The Prologue to the Book of Revelation - (Revelation 1:1-8)

Synopsis: The Prologue to the book of Revelation presents the basic themes and methods of communication employed in the book, and anchors its visions solidly in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Photo by Robert Wiedemann on Unsplash
Photo by Robert Wiedemann on Unsplash

The first paragraph introduces the key subjects and characters of the book. It also tells the reader how it communicates.

The prologue identifies the purpose of the book (to reveal), its protagonists (God, Jesus, angel, John), nature (prophecy), source (God), target audience (God’s servants), contents (what things must come to pass), chronological perspective (soon), method of communication (signified), and it provides an example of how Revelation applies scriptures from the Old Testament.

The book of Revelation is a single document addressed in its entirety to the same audience. It is comprised of a prologue, a series of visions, and an epilogue. The book is a “revelation” or apokalypsis of Jesus Christ, a Greek term that denotes “revelation, disclosure, an unveiling.” The intent is to disclose, not conceal (Revelation 1:4-8, 1:11, 1:20, 13:7-10, 22:16).

(Revelation 1:1-3) - “Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what things must come to pass soon: and he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John; who bare witness of the word of God, and of the witness of Jesus Christ, even of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that reads and they that hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things that are written therein, for the season is at hand.”

Revelation” is not the title of the book but a designation of what it is. This first word is singular; it is not a collection of loosely connected visions but a singular disclosure:  A revelation “of Jesus Christ.” The genitive construction can mean it is an unveiling about Jesus or one that belongs to him, or to both.

The book does reveal information about the identity and role of Jesus, so, perhaps both senses are present. God “gave” it to Jesus who “gave” it to his angel to show his servants imminent events. The stress is on his possession of the revelation. Events in the subsequent visions unfold as Jesus unveils them to his servant, John.

The contents are labeled the “Word of God” and the “witness of Jesus.” The latter term is repeated several times to stress his faithful witness in his sacrificial death. “Witness” is also applied to saints who faithfully endure persecution, even when martyrdom is inevitable (Revelation 1:4, 1:11, 1:20, 13:7-10)

The objective is “to show” God’s servants “what things must come to pass soon,” a phrase that summarizes the contents of Revelation. The events disclosed are imminent. “Soon” translates a prepositional phrase, en tachei, literally, “with speed.” The same clause is used elsewhere for something imminent (Luke 18:8, Acts 12:7, 22:18, 25:4, Romans 16:20, 1 Timothy 3:14).

The first verse uses words and phrases from the book of Daniel. This is the first use by John of the Old Testament in the book; however, he employs no citation formula, no “even as it is written.” Instead, he uses verbal allusions to fold phrases from the Old Testament into his narrative. When he does so, he uses the Greek Septuagint version rather than the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Note the first verse compared to a passage from Daniel:

(Revelation 1:1) - “Revelation (apokalupsis) of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what things must come to pass (ha dei genesthai) soon.”
(Daniel 2:28) - “There is a God in heaven that reveals mysteries and made known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what things must come to pass (ha dei genesthai) in later days.”

The difference is that what for Daniel would not occur until “latter days” is now to occur “soon.” The book is also called “the prophecy,” again, applying a singular noun to the entire book. It unveils what was previously veiled. It is also called “the prophecy of this book” in Revelation 22:7, also in the singular number.

The unveiling is necessary because the “season is near.” The events disclosed are imminent from the perspective of the original audience. Imminence is reiterated in the book’s conclusion. This phrase is another allusion from Daniel, and it is used in the same way as the first one. Note the comparison:

(Revelation 1:3) - “Blessed is he that reads and they that hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things that are written in it, for the season (kairos) is at hand."
(Daniel 12:4) - “Shut up the words and seal the book, even until the season (kairouof the end.”

The same point is made as with the previous allusion. What was for Daniel to be “in later days” is now imminent. Daniel was told to seal the book until the “season of the end,” whereas, Jesus now declares a blessing on all who read and heed this book, for “the season is at hand.” This understanding is confirmed in the epilogue where the allusion to Daniel is clear:

(Revelation 22:7) - “Seal not the words of the prophecy of this book, for the season is at hand” (compare Daniel 12:4).

Jesus “signified” to his servants, which translates a Greek verb (sémainō) related to the noun for “sign” or semeion. It means to “indicate, show by sign, to signify.” In warfare, it referred to “signals” used to order advance, retreat or attack. This points to the symbolic nature of Revelation’s visions; they communicate by means of symbols (Mark 8:11, John 2:11, Acts 2:19, 2:43, Revelation 12:1-3, 13:13, 15:1, 16:14, 19:20).

The book’s audience is comprised of “servants” of Jesus (doulos, “slave, servant”), a term applied to Christians elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 12:37, Acts 2:18, 4:29, 1 Peter 2:16, Revelation 2:20, 7:3, 19:2, 22:3).

Blessed is the one who reads and they who hear.” This statement reflects a real-life situation. Books were expensive and commoners were often illiterate. The practice was to have a document read aloud to the assembly by a designated reader, thus, here “one who reads” and “they who hear.”

Revelation discloses how God’s kingdom achieves final victory, the role of the servants of Jesus in His plan, and what all this means for the marginalized churches of Asia. What Daniel anticipated in a remote future, and in a veiled form, is now disclosed and put into motion by Jesus on behalf of his saints; the time of fulfillment has arrived.

(Revelation 1:4-8) - “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 before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loves us and loosed us from our sins by his blood; and he made us a kingdom, priests for his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he comes with the clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they that pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn over him. Even so, Amen. I am the Alpha and the Omega, declares the Lord God, who is and who was and who is coming, the Almighty.”

The book is addressed, in its entirety, to seven first-century churches located in the Roman province of Asia. The salutation sends greetings from God, Jesus, and from the “Seven Spirits of God.” It emphasizes the present reign of Jesus over the political powers of the earth. Further, it bases that reign on his past death and resurrection. The addressees are identified: The seven churches or “assemblies” of Asia. They were in the Roman province of Asia in western Asia Minor. They are identified by name in verse 11.

God is the one “who is and who was and who is coming.” This expands on God’s self-designation given to Moses, “I am who I am.” This phrase occurs three more times in the book. Like Moses, John received his commission while in exile and separated from God’s people. Just as God removed His people from Egypt to the wilderness in order to make them a “kingdom of priests,” thus, Jesus has now “loosed” his people and constituted them a “kingdom, priests.” The application of terms and images used for Israel to the churches is consistent throughout Revelation. The Exodus motif reappears in several of the subsequent visions (seeExodus 3:14 19:4-5, Revelation 4:8, 11:17, 16:5).

The term “Seven Spirits” occurs nowhere else in Scripture outside the book of Revelation. Its significance is not worked out at this point, although the spirits are linked to the divine throne. The image is derived from a passage in Zechariah where “the seven eyes of Yahweh go about all the earth” (Zechariah 4:10, Revelation 3:1, 4:5, 5:6).

From Jesus Christ, the Faithful Witness, Firstborn of the Dead, Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.” “Faithful Witness” refers to his obedience in death. “Firstborn of the Dead” is a reference to his resurrection (Acts 26:23, 1 Corinthians 15:20, Colossians 1:18).

The Ruler of the kings of the earth” is the present status of Jesus. The phrase alludes to two Old Testament passages:

(Psalm 2:2-9) - “The kings of the earth set themselves against Yahweh and his anointed one.”
(Psalm 89:27) - “I will make him higher than the kings of the earth.”

The 89th Psalm is the source of the other two messianic titles used in this verse:

(Psalm 89:27, 37) - “I will make him my Firstborn…His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established forever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven.”

Thus, the “kings of the earth” is the verbal link by which Revelation connects Psalm 89:27 and Psalm 2:2-9, then applies both to what Jesus became as a result of his Death and Resurrection.
The sovereignty of Jesus over the political powers of the earth is a theme repeated in Revelation. His reign is not a future promise but a present reality; his elevation to the throne was accomplished by his past Death and Resurrection (Revelation 11:15, 12:10, 17:14, 19:16, 20:4). 

To him who loves us and by his blood loosed us from our sins.” The sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb, redeemed his churches and demonstrated his love for them. “Loosed” is a literal rendering of a Greek verb with the connotation “freed.” The pertinent point is not the forgiveness of sin but liberation from bondage to it.

He made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” “Made” is in the aorist tense and refers to a past event, in this case, the death of Jesus. This priestly role is a present calling to which the churches are appointed. What Israel was called but failed to do has now fallen to the churches. “Kings, Priests” signifies what kind of reign this is and how the saints participate in it (Exodus 19:5-6, 1 Peter 2:5-10, Revelation 5:10, 20:6).

To him be the glory and the dominion unto the ages of the ages.” The doxology reiterates the theme of God’s kingdom rule and alludes to Daniel 4:34-35:

I, Nebuchadnezzar uplifted my eyes and I blessed the Most-High and glorified him who lives forever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom lasts from generation to generation.”

The phrase is reiterated several times in the book. This bold claim is announced to the suffering churches of Asia. God reigns supreme through his appointed heir, regardless of appearances or the persecuting activities of hostile forces (Revelation 1:9, 7:9, 10:11, 13:7, 14:6, 18:4).

He is coming with the clouds.” This alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 where a human figure “like a son of man” was seen “coming with the clouds of the heavens to approach the Ancient of days.” The verb tense from Daniel is changed from an imperfect (“he was coming”) to a present one (“he is coming”); what was promised is now coming to fruition in the lives of the churches (Revelation 1:13, 11:15, 14:14).

Every eye will see him, whoever pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over him.” “Every eye” includes the churches of Asia and hints at a broader group. The tribes mourn not over their doom but because the Son of Man was pierced on their behalf. Elsewhere, “tribe” refers positively to redeemed men and women, the ones from “every tribe” who will mourn when they see the one who was pierced (Revelation 5:9, 7:9).

In verse 7, Revelation combines clauses from Daniel 7:13-14 and Zechariah 12:10. Both refer to “tribes,” the term used here to link them. God poured out the spirit of supplication on the house of David so that they mourned when they saw the “one whom they pierced…So shall the land wail tribe by tribe apart.” It was not the hostile nations that mourned but the tribes of Israel that were rescued from the assault. Note well that “every eye” of Judah from Zechariah has been changed to “all the tribes of the earth.” A prophecy originally given to national Israel is now universalized and applied to the churches of Asia (at a minimum).

I am Alpha and the Omega…the Almighty.” The one now speaking is “the Lord God who is and who was and who is coming.” God’s voice is heard in Revelation only here and in Revelation 21:5-8. No other scripture refers to God as “Alpha and Omega.” ‘Alpha’ is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, ‘Omega’ the last (‘Α,’ ‘Ω’). He is the one who begins things and brings them to their intended conclusions.

Almighty” represents the Greek noun pantokratōr, which signifies one with might or sovereignty over others. Pantokratōr is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew term for “hosts” (e.g., “Yahweh of hosts”). This is a fitting end to the salutation. The reference to God’s might reassures His churches. The same One who transcends history (“He who is, who was and who is coming”), will complete what He started (“Alpha and Omega”), and He possesses the power to do so (“Almighty”).

The salutation contains key themes that are expanded in the book’s visions. This includes Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, his present reign, its universal extent, the participation of believers in that reign, and his sovereignty over political powers. His exaltation is the result of his faithful obedience unto death; his reign and authority are anchored in his past Death and Resurrection.

Throughout the salutation, the seven churches remain in view; its themes set the tone for the rest of the book and encourage Christians that are living in a hostile society. From the start, the book is addressed to Christian congregations and not to national Israel. Interpretations that insist the focus is on Israel fail to heed “the words of this prophecy and to keep the things written in it.”

Above all, the opening paragraph of the book of Revelation anchors its visions in the past Death and Resurrection of Jesus.