September 29, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:30 in the audio file.
Or, When John Saw Jesus Amidst the Lampstands
When we come to the Bible, we are always trying to get the point. Part of a teacher’s job is to show and tell what has been written; good preaching is making the original author’s intended meaning obvious. But for as long as there have been men coming to the Bible, there there have also been apocalyptic-sized exercises in missing the point.
The vision John sees in Revelation 1:9-20 is intimidating, not sinister, but too terrific. As we see what he wrote down about what he saw, we may have some questions, even some disagreements about what each part means. But if we see enough of what he saw, we really ought to have a similar response: falling as though dead at the Lord’s feet.
This is the Lord’s vision. I mean that in a couple ways. It is a vision that the Lord gave to John; it is Jesus’ loud voice talking to John (1:10), and Jesus commissions John twice to write down the vision (1:11, 19), and each of the individual letters to the churches are also part of this vision and are all from Jesus (2:1ff). But as the Lord reveals the vision, the Lord gives John a vision of Himself (1:12-16). It’s a look at Jesus in His omni-living, dazzling, eternal glory. John couldn’t handle it apart from Jesus’ own reassurance to John. And really, our eschatological discussions ought to be flavored a little more like dirt on our lips, picked up from our time spent humbled on the ground.
In this last half of chapter one we’re going to see when John saw Jesus standing amidst the lampstands. Jesus commissions John to write (verses 9-11), Jesus shows Himself to John (verses 12-16), and Jesus clarifies the commission again (verses 17-20).
John picks up his greeting, which he started in verse 4, but which he interrupted with a Trinitarian doxology. In verse 9 he names himself for the third time and explains a little more about how he came to write.
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
History tells us that John arrived to minister in Asia in the mid to late 60s. After more than 30 years living and shepherding among them, writing around AD 95, he doesn’t need to identify himself as an apostle. He calls himself their brother, and in particular a partner with them in three things: tribulation, kindgom, and endurance. John connects all three by using one preposition and one article (in Greek) to tie all of them together. The tribulation wasn’t the “great tribulation” he writes about in 7:14, nor was the kingdom the 1,000 years he writes about in chapter 20. He was, at the very moment of writing, part of Christ’s kingdom that included suffering and required endurance. John was in exile, others Christians were in prison, or slandered, or beaten, even killed. Endurance is the way of the kingdom for now. Endurance is the way of conquering, as we’ll see in the specific letters. This endurance is not a grumbling grit (see Philippians 2:14-15). Or as Peter exhorted,
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13)
John’s tribulation included banishment to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, which appears to be a legal punishment due to John preaching of God’s Word. Eusebius records that Domitian banished John to Patmos in the fourteenth year of his reign, AD 95, and John was allowed back to Ephesus when Domitian died, around AD 96 (Osborne).
It was during his exile that John had a vision: I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day. This wasn’t a dream; John wasn’t asleep. The Holy Spirit enabled John to experience and see on a different level. It happened on the Lord’s day, and though this is the only occurrence of the phrase in the NT, it is different than “the day of the Lord” and can only refer to Sunday, the first day of the week. We still use the adjective for our day of worship; this is a “lordy” (κυριακῇ) day.
At first he heard, loud and piercing as a trumpet, a voice saying, “Write what you see in a book.” Which, is sort of like how some of you begin your communication, as if you were already mid conversation. The Voice tells John to see and write, and the seven churches are named as the recipients in a geographical order following a clock-wise route around this part of Asia Minor.
As is natural, John turned to see the voice that was speaking, not that he expected to see the voice, but the one from whom the voice came. He was not prepared for what he saw.
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. Some of these details relate to different Old Testament images, and Daniel 10 has the most connections. But some things are also different. For example, the temple had one lampstand with seven branches (Zechariah 4:2), the menorah. A lampstand itself held an oil lamp, and here there are seven stands. We’ll find out in verse 20 that the lampstands represent each of the seven churches. In the midst of these stands, one like a son of man was walking around (see also 2:1).
The son of man was Jesus’ favorite title for Himself in the gospels, and it was a great title drawing on Daniel 7:13 that John heard Jesus use for Himself some sixty-five years earlier (Mark 13:26)(Thomas). The clothes He’s wearing also fit a great man. While the long robe was worn by priests, it was also worn by men with significant social position, and the golden sash around his chest fits that dignity.
Next John describes His physical appearance. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as 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. The white hairs were white, not grey, not dingy (see Daniel 7:9). The eyes like a flame were penetrating (see Daniel 10:6). The burnished and refined bronze feet were symbols of judgment (see Daniel 10:6). And the voice of roar was overwhelming (see Ezekiel 43:2), like all of Niagra Falls running past your ear. This is not a Frankenstein of many parts, this is a consuming image of purity, power, and glory. John saw Jesus transfigured with glory some 65 years previous, but even that image was not quite like this.
The vision of the Lord included a few more things. 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. The stars are angels according to verse 20, which we’ll want to define there. But Jesus is in control of the stars, they are “in His hand.” The two-edged sword represents His Word. It is similar, but not the same as Hebrews 4:12; the Greek words are not the same. This is not a short dagger, but a long broadsword as used in a cavalry charge (Osborn) and often connected with judgment. That His face was bright, brilliant, dazzling as the sun shining in full strength presents an overwhelming image of Jesus. John saw similar splendor once before (Matthew 17:2).
John was overwhelmed. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Who wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t? There is no messing with this Lord. Daniel had a similar response to his vision (Daniel 10:7-9), as did John when Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17:6).
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 forever more, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Jesus set down the stars, so to speak, and comforted John with the touch of His hand. His first command is Fear not, which was not the first time John heard such instruction from Jesus.
The image of Jesus is striking, and it is also striking to consider the basis of why Jesus tells John not to fear. Jesus claims cosmic preeminence, eternality, divinity, and all that including authority over who lives and dies. When you meet that living one (see Psalm 84:2), and His language clarifies His appearance, isn’t that more reason to fear? It is, unless that God has chosen you to live and be His.
There is a slight possibility that Death and Hades are personified, but more likely that they are states, as in, death is the condition and Hades is the location where those in the condition go. The keys are to open or lock, to be in charge of access, in and out. Jesus is the one who controls life and death.
Having shown Himself to John, and reassured John of reasons not to fear, Jesus recommissions the writing of Revelation. “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” It is a therefore, because of who Christ is.
Verse 19 may not be the most striking verse of this vision, but it is largely recognized as the key verse for the organization of visions throughout all of Revelation. There are a few different ways to understand it, namely whether or not this verse divides the sections of Revelation into a sort of outline. I read numerous objections, but I don’t see any significant exegetical argument against a three-fold, chronological division. 1) What John already saw, the things that you have seen, the image of Jesus. 2) What John is currently seeing, those that are, the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3. 3) What John sees that will take place,those that are to take place after this, the heavenly worship and end-of-things battles, chapters 4-22.
The final verse of chapter 1 clarifies the meaning of some of the symbols John saw. 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.
The lampstands as churches is easiest to understand, and also has some implications. Lampstands provide light to a room, so churches provide light to the world. Churches are to be witnesses to their Lord, and their Lord is not at a distance. Jesus’ final commission to His disciples before the ascension declared that He would be with them until the end of the age, and that would happen through His Spirit. The image John sees declares it from a different angle.
The bigger question regards the stars as angels. The two most plausible are that each church has an associated angel, which fits the Daniel context of nations having angels (cf. Daniel 10:10-21; 12:1), and also fits the consistent use of angelos throughout Revelation (60 times) all about heavenly beings. The other option is to understand angelos as “messenger,” so each church has a human “messenger,” maybe even a reference to a leader/pastor in each church.
The most difficult problem for “angel” meaning “angel” is that the letters in the following two chapters are addressed to the angel of each church. But how is the angel responsible to get the message to his church? Why would Jesus tell John to address letters to a heavenly being? The most difficult problem with not taking “angel” as “angel” is that “messenger” is also hard to identify. Who is the messenger? A pastor? Another leader? For now, while still being open to additional arguments, I think angels are not humans.
The quotation marks that begin in 1:19 don’t actually end until 3:22. 4:1 begins with “After this,” which is after the Lord’s vision to John for the churches. Many of the descriptions of Jesus will return in those messages.
Churches are lights, chosen by the Son of Man, to shine in endurance and good works that others may give glory to God. Light is both part of our nature and of our function.
And more than anything else in this opening vision, John reveals that Christ is all. Christ is both present with His churches, even with us by application, and Christ is coming in all His glory. Don’t miss that point. Just conquer.
The Lord’s Word is a word of judgment. His Word is also a word of grace, and a word of building and giving (Acts 20:32). This benediction is more than a shot in the arm, it is like oxygen to your muscles. His word is like sap in the branch, making you thick and causing you to be fruitful. His word is oil in your lamp.
[May you be] strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:11–12, ESV)