And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he placed his right hand upon me saying, “Do not fear. I am the first and the last. And the living one, and he was dead and behold I am living to the ages of the ages, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Write, therefore, the things that you have seen and the things that are and the things that are about to take place after these. As for the mystery of the seven stars, which you saw upon my right hand, and of the seven golden lamp stands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lamp stands are the seven churches.”
Notice Joshua 5:14, Ezekiel 1:28, 3:23, and 48:3 to see similar expressions of falling facedown. For the next segment, see Daniel 10:10-12. “Do not fear” is also found in Isaiah 44:2, Matthew 14:27, 17:7, Luke 1:13, 30, John 6:20, and Acts 27:24 to give comfort. Christ is called the First and the Last again in 2:8 and 22:13. See Isaiah 43:12 and 44:6.
In verse 18, we have a threefold conception of Christ: ever abiding life he had independent of the world, his humiliation even unto physical death, and his rising to life everlasting to universal authority over life and death. The Living one is the same as אל חי in Joshua 3:10 and Psalm 42:2. Αιωνασ των αιωναν = הֵי הַעוֹלָם – life everlasting. The last stanza might be the keys held by death and Hades, or it might be the keys that unlock them. They are personified in Revelation 6:8 and Hosea 13:14. Hades (Sheol) is the abode for only the wicked and unrighteous in our author: 20:14, 6:8, 20:13 – see also Luke 16:23. The only way to Hades or Paradise (2:7) is through death. But Christ, through His death and resurrection, gained authority over death. Compare 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” We find that in Revelations, death and Hades are personified every time. The reason for this is uncertain.
“Therefore” resumes the command given in verse 11, and occurs only here and in 2:15-16, 3:3, and 3:19 in Revelations.
“What you have seen, what is now, and what will soon take place” summarizes the book. “What you have seen”, namely, the vision of the son of man just vouchsafed to the seer (reference 1:2, 4:1). “What is now” refers to the present condition of the church (chapters 2-3). “What will soon take place” refers to the visions from chapter 4 onward (compare with 4:1).
Verse 20 is grammatically independent of what precedes, and the construction is highly irregular. “The mystery” = the secret meaning (ref 13:18, 17:7, 9). The angels in apocalyptic writing – Revelations not disincluded – inevitably refer to “superhuman” beings, and not human messengers. Two interpretations have been suggested:
1) They are the guardian angels to the seven churches – Daniel 10:13, 20, 11:1, 12:1 – also see Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:15.
2) The stars are the heavenly counterparts to the churches. They are the heavenly ideal; the lamps are the earthly realization of those ideals.
To be entirely honest and rather blunt, I don’t understand why this second suggestion holds any weight whatsoever. Why must there be some sort of explanation at all? Why do we need some sort of one-upmanship when trying to understand these texts? Is it truly that bizarre if God were to simply have angels of the churches? What is that to us? The first explanation, however, does seem to have legitimacy, and I have considered it for quite some time. Personally, I don’t know that I would truly say that it is indeed truth, but I can see the connection and I wouldn’t bulk against such a stance.
For a commentary on the overall text, we find these words to be introduction to the seven epistles contained within chapters 2-3. What is it about these words that will help us to understand what is soon to be written? The way that Jesus reveals Himself and addresses Himself is reflected throughout the seven letters to the seven churches. Every time, Jesus addresses them in a manner that reflects back on one or more of these images. In this, we see Christ relating the church’s current circumstances to the way that He has revealed Himself. There is a saying, “Don’t tell God how big your mountain is, but instead the mountain how big your God is.” Here we find some credence for such a saying, though it be somewhat cliché.
The words of Christ Jesus to John at this moment give us a glimpse into the character of the apocalypse. We see that Jesus says not to be afraid. The message of absolute fury poured out from heaven, and tribulation endured by the saints, seems like enough to cause for anyone to prefer to not consider the end. Yet, we aren’t to be afraid, because Jesus is the first and the last, the living one, the one who holds the keys even to death and Hades. Not only has He endured and overcome, but He is now the comforter of His Bride, speaking tenderly so that we might also find the strength necessary in Him to overcome and be seated with Him on His throne (3:21).
Though there are terrors, there is also the glory of God contained within this vision. Though there is persecution, there is also comfort. Though there is wrath, there is also love. Though there is suffering, there is also glory. We see John in this Revelation giving contrasts throughout for two main purposes. First, it is to help expand upon what the symbols mean. The Seal of the 144,000 is contrasted with the mark of the beast. By contrasting the two, we can better understand what each signifies. Second, it is to give us hope. Though we see quite a bit of destruction, havoc, and devastation, we should also know that there is a contrast with the righteous. The wicked receive the plagues written about in this book, but the righteous are called out from this wicked generation to be sealed and protected – shown the everlasting glory of God for patient endurance.
Though these words are few here, they contain massive theological implications. Notice that what John writes about Jesus here, or rather, what Jesus says about Himself, directly calls Jesus Yahweh. In Isaiah 43:12 and 44:6, it is Yahweh that is being called the first and the last. Here it Jesus. In Joshua 3:10, it is Yahweh that is called the “living one” – specifically the living God. Here it is applied to Jesus.
It has been assumed by some that the time that Jesus gained the keys to death and Hades was when He descended into the depths of the earth, only to ascend higher than the heavens and fill all the universe (Eph 4:9-10). In this we find a theme established in our text. Just as God was not willing to allow us to endure death, suffering, and tribulation without also suffering the same fate, here we see that God is bringing to the forefront the idea that just like the saints will be persecuted, slandered, and killed during the Tribulation, so too will God be blasphemed, slandered, and rejected by the wicked – specifically by the beast and those who follow him. God is not separate from our sufferings, but rather present within them. Therefore, the message to the churches should be taken with joy, and not with fear – with expectancy, and not with anxiety.