Ἰωάννης ταῖς ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαις ταῖς ἐν τῇ Ἀσίᾳ· χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν ἑπτὰ πνευμάτων ἃ ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀπὸ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς.
Τῷ ἀγαπῶντι ἡμᾶς καὶ λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ αἵματι αὐτοῦ—καὶ ἐποίησεν ἡμᾶς βασιλείαν, ἱερεῖς τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ— αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων ἀμήν.
From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from he who is, and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth.
To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen. (NET)
In these few sentences alone are some powerful declarations that I think we might miss if we reading the text with a futuristic prophecy perspective. Remember the context during which John was writing these words: the Roman Empire is strong, powerful, authoritative. The Emperor has complete reign over the people within the conquered world. Christianity is still fairly young and being ravaged by persecution in various regions of the empire. If you read the text for what it is you find the anti-empire proclamations.
First, the one being called “he who is, and who was, and who is still to come” is God. Not the emperor, but God. Not Claudius. Not Nero. Not Galba, or Otho, or Vitellius, or Vespasian. Not Titus, the mighty destroyer of the Jerusalem temple, and especially not Domitian. God alone is, was, and is to come. And God sits on a throne, unmatched by man.
Second, Jesus is called “the ruler over the kings of the earth.” This is a radical statement that too often is under-emphasized (not just in this text, but throughout the Scriptures; not just in our reading, but in our daily lives, in our national context). Yet, this is what truly sets the tone for the rest of The Apocalypse. Jesus is the true ruler. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. Those of us who are his subjects (his disciples, his friends, his followers) must place our allegiance with him and no others. We cannot split our allegiance. Not that we must not, but that we are unable to. We either serve the King of kings, or we serve one of the kings of the earth.
Jesus is called ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν, “the firstborn from among the dead.” If you think back to the letter to the Colossians, and the contrast made between Jesus and the Emperor (Col. i.15-20), Paul there also called Jesus πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν, “the firstborn from among the dead.” He is the one to worship, who brings life to the dead, who rules even over death. The Emperor doesn’t even come close.
Third is the most obvious, radical, rebellious statement: Jesus “has appointed us as a kingdom, serving his God and Father.” We are a kingdom. In the middle of this vast, powerful, authoritative, Roman Empire, Jesus has appointed his disciples “as a kingdom.” We are a kingdom here on this earth amid the many earthly kingdoms, and we have Jesus as our King. We are what Jesus wants to do on the earth. We must be obedient in our service.
All of the imperial language is intentional. Worshipping Jesus–placing your allegiance in Jesus–puts your life in contrast with the kingdoms of the earth, with the Empire. And this is a great encouragement. Why? Because you have the King of kings, Lord of lords, ruler over the kings of the earth, master over death, and the one seated on the throne over all creation, on your side.
Do not get sidetracked by phrases like “kingdoms of the earth.” The US is an empire as much as Rome was. It looks a bit different, but the ideology and activities aren’t that different at all. Just because we do not technically have a king or royalty doesn’t mean we do not have a kingdom of the earth. So when you’re considering how to apply this text today, keep in mind the context and that the world truly hasn’t changed all that much. Empire is Empire.