Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2022
Revelation 1:4b-8 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Revelation is the Bible’s final book. That may be one reason why many Christians have historically thought of it as largely future-oriented. But the Spirit who inspires its author doesn’t just point John and his readers toward the future. The Spirit also reaches back into the mists of eternity. Revelation isn’t just a book about the future. It’s also a book about the past as well as, in fact, the present.
John makes that clear in the phrase that he repeats in and with which he bookends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. He essentially begins this text by sharing with Asia’s seven churches the gifts of grace and peace from “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” (4). John then basically ends this Lesson by referring to the Lord God as the one “who is, and who was, and who is to come” (8).
The fact that the phrase contains what New Testament scholar Israel Kamudzandu calls “a triad of threes” is, of course, highly significant. After all, three is a number that symbolizes divine completeness. God is not just Triune. God also, says John in Revelation 1, has a 3-fold cluster of attributes: God is, and was, and is to come.
Yet though God is triune, in Revelation 1 John seems to be, as the biblical scholar Edwin Walhout notes (Revelation Down to Earth, Eerdmans, 2000), referring specifically to the person of God the Father. John, in fact, refers to Jesus Christ later in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
Of course, in Revelation 22, John quotes an angel as promising twice that Jesus is “coming soon.” In verse 12 of that chapter the angel also quotes Jesus as referring to himself as “the Alpha and the Omega.” This, says Harry Boer, points to the intimate relationship that God the Father and God the Son enjoy.
This is a God to whom John’s readers of all times and places can attach ourselves by faith. This God about whom John writes Revelation isn’t, after all, like this Commentary’s writer and readers, somehow limited to the 21st (or any) century. The God about whom John writes isn’t even limited to the span of the creation and creatures’ time. This God always was, even before God created time. Before anything or anyone else was, God was.
Yet this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that God doesn’t just somehow stretch back before God created time. The God about whom John writes is also at work here and now. So God isn’t a God of just the past or God of even just the past and the future. This God is. God hasn’t just intervened in history. This God won’t even just act in the future. The God about whom John writes is acting right now.
However, this God who is and always was is also the One who is “to come” (4b, 8). The God about whom John so hopefully writes doesn’t, in fact, just hold the future in God’s gracious and loving hands. God will also come at the end of measured time to judge the living and the dead, as well as usher in the new earth and heaven.
John’s designation of God as “the Alpha and the Omega” (8) largely echoes his description of God as “him who is, and who was, and who is to come.” Together they mean, as Walhout (ibid) writes, “God was in the beginning and he will be at the end.” While people and things all come and go, God never does. God is, was and is to come.
So, as Walhout continues, God “began time and history and the universe when he spoke God’s mighty word of creation. He is actively involved in controlling and directing the course in which our world proceeds, and he will see to it that everything will, ultimately, infallibly, and inevitably arrive at the conclusion he has in mind.”
So much response to and interpretation of the book of Revelation is highly speculative. Especially its beleaguered readers want to know what its various mysterious figures and actions symbolize. How much of Revelation, we want to know, is history? How much of it involves the present? And the future?
John’s description of God as the one who is, was and is to come suggests that such speculation may distract God’s dearly beloved people from focusing on Revelation’s true intent. The Spirit inspires John to reveal to his readers something of character of the God of heaven and earth. God is not just the God of the past. Or of the present. Or of the future. The God whom God’s adopted sons and daughters worship in Jesus Christ was, and is, and is to come.
John writes about this God in the face of and in contrast to all who claim to be some of kind of god or anyone or anything to which we offer our ultimate loyalty. It’s not just the Roman Caesar who claimed to be a son of god. It’s not even just the powers and principalities whose battle for God’s creation characterizes so much of Revelation. It’s also all the little gods that we make for ourselves and to whom we offer our allegiance. It’s even the god whom we naturally try to fashion in our own image and according to our tastes and wishes.
God existed before the Caesar, and the powers and principalities, as well as all the little gods we create for ourselves. All of them are, in fact, part of God’s creation. But God has also outlasted all of them. The Caesars and their Empire died. Christ signed the death sentence of all the powers and principalities’ by suffering, dying on the cross and rising from the dead. All creatures eventually die – unless Christ returns first. God alone is, was and is to come.
21st century Christians sometimes prefer to think of what Revelation “unveils” (1) about God’s work in the future. In fact, John’s profession of God as the one “who is, and who was, and who is to come” presents to its proclaimers what Daniel J. Price (The Lectionary Commentary, Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2002) calls “an awesome homiletical opportunity.”
Most of God’s people trust that God acted in the past to supply grace and peace when it was needed. With the Spirit’s help, Christians can also sometimes see how God is at work caring for both God’s people and world.
“Yet,” writes Price (ibid), “uncertainty about the future is where many draw up short of breath and break into a cold sweat. The future with its daunting possibilities and enormous uncertainties contains a frightening number of unknowns.”
While Jesus Christ’s friends naturally recognize that we can control some things but can’t control others, our fear of loss of control in the future sometimes frightens us. While we may fear responsibility or grasp for more, the issue of bearing responsibility in the future may scare us.
“For too long,” Price adds (ibid), “the church has shrunk away from the future as if God held only the present and the past in his hands. This passage points us toward the future so that we can face it, not just realistically, but also with hope.”
Even the way John ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson gives Christians hope for the future. The God who is, and who was, and who is to come is “the Almighty” (8). God is the all-powerful ruler of all creation, time, and space. God is doing, has always done and will always do whatever is necessary (except to act in ways contrary to God’s nature) to lovingly care for all God creates.
In his book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, Jacob Silverman notes that ‘Tim Wu and other media historians have chronicled how, from the telegraph to the telephone to television, “the advent of every new technology of communication always brings with it a hope for ameliorating all the ills of society.” In 1912, the radio pioneer George Marconi even announced, “The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous”.’
God gives God’s adopted sons and daughters plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. Yet our optimism is not based on hope for technological advancements. Our hope is completely grounded in the God who is, and who was, and who is to come.
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