The First and the Last

The Lord’s description of himself at the end of Rev 1:17 as “the first and the last” ο πρωτος και ο εσχατος is commonly explained as a divine title, roughly synonymous with “the Alpha and the Omega,” based on the parallel with Isaiah’s descriptions of the Lord (41:4; 44:6; 48:12).

(My exposition of the passage in 1993, available elsewhere on CyberChapel, in fact made that association.) On the basis of word-by-word correspondence with the LXX, this interpretation is credible. Using BibleWork’s parallel BHS-LXX tool, one can quickly verify that the most common LXX translations by far for ראשׁון and אחרון, the words used in the pair in Isaiah, are in fact πρωτος and εσχατος, respectively, the pair used in Rev. But there are two problems with this interpretation.

  1. While εσχατος is the dominant LXX translation of אחרון in the OT, it is not used in any of the three passages in Isaiah. They all use some form of periphrasis to express אחרון. So the phrase in Rev is not a citation of the LXX.
  2. It’s not clear why the Lord’s eternal nature should comfort John’s natural response to his majestic appearance. Usually commands to “fear not” are followed by some comforting thought, not a reinforcement of the speaker’s awesome majesty (compare Judges 6:22-23; Daniel 10:12; Luke 1:13).

A search for πρωτος and εσχατος together in BGM shows that while the combination never occurs as a divine title, it does echo a common statement of the Lord in the gospels:

  • Matthew 19:30 But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
  • Matthew 20:16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
  • Mark 9:35 And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
  • Mark 10:31 But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.
  • Luke 13:30 And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.

Most likely, in Rev 1:17 the Lord is referring, not to his eternal nature as God, but to his humiliation as man. The words in this context refer to status, not to time. As man, he is the first, the highest ranked of all creation, but also the last, who took the very lowest place when he bore our sin upon the tree, of whom David spoke prophetically in Ps 22:6, “I am a worm, and no man.” As Rev 5 will show, he bears the marks of this paradox with him throughout eternity: he occupies the throne of God, but is still “the lamb that was slain.”

The association of the “first and last” title with Isaiah may be responsible for the division between Rev 1:17, 18, which orphans the syntactically continuous first phrase of v. 18, και ο ζων. This third title is consistent with our new understanding of “the first and the last.” If the Lord were only to say, “I am the first, and the last,” against the background of his use of the phrase in the gospels, it would suggest that he is one of those who tried to set himself in first place, and then was put down to the last place. By adding “the living one,” he points to his resurrection, by which he has been elevated from his wormlike condition.

Thus understood, the title is eminently suited to encourage John. “Fear not, John. It is natural for you to fear, because I am the first. But there is no need for you to fear, because I am also the last. I have borne your sin in stooping to death. It has no more hold on you. I now live, but as the one who was humbled for you. You can now stand confidently in the presence of my majesty.”

22:13 brings the title ο πρωτος και ο εσχατος together for the first time in the book with the titles “the Alpha and the Omega” το αλφα και το ω and “the beginning and the end” η αρχη και το τελος. The latter two titles are ascribed to the Father in 1:8 and 21:6. (The instance in 1:11 has virtually no textual support.) The final union of the Father’s titles of eternity and the Son’s title of humiliation after the tumultuous history of the Revelation is part of the culmination of all things, the exaltation of the Messiah because of his obedience unto death, exhibiting his name above every name, YHWH, the self-existent one.

One Comment on The First and the Last

  1. mschellman
    August, 18th 2008 at 4:56 pm

    I recently stumbled upon your blog and your website. I am really enjoying the mp3’s on Genesis. I noticed you have not made any posts to your blog since March. I hope you are planning on doing more. BTW I used to live in Michigan. Your teaching style reminds me alot of my first (and favorite) Bible teachers (Haskell Stone – also from Michigan). May God continue to bless you in your ministry.

    Grace and Peace,

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