Towards the end of the book of Revelation John hears somebody say: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:12–13). This is presumably Jesus speaking (cf. 22:16); and since God says nearly the same thing about himself in Revelation 21:6, it is inferred that John means to establish some sort of identity between Jesus and God. Richard Bauckham, for example, has said: “As a way of stating unambiguously that Jesus Christ belongs to the fullness of the eternal God, this surpasses anything in the NT” (R. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 1993, 56-57).
Bauckham is right to draw attention to the parallel, but I think that the narrative structure of Revelation—and indeed of New Testament eschatology generally—works against the idea of a direct identification of Jesus with the “eternal God”. John is making a more subtle and more urgent point about the role of Jesus.
Who was and who is and who is to come
John greets the seven churches with grace and peace from God, “who is and who was and who is to come”, from the “seven spirits”, and from Jesus Christ, who was the first martyr (ho martus) to be raised from the dead and who is now “ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:4–5). We could perhaps think of this as a quasi-trinitarian construction, but Jesus is described only as the royal Son who was raised from the dead and has received the nations as his heritage, to rule them with a rod of iron (Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15; cf. Ps. 2:7-8). This is not a statement of divine ontology. What John gives us is a political eschatology, much the same as we have in Philippians 2:6-11: the one who has suffered has been exalted and will be confessed as Lord by the nations, he will be the “ruler of kings on earth”.
By his death Jesus has brought into being a people who will serve “his God and Father” as priests. He is the one who comes “with the clouds” to receive vindication and a kingdom, and the tribes of Israel will regret what they did to him. But it is the Lord God who asserts at this juncture, “I am the Alpha and the Omega…, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:4–8). The narrative distinction is preserved between the God of all history and the martyr Jesus Christ, who was faithful unto death but who has been rewarded.
The first and the last
The “one like a son of man” whom John sees in the midst of the seven lampstands in the opening vision announces himself as “the first and the last, and the living one”. He was dead, he is now living for the ages of the ages, and he has the “keys of death and Hades”. Jesus also speaks of himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” in the letter to the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8). Similar statements about being “the first and the last” are made about YHWH in Second Isaiah, where the point of the idiom seems to be that the God who began a process will see it through to the end (Is. 41:4; 44:6-8; 48:11-12). There are also theophanic details in the description of the “one like a son of man”: he seems, for example, to have the white hair of the “ancient of days” (Rev. 1:14; cf. Dan. 7:9).
Does this suggest an identification with God? Not according to what is actually said: by his death he has created a priestly people for his God; he has received the keys that will release others from death and Hades because he himself overcame death, because he is the “one like a son of man”, not because he is God; and the phrase “the first and the last” has to do with his death and resurrection rather than with a supposed divine identity.
Bauckham maintains that “I am the first and the last” is an assertion of “Christ’s participation in the eternal being of God”. This requires a rather clunky intersection of two modes of being: “His eternal livingness was interrupted by the experience of a human death, and he shares the eternal life of God through triumph over death” (55-56). This may have been an inevitable contrivance for the early church, but it’s more than John was saying. Jesus has come into the presence of God and naturally reflects something of the glory of God, but what is at issue in Revelation is his eschatological function apart from God.
I am the Alpha and the Omega
The formula “who is and who was and who is to come” is not applied to Jesus but is reserved for God (Rev. 1:4, 8), and God is not said in Revelation to be “the first and the last”. But two expressions are used as self-references both by God and by Jesus. God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6); and Jesus says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).
The narrative contexts, however, are different in important ways—a point I have been trying to make in a couple of recent posts: “How come there are bad people in the new heaven and new earth?” and “More on the new Jerusalem in the midst of the nations”.
The divine claim is made in relation to the final renewal of creation. John sees a new heaven and a new earth, in which there is no more death and mourning; all evildoers have been destroyed in the lake of fire. As Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, God is the one who created and who recreates.
When Jesus makes the same claim about himself, the evil-doer is still doing evil and the unclean are still unclean; and outside the city are “dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15). The coming of Jesus is not for the purpose of finally renewing creation but to deliver and recompense those who faithfully witnessed to him in the face of Roman persecution: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Rev. 22:12; cf. 22:17; 20). This is why he also includes the phrase “the first and the last”: he has overcome death, he has the keys to death and Hades, and he can deliver those who have suffered for his sake.
This is exactly the distinction that we find in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. Jesus has the kingdom as long as there are enemies—social, political and existential threats to the integrity and security of the priestly people of God. In keeping with the paradigmatic conceptuality of Psalm 110:1, he “must reign until he (God) has put all his (Jesus’) enemies under his (Jesus’) feet”. Once the last enemy has been destroyed—that is, death—Jesus will deliver the kingdom back to God and become subject to him.
God is the beginning and the end of the creation story, but Jesus is the beginning and end of the political subplot.
So I disagree with Bauckham. If there is any transfer of divine language to Jesus, it presupposes the fundamental eschatological distinction between the creation story and the kingdom story. Jesus is as “God”, so to speak, in relation to the political narrative because he has been given all authority and power at the right hand of the Father. He is the king to whom, because he was faithful, the right to judge and rule over the nations has been devolved.