This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 1: The Greeting.
I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in Yahweh’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of Yahweh and for my testimony about Jesus. It was the Lord’s Day, and I was worshiping in the Spirit. Suddenly, I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet blast. It said, “Write in a book everything you see, and send it to the seven churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Rev. 1:9-11)
John starts off by letting his audience of fellow Christians know that he’s had firsthand experience with being persecuted for his adherence to Yahweh’s New Covenant, which demands that everyone has to submit to Jesus as God before they will be accepted by Yahweh.
Old Covenant Jews recognized a Sabbath day on the last day of the week—our Saturday. The Jewish Christians got into the habit of meeting for worship on Sunday—“the Lord’s Day”, with “Lord” being a reference to Jesus. John describes himself as being “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day. This is probably his way of describing some focused prayer session. Notice how he specifically acknowledges the Holy Spirit being with him. The Holy Spirit indwelling every believer is one of the radical new concepts of Yahweh’s New Covenant that the Jews readily embraced.
John is in this focused state when he hears a loud voice speaking behind him. Well, actually, he hears a voice blaring behind him. He describes the voice as sounding like a trumpet. Imagine someone coming up behind you and blasting a few notes at the back of your skull. This is a very startling moment and John probably jumped out of his skin. Who on earth is making this noise?
Then I turned to see who was speaking to me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His Voice was like the sound of many waters. (Rev. 1:12-15)
What John is seeing here is a vision of Jesus. But this isn’t the Jesus he walked with on earth. That Jesus had just looked like a normal Jewish man. This Jesus has undergone an extreme makeover—now He’s looking wildly different.
When Christians today read this description of Revelation Jesus, they often feel uncomfortable because, like John, we’ve got a very different mental image of what Jesus looks like. In the movies, we’re used to seeing Jesus depicted as some white guy with shoulder length brown hair and a beard. Our culture’s portrayal of Jesus is an image that we can relate to, because Jesus looks like one of us—a normal human being. But of course Jesus isn’t a human, and when He showed up on earth in human form, it was for our benefit, not His. Our Gods can appear in any form They want, and we need to realize that when They’re appearing to us, They’re always dressed in some kind of costume. Our Gods intentionally present Themselves in forms that will inspire certain kinds of reactions in us. Do They want us to be blown away with awe or do They want us to feel safe and comfortable in Their Presence? Their goal in a given moment determines what form They take.
Now in the Book of Revelation, we’re going to see Jesus taking on many different forms. Some will be graphic, some frightening, and all of them will be quite a departure from the friendly brown haired Jesus that we’re used to seeing in our movies.
Now here in this first vision that John has of Jesus, he sees a white haired man with glowing eyes, glowing feet, and a roaring voice. Many Christians today have a hard time snuggling up to this image of Jesus. To us, this Jesus seems shockingly different and rather intimidating. But this is because we’re not Jews who grew up under the Old Covenant. If we were, we’d realize that Jesus isn’t trying to make John uncomfortable by showing up in this totally new form. On the contrary, Jesus is intentionally taking on a form that will feel very familiar, and very Divine. You see, John isn’t the first guy to ever have a vision of God. In the Old Testament, we find several prophets receiving visions of Yahweh in glory. Those visions were told and retold generation after generation, and they became to the Jews what our movie Jesus is to us today: a visual standard for what God is supposed to look like. Of course back in the Old Testament, no Jew had ever heard of Jesus. The visions were of Yahweh in glory. When Jesus showed up on earth in human form, He claimed to be just like Yahweh: the same kind of Divine Being. Well, on earth, Jesus didn’t match the cultural stereotype of what God was supposed to look like. But here in Revelation, He is intentionally going to match that stereotype and come to John in a form that will say “Divine Entity” in John’s Jewish mind. You see, according to the prophet Daniel, God is supposed to have white hair.
And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His garment was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. (Dan. 7:13)
And according to Daniel, supernatural beings from the heavenly dimension wear tunics with gold belts, they have flashing eyes, glowing feet, and thundering voices. Here’s how Daniel once described an angelic being who appeared to speak to him:
I looked up and saw a man dressed in linen clothing, with a belt of pure gold around his waist. His body looked like a precious gem. His face flashed like lightning, and his eyes flamed like torches. His arms and feet shone like polished bronze, and his voice roared like a vast multitude of people. (Dan. 10:5-6)
Today no one wants to watch a movie about Jesus in which His character is depicted by an actor with a blonde buzz. Jesus is supposed to have long, wavy, brown hair. This is obvious to us. Well, it was just as obvious to Old Covenant Jews that God was supposed to have a loud, thundering Voice. In the Old Testament, everyone who had an up close encounter with Yahweh in glory heard Yahweh roar. Some described His Voice as sounding like roaring water. Others said it sounded like thunder. Ezekiel once said:
Suddenly, the glory of the God of Israel appeared from the east. The sound of His Voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the whole landscape shone with His glory. (Eze. 43:2)
Jesus has to roar. If He speaks in some wimpy whisper, well it just wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t say God to a Jew like John. Since one of Jesus’ main goals in this vision is to confirm the reality of His Divinity to Jewish Christians, He is intentionally showing up in a form that meets every item on John’s cultural checklist for what God is supposed to look and sound like. Since Yahweh has been roaring for centuries, and Jesus is just like Yahweh, He roars too, and this makes John feel really good.
He held seven stars in His right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came from His mouth. And His face was like the sun in all its brilliance. (Rev. 1:16)
When Christians hear a reference to a two-edged sword today, what do they immediately think of? Their Bibles.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb. 4:12)
Well, when John sees a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth, he is not thinking of the Bible. Unlike us, John wasn’t obsessed with the New Testament. He’d never even heard of it. The Old Testament was his main reference in life, and this sword out of the mouth business was a perfect match for a description of Yahweh’s Messiah which the prophet Isaiah put out. In Isaiah 49:2, Isaiah is speaking as Yahweh’s Messiah when he says: “Yahweh has made My mouth like a sharp sword.” Now here in Revelation, Jesus shows up with a sword protruding from His mouth. Very fitting.
When I saw Him, I fell at his feet as if I were dead. But He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:17-18)
The keys represent authority. As God, Jesus controls the eternal future of souls. Why death and Hades? Because the Jews recognized we have a body and a soul. The physical body goes in a physical grave. Death is being used here as the place where physical corpses end up. Hades refers to the mysterious spirit world where both good and bad souls were believed to go after death. For some, Hades was pleasant, for others, it was terrible. The point is that Jesus is speaking within John’s cultural context here. Today we don’t think of our souls going to Hades, but the Jews did, and Jesus is talking to the Jews.
Now bear in mind that just because Jesus refers to Hades, it doesn’t mean He is saying that Hades is real. John thinks it’s real, and Jesus is working within the framework of John’s thinking, so He talks as if it was real. If John had thought the dead ended up in a land full of marshmallows, then Jesus would be saying He has the keys to marshmallow land. The concept of Hades was just one culture’s attempt to explain what happened to the soul in eternity. It wasn’t accurate, but it felt real to the people who believed in it, so Jesus is using it.
“Write down what you have seen—both the things that are now happening and the things that will happen. This is the meaning of the mystery of the seven stars you saw in My right hand and the seven gold lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (Rev. 1:19-20)
It’s time to get to work: Jesus tells John to start writing. Then He explains some of the symbolism He is using: the seven stars in His right hand represent the angels of the seven churches who this letter is addressed to. Now it’s important to realize that the word which is so often translated angel in the Bible simply means a messenger. It doesn’t mean an angelic creature, but simply one who brings news or one who is sent. In this application, Jesus could simply be using this term to refer to the leaders or pastors of these seven churches. He then says that the churches themselves are being represented by the seven lampstands which are all around Him. So as we come to the end of Chapter 1, what we’re seeing is a Jesus who looks very Divine according to Old Covenant Jewish stereotypes. He’s standing in the midst of seven churches and He’s holding messengers to those churches in His right hand. He’s now going to start telling each church what He thinks of them. The church in the city of Ephesus will be first in line to receive a spiritual assessment. Are the Christians in Ephesus going to get a thumbs up or a thumbs down from Jesus? We’ll find out in our next lesson.