I'm just meandering through this wonderful book, gazing at it from the perspective of the lamb (Rev. 5:5-6; see my note entitled "Jesus' Evil Twin").
Revelation 1:4 begins John's letter to the 7 churches in Asia Minor: John, to the seven churches in Asia: Grace to you and peace from the one who is and who was and who is to come...
Hmm... "The one who is and who was and who is to come."
This is an interesting phrase that we'll see over and over in this book, both as it is and as it is distorted.
- The doxology of Rev. 4:8 repeats it almost exactly, except there the order is chronological, "who was, who is, and who is to come."
- Revelation 2:8 introduces a related phrase, saying that the letter to the church in Smyrna is from "the first and the last, who was dead and came to life."
- We will also see, on four occasions, reference to God as "the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end."
- Interestingly, our phrase appears in a distorted form in Revelation 17:8, with reference to the beast, who "was and is not and is about to arise from the abyss." The beast, then, because he appeared to have died but then returned, is something of a distorted example of this way of talking about God.
I think the most obvious intertextual referent for this title comes from that very important story in Exodus 3, where God calls Moses to be his liberator of the people of Israel and when Moses asks for God's name God replies, "I AM WHOM I AM" (or, a better translation might be, "I WILL BE WHOM I WILL BE"). Whichever way we read it, this phrase is kind of a circular description that might be best understood as 'sheer being,' or- to use a term from Paul Tillich, 'the ground of all being,' or, to use a phrase that Paul the Apostle borrowed from a Greek philosopher, the one "in whom we live and breathe and have our being."
So, in a world where we like the 'up close and personal' names for God- "Abba" and so forth- what is the importance of describing God as "the one who is and who was and who is to come"?
I suspect that there are a couple of things at work here. First, I think John is describing this 'revelation' as something that is in radical continuity with the story of the Hebrew Bible. That is important. What we get in the book of Revelation is not an alternate story to the Hebrew Bible; it is a continuation of that story. It is not a new God; it is the God made known in the life and story of Israel. There is a discipline, a wealth of existing wisdom and truth that is already at hand, lurking in the background as John writes of this vision. So, while there may be some new insights- or, better yet, some timely insights- that arise out of this vision, it is a vision that is in radical continuity with what has been said before, and the God of this vision is the God we know from what has been said before.
Second, I think this title is important for John's revelation because of the important distinction between reality and pretense. We know from ancient inscriptions Roman emperors had a habit of ascribing to themselves (or maybe their fawning admirers insisted on it and they agreed) titles that made them divine. For example, Julius Caesar was declared to be divine after his death by the Roman Senate, and Caesar Augustus had himself declared Divi Filius, "Son of God." These pretenders came and went, but in contrast God's glory and majesty "was and is and was to come." John's declaration, then, is both faithful to the Hebrew tradition and a protest against the pretensions of the Roman Empire.
That is a strong beginning for this letter, but one that is sure to have to encounter more directly the Empire's pretensions.
That's it for now...