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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Revelation

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Prologue ( 1:1–8 )

( 1:1–3 ) Title and Beatitude

v. 1 , the word ‘revelation’ (apokalupsis) can also be translated ‘apocalypse’, a term biblical scholars use for a literary genre: apocalypses are works in which heavenly secrets are disclosed in visionary manner. Daniel, Revelation, and many non-canonical Jewish and Christian works are apocalypses in this sense. It is unlikely that the word had this technical sense when John wrote, but his work does have strong literary affinities with the other apocalypses. But whereas modern scholars often distinguish prophecy from apocalyptic literature, John considers his work to be prophecy ( 1:3; 10:11; 22:6–7, 10, 18–19 ), indeed, to be the culmination of the biblical tradition of prophecy, revealing how the words of the OT prophets are going to be finally fulfilled in the coming of God's kingdom (see 10:7 ). The most important sense in which John's prophecy is also ‘apocalyptic’ is that it communicates a disclosure of a transcendent perspective on the world, a revelation from God which enables readers to see their world in a different way from that of the society in which they live. It reveals the world as it appears from the perspective of God's purpose to establish his kingdom in the world, a purpose which has begun to be fulfilled through Jesus Christ and will be completed by Jesus Christ. Hence the chain of revelation: God—Christ—angel—John—servants of God. The angel appears in 10:1–11 (also 22:8–9, 16 ), because the revelation proper is the content of the scroll this angel gives to John in ch. 10 (earlier chapters are preparatory for this revelation).

v. 2 , ‘witness’ (or testimony) is a key word in Revelation, referring first to the witness to God that Jesus bore in his earthly life (cf. 1:5 ) and then to the witness his followers bear ( 1:9 ). The content of John's prophecy, as intended to serve this witness, is attested by Jesus himself ( 1:2; 22:20 ), his angel ( 22:16 ), and John ( 1:2 ).

v. 3 is the first of seven beatitudes scattered through the book (cf. 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14 ). The number seven indicates completeness, and so the seven beatitudes indicate the fullness of God's blessing for those who respond faithfully and fully to what the prophecy demands of them. The ‘one who reads’ is the Christian who reads the book aloud to the assembled church. Revelation was intended for oral performance in the context of Christian worship (just as Christian prophets present would give their own prophecies orally during worship), though certainly also for study, since it is packed with meaning that cannot be grasped at first reading. But obedience to the prophecy is urgent, since John sees a crisis looming (‘the time is near’) which will lead to the eschatological completion of God's purposes for the world.

( 1:4–5a ) Epistolary Opening

Following the standard literary form for the opening of a letter, writer and addressees are named, and a salutation invokes a blessing in the way usual in Christian letters (cf. the openings of all the Pauline letters). John's prophecy is sent as a circular letter to the seven churches (named in 1:11 in the order in which a messenger would visit them): each is given an individual message in chs. 2–3 , and the rest of the book is addressed to them all. This is important for interpretation, since it makes it clear that the whole book (not only chs. 2–3 ) was written with relevance immediately to these first recipients. Unlike other letter openings in the NT, the blessing here is trinitarian. Revelation has one of the most fully trinitarian understandings of God in the NT. The one ‘who is and who was and who is to come’, one of Revelation's unique designations for God (cf. 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5 ), is an interpretation of the divine name YHWH (cf. Ex 3:14 ), which Jews sometimes understood as referring to the three tenses of the divine eternity. In Revelation's form God's future is not just his own, but his eschatological coming to the world, which will find its own future in God's coming to it. The seven Spirits (also in 3:1; 4:5; 5:6; cf. Isa 11:2 ) are seven because they represent the Spirit of God as the fullness of the divine power. (Some think they are the seven archangels, but these are differently described in 8:2 .) The three phrases describing Jesus refer respectively to his life up to death, his resurrection, and his future coming. While the word martus (witness) does not yet mean, as in Christian usage it soon came to mean, ‘martyr’, in Revelation there is a strong presumption that faithful witness can lead to death. ‘Firstborn’ (cf. Ps 89:27 ) indicates his pre-eminence as the pioneer of the new creation in his resurrection. The third phrase introduces the issue of sovereignty which is central in Revelation. The ‘kings of the earth’ (also 6:15; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9 ) ally themselves with the forces opposed to God's rule either until at his coming Jesus ‘the King of kings’ ( 17:14; 19:16 ) defeats them ( 19:19–21 ) or until they are converted ( 21:24 ).

( 1:5b–6 ) Doxology

In Jewish usage doxologies express the honour due exclusively to the one God. It is consistent with Revelation's high Christology that this one (the first of many in the book) addresses Jesus. His redemptive work is understood in terms of the theme of the new exodus which is prominent throughout Revelation. He is the passover lamb whose sacrifice enables the exodus. The people he freed are described as Israel as in Ex 19:6 (cf. Rev 5:9–10 ).

( 1:7 ) A Scriptural Testimony

This evocation of the parousia is a conflated quotation of Dan 7:13 and Zech 12:10, 12 , but the phrase ‘all the tribes of the earth’ also alludes to Gen 12:3 , God's promise to Abraham that all the nations will be blessed. The mourning of the nations is therefore not remorse, but repentance, leading to salvation at the parousia. This scriptural testimony is so placed in the prologue as to introduce the hope that the nations are to be converted. The novel element in John's prophecy will be to show how this conversion may come about.

( 1:8 ) A Prophetic Oracle

God speaks directly only here and in 21:5–6 , where there is a similar divine self-declaration. Here the solemn declaration makes clear God's identity as the absolutely sovereign one whose purpose the rest of the book sees accomplished. ‘The Alpha and the Omega’ (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; also in 21:6; 22:13 ) is equivalent to ‘the first and the last’ ( 1:17; 2:8 ) and ‘the beginning and the end’ ( 21:6; 22:13 ). It is based on Isaiah 44:6; 48:12 , where it evokes YHWH's uniqueness as the Creator who precedes all things and the Lord who will bring all things to their fulfilment. Significantly the title is applied to Christ ( 1:17; 2:8; 22:13 ) as well as to God. ‘The Lord God the Almighty’ (also in 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 19:6; 21:22; cf. 16:14; 19:15 ) translates the OT phrase ‘YHWH the God of hosts’, and stresses God's supremacy over history.

Inaugural Vision of Jesus Christ among the Churches and his Messages to the Seven Churches ( 1:9–3:22 )

( 1:9–20 ) John's Vision and Commission

v. 9 , John establishes connection with his readers by pointing out what they have in common. The reference to ‘persecution’ does not mean that there was systematic and widespread persecution. Chs. 2–3 show that as yet there has been only occasional persecution, though it is a constant risk. Part of Revelation's message is that, in the context of the seven churches, faithful witness (bearing ‘the testimony of Jesus’) will lead to persecution and require ‘endurance’; but this is the way in which Christians share in the rule (‘kingdom’; cf. 1:5–6 ) of Christ whose faithful witness incurred death. In John's case persecution has led to his exile (either banishment or flight) on the island of Patmos. v. 10 , since it was in Christian meetings on ‘the Lord's day’ (Sunday) that the book would be read, the date continues to link John's situation with that of his readers. The phrase ‘in the Spirit’ (also 4:2; 17:3; 21:10 ) refers to the altered state of consciousness, given by the Spirit of God, in which John can receive visionary revelation. v. 11 , these seven churches in the Roman province of Asia are the actual first recipients of the book, but the number seven suggests they are also chosen as representative of all the churches. Their various different characteristics and situations are typical of any other churches to which the book may circulate. v. 12 , the seven lampstands, representing the seven churches, recall the seven-branched lampstand that stood in the temple (Ex 25:31–40; Zech 4:2 ) and its heavenly prototype: the seven lamps before the throne of God, representing the seven spirits (Rev 4:5; cf. 1:4 ). Probably the implication is that the churches are the lampstands which bear the light of the Spirit in their witness to the world (cf. 11:3–4 for this significance of lampstands). v. 13 , whereas in the gospels the phrase ‘the Son of Man’ is used of Jesus, only Revelation ( 1:13; 14:14 ) uses the exact phrase from Dan 7:13 : Heb. ‘one like a son of man’. It designates Jesus as the one to whom God has given universal sovereignty (Dan 7:14 ), and although here it is the churches he addresses, this, as the rest of the book shows, has the coming of the kingdom in the world in view. vv. 13–16 , some of the terms of the description come from Dan 10:5–6 ; others resemble standard Jewish descriptions of celestial beings (God, angels, exalted humans), whose heavenly brightness is often evoked by gold, whiteness, and fire (cf. Rev 10:1; 15:6 ). Despite the coincidence with Dan 7:9 , white hair is not peculiar to God (see Jos. Asen. 22:7 ; 1 Enoch, 106:2 ; Herm. Vis. 4.2). The clothing (v. 13 ) is not sufficiently distinctive of priests to indicate that Christ is portrayed in a priestly role. Most of the description probably indicates nothing more specific than the exalted Christ's heavenly glory, but some items with more specific significance recur later ( 1:20; 2:1, 12, 16, 18; 3:1; 19:12, 15 ). vv. 17–18 , Christ shares in the eternal life of God through dying and triumphing over death. (This is important for Revelation's call to its readers to follow Jesus in witness even to death.) Death and Hades (the place of the dead) appear as a pair also in 6:8; 20:13–14 . That Christ now holds the key to their realm means he can liberate the dead from them. v. 19 , the precise meaning is debatable, but probably ‘write what you see’ (this tr. is preferable to NRSV's) reiterates the command of v. 11 and refers to the whole book; ‘what is’ and ‘what is to take place after this’ (cf. 1:1; 4:1 ) may refer to chs. 2–3 and 4–22 respectively. v. 20 , the angels are probably the heavenly representatives and guardians of the churches.

The Seven Messages to the Churches (general comments): These are prophetic oracles (not letters), given by the Spirit ( 2:7 etc.) and as the words of Christ. Each forms a kind of introduction to the rest of the book for that particular church, highlighting and evaluating the particular situation (as Christ discerns it) in which the believers in that church are urged to ‘overcome’ or ‘conquer.’ The rest of the book will show them how, by conquering, they can get from their situation in the present (chs. 2–3 ) to the New Jerusalem (chs. 21–2 ). It is important to notice the variety of contexts to which the rest of the book is thereby addressed. The messages have a common pattern: (1) command to write and self-description by Christ; (2) section beginning ‘I know’, containing commendation, accusation, exhortation to repent, encouragement, all with reference to Christ's imminent coming; (3) exhortation to discern (‘Let anyone who has an ear…’); (4) promise to the one who conquers, often referring to elements of the vision in 21:1–22:5 . After the third message, (3) and (4) are reversed. The elements of the descriptions in (1) are mostly drawn from 1:13–18 , and are chosen for their special appropriateness to the message to each church.

( 2:1–7 ) The Message to Ephesus

v. 1 , Ephesus, largest of the cities and in a key position on major trade routes, was probably the most prominent of the seven churches, well known from Acts and the Pauline letters. The description of Christ indicates his lordship over the churches and his presence in them, grounding his intimate knowledge of their condition and his authority to issue a threat of judgement such as that in v. 5 . v. 2 , the false ‘apostles’ may have claimed to be apostles in the strict sense (people commissioned by the risen Christ) or the looser sense of itinerant preachers. v. 3 , what are commended here are key characteristics needed for the testing time ahead. v. 5 , many take ‘I will come’ and similar threats or promises in the other messages as referring to ‘comings’ of Jesus specifically to the church in question, prior to the parousia, but Revelation's general sense of the imminence of the parousia ( 22:7, 12, 20 ) makes it more plausible that Christ refers to the way he will deal with each church at his final coming. v. 6 , it is not clear whether the Nicolaitans are (or include) the false apostles of v. 2 . For their teaching see comment on 2:14–15 . v. 7 , the formula ‘Let anyone who has an ear…’ (also in 13:9 ), echoing the gospels (Mk 4:9 etc.) and perhaps recalling Isa 6:9–10 , stresses the need to listen to prophetic messages with spiritual discernment, since it is possible to hear without heeding. What it means to ‘conquer’, a keyword in Revelation, will become clear only later in the book (cf. 12:11; 15:2; 21:7 ). The ‘paradise [garden] of God’ (cf. Ezek 28:13 ) is Eden, containing the tree of life, from which Adam and Eve would have gained eternal life had they stayed in Paradise (Gen 3:22–4 ). It is now an eschatological promise, to be fulfilled in 22:2 .

( 2:8–11 ) The Message to Smyrna

v. 8 , the description of Christ (from 1:17–18 ) is appropriate to the message (cf. vv. 10b , 11b ). v. 9 , the material poverty—contrasted with spiritual wealth (cf. Jas 2:5 )—may be the result of refusal to participate in the business life of the city because of the idolatry entailed, including the worship of the emperor and the state gods of Rome, or of action taken against them (cf. Heb 10:34 ). The reference to ‘those who say they are Jews but are not’ probably turns back onto non-Christian Jews what they were saying about Christian Jews. The latter were exempt from participation in the imperial cult while they were considered members of the synagogue community. When the synagogue leaders declared to the authorities that they were not properly Jews, they became liable to persecution. This ‘slandering’ (blasphēmia) of Christians in effect allies them with Satan (the term means ‘accuser’, by implication ‘false accuser’; cf. 12:10 ) and with the ‘blasphemy’ (blasphēmia) of the beast ( 13:5–6 ). The polemical term ‘synagogue of Satan’ is not demonization of Judaism, but a judgement that these synagogue leaders by their action have sided with the idolatry of Roman political religion against those who are resisting it. v. 10 , ‘ten days’ alludes to Dan 1:12–15 : like Daniel and his friends, these Christians will be ‘tested’ for their refusal to take part in idolatry, though unlike Daniel and his friends they may have to die for their faith before receiving the crown of victory over death. v. 11 , the second death is final and eternal punishment (cf. 20:6, 14; 21:8 ).

( 2:12–17 ) The Message to Pergamum

v. 12 , the sword (cf. 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21 ), derived from Isa 11:4; 49:2 , is Christ's word of truth which condemns those who deny truth. The war (v. 16 ) in Revelation is a battle for the truth in which words are the effective weapons. v. 13 , Pergamum was the seat of Roman government for the province and the centre of the imperial cult. The throne is Satan's, given to the beast ( 13:2; 16:10 ), but the beast is not introduced into Revelation's imagery until 11:7 . Satan's throne is the antithesis, in the great contest of sovereignty, to the heavenly throne of God, one of the key images of Revelation ( 4:2 etc.). The reference to Antipas, a faithful witness like Christ ( 1:5; 3:14 ), shows there had been only isolated outbreaks of persecution so far. vv. 14–15 , the prophet Balaam advised King Balak of Moab to lure Israel into apostasy by enticing them with Moabite women to share pagan sacrificial meals (Num 25:1–3; 31:16 ). Balaam's name means ‘he destroys the people’; the name Nicolaus means ‘he conquers the people’. No doubt this equivalence made the parallel between Balaam and the Nicolaitans (followers of Nicolaus) especially appropriate. Nothing reliable is known about the Nicolaitans besides what is said here. They taught that Christians could participate in the pagan cult meals (an important part of the commercial and social life of the cities). ‘Fornication’ (literal in the story of Balaam) may, applied to the church in Smyrna, refer metaphorically to idolatry, as in 2:21–2 , though sexual immorality could also be a corollary of Christian involvement in pagan society (cf. 22:15 ). v. 17 , manna, as food at God's eschatological banquet, contrasts with the food of pagan cult meals (v. 14 ). The manna of Ex 16:4–36 was heavenly food (Neh 9:15; Ps 105:40 ). The idea that it will be restored in the eschatological age (a Jewish expectation: 2 Apoc. Bar. 29:8 ) is part of the image of the new exodus, to which the reference to Balaam and Balak also belongs. The ‘white stone’ may be the ticket of admission to the eschatological banquet, with the invitee's ‘new’ (in the sense of ‘eschatologically new’; cf. 3:12; 21:5 ) name on it.

( 2:18–29 ) The Message to Thyatira

v. 18 , Thyatira was known for its trade guilds, membership of which would involve idolatry. This explains the appeal of ‘Jezebel's’ teaching (v. 20 ). The description of Christ (from 1:14–15 ; and cf. 19:12 ) relates to his role as judge in v. 23 , while ‘Son of God’ (cf. Ps 2:7 ) prepares for vv. 26–8 (Ps 2:8–9 ). v. 20 , the false prophet is nicknamed Jezebel with reference to the OT queen accused of ‘whoredoms’ in 2 Kings 9:22 because she seduced Israel into worshipping Baal. Her teaching is the same as the Nicolaitans' ( 2:14–15 ): perhaps she was their leader. v. 24 , the significance of ‘the deep things of Satan’ may be that Jezebel taught that Christians could participate in idolatrous practices, experiencing evil with impunity. vv. 26–7, Ps 2 is a fundamental text for Revelation (cf. 11:15, 18; 12:5; 14:1; 19:15 ), since it recounts the victory of God and his Messiah over the rebellious nations. Here the conquerors are promised that they will take part in the victory. The star, alluding to Num 24:17 (cf. comment on Rev 22:16 ), symbolizes the messianic rule in which the conquerors will share.

( 3:1–6 ) The Message to Sardis

v. 1 , the reference to the seven spirits (not in 1:16, 20; 2:1 , which refer to the seven stars) may suggest the divine source of the life that is available to the church if it admits its spiritual deadness and repents. Christ's relation to the Spirit of God is portrayed in a parallel image in 5:6 . v. 2 , the thief is an allusion to Jesus' parable (Mt 24:42–4; Lk 12:39–40 ), also echoed in 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10 , and refers to the parousia, as in 16:15 . vv. 4–5 , the soiling of clothes may well indicate, not evil deeds in general, but the contamination of involvement in idolatrous practices. The white clothes may represent both uncompromising innocence and heavenly victory (cf. 3:18; 7:9, 13–14 ). For the book of life, see 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27 . This reference shows that the predestination implied is not absolute. Christ can delete names because it is his register ( 13:8; 21:27 ) of those with whom he shares his eternal life. The last clause alludes to the saying in Mt 24:32; Lk 12:8 . The four occurrences of ‘name’ in this message (in v. 4 , ‘people’ is lit. ‘names’) suggests the contrast between reputation (v. 1 ) and reality.

( 3:7–13 ) The Message to Philadelphia

v. 7 , the use of proper names central to the Jewish messianic hope, here (David) and in v. 12 (Jerusalem), is appropriate to the Jewish theme in v. 9 . Though the self-description partly resembles 1:18 , the keys are different. Here (in allusion to Isa 22:22 ) the door gives entrance to the messianic kingdom, which Christ holds open for the Philadelphian Christians (v. 8 ). No doubt controversy with non-Christian Jews about messianic expectations is reflected in vv. 7–9, 12 . v. 10, Isa 45:14 , where the nations acknowledge Israel as the people of the only true God, is reversed. Non-Christian Jews are in the position of Gentiles in relation to (Jewish?) Christians who are the true Israel. The Christians' faithfulness to the true Messiah will be vindicated, and the Jews will be converted. v. 12 , for Christians as parts of the building of the eschatological temple, cf. Gal 2:9; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 2:5 . Here the temple belongs to the new Jerusalem of ch. 21 , where there is no temple ( 21:22 )! This flexibility of imagery reminds us that none of Revelation's images are to be read literally. Writing the three names on Christians indicates ownership and belonging. All the images of this verse assure the Philadelphian Christians of their secure place in the fulfilment of Jewish messianic hopes which the synagogue was denying them.

( 3:14–22 ) The Message to Laodicea

v. 14 , Laodicea was a wealthy city, known for its banks, its textile industry, its medical school with its ophthalmology, and the local eye-salve. Clearly vv. 17–18 play on these local features, suggesting that the church, participating too readily in pagan society, shares the complacency of this prosperous city. It is the only church of which nothing good is said. The title ‘Amen’ reflects Isa 65:16 (NRSV: ‘the God of faithfulness’) and is the Semitic equivalent of ‘faithful and true’. ‘Origin of creation’ describes Christ not as pre-existent but in his resurrection, the beginning of the new creation. The whole description is an expanded form of 1:5a . vv. 15–16 , unlike the neighbouring cities of Hierapolis, which had hot springs, and Colossae, which had healthy cold water, Laodicea's water, piped into the city, was tepid and nauseous to drink. v. 17 , these Christians are materially wealthy because of their willingness to compromise with idolatry in order to share in the city's prosperity. v. 18 , the various images all suggest that this apparently self-sufficient church actually needs to turn to Christ to meet its dire spiritual need. v. 20 supplies the reference to the parousia which all the other messages have. The picture is that of Lk 12:35–9; Mk 13:34–5 : the returning master of the house expects his servants to be ready to open the door to him. The parousia is so imminent that Christ can be portrayed already knocking on the door (cf. Jas 5:9 ). v. 21 , this promise is placed so as to anticipate the enthronement of Christ in heaven in ch. 5 .

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