The message of John’s Apocalypse is complex and simple: Complex because it uses figurative language, which is capable of multiple interpretations. Simple because one person dominates throughout. The key to understanding Revelation is Jesus Christ. If we see him clearly, we will interpret it correctly.
In chapter 1, as a prologue to the whole book, John presents us with an outline of the Christian faith.
Revelation (Verses 1–3)
Over the years, I have accumulated many volumes of systematic theology (and even read some of them). Usually, they begin with a section on the sources of Christian faith: the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience. The Bible is the first, most important, and ultimately decisive source of Christian faith because it is God’s word (2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Pet. 1:20–21). But tradition, reason, and experience also are important, albeit secondary, sources of belief. They are guides to how Christians through the ages have interpreted God’s word and applied it to their lives.
Systematic theologians address the sources of Christian faith first for a very simple reason: The truthfulness of a belief depends, in part, on the reliability of its sources. When forming a theory, for example, scientists pay close attention to the accuracy of their experimental evidence. Prosecutors prize eyewitness testimony as they make their case against the accused. Biographers root through library stacks to find the original letters of the person whose life they are writing.
John is a theologian—a person who speaks a word (logos) about God (theos). In some Greek manuscripts, the title of his book is “The Revelation of St. John the Divine”—an older English word for theologian. (The actual Greek phrase is tou theologou.) Not surprisingly, then, he begins his book of prophetic theology with a comment on his sources: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John….”
“The revelation of Jesus Christ” is ambiguous. Grammatically, it can mean the revelation by Jesus Christ or the revelation about Jesus Christ, the revealer or the one revealed. In the context of verses 1–2, it probably means the former, but we should not overlook the latter. After all, elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is both. Revealer: The unique Word that makes God known (John 1:1, 14) and the Son of God whose speech is the Father’s own (Heb. 1:1–2). Revealed One: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). In John’s Apocalypse, he is both too.
John points out that God speaks to his servants through intermediaries: Jesus Christ, the angel, and John himself. Just as Jesus Christ is the Word of God in human flesh, so the Bible is the word of God in human words. That is why a blessing comes to all who read and heed the Scriptures generally (Ps. 1) and John’s Apocalypse particularly (verse 3). When they read John’s book, they see what the angel showed, go where Jesus Christ sent, and comprehend what God revealed.
If you are a Christian, you are a theologian—a person who speaks words about God. So, pay attention to your sources, the Bible especially! The truthfulness of your beliefs and the blessedness of your life depend upon it.