In Revelation 22:13 we are given one of the most memorable titles of Christ:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
This notion that Christ encompasses all things is a familiar one to us. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that ‘all things’ have been made new in Christ. Colossians 1:17 says that Christ holds all things together. And Ephesians 1:10 declares that all things will be ‘summed up’ or ‘recapitulated’ in Christ. What we seem to have in Revelation 22:13 is the same idea applied to history itself. (The titles are also introduced at the beginning of the book, though not in one verse as here.)
In fact, much, much more is happening in this verse, as a closer look at the original Greek text and its biblical history reveals.
Wholeness: The identification of Christ with the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet does more than merely reinforce or repeat what follows in the rest of the verse. As one commentator notes, Hebrew rabbis used the first and last letters of their own alphabet (aleph and tav) to signify wholeness: “Among the Jewish rabbis it was common to use the first and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet to denote the whole of anything, from beginning to end. Thus, it is said, ‘Adam transgressed the whole law, from ‘Aleph (א) to Taw (תּ).’ ‘Abraham kept the whole law, from ‘Aleph (א) to Taw (תּ).’” (Source: Barnes’ Notes on the Bible.)
Eternity: When applied to Christ specifically, the notion of wholeness here suggests eternity, according to one commentator. This statement thus points to Christ’s divinity. (Source: Barnes’ Notes on the Bible.)
Wholeness of Revelation: It is particularly fitting that letters are used to denote Christ’s divinity, as Christ is the Word of God—the wholeness of God’s revelation to us, as one theologian suggests. (“He is the only alphabet you can use to reach God.”)
The Truth: Aleph and tav are also the first and last letters of the Hebrew word for truth, emeth. This led Hebrew interpreters to discern a ‘mystical meaning’ to the word which they applied to God, as the Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “The Aleph or the first letter of emeth (truth) denotes that God is the first of all things. There was no one before Him of whom He could have received the fullness of truth. The Thaw, or last letter, in like manner signifies that God is the last of all things. There will be no one after Him to whom He could bequeath it. Thus emeth is a sacred word expressing that in God truth dwells absolutely and in all plenitude.”
Given all of the above, doesn’t the rest of the verse seem redundant? In fact, far from it! The next two phrases do not only repeat and reaffirm the meaning of the first but they develop it in extraordinary ways:
Divinity: In the first place, the title of ‘first and last’ further indicates that Christ is one with God. In Isaiah 44:6 similar language had been used exclusively of God: “Thus says the Lord, Israel’s king, its redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first, I am the last; there is no God but me.” Nearly identical language occurs in Isaiah 41:4 and 48:12.
First and Last in History: Certainly the middle phrase does indicate that Christ encompasses all of history. As the one through whom all things were created, He was there in the beginning. And He will bring history to its end in His second coming. In Greek, the word for ‘last’ is eschatos, this is the word that signifies the end times, the last things, so to speak—from it we derive our word ‘eschatology’ which is that branch of theology devoted to the study of what will happen at the ‘end of history.’ History began with Christ, He stands in its middle, and history will end in Christ.
First and Last Man: Christ is certainly the ‘last man’ in the sense that He is the ‘last Adam’ as He is called in 1 Corinthians 15:45. As the ‘first Adam’ brought sin and death into the world, so the ‘last Adam’ brings forgiveness and life. Of course, his role as ‘last Adam’ also makes him the ‘first man’ of the new creation: the first to be resurrected, the first to receive fully glorified body. He is the ‘firstborn of the dead’ as Colossians 1:18 puts it. In Christ, history has been turned on its head. Rather than the inevitable decline that seems to be one of the immutable laws of history, Christ offers us redemption and restoration. The first has become last and the last has become first (Matthew 20:16).
First and Last Ranked: The Greek words for ‘first’ and ‘last’ have a double meaning. They can also mean ‘first’ in the sense of the highest ranked person and ‘last’ in terms of the lowest ranked. Christ is ‘first’ and ‘last’ in these senses of the words as well. As Philippians 2 puts it, He emptied Himself taking the ‘form of slave’ only to become ‘greatly exalted’ by God. Christ encompasses all of humanity, both in a historical and existential sense.
The Beginning: The last phrase does not merely repeat the middle. In Greek, the word for ‘beginning’ is arche. This is a tremendously loaded term from ancient Greek philosophy, as theologian Robert Wilken explains: “In Greek arche does not simply mean ‘beginning,’ that is, ‘when’; it can also signify the principle that gives coherence to the whole.” (Source: The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.) Christ is indeed the ‘principle’ of our being—the one who orders and orchestrates all things both for us as individual persons, as collective members of His Church, and as members of the human race.
The End: The word for ‘end’ here is also potent term in ancient Greek. It is telos. It signifies the end in the sense of the purpose of things. (Hence our word ‘teleology.’) God is the end for which we were made: our destiny, the reason for which we were created, is to be with Him and to contemplate His glory and beauty. As Revelation 22 puts it in describing the heavenly city:
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.
They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever (verses 3 to 5).