revelation could be characterized this way, it is not possible to explain the Greek grammatical irregularities only by the Hebraic background of John’s original thought language. Whatever the explanation may be behind the awkward grammatical irregularities, they are probably intentional in nature. For the reader familiar with the nuances of both Hebrew and Greek grammar, they act as clues that something else is going on.
…and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,
The number seven in a wide variety of Jewish scriptural traditions is the number of fullness, totality and completeness. As was already mentioned, Revelation is full of sets of the number seven, but just as in the case of the churches, this fact calls attention not to the number itself, but instead to the totality of that which is discussed – in this case the Spirit (seven spirits) who is/are before the throne of God. There are at least two interpretive options here. One has to do with the Holy Spirit and the other has to do with key angelic beings.
First, conventional interpretation connects the seven spirits in Revelation with the seven “aspects” of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” (NASB). In reality there are six aspects, not seven, because the Spirit of the Lord is not one of the aspects. A better translation (NetBible), however, is provided by the Net Bible translators, rightly showing that each pair is really one concept, reducing 6 to 3: “The Lord’s spirit will rest on him – a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom, a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans, a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord.” No matter which translation we use for Isaiah 11:2, the connection between those verses and the seven spirits in Revelation does not seem likely to us.
Second, in the non-canonical Jewish books such as 1 Enoch that has many references to the Jewish Son of Man traditions, we repeatedly encounter an unfamiliar phrase “the Lord of the Spirits.”
For example, we read in 1 Enoch 46:1-2:
“There I beheld the Ancient of Days, whose head was like white wool, and with him another, whose countenance resembled that of man… Then I inquired of one of the angels, who went with me, and who showed me every secret thing, concerning this Son of man; who he was; whence he was and why he accompanied the Ancient of days. He answered and said to me, This is the Son of man, to whom righteousness belongs; with whom righteousness has dwelt; and who will reveal all the treasures of that which is concealed: for the Lord of Spirits has chosen him; and his portion has surpassed all before the Lord of spirits in everlasting uprightness.”
We have here a wonderful passage establishing Jewish traditions (contemporary to the book of Revelation) about the Daniel (7) Son of Man figure. We must note that this common Enochean phrase – “the Lord of the Spirits” may be connected with the “…the seven spirits who are before his throne” in Revelation. (Rev. 1:4b)
While the parallel between “Lord of Spirits” and “seven spirits that are before his (God’s) throne” is intriguing, we may be dealing here with an early Jewish equivalent of pre-systematized, later Christian Trinity (albeit in different order) – Father, Holy Spirit and the Son.
Another interpretive possibility, however, that presents itself to us when we compare the book of the Revelation to 1 Enoch. The seven spirits before the throne of God may be seen as seven key angelic figures who (are imagined in some Jewish apocalyptic traditions) to serve before the throne of God.
Angels are after all spirits that serve God and these seven angelic spirits, according to this Jewish apocalyptic tradition, serve before God. It is significant that the seven do not only appear in Enoch, but also in other Jewish books both Biblical and para-biblical.
While believers can be tempted to make too much out of this connection, we must keep things in perspective. Whether or not the names of the seven key angels are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Raquel, Remiel and Saraquel as is stated in the book of Enoch, we may never know, but it is at least conceivable that other contemporary Jews (including the Jew who authored the book of Revelation) had a similar concept in mind to that of the author of the Book of Enoch (1 Enoch 20:1-8).
So, other than the Holy Spirit, another potential explanation for seven spirits could in fact be the seven angelic figures.
In this case, God, the seven key angels, and as we will shortly see, Jesus Christ, are the ultimate authors on behalf of whom John is writing/delivering this letter to be sent to the Christ-following congregations of Asia Minor.
1:5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free7 from our sins at the cost of his own blood 1:6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father—to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen.
Jesus Christ’s five-fold title is clear – 1) faithful witness, 2) firstborn (8) from the dead, 3) ruler of the earthly kings (1:5a), 4) the one who loves us and 5) the one who set us free (1:5b).
Such a full (especially in comparison to the other authors or those who commissioned the letter) title description deserves a doxological exclamation – “to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever!” (1:6b). This is especially so because Jesus Christ appointed “us” (presumably John, his community and the believers to whom he addressed his letter) to be the priestly kingdom, serving Jesus’ God (“his God”) and Father (1:6a).
The idea presented in Rev. 1:6-7 is that the multifaceted greatness of Jesus Christ eventually results in the glory and power of his God and Father. Interestingly enough, this too may have a conceptual parallel in 1 Enoch 48. We read in 1 Enoch 48:2-6:
And at that hour that Son of Man was named In the presence of the Lord of Spirits, And his name before the Head of Days…
He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall, And he shall be the light of the Gentiles,
And the hope of those who are troubled of heart. All who dwell on earth shall fall down and worship before him,
And will praise and bless and celebrate with song the Lord of Spirits. And for this reason hath he been chosen and hidden before Him, Before the creation of the world and for evermore.
What we see in the 1 Enoch text is that the praise and worship the Son of Man receives from all those who dwell in the earth results ultimately in praise and worship of the Lord of Spirits (God Himself).
This is indeed a very similar concept to the one described in Revelation 1:5-6 “…Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen.” (9)
1:7 Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen.
What is very important to keep in mind as we slowly read the Book/Letter of Revelation is that we have a variety of voices being heard in this letter (God, John, Spirit, Jesus Christ, Bride, etc). As in any complex composition, such a rich polyphony of heavenly sound will demand careful and attentive listening in order clearly distinguish between the varieties of these voices, appreciate both their choir-like message and the voice of the individual performer.
It is not clear whose voice we are hearing in Rev. 1:7, but whoever this voice belongs to would like us to be aware that the crucified Christ will return in power (with clouds) and no one (including his killers) will be able to deny his resurrection (every eye will see him, even those who pierced him).
This will bring fulfillment to the visions of Daniel 7:14: “All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed” as well as Zachariah 12:10: “I will pour out on the kingship/house of David and the population of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication so that they will look to me, the one they have pierced. They will lament for him as one laments for an only son, and there will be a bitter cry for him like the bitter cry for a firstborn.”
And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Revelation 4:5
And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. Revelation 5:6
And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Revelation 8:2