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Revelation 1: The Foreword

Revelation 1 is our first chance to dig into the unique language and structure of Revelation. We immediately begin to see some of the unique elements that make Revelation unlike any other New Testament book. Like any other NT letter, John the Revelator begins Revelation with a salutation and a doxology, identifying himself, his audience, the occasion for writing and finally a passage of praise and glory to God.

Unfortunately we often treat these sections as less important than the “body” of the book or letter. We skim them quickly and then jump into the more important argument of the writing. But these passages, much like a foreword or introduction in a contemporary book, often give us essential hints, markers or roadmaps to understanding what is going to come afterwards.

In this case John the Revelator is already tipping his hand to several of the elements we are going to see later in the book. First, even in the first chapter we get a taste of the strange Hebraicized Greek that John is going to occasionally use. The oddly fractured Gk. of “him who is and was and is to come” has what would be considered grammatical errors in the strictest sense but might be an intentional stylized choice by John.

John also calls his writing a “prophecy.” We tend to use this term to mean “prediction” but it is better understood as presenting things from a God’s eye view. Like the Hebrew prophets John isn’t primarily concerned with offering glimpses of the future but rather showing the way God interprets the events which have occurred and are occurring and will come to pass (setting up a contrast with the human way of seeing those same happenings).

This prophetic connection isn’t minor either. John practically swims in the prophetic traditions, drawing imagery from nearly every prophet. In v. 1 he uses the Gk. term “semaino” which often gets translated “show” but more specifically means “to show through signs” or “signify.” John is going to convey his story through vivid imagery and pictures.

Vs. 12-16 are one of the most vivid passages of the entire New Testament up to this point. Even the longer Gospels focus on clipped, narrative focused phrases to convey as much story as possible in the shortest document. John, in contrast, pulls out all the stops. This passage has more color, imagery and description than any NT passage before it. And he pulls the picture almost wholesale from Daniel chapters 7 and 10.

But John doesn’t just borrow the language, he makes it uniquely his own to convey something specific about what God has shown him. Daniel offers two different images, one of God or the “ancient one” and the other of the “Son of Man,” a messianic hero-king. John combines the two images, taking familiar prophetic images and reusing them to describe Jesus in a new and vivid way, giving us a human figure who is somehow also God. Jesus and the Father are blurred together throughout Revelation. In a loose, early Trinitarian kind of way, John shows us Father, Son and the (Seven) Spirits together at the throne of Creation.

This chapter also offers us our first glimpses of John’s use of numerology. While some read Revelation with weird algebra to turn to the various numbers into codes the answer is far simpler. In John’s day sharply accurate numbers (the kind we expect today from reporting or stories) was impossible. There were few reliable head counts. So instead they used numbers as another layer of meaning and significance to events. These would have been common sense, obvious elements to the 1st century Jewish-Christian audience John wrote to. The equivalent of talking about “lucky 7” or “unlucky 13” today.

1 was the number of unity and wholeness. It signifies the thing itself, in its entirety.

2 was a number for strength, truth and witness, drawing from legal traditions and language in proverbs. It also sometimes conveys the Jewish tradition, separated into the Law and the Prophets (like we saw in the Transfiguration in the Gospels).

3 was the heavenly number, not only the spiritual heavens but the literal skies and stars.

4 was the four corners of the world, the four directions, the four winds.

6 was a number of incompletion, falling short of perfection and God.

7 was the divine number, the number for completion, perfection and God. It is heaven and earth together. Sometimes 7 was used to mean all of a thing. (Like when Jesus says you should forgive 70 times 7 times he didn’t literally mean 490 times but you should forgive indefinitely)

10 conveyed a sense of great size or duration, often used as a multiplier or intensifier on top of another number.

12 was the number of the church and those who believe. It was the 12 disciples and the 12 tribes.

Sometimes numbers were cut in half to convey incompletion or a sudden stop. 1260 days is a period of 7 years (which could imply a long or indefinite period) cut in half, implying a period of time that will not go on forever.