September 7: Revelation 1:3

Revelation 1:3

The first two verses of the superscription were discussed in the previous note; today we will be looking at the declaration in verse 3:

“Happy the (one) making (this) known (in the reading of it), and (also) the (one)s hearing the words [lo/goi] of th(is) foretelling [i.e. prophecy] and watching (over) the (thing)s having been written in it, for the time is near.”

This is properly a beatitude (or macarism), much like the famous set of Beatitudes uttered by Jesus in the Gospel Tradition (Matt 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23). For the background of the beatitude form, see my earlier series on the Beatitudes. At the conclusion of that series, I also provided a brief survey of the other beatitudes which occur in the New Testament.

According to the standard Greek formula, this beatitude begins with the adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”), often rendered as “blessed”, in light of the religious context which is typically involved. On the eschatological aspect of the beatitude form, again cf. the introductory articles of my earlier series.

Often obscured in translation is the fact this beatitude is addressed to two different groups: (1) the person(s) reading the book, and (2) the ones hearing it and guarding its contents. These two groups are marked by parallel participles, which reflect the circumstances of early Christian life and worship:

    • o( a)naginw/skwn—”the one [sg.] making (this) known (in the reading of it)”
    • oi( a)kou/onte$kai\ throu=nte$—”the ones [pl.] hearing…and watching (over)”

The verb a)naginw/skw literally means “know again”, though the prefixed particle a)na is perhaps better understood as an intensive, i.e. “know (something) well”—i.e. through the reading of a written text. In the early Christian context, “reading” meant public reading—that is, reading aloud or reciting the text. In the ancient world literacy rates were far lower than in modern societies; moreover, the average Christian would likely not have possessed a copy (of the Scriptures, etc) for private reading, but would have relied upon hearing it read aloud in the congregation. This is precisely the situation envisioned here by the author.

The use of the verbs a)kou/w (“hear”) and thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”) together reflects standard instruction, which, in the case of early Christians, goes back to Old Testament tradition regarding the Torah (Instruction) as the written word of God (cf. especially the foundational covenant scene in Exodus [19:7-8; 20:19; 24:3-4a, 7, etc]). The parallel use of these verbs, and the twin concepts of hearing and keeping/guarding, is especially prominent in the Johannine writings (Jn 5:24f; 8:47, 51; 12:47; 14:15, 21ff; 15:10, 20; 1 Jn 1:1ff; 2:3-5, 7, 24; 3:22-24; 5:3; 2 Jn 6). It is possible that the similar usage in the book of Revelation stems from a common tradition. The verb a)kou/w occurs 46 times in the book, while thre/w 11 times (including 5 times in the “letters” of chapters 2-3). In the specific context of 1:3, the verb thre/w relates, not so much to idea of obeying God’s instruction, but to guarding and protecting the record of the visions in the book. Most likely, there is a two-fold aspect to this watching/guarding: (a) paying close attention to the account and details of the visions, and (b) protecting it from misuse and misrepresentation. This latter aspect should serve as a caution for all those attempting to interpret the book today.

The content of the book is specifically referred to as “the words/accounts [lo/goi] of the th(is) foretelling”. This is the first of 7 occurrences of the Greek term profhtei/a (proph¢teía), which is typically transliterated in English as “prophecy”. As I discussed in the Introduction to the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, there are two basic meanings to the profht- word group, in relation to the prefixed particle pro (“before”): (1) a message presented before (i.e. in front of) an audience by a chosen spokesperson, and (2) a message which tells of (future) events beforehand. Both aspects apply to the use of these words among early Christians, though emphasis in the New Testament, when dealing with early Christian congregations, is decidedly on the former. Here in the book of Revelation, we certainly find both aspects:

    • The visions in the book are clearly described as “the word of God” and “the witness of Jesus”—a revelation which was given to the prophet (John) to be communicated to other believers.
    • At the same time, the visions primarily refer to future events which would occur “soon”.

The use of lo/go$ (“account, ‘word'”) emphasizes again the unique character of the book—visual experiences (images) being recorded/translated into written language (“the [thing]s having been written in it”).

Special notice must be given to the closing words of the verse:

“…for the time (is) near”
o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$

This statement must be taken together with the earlier expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”) in verse 1. As I discussed in the previous note, the expression e)n ta/xei essentially means “quickly”, “right away”. Here, there can be little doubt that we have the same idea, expressed differently:

o( kairo/$—The word kairo/$ differs somewhat from xro/no$, though both may be translated as “time”. The distinction may be summarized as: xro/no$ generally refers to the passage of time, while kairo/$ signifies the point at which something occurs. Understood in a temporal (rather than spatial) sense, kairo/$ refers to the point when an event takes place (or will take place).

e)ggu/$—The modifier e)ggu/$ is related to the verb e)ggi/zw (“come/bring close”), and thus means “close, near”. The word occurs 31 times in the New Testament, but only once more in the book of Revelation (22:10).

Taking these two elements together, the proper sense of the statement should be clear: the point in time when the events described in the visions will occur is very close. This, of course, creates considerable difficulty for Christians today. On the one hand, the most reasonable (and obvious) way of understanding these expressions is that the author is declaring that the events in the visions will occur very soon (presumably, in the lifetime of his [original] audience). Yet, as it would seem that many, if not most, of the visionary details did not then occur—nor have they occurred in the past 2,000 years—it would be hard for many believers to accept the accuracy and/or inspiration of the visions in this light. Thus, the various forms and modes of interpretation (“futurist”, “church-historical”, etc) which have arisen to bridge the gap and explain the apparent discrepancy. Yet, the very words here in vv. 1-3, at the beginning of the book, should serve as a caution against any interpretation which deviates too far from the fundamental meaning of the text.

(Regarding the imminent eschatological expectation among early Christians, and evinced throughout the New Testament, I will be dealing with this sensitive subject at various points in these notes, as well as in the articles of the Study Series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. There will also be a separate, special study upcoming as part of this Series.)

Finally, notice should be taken of the coordinating particle ga/r (“for”)—”…for the time is close”. The concluding declaration explains the importance of reading the book aloud in the congregations, and of believers hearing and guarding its contents. The reason this is so vital is that “the time (when these visions will take place) is very close”.