Revelation 1:17-18 “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.’”
Does anything about these words strike you as ironic? Jesus tells John not to be afraid. We understand the reason for this from so many other encounters between men and heavenly beings in Scripture. John has glimpsed Jesus’ heavenly majesty. Its light unavoidably fixes his attention on his own sinful inadequacies and shortcomings. A heart-pounding terror seizes him as the contrast between him and Christ reminds him of the hell he deserves.
So Jesus tells John not to be afraid, and then he lists the reasons why. That is what strikes me as ironic. Reason One: “I am the First and the Last.” Doesn’t that highlight the magnificence, the unboundedness, the limitless greatness of Jesus even more? Doesn’t that emphasize how small and insignificant John is by comparison? Doesn’t that inspire the small, shrinking feeling you get when you look into the expanse of a star-filled sky, only magnified a thousand times over?
Reason Two: “I was dead, and now look, I am alive.” How many scary books and movies are about the dead coming back to life! We have ghosts, and mummies, and Frankenstein, and Jason, and Freddy Krueger.
Reason Three: “I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Jesus is more than an ancient being unlimited by the passage of time who has come back from the dead. He also has the power to open or close hell to you. Doesn’t that sound scary? As Jesus’ reasons not to be afraid progress, to an outsider it might be difficult to see the progress.
Only in Jesus’ mouth could these words make it better for John…or for us. Only in Jesus’ mouth are these concepts tinged with love and loaded with peace. Jesus is the First and the Last, the eternal God who does not change, without beginning or end. He will not go away. That applies to his grace as much as to his power. Jesus may look awesome, even foreboding, in John’s vision, but he is still who he has always been. He is still, and always will be, the one who came into the world not to condemn it, but to save it. He is still, and always will be, the one who takes pleasure in the death of no one, but that they would repent and live. In addition to all the other ways in which he is magnificent, there is this magnificent monotony of being a God who saves–from Eden to Judgment Day, from First to Last.
Jesus was dead and is alive again because he died our death for sin. He doesn’t live as some freak of nature or undead zombie. He lives as proof that sin has been stripped of its power to tear our bodies and souls apart, only to allow them back together later for an eternity of corruption and misery. He lives as proof that no matter what your best life now might look like, it isn’t worth comparing to the one that waits on the other side of death.
Jesus holds the key. This ancient being, unlimited by the passage of time, has come back from the dead to close hell for you and me. By the forgiveness of sins he has opened heaven. The keys to eternal life are safe in his hands.
Jesus’ resurrection means that we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to be afraid of him. We don’t have to be afraid of the present. We don’t have to be afraid of the future. We don’t have to be afraid if he is eternal, alive, or holding the key to our future. And he is.