This greeting follows the form of letters of the time. First, the author identifies himself. Paul’s letters typically start with the word “Paul”. The greeting of this letter starts with the word “John”. Later, in verse 9, he says he is a brother and a partner in the tribulation and the kingdom. He identifies with them as a believer who is also suffering tribulation. Tradition has it that the writer is John the disciple of Jesus. But, in a greater since, since John is relating what he saw and was given, this is a letter from Jesus to churches in first century Asia.
John addressed the letter specifically to the seven churches in Asia. Jesus will address all seven churches. By Asia, John means western Turkey. He will name them in verse 9. The churches are identified by their cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. These are real cities and had real churches with real people who were members.
The fact that there are 7 churches is significant. The number 7 will occur throughout the book. It is a number that is symbolic of completeness in the Bible. So, although 7 churches are specifically mentioned, the message would have meaning for all the Asian churches and even all churches.
The Greek and Roman invasions made evangelism possible in Asia. The Greeks provided a common language and a culture open to new ideas. The Romans built roads for travel, kept things safe, and provided common citizenship. Paul, in particular, benefitted from his Roman citizenship.
The greeting extended comes through John from God. Specifically, it comes from the triune God. I have heard people tell me there is no specific reference to the trinity in the New Testament. Well, here is one.
First is God the Father. He is the “him who was and who is to come”. (4) This is a statement of the eternal nature of God. He existed before he created the world. That is what “in the beginning, God” means. (Genesis 1:1) He will exist after this creation is destroyed and made new. That is a point of hope for us. There is nothing above God. He is creator; all else is creation.
The greeting is also from the seven spirits who are before the throne. (4) This is a reference to the Holy Spirit. The number 7 represents fullness. The Holy Spirit is sufficient to guide and strengthen believers to endure temptation and persecution.
The language here refers to Zechariah 4, where Zechariah sees a vision of 7 lamps on a gold lamp stand. Zechariah was a prophet called by God to urge the Israelites to finish the temple and the city. An angel showed the vision of the lamps to Zechariah, then said the famous words of God: not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the LORD.” He went on to say the temple would be built. In other words the Spirit would accomplish the building of thhe Spirit is sufficient for the task of building and preserving the church in tribulation.
And finally, the greeting comes from God the Son. He is identified as Jesus Christ, Jesus we temple where the strength of men could not He was sufficient for the task. Similar, tho is the anointed one, the messiah. He is the faithful witness also. When he was personally persecuted, he was faithful to the gospel. He will be faithful to strengthen us as we go through tribulation. He is also the firstborn from the dead. This is a reference to his resurrection and to our future resurrection. This is a reflection of Psalm 89:26-37 in which the Messiah cries out to God and God says “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of heaven”.
The New Testament picked up the concept as well. 1 Corinthians 15:20 calls Jesus the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. First fruits were the first of many to come in the harvest. Jesus was the first of many to be resurrected. Colossians 1:18 also calls him the “firstborn of the dead”. Persecutors may kill our bodies, but Jesus will raise them and glorify them for eternity. He proved this in his own resurrection. This is our hope!
This title also speaks to the special position Of Jesus as a result o his resurrection. He is the one who will be on the throne of David forever. (2 Samuel 7:13)
Lastly, Jesus is referred to as the ruler of the kings on earth. No matter how powerful a ruler lives on earth, including the devil, Jesus rules him. There are some who say the kingdom does not come until the millennium. But Revelation says Jesus even now is king. The writer of Hebrews said “But of the son he says, your throne of God, is forever and ever, and the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom”. (Hebrews 1:8)
At the mention of the greatness of Jesus, John broke into praise. This is verses 5-7. Praise and worship will be a continual theme in the letter.
John gave two more descriptions of Jesus. He is the one who freed us from our sins by his blood. Jesus’ death on the cross brought our salvation and our freedom from sin.
Lastly, Jesus is the one who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. Again, we have a kingdom now. We also have a role as priests to God. Believers enjoy access to God. Once that was reserved for the Jewish priests, but now all who believe have this great privilege. After God delivered Israel from Egypt, he told them, if they entered into covenant with him, he would make them a kingdom of priests. (Exodus 19:6) In fact, Moses dedicated Israel by sprinkling blood on them, just as Aaron dedicated his sons as priests. The Israelites were to witness of Yahweh to the Gentiles in their role of priests. Israel failed in its role. Christ has now made believers priests. Peter said the same thing, calling us a “royal priesthood”. (1 Peter 2:9) Believers today have a command to witness to Jesus to the nations. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Why did Jesus, and Peter, use these words for the church that God used of Israel? It is because the church now has that role.
John’s praise is to ascribe eternal glory and dominion to Jesus. He will reign for all eternity. He will also have glory for all eternity. Jesus will also return to earth. He will come on the clouds, a symbol of his diety. Everyone will see him on the earth. Those who have not believed in him will wail, for he will come in judgment. This is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14:
“I saw in the night vision
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away.”
and an allusion to Zechariah 12:10
Zechariah 12:10 says:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
John changed the wording of Zechariah 12:10, though, by adding “all the tribes of the earth” from Zechariah 14:17 instead of “the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem”. I think he did it to show us Jesus will not be seen just by Jews, but by believers from all over the earth. They will “wail” or “mourn” on account of him. This is often said to mean that lost people on earth will wail when he appears. But the context of Zechariah 12 is God’s people repenting. Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn”. (Matthew 5:4) He was speaking of life in the new kingdom and the fact that those who live a life of repentance will be blessed. They will receive God’s favor.
The very last statement of the greeting is from God himself. He declared his eternity by calling himself the alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is presently, he in the past and he will be forever. And through all eternity, he is the Almighty. No one is stronger than he. He will live forever to consummate his plans for us and has the power to do so. This was a good reminder for first century Asian Christians and it is a good reminder for us.