If the first chapter of Revelation does not blow your hair back then I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t think we’re reading the same book.
On its own, of course, Revelation is quite different from any of the books that precede it: a prophetic look forward at the outcome of all things, the lifting of the curtain to reveal the cosmic backdrop of everything happening on earth, a glimpse at the full glory of God and the enormity of his redemptive plan. And the first chapter of the book is a microcosm of that intensity and that strangeness.
The letter starts normally enough, in the same sort of way that the other apostolic letters do. John opens with a warm and encouraging greeting to the seven churches in the province of Asia, then takes a few moment to praise God before dropping this line, which reverberates over everything after it:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
And then everything gets wild.
John gives us a quick few lines of context first. Exiled on Patmos, he is “in the Spirit” when he hears a loud voice like a trumpet from behind him, asking him to write down what he sees and deliver it to the seven churches. And when he turns around? This is what he sees:
…among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
You can feel John grasping at the edges of language here, forcing these metaphors to do the futile work of describing to us what is surely indescribable. This is a direct encounter with God in all his glory. The words are simple, but the fierceness in them is elemental.
And John, rightly, is overcome and falls “at his feet as though dead.” He’s on overload. Can’t handle it. But what comes next is deeply touching:
Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
This verse makes me want to cry every time I read it. And it makes me want to cry because I imagine it made John want to cry. Jesus touched him. And I imagine John knew that touch. He recognized the touch of his dear friend on earth, the hand of the Messiah he loved and had seen resurrected. What an affectionate, comforting thing! God in his full overwhelming holiness, visiting in a vision, sees that his first business is to touch John, to reassure him, and to cheer him up. Look! It’s me! How remarkable!
I’m going to be honest here: I’ve always had a vexed relationship with Revelation. I think that most of the church does. Although I’ve read it several times, when I did so in previous years I was always discouraged by the commentaries that seemed focused on teasing out the prophecies and little else. Many believers over the centuries have treated this book of the Bible as a sort of decoder ring for current events in an effort to calculate, if not the coming of the end times themselves, then at least the arrival of the anti-Christ.
But I suspect that this “what-country-is-this-prophecy-about” game is a distraction from what the church otherwise finds uncomfortable about the book. Because Revelation is strange. Enigmatic. Fantastical in the sense that the events going on in it literally sound like they could play out in a fantasy novel. And while believers are more than willing to embrace the Crucifixion and the resurrection and even the whole virgin-birth thing, I suspect are some who would rather sweep this whole cosmic, epic book under the rug than confront it or acknowledge it in full. Who would rather focus on the granular details of prophecy than what this book says about the sheer scope of God’s plan, of his church, of his ideas, of what we can or should see for ourselves in it. Who want to figure out for themselves how everything is going to happen rather than accepting the notion that what is going to happen is beyond the scope of our limited imagination.
I, fortunately, am not one of those people. But for years I stayed away from Revelation anyway. Until I came back to it. I don’t know quite what drew me. But it occurred to me that I had every right and reason to sit down and read the book in the same manner as I would any other book in the Bible: to study it. To learn from it. To find from it what God wanted me to learn. So I read the first chapter in that mindset, and I came away mind-blown: Revelation gives us our first real and total glimpse of Christ in his full power. And while that power and holiness is overwhelming, the deep affection and tenderness is still there. How encouraging!
I’ll be reading through Revelation over the fall. I’m sure I’ll be posting from time to time here about it, and I encourage you to read through it, too – not in the spirit of “what’s-the-prophecy,” but in the spirit of edification, worship, and spiritual growth. I’m sure we’ll all learn and experience something amazing in the process.