Lo, He Comes in the Clouds -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2C (Revelation 1)

Revelation 1:4-8 New Revised Standard Version

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.


                Rarely do we encounter the Book of Revelation in worship. Yet, here we are on the Sunday after Easter and the Revised Common Lectionary invites us to take up a series of readings from Revelation that will take us through the end of the Easter season (Ascension Sunday). So, with this first reading from Revelation 1:4-8, we take up this most challenging and yet intriguing book of the New Testament. The Book of Revelation is truly a book with an apocalyptic message, and apocalyptic messages tend to receive mixed receptions. This book, for example, took a rather circuitous route to achieving canonical status. It wasn’t until the fourth and even fifth century that the church at large granted it that status. Even then, many have hesitated to engage it. That includes both Luther and Calvin. Even today some believe the church and the world would be better off if it was stripped of its canonical status. I understand why because it’s easily misused. Nevertheless, I do believe it has an important word for the church today. Fortunately, we’re blessed with several really good commentaries that can help guide our reading of this book.

                This first word from the Book of Revelation introduces seven letters that are to be sent to the seven churches of Asia. This word, according to our text, was given to John by an angel, who now testifies to what he saw. Blessings are given to those who read the prophecy, who hear its word and keeps what is written. That’s because “the time is near” (Rev. 1:1-3). One would assume from this that John believed and passed on to his readers the belief that Jesus would return very soon to complete the mission of bringing into being the new heavens and the new earth.

                We know that these words were written two millennia in the past. Last I knew, we’re still here so either John missed a signal, or we need to think differently about how time works when it comes to apocalyptic messages. I need to say up front that I believe that this message was given through John to the churches of that day and that it was meant to encourage them to stay faithful as they faced a difficult situation. It might be persecution. It could also be due to the church’s accommodation to the things of this world. Most likely both are present in this message. As we read this, living as I’m most of my readers do, in the Euro-American West, we don’t face true persecution. The greater concern is accommodating ourselves to the empire (whatever form that empire takes). It’s easy to become cultural Christians whose primary allegiance is to nation/culture and not to God (see my book Ultimate Allegiance, where I explore how the Lord's Prayer is our pledge of ultimate allegiance to God).   

                Since we’re still here some two thousand years later, this word about something coming “soon and very soon” might need to take on a different sensibility. It might be worth considering the possibility suggested by 2 Peter that with God a thousand years is but a day, and a day but a thousand years. As 2 Peter reveals, “the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:8-9). So, maybe the end is near, but we might need to measure time differently? It would seem that the author of 2 Peter wanted to address the anxiety present in a community that had heard Jesus’ return was just around the corner, but time had passed, and still, Jesus hasn’t returned. Perhaps we need to read Revelation with 2 Peter’s filter in mind.

                These opening verses serve as a greeting from John to the seven churches. We don’t know exactly who this John is, except that he identifies himself as John and that he wrote the letter from Patmos, an island off the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Though often identified with the apostle John, that’s unlikely to be the case. He’s just a follower of Jesus, who finds himself on this island, and he receives a revelation that he’s supposed to share with the churches. As such, we have been invited by those who put the canon of Scripture together to read this piece of mail sent to the seven churches.

                In this introductory section, John offers grace and peace to the readers/listeners on behalf of the one “who is, who was, and who is to come.” Yes, this word comes from the one who existed in the past, exists in the present, and will exist in the future. At the end of our reading, the one who sends the message is identified as the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. Besides the one we identify as God, the message is seconded by the seven spirits who gather around the throne of God. It also comes to the churches from Jesus Christ, who is identified as the “faithful witness, the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the king of kings.”

                So, John speaks in the name of Jesus who bore witness (martyr) to the things of God and did so in the face of great opposition, leading to his death. Additionally, Jesus is “the first born of the dead.” He is as Paul taught the first fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-24). Finally, he is the “ruler of the king of the earth.” So, as Ron Allen suggests, Jesus serves as God’s agent who has been given “authority over all other authorities who rule in the world, including Caesar. This authority is for the purpose of remaking the world into the realm of God” (I Will Tell You the Mystery, p. 5). This is important for what unfolds in the coming chapters. The church faces an empire that doesn’t welcome authorities greater than Caesar, but to follow Jesus is to give ultimate allegiance and not Caesar. Ultimately all authorities will be judged according to the standards of God’s realm.    

                We respond to this word with a doxology, speaking words of praise and thanksgiving to the one who “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” Having freed us from our sins, Christ will make of us a kingdom of priests who serve the God and Father of Jesus. That is, having been liberated we can manifest in our lives the realm of God. Therefore, we give to God “glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” In making this declaration of praise we pledge our allegiance to the true king, whose reign stands above even Caesar. As the Book of Revelation reveals, Jesus empowers the saints to participate in his reign over the realm of God.  

                How should we approach this revelation of God? What is our position before God? John points us, or I should say, the angel points our attention toward the clouds. Yes, Jesus “is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him.” In contrast to the first advent, which took place, according to Luke in a barn or something similar in the small village of Bethlehem. In other words, he didn’t appear in a way that everyone would see.  When the end comes, things will be different. Instead of emerging out of the backwaters of Judah, he will appear in the clouds for everyone to see. In other words, this is a cosmic scene. No, John isn’t imagining a worldwide TV network broadcasting this message.  Not only will everyone see him, but more specifically, those who pierced him, those on whose account the earth wails in mourning. This image of Jesus coming in the clouds draws from Daniel 7:13-14, which envisions the Son of Man coming in glory to receive the everlasting dominion. In this scenario, the Son of Man comes bringing judgment and salvation. To this revelation, the people of God offer a double Amen.

                Our reading ends in verse 8 with God declaring: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Yes, this revelation that God is the beginning and the end of all things comes from the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” This is one of two places in Revelation where God speaks directly (the other is Rev.21:5-8). As Stanley Saunders notes, “In both passages God is the ‘Alpha and the Omega,’ the origin and goal of creation” [Feasting on the Word, p. 395]. As such, we learn that God is actively engaged in creation. While the gods of the nations were called upon to sustain the status quo, the God revealed here challenges the status quo and seeks to create something new. That something new is an active divine love. This divine love is revealed in Jesus who is the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5).





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