“There is a type of happiness and wonder that makes you serious.” (C.S. Lewis) I think this is very similar to what John felt when he saw his vision of Jesus.
Let’s see this in the text.
v9-20 comes to us in 4 sections: John’s Commission (v9-11), John’s Vision (v12-16), John’s Reaction (v17a), and John’s Interpretation (v17b-20).
John’s Commission (v9-11)
“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.’”
These verses serve as the conclusion of the introduction of the book of Revelation. 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 tribulationand the kingdomand the patient endurancethat are in Jesus.’ Three things that unites John and his audience. How do we know John suffered along with them? Apparently John’s ministry (which was based in the city of 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.’ 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’ means John was given, by the Spirit, this Revelation we’re slowly working through. 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 John’s prophecy. 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, and he is caught up in the Holy Spirit and hears a loud voice like a trumpet (think Exodus 19:18-19) telling him to write all that he sees to the seven churches.
John’s Vision (v12-16)
“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. We’re not to see this vision as describing who Jesus is physically but describing who Jesus is symbolically. Or to put it another way, “The symbols seen by John in the vision reveal not what Jesus looks like but what He is like…the vision shows us how things are, not how they look to the physical eye.”
But notice John does not immediately see Jesus, he sees the lampstands first and then sees the One standing in their midst.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, something symbolically representing 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 not only the 7 churches but the universal Church as well. 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? Daniel 7:9-10 gives us a breathtaking image of God saying, “As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took His seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of His head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before Him. Thousands upon thousands attended Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.” Lesson? This Jesus 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 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, in the Spirit, John sees Christ in all His glory.
John’s Response (v17a)
“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 remember one summer back in college I worked at a Christian summer camp and as I slowly but surely got to meet the other staff members and counselors, one older woman stood out to me. She told me that her and Jesus would sit and chat as she gardened. At first I concluded that she was speaking about gardening while praying. So, I asked her if that was what she meant, and she clarified for me that she did not mean that at all. She really meant that her and Jesus would sit and chat together while she was gardening. As our conversation continued and as I kept asking questions one thing stood out to me. She never felt overwhelmed by Jesus, never fell at His feet as though dead, never proclaimed a ‘woe’ against herself for being a sinner in the presence of our holy God.
I think we need to be rebuked by the Cosmic Christ of John’s vision. Dennis Johnson put it like this, “We need to see Jesus – to meet His blazing eyes of heart-searching holiness, to wake up at the trumpet blast of His voice, to respond to His jealous demand for exclusive and passionate loyalty. Shocked insensible by the impact of His splendor, we need then to hear His words of compassionate comfort, quelling our fears and quickening our hopes. Every congregation, whatever its struggle at its post on the battlefront, needs to fix its eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”How appropriate is it for John, before all the details to come in this Revelation, sees the One whom this Revelation concerns.
John’s Interpretation (v17b-20)
“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 Old Testament 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.
Three takeaways for us this evening…
- The Church is a suffering church: this is a reality we must face in this age.
- Jesus is with His Church: this is a reality we must embrace in this age. We will suffer yes, but Jesus is ever holding/sustaining/tending us His people.
- We need to re-examine our view of Jesus: this is a reality we must not forget in this age. He is our Brother, yes. He is our Friend, yes. But He is also the majestic King who has conquered, who now holds the keys of death and hell, and before whose feet we’d all fall, as if dead, if He were to show up in this room right now. The whole Christ must be embraced in order to be faithful interpreters of the whole counsel of God.
Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2001) page 60.
Paul Gardner, Revelation: The Compassion and Protection of Christ (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2002) page 21.
Johnson, page 50.
Gardner, page 25-26.