I have been a pastor for twenty-five years. That’s a lot of Bible reading and hearing. And I can’t wait for the next time my church gathers so we can read and hear the word together. I am fascinated by John’s emphasis on Revelation as Scripture and how he describes reading and hearing Scripture in Revelation. John establishes formal roles of reading and hearing Revelation, the final book of Scripture, so the word of God will forever guide the church.
The One Who Reads God’s Word
John begins Revelation by noting two streams of communication. What he is writing has come from God through Jesus through an angel to John. John’s words are the very words of God. The first communication stream in Rev 1:1–2 could be labeled spatially as a descending communication stream. The second stream is horizontal, described in Rev 1:3. John’s grammatical choices portray reading, hearing, and following (what was heard in the reading) like roles believers should embrace as a part of their Christian life.
The link between Rev 1:2 and 3 is a text, words on some material form. John wrote, and he envisions believers embracing the role of the public reader. The public reading of Scripture that John expects pre-dates the synagogue communities and churches of his day, finding its early precedent in Moses’s reading of the law to Israel as they prepared to cross the Jordan River in Deuteronomy 27–32. After the exiles returned to Jerusalem, they gathered to hear the law read publicly (see Nehemiah 8). When the synagogue communities in Palestine and throughout the Mediterranean region gathered, reading Scripture was a part of their agenda (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:13-15, 27, 42-44; 15:21). Paul exhorted Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13) and told the Colossians to exchange letters with the Laodiceans so that both letters could be read in both churches (Col 4:16).
The one taking up the role of reading Scripture was not only blessed, he was a blessing. Not simply a blessing, but he was even necessary since the vast majority of the ancient world could not read. Therefore, those who read Scripture to the community enabled God’s people to hear his word and be blessed in the hearing.
The One Who Hears God’s Word
Those faithful in the role of hearing God’s word read to them, John notes in Rev 1:3, are indeed blessed. The proverbial predicate nominative “blessed” recalls many points in the storyline of Scripture, including Psalm 1 and Jesus’s Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3–12) and Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–22). The faithful enjoy God’s blessing for many activities—including hearing Scripture.
The role of hearing John’s prophecy—the culmination of Scripture—is not to be a one-off endeavor. Those who hear God’s word and enjoy its blessing do not stand on the stage once but repeatedly—with the company of hearers. The axiomatic portrait of hearing and blessing in Rev 1:3 is carried not only by the use of blessed as the predicate nominative but also through John’s grammatical choice describing those who hear, and hear, and hear. “Play it again!” John envisions hearers of Revelation exclaiming. John describes a crowded stage of actors that includes a reader and many hearers who respond to what they have heard by keeping their testimony of Christ to the end despite danger and opposition that will come upon them precisely because they are hearing and heeding John’s prophetic message.
And at the end of Revelation, John returns to the role of those hearing God’s word. In Rev 22:17, he writes, “Both the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Let anyone who hears, say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come. Let the one who desires take the water of life freely” (CSB). The one who hears is the first of three roles that John would have his readers embrace. The placement of the role of hearing in Rev 22:17 is noteworthy for two reasons. First, at the broader discourse level of Revelation, it returns us to Rev 1:3 and further accentuates the communicative string John describes in Rev 1:1-3. Anyone who has heard the apocalypse has heard God’s revelation through Jesus, an angel, and John. Second, at the micro discourse level of Rev 22:17, the one who hears is the first of three roles, including desiring and thirsting. That hearing is listed first in this string of roles implies that hearing what John has written stimulates the hearer’s senses to seek God.
John portrays the role of hearing such that those embracing God’s word as it is read would undertake two specific tasks. First, they would long for John’s message to be actualized. The hearer is to say, “Come!” John likely has in mind that those hearing his prophecy of Jesus’s victorious return in Rev 19:11–21 would long to see the rider on the white horse arrive to conquer evil and consummate his kingdom. Second, in Rev 22:18, John states, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book,” John admonishes those hearing his prophecy that they are stewards of God’s word. Because John has truthfully written what the angelic messengers revealed to him from Jesus from God, again recalling the authoritative communicative string outlined in Rev 1:1–3, those in the role of hearing John’s prophecy must maintain God’s word to the next generation unchanged. They must heed it faithfully, adding or subtracting nothing.
Feeling the Weight of the Word
All of this is serious business. If we read Scripture in public, we should attend to our words. Sometimes, we should read faster. For instance, a passage like Isaiah 40 is a long thought, and it would be good to pick up the pace so that the hearers sense the crescendo of Isaiah’s argument about God’s faithfulness. Sometimes, we need to read more slowly. Don’t hustle through John 1:1-18. We should familiarize ourselves with the words of a text so that when we read it, we can emphasize repeated words or phrases, pause without interrupting ideas, and give hearers a sense of the wholeness of Scripture.
And when we hear the word, let’s airplane mode our devices and turn off all notifications. Prioritize the printed page so that as you listen and follow along, even in a different translation, you can follow the broader flow of thought surrounding that portion of Scripture. Be blessed in the reading and hearing of God’s word!
¹ This is the first entry in a series on FTC noting how John uses a particular grammatical form, the articular substantival participle, for specific words in Revelation that resemble a playwright’s roles in a script.
² ἀναγινώσκω in Rev 1:3.
³ “Although the ‘scripturalization’ of Christian worship certainly became more formalized and regularized across time, both the importance and the impact of corporate reading of Scripture writings are evident from the outset of the Jesus-movement” (Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World [Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016], 108).
⁴ See especially Harry J. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale, 1995).
⁵ ἀκούω in Rev 1:3; 22:17, 18.
₆ This is the first of seven beatitudes that John writes in Revelation (see also, 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14).
⁷ If, as David E. Aune states, “ancient authors not only chose words to convey the meanings they intended but also chose words whose sounds effectively communicated those meanings” (Revelation 1-5, WBC 52A [Dallas: Word, 1997], 21, italics original), we would expect no less concerning the final installment of Holy Scripture.