These verses begin with the author, John, introducing himself to his audience, the seven churches in Roman proconsular Asia: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia” (4). This is almost certainly John the apostle since the earliest testimony to the authorship of Revelation was virtually unanimous in ascribing it to him. He wrote this probably during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian in the late first century. Though we can’t be as certain about that, the fact that Irenaeus dated Revelation in this way is significant. For Irenaeus (a second-century pastor of a church in what is now Lyon, France) heard Polycarp preach, and Polycarp himself had been personally discipled by the apostle John. No one else who wrote about this in the early times had that kind of direct connection with the sources, so I take his testimony to be very reliable.1
But the book of Revelation is not about John. Though John appears from time to time in the narrative, he is not writing about himself. He is only the one who is communicating the “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1). The book of Revelation is about God. In fact, as Richard Bauckham puts it, “The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfillment of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”2 It wasn’t given to us so we could piece together a program of the events preceding the Second Coming. It wasn’t given to satisfy our idle curiosity about the Last Days. It was given to help us to see who God is, and in seeing who God is, to worship him and to make us as a result more hopeful, more faithful, more courageous, and more holy. The book of Revelation is, as the rest of the Bible is, God-centered. And that is what makes it so wonderful and so practical.
Revelation is a practical book because your greatest need and my greatest need is God. We need God not only because in him we live and move and have our being, but also because we were made to know him and to see his glory and to love him and to experience communion with him. And so the book of Revelation reveals God to us so that this can happen. You see that here in verses 4-8. In these verses, we see who God is, that he is the God who gives grace and peace. Further, we see how it is that we can expect grace and peace from God. It is for three reasons: (1) because of who God is (4-5, 8), (2) because of what he has done (5-6), and (3) because of what he will do (7). The result of all this should be, and must be, praise on our part (6). And that is what I want to happen in this message – and every other message that I preach. I want to know God and I want you to know God. I want to taste and see that the Lord is good. I don’t want us to rest satisfied with bare facts about God, but I want us to see what John saw so that it resonates in the deepest part of our being. And I want the truths of these verses to so affect us that with John we register our amen to these truths about the sovereign and triune God.
So you see, Revelation is not about determining what millennial perspective you should take, and if we just come to this book to sort out questions of that kind then we are coming for all the wrong reasons. In fact, it shouldn’t really matter whether you are pre-, post-, or amillennial, in terms of the interpretation of this book. You will notice that when I did an overview of Revelation last Sunday, I never even mentioned these terms. Of course you have to pick a position when you get to chapter 20, but apart from those verses, Revelation overall is not really that interested in the millennium. What is revealed to us in this book is the reality that God reigns through Christ in the affairs of men. This book is about God.
The God who gives grace and peace
It is also about the redeemed people of God, though not in the exalted way we talk about ourselves nowadays, but in terms of our need of God. You see it here in verse 4, where John wishes grace and peace to the seven churches of Asia. It is so easy to skip over these words and to miss their massive importance. This is not a greeting like, “Good morning” that you hear and yet don’t hear. No, this is something you want to hear. For in these two words we have the sum and substance of the message of salvation in Christ.
Grace is God’s unmerited favor which brings with it every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Because God did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all he is able with him to freely [graciously] give us, not just some things, but all things (Rom. 8:32). Grace is a reminder that we do not earn or merit any part of salvation and God’s favor. Salvation is a gift, from first to last.
This is good news because apart from grace we would be hopelessly and irretrievably lost. We are sinners, unclean and condemned. We are rebels and traitors against the God of heaven, deserving only his wrath and eternal fury and punishment. And yet the gospel tells us that there is grace for sinners. It tells us that God desires the salvation of ungodly men and women. It tells us that though we are dead in our sins, God has stepped in to save us through Christ.
So grace is a one-word summary of everything we receive in Christ for our salvation. It includes election and justification before God, adoption into the family of God, sanctification, and glorification. We all need this grace. There is no salvation apart from the free grace of God. This is what John prays for his audience in verse 4.
But he doesn’t stop there. He also wishes them peace. Again, we have to be careful that we don’t short- change this word. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones reminded folks in a sermon on Eph. 1:2, this doesn’t just mean the cessation of hostilities. That’s the way the world looks at peace. For them, peace is just that period of time between wars. But in the Bible, peace is much more than that. In relation to grace, I think it is right to say that peace is the effect of grace. Grace brings peace, above all peace with God and then peace with our fellow man. I think if you really want to get a handle on what peace looks like, you would have to read the last few chapters of Revelation. But here is a sample: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (21:3-4). That is true peace!
Of course, there is a present experience of peace for the follower of Christ: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). This is only a peace which God can give since it is a peace that passes human understanding. But this internal peace and tranquility will one day in its fulness bring with it the peace of God in a new heavens and a new earth. We can have peace now in part because of the fulness of peace that we know God will certainly bring in the eternal state.
This is what we need, isn’t it? We need grace and peace. But there is only one way to get that, and that is through and from God. And so what we have in the rest of verses 4-8 is a meditation on who God is, what he has done, and what he is going to do. We need to hear these things, because it is through believing these truths that we can have confidence that God will give grace and peace to those who belong to Jesus. In other words, we need to know that the prayer for grace and peace is not an idle prayer. Why not? Because of who God is.
Who God is (4-5)
In these two verses, God presents himself to us as the Triune God. You see God the Father in the words, “him which is, and which was, and which is to come.” You see God the Spirit in the words, “the seven Spirits which are before his throne” and you see God the Son in the words, “and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth.”
Have you ever read a story or watched a movie with an unexpected plot twist at the end? It seems to me that there are two types of plot twists. In one kind, there is a revelation at the end of the story that you never saw coming, but it doesn’t really add anything to the forgoing narrative. But the best kind of plot twist is not only the one that you never saw coming, but once you have seen it, it makes so many details in the previous pages make more sense and sheds light on the forgoing narrative. This kind of plot twist is not like the ones you encounter in so many of those cheap mystery novels out there, but this is something that actually adds to the meaning of the overall story.
I think the doctrine of the Trinity is like that. It is something you would never have seen coming if you just had the Old Testament, and yet, once you see it in the New Testament, it makes so much of the Old Testament make so much more sense. It is a mystery in the Biblical sense of the word – we only know it because God revealed it to us. And yet, it is not an arbitrary doctrinal imposition on the text of Scripture. It is a truth that casts light on so many texts in the OT. For example, take Gen. 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Why us and why our? How can a monotheistic religion have God speaking in this way? Well, if God is triune – one God in three persons – then this certainly makes sense of this passage. Not that this verse in Genesis proves the doctrine of the Trinity, but the doctrine of the Trinity helps us to understand why the one God might speak in the plural! (We might also consider the Angel of the Lord in the exodus, wilderness, and conquest narratives in Genesis through Joshua, or Psalm 110:1)
That this is talking about the Trinity is certain for several reasons. The first reason is that grace and peace never come from angels or men; this is something that can only come from God (cf. Eph. 2:8). So the fact that grace and peace come jointly from God the Father and the Spirit and the Christ is an sure and certain indication that they are all share the same identical divine nature. This means that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God.
The second reason we can know this greeting is truly Trinitarian is that in Revelation the Father and the Son share the same divine names. This is clearly seen at the beginning and the ending of the book. So in 1:8, God the Father addresses himself to us at the “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” Then in 1:17, Jesus tells John, “Fear not; I am the first and the last.” To say that he is the first and the last is the same thing as if he had said that he is the Alpha and the Omega, since alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and omega is the last. And if that doesn’t convince you, look at chapter 22. In verse 12, the Lord Jesus is speaking to John (“behold, I come quickly” – see verse 20); he goes on to say in verse 13: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” Jesus clearly identifies himself along with God the Father as being the first and the last.
Now lest you think that the author of Revelation is some modalist, look in 1:6. Jesus, the divine Son, “hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father.” Here the Son is distinguished from the Father, his Father. So here in Revelation we see that the Father and the Son are equally God and yet they are not the same person. Three persons, one God!
What about the seven Spirits? One might argue that this would not make a trinity but a sort of nine- person Godhead. However, once again we must remember that in this book the number seven is symbolic. The number seven here is a reference to the fulness of the Spirit’s power. This is also a reference to Zechariah 4:2-7, where the seven lamps (verse 2) represent God’s one Spirit (verse 6) by which grace comes to the people of God, enabling them to perform God’s will for them in a hostile world (verse 7). In Rev. 4:5 the seven Spirits are called “the seven Spirits of God” which are again symbolized by burning lamps before God’s throne. In 5:6, we see Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah who is also the Lamb slain, and this Lamb has “seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth,” indicating that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, mediating his rule on the earth.
Let’s now consider briefly what is said about each person of the Trinity. Before we do so, however, we need to reflect on the fact that John is not giving a class here on systematic theology. The descriptions of God given in these verses were meant to put steel in the backs of these first century Christians who were a persecuted minority in the Roman empire. They lived under the shadow of the Caesars. They lived in cities whose every nook and cranny were cluttered with reminders of idolatry. In other words, these descriptions of God were not necessarily given to the seven churches so they could win debates; they were given so that they would have the courage to remain steadfast and faithful to Christ in a world that was against them. Even so, we inhabit a world that is still under the influence of the devil, and in which the pressure is not to be a faithful Christian but to abandon the faith for the love of this present evil world. So let’s read these descriptions with that in mind. How can these descriptions of the Triune God fill us with holy boldness?
The One who is, and Who was, and Who is to come (4)
We can resist the temptation to cave into the pressures to conform to a world which is passing away because the God whom we serve does not pass away. He stands outside of time and over history. This world is constantly changing. The “right side of history” is constantly changing. The ones who are “in” and the ones who are “out” are constantly changing. And not only is the world changing, but it is also in constant decay. Death is always around us.
God is not. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). He always lives and is the source of eternal life. He is, as he revealed himself to Moses, “I AM THAT I AM” (Exod. 3:14), the unchanging, self- existent, eternal God. Therefore to be like Demas and to trade God for this world is like settling for dirt- clods when you could have diamonds.
It also means you cannot escape God. Thank God! No matter how far forward in time we might go, God is “to come.” If this world were to continue another ten thousand years, God would already be there. When all that defines this world now has fallen away into ashes, God will still be the one who is and who was and who is to come. Praise God, he will never forsake his people because the one who is, is for his people. He has been, is, and forever will be for his people. It is because God is like this that we don’t need to fear. As God declared in Isaiah the prophet, “Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them shew unto them. Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any” (Isa. 44:6-8). There is no one like our God!
Why can we be sure that we will receive grace and peace from God? Because he is the one who is, was, and is to come. He is unchangeable and he is unstoppable. There is no power on earth that can prevent God from being on the side of his people. This prayer for grace and peace is therefore not some vain wish; it is the will of the sovereign of heaven and earth. Notice in verse 8 that he is called Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, the Almighty. God’s power is an unstoppable power, for he is universally, eternally, and unchangeably sovereign. Dear saint, let your fears be quieted in the confident recognition of God’s sovereignty willingly armed for the grace and peace of his people.
The Seven Spirits (4)
We’ve looked at the significance of the number seven here. We want to also note the fact that he is “before his [God’s] throne” (4). This is not meant to suggest distance. It is meant to suggest that the Spirit of God is the agent of God’s rule on earth (5:6). He is the one through whom Christ speaks to the churches (e.g. 2:7). It is the Spirit of God who communicates grace to the people of God. No, the mention of the Spirit of God is a reminder that God is not distant but that he rules for the good of his people, to give them strength and wisdom to carry out the tasks given to the church in a difficult world. So we need not fear that grace and peace might not come to us.
Jesus Christ the faithful witness (5)
When you read that description, “faithful witness,” what do you think? Well, you should think of martyrs like Antipas, who in the next chapter is called by Jesus himself, “my faithful martyr” (2:13) in the KJV. But this really means the same thing as “faithful witness” (same words in the Greek text) in 1:5. Jesus was a faithful witness in the sense that he testified of the truth by his death. We are called to do the same – perhaps not by a literal martyrdom but by a willingness to lay down our lives in sacrificial ways for our love to Christ and his people.
We can do so because Jesus is not only the faithful witness; he is also the first begotten from the dead. We can lay down our lives for Jesus because in dying he has defeated death, and he has done so on behalf of his people. He demonstrated this by rising from the dead, and in doing so became the prince of the kings of the earth. We don’t have to wait for our Lord to be enthroned: he is Lord of lords and King of kings even now. Caesar may seem great, but he is an ant in the shadow of Christ. And we may say the same of any other earthly power; they will all one day bow down before our omnipotent Lord. How then can we doubt that he will give us all needed grace and peace?
What God has done (5-6)
We are not only reminded of who God is, but also of what Christ has done for those who believe in him. In the second part of verse 5 and into verse 6, the apostle offers praise to Jesus Christ: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” According to the apostle John, Christ has done three things for us.
First, he loved us. The one who is the ruler of the kings of the earth loves the church. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul said? “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). Now I want to notice that this is put as if it were past. He doesn’t say, “To him who loves us” but “to him that loved us.” Of course, he doesn’t intend to suggest that Jesus doesn’t love us anymore. But he does intend to make the love of Christ concrete. In other words, Jesus doesn’t love his church by just telling us he does so – rather, he has proved it in past concrete actions that demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that he does love us in the present and will continue to do so for eternity.
So let us never forget this: Jesus loves his people. If this is true, can we not stand against all the evil of this world? Can we not let go of this world’s deceitful love in order to hold fast to the love of Christ?
Second, he has demonstrated this love, above all, in dying for his church: and washed us from our sins in his own blood. Some versions have “freed us from our sins” – it’s a difference of one Greek letter, but it makes no real difference. He washed us from our sins, and he freed us from our sins. He has granted us the full and free forgiveness of all our sins, not because of anything we have done, but because he bore the curse of our sins upon himself.
In the ancient world, Christians were not viewed kindly. They were seen as a blot on society. We are fast approaching the time when Christians will again be viewed this way, if we are not already there. And that means that there will be increasing pressure upon us to give into the world and to adopt its ways. How do you resist that? One way surely is by reminding yourself that if you are a believer in Christ, then he loves you and has granted you through his atoning death the full and free forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, those who reject the Savior, no matter how welcomed they are by the world, will die in their sins (Jn. 8:24). Surely better to be justified before God through Christ and be canceled by the world than to be smiled on by the world while under the wrath of God.
Third, our Lord hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father (6). This is almost certainly the fulfillment of what Israel in Exod. 19:6 was a type: “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” The apostle Peter applies this to the church in his epistle: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar [purchased] people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Some translations have Rev. 1:6 as, “Jesus Christ . . . made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (ESV). I think this is a better translation. The emphasis is that we are members in a kingdom, but this kingdom is such that all who are in it are priests. What this means is that through Christ every citizen in this kingdom has direct access to God. You don’t have to make it through Mary or a saint. If you are in Christ, the Father hears your prayers. We will see this vividly illustrated later in this epistle. And though it is true that we will experience this priesthood in its fulness in the new heavens and new earth, yet even now we are able through Christ to approach the throne of God and obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). What can the world give that approaches this kind of privilege?
Can we not see that this prayer to God for grace and peace is no idle prayer? Can we not have confidence that he will grant it? For behind it is the eternal and sovereign Father, the powerful Spirit, and the Savior who loves us, washes us from our sins, and make us kings and priests to God. However, John doesn’t stop here. There is even more encouragement for us in verse 7.
What God will do (7)
We are told in verse 7, Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
There are many commentators that take this to be a fulfillment of Dan. 7:13-14 and Zech. 12:10. However, we have to be careful here that we don’t blindly stuff those verses into this verse in the wrong way. There is similarity of language, but not of meaning. Jesus ascended into heaven and to his Father’s right hand in clouds (Acts 1:9-11). This is what the Daniel passage is referring to. But the angels at the ascension also tell us that Christ will return in the same way. That is what John is telling us here. In Daniel 7 we have Christ’s ascension; in Revelation 1 we have Christ’s return. The Daniel passage has the inhabitants of heaven beholding the ascending Christ; the Revelation passage has the inhabitants on earth beholding the returning Christ. There is similarity of language because Jesus returns in the same way that he ascends.
In the Zechariah passage, the tribes of Israel (rather than the tribes of the earth) mourn in apparent repentance over the pierced Messiah. But in Revelation 1:7 it seems to me that the wailing is not from repentance but from terror. In fact, the only other place in Revelation where this word wail is used is in Rev. 18:9-10, where you have the scene of Babylon’s demise: “And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.” This is not the wailing of repentance but the wailing of regret. A similar scene is portrayed in Rev. 6:14-17, which I believe is about the Second Coming of our Lord: “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” There is certainly a lot wailing going on here (though the word itself is not used), but it does not stem from godly grief but from worldly sorrow.
But why would John rejoice over such a thing? Why would he worship Christ because the world will wail in regret over his return? Well, wait until you are persecuted a little bit and I think you will understand. Wait until you are banished to a penal colony, as John was, and you might understand. Wait until you are put in a gulag for twenty years, and you will understand. Wait until the jeering and the celebrating of the wicked in their apparent triumph over goodness and decency and righteousness makes you wonder if there will ever be a future for the righteous, and you will understand. Wait until you feel like the psalmist did, when he cried, “But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well-nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2-3). He only found resolution when, as he put it, “I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction” (17-18). Though it is not right to harbor a vengeful and spiteful attitude towards the enemies of God’s people, it is right to rejoice in God’s righteous judgment over them. And this is what John does here. It is a reminder that despite the fact that although now “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 Jn. 5:19), there is coming a time when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). And with John we say, “Even so, Amen!”
How can we be sure that grace and peace will come to us? We can be sure because Christ is risen, and he will return to judge his enemies and save his people. He has not forgotten us because he is coming for us.
And how can this reality steel us to be courageous in a world that is increasingly anti-Christian? We can do so because whatever comfort and respect the world can give you now, it will all be worthless and less than worthless when Christ returns again. There is no sinful joy, no wicked pleasure now, that will lessen the terror and the eternal regret of those who reject the Savior.
And so let us join with John, as say with him, “To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
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