Exposition of Revelation: Revelation 1:17–20

Revelation 1:17–20
When I saw him I fell down at his feet as though I were dead, but he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, 18 and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive – forever and ever – and I hold the keys of death and of Hades! 19 Therefore write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
 (NET Bible)

If you saw Jesus in his power . . .

Perhaps when you were a teenager, someone handed you the keys to the family car. That act conferred on you power, responsibility and authority. Some teens receive the keys and become a menace while others become responsible drivers. No parent should give such keys lightly.

If keys grant authority and power, then who is worthy to hold the keys of death?

When people have an encounter with God their responses are generally the same: they are terrified! But instead of running away, they collapse. John says, “I fell down at his feet as though I were dead” (Rev. 1:17). John had this experience once before when Jesus took him, along with Peter and James, to the mountain top where Jesus was transformed before them: And he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matt. 17:2).

There are many similarities between John’s previous experience and this one, but here (Rev. 1:17) John is dealing with the resurrected Son, and no voice from heaven is needed to authenticate him.

Jesus immediately touches John — proving Jesus is not merely a vision — and compassionately reassures him (1:17). Craig Keener says: “Most important, Jesus is ‘the First and the Last’ (1:17). This means more than simply ‘firstborn from the dead’ (1:5); its sense is exactly equivalent to ‘the Alpha and the Omega,’ a title appropriate only to God (1:8; 21:6).”[1]

Revelation 1:18 is extraordinary in that Jesus speaks of his own death and resurrection and their implications. Greg Beale explains: “Through the victory of the resurrection Christ became king even over the realm of the dead [Hades] in which he was formerly imprisoned. Now, not only is he no longer held in death’s bonds but he also holds sway over who is released and retained in that realm.”[2] What a Savior!

Perhaps we can say that Jesus’ mastery over death and Hades relates to his living “unto the ages of the ages” (1:18b, Greek), which NET renders as “forever and ever.” Concerning Hades, the NET Bible Notes say: “In the OT, Hades [Greek] was known as Sheol [Hebrew]. It is the place where the unrighteous will reside (Matt 11:23; Luke 16:23; Rev 20:13–14).”[3]

Revelation 1:19 has been regarded by many as a key to the book. NT scholar Robert Thomas, for example argues that 1:19 provides an outline for the contents of Revelation: “what you saw” refers to the vision of the glorified Christ (chapter 1, especially verses 11–18; “what is” refers to the messages to the seven churches (chapters 2–3); “what will be after these things” refers to the events revealed in chapters 4–22.[4] However, detailed examination indicates that this outline-view breaks down. For example, the things said to the seven churches (chapters 2–3) also relate to their future conduct — and that of the Lord in response — which violates the present-tense character of “what is.” The outline view is a bit too rigid to work.

Grant Osborne expresses an alternative held by several interpreters: “All three clauses [in Rev. 1:19] relate to the past, present, and future orientation of the entire book.”[5] What is advises future churches how to live; what was gives lessons to us and those to come; what will be motivates our behavior in the present, just as it did those who came before us. Revelation reaches from one end of history to the other, and beyond!

Just as we cannot see the arrow of time or the steady increase in physical disorder — entropy, to you physicists and engineers — we cannot see the inexorable progress of our world toward the ending that the All-Powerful has declared in advance. Revelation reveals it to us. Time has a Master; so does matter.

The Ride

Life is not a joy ride in the family car; it is a serious trip with eternal implications. When the ride is over, it is Jesus who holds the keys either to eternal life for us in a new Eden or to an eternity in a more permanent form of Hades, a place full of misery.

Jesus warned the multitudes about that last encounter with him: “I will show you the One to fear: Fear him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!” (Luke 12:5, Christian Standard Bible). You will recognize him; he is the one with the keys.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 97.

[2] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 215.

[3] NET Bible Notes for Revelation 1:18.

[4] Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992) 115. John Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary also held this view.

[5] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 97.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!