One of my favorite things about The Chronicles of Narnia (have you ever read this?) is when various characters see Aslan for the first time. One example is from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The first time the kids see Aslan they simply do not know what to do. Lewis comments on this saying, “People who are not from Narnia do not what to do with things like this, because they don’t ever think of a thing being terrible and good at the same time.” Such is Aslan, good but terrible. In fact, as you progress throughout the rest of the Chronicles anytime anyone approached Aslan there was always a mix of wonder and terror, of delight and dread. Lewis once said, “There is a type of happiness and wonder that makes you serious.” I think this is very similar to what John felt when he saw his vision of Jesus.
Let’s see this in the text.
1:9-20 comes to us in 4 sections: 1) v9-11 where we see John’s commission to write, 2) v12-16 where we see John’s vision of Jesus, 3) v17a where we see John’s reaction to the vision, and 4) v17b-20 where we see the interpretation of John’s vision.
1) John’s commission to write. 1:9-11 says, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’”
In these verses, which serve as the conclusion of the introduction of the book of Revelation, we see John’s commission to write. v9-11 reads very similar to the callings and commissions of the OT apocalyptic prophets, which is itself another proof of the books apocalyptic nature. So here we have John, reminding these suffering churches that he is not only one of them as their brother but a partner with them ‘in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.’ How do we know John suffered along with them? Apparently John’s ministry (which was based in Ephesus) had made such an impact on the city that the ruling authorities decided to suppress John’s influence by removing him from Ephesus and placing him on Patmos. Patmos was where the authorities sent people who they deemed unfit to do life in normal society, so one can only imagine the types of characters John was living with. Did you notice that v9 holds within it the same words found in v2? John was on Patmos why? ‘On account of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ This teaches us that when one follows the will of God in proclaiming the gospel of God, it does not always lead to comfort. John preached the gospel and was exiled on a precarious island. The believers he’s writing to need to be reminded that they are suffering persecution from the anger of those who don’t know God due to their own faithfulness to God. We need to be reminded of the same thing: though we should never seek suffering, we should understand that suffering, conflict, controversy, instability, strife and struggle are normal when one decides to obey God and be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. Why else would John include ‘tribulation’ and ‘patient endurance’ along with a description of the characteristics of the Kingdom in v9?
Perhaps you’ve heard someone tell you, ‘The center of the will of God is always the best place to be.’ Anyone heard that? I have. It’s a true statement, the center of God’s revealed will in the Scripture is always the best place to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s the safest place to be. John knew it, these churches knew it in part and were about to know it in greater detail, and we should know it too so that when the disdainful mocking or something worse comes, you’ll be ready.
In v10-11 we find the commission itself. John begins by saying ‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.’ The phrase ‘in the Spirit’ is the kind of language we find in the calling of apocalyptic prophets. Ezekiel’s call is very similar to John’s here. John’s immersion in the Holy Spirit in v10 is not an event we should try to replicate. It exists to validate or give credibility to John’s prophecy. If you want to learn about the Holy Spirit, who He is, what He does, don’t seek an experience, read your Bible. ‘…on the Lord’s Day’ refers to Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, the day on which God’s people worship. So there John is, worshipping on the Lord’s Day like he’s done week after week, year after year since the resurrection and ascension of Christ. He is caught up in the Holy Spirit and hears a loud voice like a trumpet telling him to write all that he sees to the seven churches.
2) John’s vision of Jesus. 1:12-16 says, “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
This vision of Christ is one of overwhelming glory. In this vision John is introduced to Jesus as He is and as He will be throughout the entire book of Revelation. John was present at the transfiguration of Jesus and that was overwhelming for John to say the least, but what John now sees will almost be too marvelous for words. Jesus reveals Himself to be the Cosmic Judge, Priest, and Ruler of the Church as a result of His victory over death.
That John sees 7 golden lampstands is an allusion to Exodus, Numbers, and Zechariah 4 where we see the lampstand representing the people of Israel inside the temple. So in the OT there was a literal lampstand that symbolically represented the whole of Israel. Here in this vision John sees 7 golden lampstands, and since John is using the number 7 to indicate completeness, this vision of the 7 golden lampstands is a vision of the universal Church. This is confirmed for us in 1:20 when Jesus says the lampstands do indeed represent the Church. In the midst of the lampstands John sees ‘one like a Son of Man’ clothed with long robe and golden sash around His chest. A Jewish audience would have understood this to mean many things.
First, ‘one like a Son of Man’ is a quote from Daniel 7:13-14 and the most common title Jesus used for Himself during His ministry, so this is Jesus, the Messiah standing in the midst of His Church.
Second, that Jesus is standing in the midst of His Church indicates that He is the One True High Priest of the Church. The OT priests were to trim the lamps, remove old wicks, replace them with new wicks, refill them with new oil, and relight any lamps that went out. You see the imagery being displayed here for us to see? Jesus, as our true High Priest, tends to His Church by upholding, building, warning, encouraging, and strengthening His suffering people.
Third, that Jesus is standing in the midst of His Church evokes imagery of a King or Ruler standing amid His people, leading, ruling, and reigning from His throne of grace. Some of you may be getting the movie picture in your heads of Sean Connery standing amid the Knights of the Round Table as King Arthur. Some others of you may be seeing the Lion King image of Mufasa standing above his people on Pride Rock with his young son Simba. How much greater is Christ the King who stands in the midst of His suffering people ministering to them from age to age? I think this is what is alluded to when John sees Jesus having white hair like snow or wool, because passage after passage in Proverbs says white hair is a gift to the wise. This King Jesus, is the wise Jesus, who knows how to lead His people. He is indeed the King of Kings!
Fourth, that we see Jesus here standing amid His Church suggests that this same Jesus who is tender Priest and resilient King leading His people, will come soon back as Supreme Judge of all the earth. “His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters.” His fiery gaze, His firm stance, and His thunderous voice would have brought terror to those who’ve rejected Him, and a fearful sweetness to those who’ve embraced Him in the gospel. Holding 7 stars in His right hand indicates Jesus, as Judge, is Judge over all heaven (stars) and earth (lampstands). 1:20 reveals to us that these stars are meant to be the angels of these 7 churches, which most commentators believe to be the elders (leaders) of these churches. That a sharp sword coming out of His mouth indicates Jesus’ voice is not just filled with but is the very Word of God, which is described in Hebrews 4:12 as ‘living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.’ Lastly, a face like the full brightness of the sun shows that Jesus is light, and in Him there is no shadow of turning or darkness at all. Remember John 1:4-5? “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This is who Jesus is. This is the same Jesus John walked with years earlier, the same Jesus he leaned against at the last supper, and the same Jesus he saw die, rise, and ascend. Now though, John sees Christ in all His glory.
3) John’s response. v17a says, “When I saw Him I fell at His feet as though dead.” John’s response was similar to the response of everyone who encounters an angel or God Himself throughout the Bible. Remember when Isaiah beheld God in His glory He didn’t respond by saying ‘Wow, that was cool’ but ‘Woe is me! I am unclean and I dwell amidst a people of unclean lips!’ John’s response here is the proper response to having just witnessed the Cosmic Christ standing victorious in the midst of His Church as Judge, Priest, Ruler, and Coming King. I do think we see in John’s response to this vision the attitude of the heart that you and I are called to have in regard to the things of God. I think it is a great evil when you and I treat worship, Bible study, prayer meetings, personal devotions, personal prayer, family devotions, and all else in the Christian life as things that are trivial in this life. You may think – I don’t do that. But ask yourself, regardless of what you think your opinion of these things is, how you devote yourself to them is a measure of what you really think about them. And what you really think about those things is a reflection of what you really think about God. Do you, or does your life, show that you treat God as a trivial part of life? That His Word and His commands don’t mean much for determining how you live day to day? We need to be rebuked by the Cosmic Christ of John’s vision. Jesus is not your buddy, He is not your homeboy, He is the sovereign King of all things and for those who truly believe that, everything about our life changes!
4) Lastly, the interpretation of the vision. v17b-20 says, “But He laid His right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
Normally in OT apocalyptic passages we find the interpretation of the vision after seeing the prophet’s response to the vision; such is the case here. In giving us the interpretation of the vision, Jesus gives John, and all who read these words, the gospel. Jesus tenderly comforts John who is rightly awe-struck saying ‘Fear not.’ Why should John no longer fear? Because Jesus is the first and the last, the living one, who died and behold is alive forevermore. Only on the cross do we have a completely holy God and a completely loving God at the same time. In His holiness God demanded that our sin be punished, and the penalty of sin is death. In His love God demonstrated His mercy and grace. His mercy is shown in that God didn’t give us the death we do deserve, and His grace is shown in that God gave us the pardon exactly what we don’t deserve. Bearing the shame and full wrath of God in behalf of all who would ever believe in Him, He died. But behold, He is alive forevermore and now holds the keys of death and hades in His hands. This is the vision John is to write, what he has seen and what is to come.
Beware: the same Cosmic Christ who became one of us to save us and bring us to God finally and forever will one day return and usher in His Kingdom fully. Does that strike terror in your bones or sweet comfort? O’ I hope it’s comfort! I hope you know Him, I hope you long for the day when you’ll see Him face to face!
If you don’t know Him, if this passage terrorized you, come to Christ, today can be the day of salvation. If you know Him, He is coming back soon, fear not. One day you shall see that blessed place, one day you shall behold His blessed face.