The Revelation is about a world being reborn. John writes to struggling churches, encouraging them to stand firm in the midst of a culture swarming with tyranny and evil. What does he use to encourage them? A vision of Easter. A vision of God’s New Creation birthed into this one. A vision of the kingdoms of this world in all of their oppression and injustice, being swept up in God’s tidal wave of his good world being renewed and reborn.
And what better way to begin this powerful and terrifying vision by drawing everyone’s attention to the one who is at the very the center of the vision — the Easter Jesus. John will focus on Jesus’ cosmic role in the vision in chapter 5. That moment is a huge wide-angle shot of God’s dimension of reality with Jesus surrounded by all of creation. Chapter 1, however, is an intimate encounter with the risen Christ. It’s a backstage pass, a chance to meet and speak with this Jesus before he takes center-stage in creation and history and unfolds God’s plan of re-creation upon the earth.
I love how N.T. Wright summarizes this personal encounter:
“Revelation begins with a vision of the risen Jesus (1:12-16). Snow-white hair, eyes of fire, feet of polished bronze, voice like a waterfall, and his face like the sun itself — no wonder John fell at his feet as though he was dead. This is where terror and joy meet: this is the Easter Jesus. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says; ‘I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and look, I am alive for evermore.’ ‘And’ — and this sounds almost conspiratorial — ‘I’ve got the keys — the keys to Death and Hades’ (1:17-18). Whatever you’ve lost; whoever you’ve lost; whatever bits of your life are locked away for sorrow or shame, I’ve got the keys… Tyrants base their power on their ability to kill. Whether it’s the invisible tyrant of sin or the visible tyrants that stalk our world still, their power lies in the threat of death. They claim to have the keys of death and hell, but they’re lying. Where the tyrants’ power runs out, God’s power begins. He raises the dead.”
N.T. Wright, Following Jesus
It’s in the Easter Jesus that our strength and hope lie. Not by befriending the tyrants in our culture, adopting their agendas, becoming their constituency, and trusting their influence. Tyrants on both the left and right of the political spectrum (and those in between) are ultimately opposed to the unfolding of God’s New Creation no matter how much they seem in alignment.
Rather, as God’s people, struggling to continue incarnating God’s presence in a distorted and hurting world, we need fresh retellings and encounters with the Easter Jesus. We need to be reminded that despite the pain that the tyrants of sin or Satan or selfishness or consumerism or capitalism or communism or any other societal evil have inflicted upon us, our allegiance is in this majestic person we encounter in the opening chapter of the Revelation. We need to see him. We need to be terrified and collapse as if dead. We need to hear his voice, “Don’t be afraid… of me or of anything out there trying to hurt you.” We need to feel his right hand upon us. We need to see the keys of life’s greatest barriers swinging from Jesus’ hand.
That encounter with the Easter Jesus prepares us to hear his words to us as in chapters 2 and 3 — words of commendation, correction and exhortation to overcome. And it prepares us to watch and trust how he will faithfully unfold God’s plan upon the earth as in chapters 4 and 5.
We need Revelation 1’s encounter with Jesus. Because if the rest of Revelation is any indication, it will get a lot worse before it gets better. Like any birth, the joy of New Creation’s final consummation in Revelation 21 and 22 are preceded by severe and devastating birth pangs. “So don’t be afraid. I died and I’m alive. And I hold the keys to Death and Hades.”