The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic work with vivid visual symbolism, which is why interpreting the book’s imagery is important for understanding its message. However, the book’s auditory aspects also deserve close attention because the voices and speeches determine, to a significant degree, the book’s theological outlook.1
The basic portrait of God
The key title of God in Revelation is “the One sitting on the throne.” This formula functions as “a circumlocution for the name of God”2 because His naming and description are avoided. The focus in the formula is “on the throne” itself which, in accordance with the Old Testament background, is the symbol of divine rulership.3 The title occurs 12 times in the book in slightly different grammatical forms,4 the number of completeness, the perfection of God’s sovereign authority over human history.
While all the divine interventions and judgments in Revelation are seen as coming from the heavenly temple, God the Father generally does not speak. In the opening salutation, He—together with Jesus Christ and the Spirit (Rev. 1:4–6)—sends greetings to the recipients, the seven churches, but God is surprisingly silent throughout almost the whole book.5
God is closely associated with His throne, which functions as the axis mundi, the immovable center of reality and, though things on earth happen as the result of decisions made in the heavenly temple, God remains seated. He is never dramatized as a figure actively involved in the course of events, conveying not passivity but rather a strong theocentricity. The impression given, as Alan Johnson notes, is that “Nothing happens, nothing exists—in the past, present, or future—apart from God’s intention. Whatever authority is given . . . is given by God.”6
The emphasis on theocentrism is foundational to Revelation’s message. This message was given to the churches in Asia Minor by the end of the first century as they went through crises due to internal divisions and external pressures from society. They needed assurance that God is in control.
Only two speeches of God are recorded in the book, both at strategically significant locations: one in the prologue (v. 8) and the other almost at the end (Rev. 21:5–8). The two speeches are closely related thematically, and their position in the narrative flow of Revelation is not accidental. The message of both speeches resonates strongly with the theological perspective conveyed by the picture of the silent God sitting on His heavenly throne.
The first speech
God’s first speech in Revelation appears in the prologue’s final statement (Rev. 1:1–8). Following the foreword (vv. 1–3), the epistolary greetings (vv. 4, 5a), and the doxology (vv. 5b, 6), the prologue ends with a two-part thematic motto (vv. 7, 8) that introduces the basic apocalyptic perspective of the book. The first statement of the motto is given in a style of prophetic annunciation (v. 7) while, in the second statement, God Himself gives a brief self-revelation (v. 8). His words are a fitting climax of the prologue because they point to the identity of the originator of the book of Revelation: “ ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’ ” (v. 8, ESV).
Responsible handling of Revelation necessitates Christ-centered preaching and teaching of Revelation that, before anything else, makes God’s personality and His intentions toward humanity first priority.
God speaking in the prologue is of major theological significance because His short self-declaration is the first recorded speech in the book. The fact that God speaks before anyone and anything highlights His privileged position, worthy of undivided attention. As James Resseguie points out, this theocentric speech provides “theological context for all that follows.”7
The theme of God’s speech in verse 8 is His own divine identity, as indicated by the presence of the Johannine egō eimi (“I am”) formula: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” The reference to the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet functions as a merism, a figure of speech that expresses the totality by references to polar opposites. The Old Testament background of this wordplay lies in Isaiah 41–48, where God is portrayed in the context of a polemic against the idols of Babylon in a similar fashion, as the only Creator and sovereign Lord of history:
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel,
and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6, ESV).
The fact that the formula occurs three times in the context of the polemic (Isa. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12) points to its emphatic nature.
The Jewish alphabet symbolism throws additional light on the merism of Revelation 1:8 because the Hebrew emet (“truth”) has been understood as a way of designating God as the beginning, middle, and end. Namely, the Hebrew term consists of three letters: alef is the first, mem the middle, and tau the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet.8 Against this background, the Alpha–Omega merism in Revelation appears to stress the sovereignty of God, who controls the beginning as well as the end and everything in between.9 God’s first speech in the book is short: only seven words in the Greek text. The numerical symbolism hidden in this statement, however, highlights the perfect harmony of God’s divine being, which embraces and transcends all at the same time.
“The Alpha and the Omega” title is juxtaposed in the same verse with three other divine names: (1) “Lord God”; (2) “who is and who was and who is to come”; and (3) “the Almighty.” Richard Bauckham considers these three titles, together with “the One sitting on the throne,” to be among the most important designations for God in the whole book.10 They all carry the sense of divine sovereignty. Their appearance together within a single statement underscores the strategic significance of the text. The concentrated package at the climax of the prologue serves the purpose of projecting a foundational theological outlook for the work: that the sovereign God is Lord over history, and nothing happens without the awareness of the One who will put things in their proper place. The universe has a moral structure, and God will restore the created order on the earth, which will be fully realized in the new creation. As G. K. Beale notes, “It is only with the presupposition of an omnipotent God that such a confident assertion about the consummation of history can be made.”11
The second speech
God’s second speech in Revelation is located at the climactic part of the “thesis paragraph” of the new creation vision (Rev. 21:1–8). This passage, together with the speech of the unidentified voice in the immediately preceding texts (vv. 3, 4), “captures in a nutshell the meaning of the entire book of Revelation.”12 While God’s second speech is considerably longer than the first one, the almost verbatim reappearance of the Alpha–Omega self-declaration from Revelation 1:8 in Revelation 21:6 indicates a close connection.13 However, the original formula is supplemented here with an additional title—“the beginning and the end”—which functions as the interpretation of the original self-declaration.
The text of God’s second speech in Revelation reads, “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death’ ” (vv. 5–8, NRSV).
The speech consists of seven statements. The numerical pattern is not accidental: God’s first speech consists of seven words and the second speech of seven statements. Whatever God says, its hallmark is harmony and meaning. In contrast to this literary feature, God’s archenemies, such as the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, Babylon, and the prostitute, never speak in the book. Their muteness points not only to the idolatry that they proclaim (in the Old Testament, idols are mute)14 but also to the fact that they do not have anything meaningful to say other than to deceive people.15
The basic context of God’s second speech is the new creation. The fact that God’s “I am the Alpha and the Omega” self-declaration is the middle statement of the entire speech has not been highlighted by the scholars. Among the seven statements, it appears as the fourth one, sandwiched by three statements on each side. The first three statements point to the divine side of the new creation promise while, in the last three, attention is shifted to humanity’s destiny in the face of this climactic event. The focal Alpha–Omega statement centers on God’s character as the sovereign Lord of history, the originating Cause from whom the eschatological new creation emanates.
The significance of the relation
There is a clear theological link between God’s two speeches in Revelation. The Alpha–Omega self-declaration near both the beginning and the end of the book reveals purposiveness on the author’s part. It not only forms an inclusio around the work but also frames its theological message. As Adela Yarbro-Collins points out, such a literary feature “implies that all things in time and space are part of divine providence.”16 The appearance of the Alpha–Omega title at the two opposite sides of the book underscores God’s absolute control over the totality of the events portrayed between Revelation 1:8 and Revelation 21:6.17 Thus the title proclaims a strong theocracy, since “the One sitting on the throne” has the first and the last word. His purpose is coming to be fulfilled both in the advancement of history (Rev. 1:8) and in the new creation at the eschaton (Rev. 21:5–8).
As the omnipotent God, He guides the entire course of history from beginning to end. He had the first word in the Creation, and He will have the last word in the new creation, in which His “will [will] be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Ultimately, God is the Origin and Goal of history in its entirety, since human existence finds meaning in Him.
So what? Implications for pastors
The book of Revelation has often been preached and taught with a focus on prophecies in light of history and current political events. The book’s fulfilled prophecies have often been seen as an effective tool for convincing people about the truthfulness of the Bible and as a means for propelling them to accept the message of the everlasting gospel. Revelation is, however, much more than a prophecy treasury in the hand of an evangelistically minded pastor.
As we have seen, the book’s primary focus is on God Himself, sovereign Lord of history who wishes to be “Alpha and Omega” in the life of the pastor’s preaching and teaching of Revelation. Because Revelation is primarily about God, not about prophecies, the pastor’s task is to point, first of all, to the Lord. The prophecies are to reveal God, who is at work in history. The main emphasis is not on “what will happen” but on the fact that “it will happen” because God is active in His created reality. While the predictive character of Revelation is not to be disputed (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19), the book’s doctrine about God needs to be restored as its heart.
Responsible handling of Revelation necessitates Christ-centered preaching and teaching of Revelation that, before anything else, makes God’s personality and His intentions toward humanity first priority. Everything in Revelation, including the prophecies, is secondary to the book’s “theology,” which is its teaching about God. Such an approach to Revelation will have profound implications on a pastor’s interpretation and presentation of Revelation.
Though in Revelation God is generally transcendent and silent, He is not detached. Defining Himself through the Lamb, He is close to humanity. He expresses His feelings and intentions toward us through the One who “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5, NRSV). Such a God is trustworthy and worthy of worship.
God is presented in Revelation as the utterly incomparable One to whom everything is subjected. Because God is “the Alpha and the Omega,” His purposes triumph in history. While demonic forces make strong efforts to frustrate His plan for humanity, He has the first and the last word in history. The primary purpose of the book of Revelation is not to inform us about the future (though the predictive prophecies of the book are important) but to reveal Him as the incomparable, mighty God who has full authority over the heavenly, earthly, and cosmic forces.
- The most profound study on the topic has been done by M. Eugene Boring (“The Voice of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John,” Novum Testamentum 34 [October 1992]: 334–359), who identified 141 speech units around which quotation marks can be put. Here, not only divine voices are heard but also voices of heavenly beings and earthly characters participating in the drama of Revelation. Even voices from animals, an altar, and the seven thunders are recorded.
- David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52A (Dallas, TX: Word, 1997), 284.
- For the significance of the throne motif for the theology of Revelation, see Laszlo Gallusz, The Throne Motif in the Book of Revelation, Library of New Testament Studies (London, UK: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014).
- Rev. 4:2, 9; 10; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:10, 15; 19:4; 20:11; 21:5. The grammatical variations are not significant for the meaning of the expression.
- For the significance of the temple motif for the structure and theology of Revelation, see Jon Paulien, “The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary, and Temple in the Plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 33, no. 2 (1995): 245–264.
- Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary With the New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 66.
- James L. Resseguie, Revelation Unsealed: A Narrative Critical Approach to John’s Apocalypse, Biblical Interpretation Studies, vol. 32 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998), 106.
- For the idea in Jewish literature that the first and the last letter of the alphabet denote the whole extent of a thing, see Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, vol. 3 (Munich, Germany: Beck, 1922–1961), 789.
- This interpretation has a long tradition. See, e.g., Jerome, Against Jovinian 1.18; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2.6.360; Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse, TEG 8.268. Interestingly, Josephus (Against Apion 2.190) uses a threefold formula for God: “He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things.”
- For a detailed study of these titles, see Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, New Testament Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 25–35.
- G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 199.
- J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 235.
- In Rev. 22:13 the same title occurs, once again applied to Christ. This implies high Christology: the unity of the Father and the Son, sharing the same divine nature.
- On the muteness of the idols, see Pss. 115:5; 135:16; Jer. 10:5; Hab. 2:18, 19.
- The motif of counterfeit is one of the central motifs in Rev. 12–22. For its cardinal aspects, see Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 2nd ed., (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009), 376–382.
- Adela Yarbro Collins, Apocalypse, New Testament Message, vol. 22 (Dublin, Ireland: Veritas, 1979), 145.
- Beale, Revelation, 1055.