Significantly, the first verse of Revelation begins by rooting the entire text immediately in Christ and his authority. The first three words (five in English) rapidly establish that what follows is not a word from John himself but “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It should not be surprising, therefore, as Jesus takes center stage that what we read in Revelation is not only a revelation belonging to Jesus but a revelation of Jesus himself. John is writing to churches that are hurting in some form or another, a fact which he makes clear in presenting his own credentials. Immediately upon the first mention of John’s name, he identifies himself as the one who “bore witness,” the Greek for which is quickly becomes a technical term from which we get our English word “martyr.” As he starts in the first person, John again immediately identifies himself as “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” John knows that his audience is suffering and wants them to know that he suffers alongside them.
It is unsurprising then that for this persecuted author writing to a persecuted audience the first image of the savior for which they suffer is so crucial. After his introduction, John spends most of the first chapter describing his initial encounter with the celestial Jesus. It is immediately apparent that this is not the Jesus on whose breast John lay at the last supper, at least not in appearance. The “son of man” that John encounters is like something out of an apocalyptic prophecy with woolen hair, flaming eyes, bronze feet, and a roaring voice, audible apparently in spite of the double-edged sword protruding from his mouth. It is understandable, if a bit melodramatic, that John should all “at his feet as though dead.” Frankly, the encounter would frighten most of us out of our right minds. In a single motion, however, this son of man reveals that he is the same compassionate Son of Man whom John knew. He reaches out, touches the prostrate John, and says “Fear not.”
In this paradoxical image of our Lord and Savior–an appropriate title–as both terrible and merciful is the heart of the picture of Christ which will be echo throughout the rest of Revelation. It is an encounter with the divine which spoke to the heart of John, tried to the limits of endurance, and to the churches as they suffered unspecified trials. They served a Lord who was compassionate without being weak, a Savior who was terrible without being malicious. He declares his sovereignty; “I am the first and the last.” He reveals his sympathy; “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.” He reiterates his promise; “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” He is a suffering king, perfectly suited for a kingdom beset on all sides.
This encounter should continue to resonate with us as often as we strive for our faith, be it against worldly powers or against spiritual ones. We can be reminded by this image of Jesus, bursting dramatically onto the narrative scene of Revelation, that we do not serve an impotent Lord nor an apathetic Savior. Ours is the Christ who reveals himself to John, “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom.” He will come and will make trivial the demons which haunt us because he loves us and because he has in him the power to actualize that love. It is a message of hope not for some distant point in chronology but in a living God who is right now, in this moment, ready to bless those who read the words of his prophecy and who keep to them.
For a full list of “Re-reading Revelation” posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.