5 And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kingdoms of the earth. To him who loves us and released us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him [be] the glory and the dominion forever, Amen.
As we discussed last time, verses 4-8 serve as a prologue to the book, using the standard letter-writing format of the time. John has introduced himself, identified his audience, and is now offering grace and peace from “the one who is, and was, and is coming,” the seven spirits before the throne of God (which we identified as the Holy Spirit–see the discussion last week), and now from Jesus Christ. We usually pass over references to “Jesus Christ” in Scripture, but it’s good to remind ourselves that “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “Messiah”–it’s a title, not a name. Yet Jesus isn’t called “Jesus, the Christ,” in the same way that John is called “John the Baptist” (literally, John the Baptizer). Rather, he is called “Jesus Christ” in a manner akin to Simon, who was given the nickname Peter, and thereafter became known as Simon Peter. My point is that Jesus is so identified with his role as Messiah that very early on it became a part of his name. Not simply “Jesus the Messiah,” but Jesus Messiah–it’s not just a role, it’s who Jesus is.
John then lists some titles that he ascribes to Jesus. The first is “the faithful witness.” As with “the one who is…” last time, John has not used the correct grammatical form, which we recognize as his way of telling us he’s making an allusion to something in the Old Testament. In this case, we look to Psalm 89:37, a Psalm about David describing his throne as one that will be established forever–a faithful witness in the skies. We should also note that the phrase “faithful witness” is used later in 2:13, speaking of Antipas who was killed for the faith. Being a “witness,” may or may not involve the loss of life, but the idea of standing firm in one’s proclamation of the truth is a core theme in Revelation. Already, John has referred to himself as one bearing witness to the testimony (i.e., witness–same root word) of Christ (1:2). For his witness to Christ, John has already suffered exile, and would no doubt be willing to suffer more, even as Jesus did. Christ is, after all, our finest example of the faithful witness, who did not compromise his message or his mission, but testified to the truth even at the cost of his life. In the context of Revelation, this is a vital theme. Christians were facing such pressure to compromise, as we do today. The challenge is to remain faithful, despite the cost.
The next title given to Jesus by John is “firstborn of the dead.” This doesn’t mean that Jesus was born first of all those who have died. Rather, the term “firstborn” (Greek: prôtotokos) refers to preeminence. Paul uses the term in Colossians 1:15 and 1:18 speaking of Christ in a similar way, and since Colossae is in Asia Minor, and the letter to the Colossians was supposed to be read in Laodicia too, it’s very likely such terminology was familiar to John’s readers. But that’s not the only reason John speaks of Christ in this way. The term is also used in Psalm 89:27–the Psalm we were just looking at–speaking of David’s preeminence. I think this leaves us in no doubt that John has this Psalm in mind, and sees the fulfillment of the promises to David in Christ.
In Psalm 89:27, God tells David he will make him “highest of the kings of the earth,” which parallels John’s description of Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Jesus is the king of kings. Again we see the Messianic fulfillment of this promise to David in Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in Revelation, the term “kings of the earth” is used in a negative sense, describing those who rule in opposition to God (e.g., 6:15; 17:2). I think this just further emphasizes the extent of God’s sovereignty. His kingly rule doesn’t just extend to those who submit to Him. Indeed, His sovereign domain encompasses even His enemies, such that there is nothing they do that does not fall under God’s sovereign hand. No suffering is outside of His will, and Christ will be their Lord and their Judge. As the churches in Asia then, and the church here today, contemplates the trials of this world, both present and to come, the thought of God’s supreme rule over all things should be of great comfort to us.
The way John speaks of Jesus in the rest of verse 5 is interesting. He says he is the one who loves us and “released” us from our sins by his blood. We are used to the idea of God forgiving our sin by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, but John uses the Greek verb luô, which means “to loose” or “release.” I am reminded of Romans, where Paul talks of those who are in Christ as having been set free from the bondage of sin (e.g., Romans 8:2). Not only are we free from the penalty of sin, but we are no longer under sin’s domain. We struggle with sin as believers, but we are no longer under sin’s power. Indeed, for the Christian, our sanctification comes as we gradually live according to the reality of Christ’s lordship over us. Again, in a situation where the church faces pressure to conform to the world, and set aside living for Christ in order to compromise with the world, it is good to be reminded of the love of Christ, and his demonstration of that love by the shedding of his blood on our behalf.
Not only did Christ “release” us from sin, but he “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” This is possibly an allusion to Exodus 19:6, and though that passage could be understood to speak of a “kingdom of priests” or “a royal priesthood,” it is clear that John sees two distinct offices here. Is John saying, however, that we are kings and priests now, or is this a future hope? Or maybe both? I don’t think many of us have a problem with the concept of the priesthood of believers. We present ourselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:2), and while some are called to full-time ministry leadership, we are all responsible in some capacity for ministering the gospel to those around us. Every believer is called to pray, to intercede for others, and to serve.
But what about “kings”? If we are rulers, it certainly doesn’t seem like it. Perhaps John intends us to see Jesus as our example. He was, after all, both a priest and a king. But, as he told Pilate, his kingdom was (and is) not of this world. Further, Christ demonstrated his lordship through service, and ultimately through his death and resurrection (see Philippians 2:5-11). It is in Christ that we reign (something we’ll see mentioned in Revelation 20:6, along with priesthood). I think it’s important to note, however, that John speaks of us as being a “kingdom”–and while by implication we can understand that to mean we are rulers, there is a sense in which we are a kingdom, i.e., the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred often to the Kingdom of God, which is essentially the present reality and future hope of all believers. It is the domain to which we belong when we are redeemed. In this sense, we most definitely are a kingdom now, and we will see the fulness of that reality at the End Times.
We might be kings and priests, but it is to Christ that “the glory, and the dominion [or "power" or "strength"] for ever.” Jesus is the recipient of all the glory, and he is the source of all that we have.
We’ll continue from verse 7 next time.