Revelation is a book of overlapping genre—prophecy, apocalyptic, and also a letter. In these first verses of the first chapter, we see the exiled author’s greetings to his friends, the Christian ekklesiai in Asia Minor.
He sends grace and peace from a Trinitarian God—the Almighty One who is, was, and is to come; Christ the resurrected one; and the Spirit, who is seven, that is, full and complete, enough for all seven churches to whom he writes. We might even think of these seven spirits as ambassadorial expressions of God who are already at work in each of these churches. As John writes to them, we see that each church has its own challenges and burdens, and so the seven spirits may be able to move in special, individualized ways. The God sending peace is both One and Many, ruling over all and yet caring for each.
The greeting of peace is not insignificant. The revelator writes during the Pax Romana, a time of “peace” only if you were the favored and privileged of the Roman Empire, which the early Christians were not. Indeed, peace would have been hard for Christians to come by if solicited from the Empire. But the author sends peace from another source—a God who, in Jesus Christ, is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” And this ruler does not bring peace with the might of imperial force, but by submission to such powers, with blood and with death. This one is the one who deserves glory and dominion forever. This one is the one who gives spectacular visions of an upside-down kingdom of which Christians may be a part and over which Christ reigns in his peculiar kind of power. This God of true peace exists before and after and within the false peace of the earthly empire—an all-times-and-all-places character that is so important it’s mentioned three times in this short passage. The Lord God was before the empire, is in the midst of empire, and will be once the empire falls. When it comes to the end of the earthly empire, the question is not if but when, whereas the reign of the Almighty is forever.
The indictments of empire and promise of Christ will be revealed later on in these letters, but as we reflect on this introductory greeting we would do well to consider the importance of sharing such revelations within the community. Just as Jesus is “the faithful witness” to the nature of God, we can likewise bear witness to the grace and peace of God that we have seen revealed to us in our lives, because if God is speaking to me, God is never speaking only to me. The author uses language and imagery that would be familiar to his audience—the apocalyptic vision imaginaries play off narratives such as those in the books of Daniel or Ezekiel—and whether these are deliberate echoes or coincidental ones does not particularly matter. The wild symbolism that is rather opaque to us today would have been at least relatively more decipherable to John’s audience. The revelator is speaking his friends’ language to tell them about his experience of these dazzling visions. He is relaying the message the best way he knows how.
This is the second Sunday of Easter, so we may be reminded of last week, in John’s account of the resurrection, when Mary Magdalene announced to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” When you see Jesus, whether coming with the clouds or looking like a gardener, you say something. A God who promises peace after all the struggle and death, who offers security beyond the antagonistic empire—this is good news that can’t just be kept to yourself. The kingdom God has shown you is not for you alone, but for all God’s children and all God’s creatures. It is meant to be shared. It’s no wonder that so much of the New Testament is made up of letters. People had seen things, experienced things—things that changed their lives and made them believe in a different world. The God they experienced in Jesus Christ is still showing up, still revealing and re-revealing Godself like a neverending game of Cat’s Cradle. Perhaps in awesome, Technicolor visions like John’s, or in surprising encounters like Mary’s, we still see Jesus revealed to us today. So write a letter. Send an email. What vision of Jesus have you received that needs to be shown to his servants?