1:4 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,
Here John tells us to whom he’s addressing this letter – to the seven churches in Asia. There were more than simply seven churches in Asia (as Voddie Baucham points out), but these might simply be the main churches to whom John has been working/corresponding. In fact, there were many other churches that were equally significant (see Mounce). So we can guess all we want, but I haven’t yet read any convincing argument on why these specific churches would have been picked. It is enough, I believe, that Jesus ordained these letters to be handed down to us today and that He picked these specific churches for His reasons and His glory.
Hendriksen points out that on a map, they form a sort of irregular circle. Ephesus was the closest to John physically, but perhaps also relationally.[i]
I believe (as do others) that its important that the Lord, in His sovereignty, directed these letters written to the number of churches (7) that represent the idea of “fullness” or “completeness” and “perfection” in the Bible. Thereby leading many scholars to believe that while the Lord was certainly speaking to specific churches with specific people during John’s life and in his ministry, He was also speaking the “whole” or “complete” church – the universal church.
Baucham certainly believes this, and Hendriksen says bluntly, “These seven churches represent the entire church throughout this dispensation.” I think of it like this – just because something is used as a figure or symbol doesn’t mean it wasn’t real or had real application in its context. Jesus spoke many words to Pharisees and disciples that had meaning to those people in that context, yet they still hold meaning for us today. The fig tree Jesus cursed was a real fig tree, yet it had greater meaning for many throughout the ages.[ii]
Therefore, while written to specific real churches with real Christians, this letter is still relevant for the universal church, the complete and full church across all geographical boundaries for all time. Just as we still apply the lessons of the gospels and the epistles of Paul to our lives today, so too this letter applies to us today.
He begins with the greeting “grace and peace” and its well that he says “grace” first, for as Beale says in one of his sermons on the text, grace must always precede peace. The greeting is meant as a reminder of the grace they have received by way of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the peace it has brought them not only in this life, but eternally. This greeting is a refreshing way of encouraging the elect and quickly identifying in their minds just exactly who they are and who is writing the letter. This letter is from the Prince of Peace, this letter is from the One who has extended grace to you and saved your lives.
Hendriksen summarizes better than most, “Grace is God’s favor given to those who do not deserve it, pardoning their sins and bestowing upon them the gift of eternal life. Peace, the reflection of the smile of God in the heart of the believer who has been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, is the result of grace. This grace and this peace are provided by the Father, dispensed by Holy Spirit, and merited for us by the Son.”
Then we are told from whom the message comes. John describes him as “him who is and who was and who is to come.” I love that because it reminds us that what you’re about to read was preordained from before the foundation of the world, is being currently underwritten and guaranteed, and will be upheld until the end of history. The forthcoming letter’s veracity is built upon the enduring character of God. Not only that, the emphasis on the timelessness of God reminds us again of the timelessness of His Word. By prefacing His message in this way He is reminding them that this word – His word – will be relevant from now until the end of time and beyond, for:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
As Beale says so well:
The purpose of this revelation is to give the eternal, transhistorical perspective of “the one who is and who was and who is coming,” which can enable them to understand his commandments and so motivate them to obedience (vs.3). Confidence in God’s sovereign guidance of all earthly affairs instills courage to stand strong in the face of difficulties that test faith: this is the point of the OT expression which lie behind “the one who is and who was and who is coming.[iii]
Next we are told that there is another co-author in the Godhead, the “seven spirits who are before his throne.” We’re only four verses into this letter and already we’re going to have to try and understand what is meant by this description. Are there seven literal spirits floating around the throne of God? What is John talking about here? Who are these spirits? What are they?
The key is in the number. The number is used to communicate a concept, an idea. Seven is used to communicate fullness, completeness, as I mentioned earlier. So seven here represents the Holy Spirit in His universal function and mission.
There is also a close connection between the lampstands we read about in 1:20, and the “seven spirits” as well. We are told in verse 20 that the lampstands represent the church, and Beale sees close ties between verse 4’s “seven spirits” and golden lampstands lit with the fire that stand “before the throne” (before likely meaning a role as messenger):
From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God (Revelation 4:5).
If we assume the lampstands/torches are the church and the Holy Spirit is normally symbolized by fire (think Pentecost), then it would make sense for John to say here in chapter 4 that “the seven spirits of God” are the “seven torches of fire” – the idea being that we, the lampstands, are empowered by the Spirit.
Adding to this interpretation is the context of the OT. As I mentioned before, the OT is important for understanding these things because the OT speaks in this language a great deal. Look at what Zechariah writes in chapter 4 of his book:
Then the angel who talked with me returned and woke me up, like someone awakened from sleep. He asked me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a solid gold lampstand with a bowl at the top and seven lamps on it, with seven channels to the lamps. Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” I asked the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” He answered, “Do you not know what these are?”
“No, my lord,” I replied. So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah 4:1-7)
So we see here that God Himself gives the interpretation of the seven lamps with the fire, and tells us that what is going to be accomplished will not be done by mere might or power (of man, presumably), but by the Spirit. The lamps and the olive trees – which we’ll read about more in chapter 11 – are the people of God filled with His Spirit.
Beale explains the context of Zechariah 4:
In Zachariah’s vision the lampstand represented the second temple (the part representing the whole), for which Zerubbabel had laid the foundation. On either side was an olive tree that provided oil for the lamps. Zechariah interprets the olive trees as ‘the anointed ones who are standing before the Lord of the whole earth’ (4:14), that is, as Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel.
The main point of this OT chapter (Zechariah 4) was that even though the temple kept getting delayed by outside forces and opposition, God was calling them to endurance and perseverance. It wasn’t going to be done by their strength alone, however, but by “my Spirit.”
The same is true for us today. We live by the power of the Spirit, are led into “all truth” by the Spirit, and are born again by the Spirit. Therefore once again, the OT helps give us grammatical context for what we’re reading here – it also reminds us that God’s character and methodology for interacting with man has been very similar throughout the Bible. His message and His power haven’t changed.
Revelation, as you’ll soon figure out, is going to repeat the same themes over and over again using OT imagery and OT texts to remind the seven churches – and us – that God is faithful. He was faithful in the OT and is faithful today, and will be faithful in the future.
Lastly, it seems to me that in verse 4 and 5 we have a situation where authorship is connoted. Some have said that these seven spirits are angels, because they seem to be messengers standing “before” the throne. While the note about them standing “before” the throne is a great point and may indicate a sort of messenger or implementer of the message, the same could be said of the Holy Spirit. And when you combine the NT principle that it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking through the Word of God, and making it come to life in our hearts – indeed implementing it and leading us into “all truth”, with the idea that there seems to be an authorial (authorship) role given to the seven spirits, I think we have to lean toward these spirits being the one Holy Spirit in His completeness and perfection.
1:5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood
Verse five extols the attributes of Jesus. Both His priesthood (“by his blood”) and His kingship (“the ruler”) are described in dramatic fashion here. Jesus’ kingship is seen as superior to all other kings of the earth.
This phrase is used in Colossians 1:18 and indicates his kingship and rule. “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18).
Mounce is right to note that there is a very rich connection with the Messianic Psalm 89:
And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (Psalm 89:27)
The phrase is also used in connection to our standing with Jesus. Paul says in Romans 8:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29)
Mounce concludes, “As the risen Christ now exercises sovereign control, so also will the faithful share in his reign.”[iv]
We’re also told here that Jesus is the one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins” – this is a description of his priesthood, as I just mentioned, but also it reminds us of our former captivity to sin and death. These topics are going to be important in the coming chapters. You see, what this book will do is paint in great detail the vile nature, the horrid reality, of sin and its end – which is the “second death.”
In other words, those who think very little of their sin now in this life, ought to read the consequence of it, and see how God views their sin. God views sin as an abomination. It is a stench in His nostrils. And those who “dwell on the earth” and “refuse to repent” of their sins will one day be “cast into the lake of fire.” That’s a pretty violent end.
The violence of the end for sinners therefore sets in sharp relief that blessing which we read here – He has “freed us from our sins.”
Lastly, notice that Jesus is described as the “faithful witness” – He bears witness of the truth of the kingdom of God. Although Christ is reigning now and has ushered in His kingdom, it is invisible to the world. They do not see it, nor do they desire to seek it.
Like Christ, we are to be faithful witnesses to the kingdom of God, which leads us to verse six.
1:6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
We are to follow Christ in both His kingship and His priesthood. We realize these privileges even now. This is both present and past – He made us and is making us – is the sense of the text. Interestingly, very similar phrasing is found in 5:10 and 20:6. The latter is that passage on the millennium that so many people are familiar with, and it says this:
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)
Now this only really makes sense if we see the millennium as taking place right now. Before the kingdom of God becomes physical for every eye to see, we have to persevere (see Beale[v]).
To understand our roles as priests we need to look at the OT. Exodus 19 says:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:4-6)
The people of Israel were to be a “kingdom of priests” who would witness to God’s character, as a light to the gentile nations. They were a kingdom of priestly, holy, special people meant to show the surrounding nations what it looked like to be in a right relationship with God.
The priest was a mediator between God and people and that is how is how Israel functioned writ large on the earth. They were to be the go-between between God and the nations. They acted in a kingly way and performed priestly functions.
Today we take on this role in a new way. Peter puts it this way:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
The early church understood itself to be the true Israel and the inheritors of all the blessings promised to their spiritual predecessors. Corporately they are a kingdom (which stresses their royal standing in connection with the exaltation of Christ as ruler of all earthly kingdom), and individually they are priests of God (which emphasizes their immediate access to God as a result of Christ’s sacrificial death).[vi]
We engage in our priestly responsibilities as mediators of the new covenant. We shine as lights to the world by living lives controlled by love, and sharing the Gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus. As Paul says:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).
So we are mediators, priests in this this way. We bring people to God, and help them make peace with God and, as Peter says, “we proclaim the excellencies” of God.
This is likely what Jesus had in mind when He announced the new covenant in John 13:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Similarly Paul in Ephesians 2:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
Interesting Side Note: I think it’s interesting how John has written in a sort of parallelism here in verse 5 and 5 as it corresponds to the priesthood and kingship issues. Check this out:
A. “the ruler of kings on earth” 1:5b
B. “has freed us from our sins by his blood” 1:5c
A. “and has made us a kingdom” 1:6a
B. “priests to His God and Father” 1:6b
Obviously the A’s go together and so do the B’s. Now, I’m just an amateur theologian, but this was pretty easy to spot. The idea being that we are following in His footsteps – He is making us after Himself, not by our power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
To What End?
Now what is the purpose of all of this? Why has God made us “priests and kings”? Verse six tells us why: “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”
The reason we are mediators for God is for His glory (see Isaiah 43:7). We do this out of love – we are happy to do this (2 Corinthians 5:14). It is the joy of Christ within us, a changed heart (Ezekiel 36:26) that drives us to extend Christ’s grace to others.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16).
And, as we’ll see even shortly now, this grace, this witness, will often take place during tribulation.
[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 52.
[ii] Obviously we want to be cautious not to confuse application with interpretation though. I have found that in trying to give examples of how to think appropriately about prophetic symbolism it is easy to sometimes shy away from a blunt answer because I want to give examples and help get minds to understand where John is coming from. In doing so, however, I find more trouble sometimes than is warranted! We must always be cautious with these matters.
[iii] Beale, Pg. 187.
[iv] Robert Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Revelation, Pg. 71.
[v] Beale, Sermon on Revelation 1:4-9, found here: http://www.lanesvillechurch.org/sermons-audio/970112.mp3
[vi] Mounce, Pg.’s 72-73.