Vision 1: The Son of Man to the Churches
Elements of the Vision:
I. The Voice
A. John identifies himself again to the readers as â€œyour brother and partnerâ€. It would have been well within reason for John to draw attention to his Apostleship (as Paul does in his letters) but John chose to identify himself with his audience.
1. The aged John joins the church in suffering tribulation â€“ literally â€œto be squeezedâ€ or â€œto be in a hard placeâ€ â€“ in his exile to Patmos. Phil Newton says tribulation â€œrefers to the opposition, persecution, shunning, and loss experienced by Christians because they are Christians.â€ John experienced his particular tribulation because of â€œthe word of God and the testimony of Jesus.â€ His declaration of Christ as Lord made him a poltical pariah and the Roman rulers apparently decided it would be more convenient to send him off than make him a martyr.
Christian faith and suffering go hand in hand; â€œIndeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecutedâ€¦â€ (2 Timothy 3:12). The religious freedom granted by our countryâ€™s Constitution has allowed us to forget this proverb. We need to be reminded from the Word that our experiences are the historical exception, not the rule. I suggest that in our time of peace we should be preparing ourselves for a time when we experience the suffering common to all believers.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christâ€™s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to Godâ€™s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
1 Peter 4:12-19
2. But it isnâ€™t just tribulation which the church receives by placing their faith in Christ. The church also anticipates the kingdom; that one day everything will be set right under the reign of a perfect and ultimately just king â€“ our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Christian looks always forward to the fulfillment of Revelation 11:15: â€œThen the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, â€˜The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever.â€™â€
3. What links the current experience of Christians in tribulation with the hope of cosmos-wide redemption in Christâ€™s kingdom? Perseverance or patient endurance. The church carries on, endures, and persists through the sufferings of this present evil age, awaiting the kingdom. We do not see the kingdom yet. Other, lesser kingdoms oppose the church. Yet we persevere, knowing that He who promised if faithful.
B. John was in the Spirit at the time he received this revelation of Jesus. Most likely the Apostle was consciously aware of a unique activity of the Holy Spirit as he worshipped on the Lordâ€™s day (the regular day of worship, Sunday, commemorating Christâ€™s resurrection). In this state John heard â€œa loud voice like a trumpetâ€. We should note at this point that Johnâ€™s language in Revelation is metaphoric; what he saw is too wonderful to capture in specific language. Thus we should be careful to not understand the elements of Revelation described by John as precisely literal. For example: the sword coming from Christâ€™s mouth in vs. 16 most likely doesnâ€™t mean Christ regurgitates a sword when seen in His resurrected state. Rather, we should look to the big picture or the implication of the image. So when John says the voice was like a trumpet we understand that this voice was clear, distinct, and attention-grabbing â€“ just as a trumpet announcing the arrival of royalty cannot be ignored.
II. The Son of Man
A. John turns to this voice and sees â€œseven golden lampstands.â€ Vs. 20 of this chapter informs us that these seven lampstands â€œare the seven churchesâ€ which will be addressed in chapters 2 and 3.
B. Johnâ€™s gaze doesnâ€™t linger long on the lampstands however. His attention is immediately drawn to a figure â€œin the midst of the Lampstandsâ€¦like a son of manâ€. That phrase, â€œlike a son of manâ€, should draw our attention backwards â€“ all the way to Daniel 7.
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
When we hear the phrase â€œson of manâ€ connected with Jesus we tend to think â€œYes, Jesus was human.â€ Johnâ€™s audience â€“ particularly the converted Jews â€“ would have heard the phrase and thought â€œMessiahâ€, remembering this passage in Daniel and the similar use of the phrase in the book of Ezekiel.
We need to be careful here to not become overly entangled in sorting out the origin of each element of Johnâ€™s description of The Son of Man. Again, John is seeking to convey a big picture â€“ here, glory â€“ and an appropriate response â€“ awe. Still, a number of elements in Johnâ€™s description appear to be symbolically significant.
1. The first detail that John gives of this figure is that he was â€œclothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.â€ Many scholars note that this is the same description given in Exodus 28 of the priestly garments given to Aaron. This is appropriate attire for the Great High Priest over the house of God.
2. John next notes that â€œthe hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow.â€ We already noted that John is drawing off the imagery of Daniel 7. Look back at that passage and ask yourself which character there has white hair? John almost directly quotes Daniel 7â€™s description of the Ancient of Days. Daniel describes the Ancient of Days, one of the titles for God the Father, as having â€œhairâ€¦like white wool, like snow.â€ In Danielâ€™s vision it is God with white hair â€“ signifying wisdom and honor â€“ but in Johnâ€™s it is Christ. Did John get confused or remember the passage incorrectly? I submit that John intentionally applies imagery reserved for God to Christ in order to communicate the divinity of Christ. This is an example of what we call high Christology in the book of Revelation. John makes no bones about the divinity of Jesus Christ, presenting it right at the beginning of his Apocalypse.
3. John says also that Christâ€™s feet â€œwere like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.â€ Apparently the same voice that called Johnâ€™s attention like a trumpet also crashed on his ears with greater strength than the waves which beat the rocky coast of Patmos.
4. In Christâ€™s right hand were â€œseven starsâ€ which verse 20 tells us are â€œthe angels of the seven churchesâ€ addressed in chapters 2 and 3. Christ also produced a sharp two-edged swordâ€ from His mouth. This is the same sword He will use against His enemies in 2:12-16. Every interpretive clue indicates this symbol to point to the might of Godâ€™s Word which the book of Hebrews even calls â€œa double edged sword.â€ According to Grant Osborne the Greek word describing the sword refers to a long broad sword used by cavalry riders which was used like a scythe. This imagery implies sweeping, unstoppable judgment. It is possible that John has Isaiah 11:1-10, particularly vs. 4 in mind as he writes.
5. John reaches the pinnacle of his description when he writes that Christâ€™s countenance â€œwas like the sun shining in full strength.â€
Osborne: â€œThis final picture sums up the others. It recalls Moses when he came down from Sinai and â€˜his face was radiant, because he had spoken with Yahweh.â€™ Also, John had been present at Jesusâ€™ transfiguration when â€˜his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.â€™ (Matt. 17:2).â€
Johnâ€™s reaction seems to be the only appropriate response to coming face to face with such a glorious person: the Apostle â€œfell at his feet as though dead.â€
III. The Message
A. Christâ€™s first words to John are self-descriptive. Before speaking, however, Christ lays His right hand on John and commands him to â€œFear not.â€
I wonder how many times John had placed His hand on John during Christâ€™s ministry among the disciples. I wonder if John registered the difference in the hand of Christ from when they walked together in Johnâ€™s younger days to now, when the same hand holds stars in it.
Christâ€™s command to John is literally â€œstop being afraidâ€; â€œGrant Osbourne comments that â€œThere is no need to fear the presence of God when one is serving Him.â€
B. The reason that John should stop being afraid are then delineated, all tied to Christâ€™s sovereign glory.
1. â€œI am the first and the last, and the living one.â€ â€“ Christâ€™s description of Him self in this way should remind us of Godâ€™s self-designation as the Alpha and Omega from earlier in Revelation.
Bauckam: â€œGod precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to exhatological fulfillment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has the first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation.â€
Here the same concept is applied to Christ, reasserting His divinity. Christâ€™s reference to Himself as the living one ties in to the Old Testamentâ€™s concept of â€œThe Living Godâ€ (in contrast to false, non-living gods).
2. â€œI died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.â€ The next section in Christâ€™s description of Himself touches on His eternal nature. Osbourne indicates that the phrase â€œI am alive forevermoreâ€ isnâ€™t a reference to the prior statement â€œI diedâ€ (i.e. not a reference to resurrection) but rather a claim to eternal existence (extending both backward and forward). If he is correct this is a paradox brought on by the Incarnation â€“ God, the living One, died â€“ as a human â€“ and yet remains the eternally existent God.
Christâ€™s possession of the keys of Death and Hades states His power over these personified forces. In Revelation these terms summarize all the forces of Satanic ungodliness (which show themselves in corrupt spiritual beings â€“ Beasts, Dragons, etc â€“ both on earth and in heaven as well as societal and governmental entities â€“ the prostitute riding the beast, Babylon the Great.
These are the very forces aligned against the church. From an earth-bound view it might appear that these forces were indeed prevailing against the church. Christâ€™s appearance shows this perspective to be false. It is He who is in ultimate control of even these opposing forces. Once we realize that Christ holds sway over these most terrifying of enemies we no longer have cause to fear them.
3. John is next commissioned to â€œWrite therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.â€ Some see in this phrase the interpretive outline to the book. According to this system:
i. â€œThe things you have seenâ€ refers to the vision John received of Christ on Patmos.
ii. â€œThose that areâ€ refers to the message to the churches of Asia in chapters 3-4.
iii. â€œThose that are to take place after thisâ€ refers to the apocalyptic visions that follow the message to the churches and comprise the majority of the book of Revelation.
This understanding is prevalent and held by many wise and Godly interpreters. Still, I do not embrace this position. One reason, which we will see when we study chapters 3-4, the message to the churches contains elements both current (contemporary controversies in the churches for example) as well as future (warnings of future judgment).
I think a better understanding of this verse comes from those who see this as indicating a hermeneutic for the study of Revelation. The message of Revelation applies to all ages of church history. The images thus contain themes that belong to the past, present, and future. These themes are held fast in those chronological categories but repeat themselves throughout history and thus the images of Revelation. All of Revelation is about all of history, both in scope and application.
4. There is an interpretive difficulty in Christâ€™s explanation of the lampstands and stars. The Lord says that the stars are the â€œangels of the seven churches.â€ Some believe this refers to literal angelic beings assigned to the churches. While that makes sense of the term Christ uses it does present its own difficulty. Christ addresses each church in such a way that the congregation is obviously meant to hear and respond. Some interpreters think â€œangelâ€ is another way of referring to the elder(s) of the congregation. I think this is stronger but again the letters clearly anticipate hearing and action on the part of the whole congregation. I hold to the position that â€œangelâ€ here is a way of personifying (and thus addressing at the same time) the whole church.
Christ also explains that the lampstands represent the churches. Do you remember where Christ was when John turned to His voice? Christ was â€œin the midst of the lampstands.â€ Applying the explained symbolism we see that Revelation pictures Christ as both in the midst of His church as well as holding it in His hand. What comfort! The Lord of the Church stays nearby to His people. Furthermore, as only symbolic language can capture, they are secure in His hand. Considering the substantial encouragement I take from this passage I canâ€™t imagine what the persecuted churches who received this letter felt when reading this portion. In their trials the Lord stood amongst them and held them at all times in His hands. How wonderfully intimate is our Saviorâ€™s love.