The revelation will be given in pictures as well as words, for Jesus will show his servants what is going to happen. Again we are reminded of the Gospel of John, where Jesus "shows," or makes visible in the world, that which the Father has shown him (compare Jn 5:20; 10:32; 14:8). But there are differences. In John's Gospel the "servants"of Jesus become his "friends" by virtue of the revelation they receive (Jn 15:15), while in the book of Revelation they will remain "servants" to the end, even in the new Jerusalem (22:3). Another difference is that in the book of Revelation an angel is introduced as an additional link in the chain. The revelation proceeds from God to Jesus Christ through the angel to one servant in particular, named John. The long letter of "John" comprises the remainder of the book.
Who is this angel and, more importantly, who is "John"? The two are seen together near the end of the book. At the end of John's final vision of the new Jerusalem (21:9—22:5), the angel who "showed" him the vision in all its detail (21:9, 10; 22:1) concludes with the solemn assurance, "These words are trustworthy and true" (22:6). This angel is "one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues" (21:9; compare 15:1, 6), which one we are not told. When the angel has finished speaking, another voice adds by way of summary, "`The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place'" (22:6). An angel identified in a similar way (17:1) plays much the same role in a preceding vision of God's judgment on "Babylon the prostitute" (17:1—19:10), concluding with a similar assurance from the angel that "these are the true words of God" (19:9).
Here at the beginning of the book the angel is still unidentified, and he will play no recognizable role in John's early visions. Only in the two later visions will the reader come to know the angel by what he does for John as revealer and interpreter. Yet so important is the angel in John's experience that John twice falls down to worship him (19:10; 22:8) and has to be reminded that the angel is merely a "fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!" (22:9; compare 19:10). If we are reading the book for the second time, we may sense that the closing scenes of John's visionary experience are still fresh in his mind as he begins to write. He has learned not to confuse the messenger of God with God himself, yet he cannot forget the messenger.
Most of us are not that perceptive in our reading, however, and many of us (like the original readers) may be reading the book of Revelation for the first time. To us the angel is simply an angel, lending to these opening lines a touch of mystery and anticipation. Angels are not a familiar part of our world today, even among devout Christians. When I was in college, a friend from high school then studying for the Russian Orthodox priesthood asked me if I believed in angels. Being a new Christian, I said I did, not because I had given the matter much thought but because I felt this was the proper answer. My friend was surprised at my reply, telling me he that had never before met a Protestant who believed in angels. The fact is, however, that we cannot make much sense of the book of Revelation without believing in angels, or, if we cannot quite bring ourselves to believe, we must at least make a conscious effort to suspend our disbelief in order to participate fully in the story.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.