Rev. 1:17b-20; Genesis 1-3;Dan 10:7-12a; Isaiah 22:22; Psalm 31:14-17a/LXX 30:15-18a
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, and those that are, and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
Today we take to heart, and seek to understand, the words of Jesus to John, after he had been astonished by the appearance of Jesus as one like a Son of Man. It may even be that John hears these words of Jesus while he lies in a prone position before the shining One’s feet. Or perhaps Jesus, after laying His hand on him, pulls him up, as He declares, “Fear not.”
Those who know the visionary literature are reminded of another staggering vision, during which the prophet Daniel fell before the feet of a heavenly visitor, described with many of the same characteristics as those here attributed to Jesus. Here is Daniel’s account of what happened to him:
I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves. So I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me. My radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I retained no strength. Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel…” (Dan 10:7-12a)
Daniel fell before the shining figure as though dead, was helped partially up, heard strengthening words, and then finally stood up, still in awe. Whatever John’s posture in hearing Jesus’ words, the magnificence of the Son of Man is such that he also needs to hear the words, “Fear not!” Jesus’ gesture of clemency is something that we learn to expect from God or his messengers whenever a vision is given to human beings. It begins in the OT with God’s approaches to Abraham, and continues through to the prophets (such as this example in Daniel), and into our NT, where the angels comfort the shocked shepherds, and where Gabriel reassures Zechariah and the Theotokos.
It is not, of course, as though there is nothing to fear in the presence of the living God. After all, anything affected by the darkness has something to fear from the light, including a human being. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, the difference between the OT and NT concepts of our relationship with God is not that we move from fear to unreflective familiarity, but that Jesus now shows us the character of God, and transforms us as we worship. Yet Hebrews reminds us that, just as when the Hebrews met God on Sinai, Christians rightly retain the awe of God, mixed with gratitude: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrew 10:28). Why, then, are we told, not to “fear,” which is simply an ancient synonym for being awe-struck? It would appear to be the reason for our awe that makes the difference: our fear should not be that sort which attributes to the living God malice, or irrationality. The fear of the LORD is not that same apprehension which we have regarding a tyrant, or a ghost. Our fear is apt because we know we are not “up to” the event of facing Him, not because we question God’s goodness. God knows our human and fallen frailty, and so most of these biblical epiphanies to human beings are accompanied by God’s assurance that He has not come to harm us, but to heal and to direct. “Fear not!” John and we hear the Lord’s generous “fear not” as we come face-to-face with this One who knows us, and who will open up to us great mysteries.
The first mystery concerns Himself and His relationship to both the world and His people. He is the “first” and the “last,” He tells John. Here Jesus claims a characteristic that we have already heard concerning the LORD God, in Rev 1:8, where we heard that God was the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Like Father, like Son—they, with the Holy Spirit, share authority as the head, and the end of all things. It is from God that everything comes, and it is only in Him that everything created has its true purpose. Jesus was, with the Father (and the Spirit) in the beginning, and is the goal and desire of the human heart. His name as “first” and “last” holds true in connection with our own world, which He created, and which awaits His glorious return. It is also true in connection with the unseen worlds, for the heavenly Powers answer to Him, as well. Moreover, His title as “first” and “last” is an explanation of why we need not fear Him. The ancient sixth century commentator Oecumenius has this to say:
The holy John would not have been strong enough to survive his astonishment had the saving right hand of the Son of God not touched him, which by the mere touch had accomplished so many wonderful things. And he said to me, “I am the first and the last,’” which is as though he had said, ‘I am he who for the salvation of you all sojourned among you in the flesh at the end of times, even though I am the First and the firstborn of all creation. How is it possible that anything evil transpire from my appearance?’
And so, in Jesus’ assurance that He is the first and the last, there is not only a metaphysical and theological truth, but also a personal assurance— this is the One from whom all life, providence, and fulfillment comes, for each of us. When we go back to Genesis, to the story of human beginnings, we can perceive both the omnipotence and utter tenderness of God. He makes humankind without effort, and with deep intimacy, fashioning us after His image, and breathing into us the breath of life. This One who is the first and the last is also the “living One” who gives breath to everything that lives, and who does this with a particular purpose for His human creation. We may take the title “living One” in two directions. It stands well as a synonym for “the existing One”, Ho Ōn, the One who is, and who causes life in all things. It also stands as a reminder that death has no victory over this One, who by His very presence in Hades opened the gates for those imprisoned there.
In fact, Jesus makes explicit his own ability to give this gift of life, even as He exemplifies power over the world of shadows: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” His death and eternal resurrection are the witness that He can and plans to usher us, with Him, into eternal life. He alone, of all those who have attempted this mastery over death, wields an effective weapon over what would destroy us. Only He has the key to unlock (and to lock in!) Death and Hades so that they can no longer be our mortal enemies. We are reminded this week of this great gift to humankind in the story of the forty martyrs of Sebaste, who braved all that evil men could do to them, and the elements of nature itself. In the end, they each received a crown of glory, and showed how the King of kings can bring to royal dignity those who belong to Him.
The prophet Isaiah (22:22) looked forward to the coming of Messiah, who would possess the “key of the house of David,” with the ability to open (and none other can shut), and shut (and none other can open). The key to God’s household is a very great power, for by it Jesus admits those who have communion with Him, and (unthinkable thought) may banish those who refuse this honor. Jesus will, indeed, remind one of the churches of this role that He holds, as the owner of the house, in a few verses beyond the passage we are now reading. But the key that is detailed here, the key to Death and Hades, is the dark complement of the key to God’s household. It is by means of this key that Satan has, for some limited time, the ability to trap those who do not look to Christ. Yet this key has only been his for a time, for it is not really his own key. We hear in chapter 20 of the book of Revelation regarding Jesus’ ability to chain the Enemy in his own dungeon, so that he can no longer deceive the nations. The time has already come when the Enemy has been restrained, so that all now can hear and respond to the true householder, Jesus, and not be chained up in dungeons of ignorance, malice, or pain. We know this because of Jesus’ own parable regarding binding the strong man (Mat 12:29), something that He did through His Incarnation, and ministry among humanity. All is not yet fully accomplished, but Jesus has already brought the morning of the new day to come, through His own life, death and resurrection. Because of what He has done, even those faithful who are facing death are not hopeless. They remember Jesus’ words to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:26).
John, then, hears comforting and momentous news as he is raised up by the LORD. And this news is not for his eyes and ears alone, but for all of us. He is told to record what he is about to see in his visions, so that generations after him will read it too. Twenty centuries have gone by, and still we pore over this great book which refreshes us, challenges us, and gives us hope. The scope of the Apocalypse is huge, comprising God-interpreted memoires of our past, divine new insights on our present, and Christ-shaped hope for the future. As Jesus says, John is to write about what he has seen, and about the things that are, and about the things that will be. Here, then, is Jesus’ key to what we should expect in this book of mysteries—not simply secrets about the future, but insight into our present and strengthening remembrances of our past. This is important as a corrective to those who think that the book of Revelation is simply an unveiling of the future. No, it comprises the whole of time, which is in God’s hands. In it we see what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. In it we are reminded of His victory over past enemies; in it we come to see, from new perspectives, what our present time is really like, as it intersects with worlds we normally do not see; in it we will be given hopes and warnings to guide us as we step into our future. By means of the poignant scenes to come, we may have the same confidence as the Psalmist:
I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love!
O LORD, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you… (Psalm 31:14-17a/LXX 30:15-18a)
Jesus came to speak to John, to strengthen him, and so to strengthen us. Our times are in His hand, and so we can call on Him during moments of confusion and even persecution. This idea of our life being in the hand of the God-Man is pictured in the final mystery that Jesus unveils for John in this scene: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” In His hand are the stars, the very angels who guide His Church. And His feet walk in the midst of the golden lampstands, the churches, for they are His, and their light comes only from His radiance. It is not only time that is His, not only the power of life that is His. Everything that we are is illumined, directed, and accompanied by Him. He walks among us. With this striking image of our Lord, and the words, “Fear not,” we wait for what He will say to the seven churches, and so also to us!