Passage[1]

12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels[b] of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Outline

  1. The voice and the lampstands (v12)
  2. The image of the voice (vs.13-16)
    1. Like the son of man (v.13)
    2. White robe and Golden sash (v.13)
    3. White hair (v.14)
    4. Eyes of fire (v.14)
    5. Feet of bronze (v.15)
    6. Roaring voice (v.15)
    7. Holding seven stars (v.16)
    8. Double edge sword coming out of his mouth (v. 16)
    9. Shining face (v.16)
  • Reassurance
    1. John’s response (v.17)
    2. Jesus’s assurance (v.17)
  1. Jesus’s self-identifications
    1. First and last (v.17)
    2. Living One (v. 18)
    3. Dead and alive (v.18)
    4. Holding the keys of death and Hades (v.18)
  2. Instructions
    1. Write (v.19)
  3. God’s interpretation
    1. Stars (v.20)
    2. Lampstands (v.20)

Introduction

Regardless of your religious orientation, it can hardly be argued that no single piece of text has left a larger cultural footprint in the Western Hemisphere than that of the Book of Revelation. This final text in the Christian canon has been the inspiration behind such Hollywood movies as The Prophecy, Constantine, and Devil’s Advocate; not to mention Stephen King’s book and movie The Stand. It has been used as the justification for real-life tragedies as the Manson Family murders[2] and the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco Texas.[3] Furthermore, it has been the subject of countless sermons and the impetus for numerous cult groups. With such a plethora of interpretations running rampant among the culture; is it any wonder that many people approach the writing with trepidation or avoid it all together?

Admittedly, the study of the book of Revelation presents many challenges in terms of an exegesis of the text. Perhaps, one of the biggest challenges the exegetist faces in his/her attempt to interpret the text is that for centuries the book, itself, has been broiled in controversy for centuries even among the Christian academics. As Elaine Pagels notes, “Controversy about the book is nothing new: Ever since it was written, Christians have argued heatedly for it or against it, especially from the second century till the fourth when it barely squeezed into the Canon to become the final book of the New Testament.”[4]

Still, it has been Canonized by both orthodox and protestant Christian groups. It has become nearly universally accepted as being “God breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). It, therefore, falls upon Christians and Christian leaders to offer sound exegesis of the text. This paper aims to do just that by offering an interpretation of the passage of Revelations 1:12-20, in which John sees an incredible vision of Jesus as the sovereign Lord of New Creation. This will be done by examining the historical and literary contexts as well as performing word studies. By these methods, the daunting task of exegesis may be confidently undertaken.

Cultural-Historical Context

As previously, stated presents the exegetists with several challenges. Steve Gregg advises,

“Attempting to understand the Book of Revelation presents special challenges unique to its case. This is due to the fact that, among the New Testament writings, Revelation is unique in its genre, its purpose, and its method of communicating its message. It would be naïve to assume that one can do justice to the interpretation of this book without responsibly dealing with some of the special interpretive considerations that apply uniquely to it.”[5]

While the original readers probably instinctively understood some of these issues; present day readers are far removed from the time and circumstances requiring introductory explanations of the issues faced.

Author

The author of the Book of Revelation simply identifies himself as John. There is no record of the apostolic fathers ever discussing the authorship of the book. Additionally, the earliest church fathers seemed to agree that the author is John, the disciple who was the author behind the Gospel of his namesake. However, in the mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexander did not believe that John, the disciple, was the writer. Eusebius also suggested that the disciple was not the author, but someone known simply as the John, presbyter. He makes this claim on a vague statement from a writer known as Papias from the second century:

“For I have never, like many, delighted to hear those that tell many things, but those that teach the truth… But if I met with anyone who had been a follower of the elders anywhere, I made it a point to inquire what were the declarations of the elders. What was said by Andrew, Peter, or Phillip. What by Thomas, James, John, Matthew or any other disciple of our Lord. What was said by Aristion, and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord.[6]

There are a couple of challenges facing the evidence of Eusebius. Most significantly, there are no surviving copies of Papias’s work. Our only record are the quotes used by Eusebius. Furthermore, there is no academic consensus as to whether John, the presbyter, is a different person than John, the beloved disciple.

In reality, the strongest evidence for the book of Revelation is the different grammatical styles of Greek between the other writings of the disciple of John and the book of Revelation. A. T. Robertson noted that “there numerous grammatical laxities in the Apocalypse, termed by Charles a veritable grammar of its own.”[7] The unpolished style of Greek within the text have led some commentators to conclude that another John wrote the book.

In response to this Gregg offers three rebuttals. First, he points out the Luke refers to the disciple John as “unschooled” (Acts 4:13). He suggests that John used a scribal secretary known as an amanuensis, a widespread practice at the time, to write his Gospel and three epistles. However, since John was exiled to the island of Patmos, such a person would not have been available (Rev 1:9). Additionally, he notes that it seems highly unlikely that any other person within the church at the time would have the name recognition to identify himself as John. Finally, he notes other internal similarities between Revelations and John’s other supposed writings. For instance, there are words and phrases which are only found in Johannine writings, such as the use of the word Logos or Word (Jn 1:1; Rev 19:13) and the use of “the Lamb” as a messianic title (Jn 1:29,36; Rev 22:17). F. F. Bruce agrees with this assessment, writing,

Revelation certainly comes from the same environment as the other Johannine writings. Whatever differences there are between this book and the Fourth Gospel, both present one who is called the ‘Word of God’ and ‘the Lamb of God’ saying to his followers, ‘In this world you have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:33); whatever differences there are between it and the First Letter of John, both encourage the people of Christ with the assurance: ‘This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith’ (1Jn 5:4)[8]

Given the weight of the evidence in support of the disciple John to have written Revelation, it is this author’s opinion that there is not sufficient data to overturn the original church father’s conclusion. Still, the idea that another John has written the book cannot be entirely ruled out.

Date and Historical Setting

The book of Revelation was written during a period of widespread church persecution. Indeed, John, himself, had been exiled to the island of Patmos, where he received his vision. Most commentators point to the scope of persecution described within the text to suggest that John’s writing occurred during the time of Roman Imperial persecution. The letter seems to have been written as a way of encouraging its recipients that all though their faith may require suffering and possibly even death, their vindication was not very far off.

Although, scholars identify ten Roman emperors which subjugated the church to persecution only two falls during the Apostle John’s lifetime: Nero (A.D. 54-68) and Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Scholars are separated into two camps those who believe in an early Neron date; and those who favor a later Domitian date. Those who favor a later date tend take a futurist view of Revelation. Futurists believe that the events which John recorded are yet to be fulfilled, especially everything after chapter three. Those who favor an early date usually follow a preterist view of the book. Preterist believe that the prophecy was fulfilled shortly after John’s writing with the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews.

Late Date Argument

The late date argument relies on the words of Irenaeus as well as supporting internal evidence. The crux of the late date argument is the consensus of several church fathers who base their conclusion on the testimony of Irenaeus, who wrote,

Now since this so, and since this number [666] is found in all the good and ancient copies, and since those who have John face to face testify, and reason teaches us that the number of the name of the beast appears according to the numeration of the Greeks by the letters in it…We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing  positively as the name of the Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.[9]

The question here is what was seen towards Domitian’s reign? As Gregg observes, “If Irenaeus saying that the vision was seen at this late date, then his witness carries great weight. As previously stated several of the church fathers understood the words in this manner lending credence to the late date theory.

Bolstering Irenaeus’ words are apparent proofs which the book contains internally. First many commentators suggest that the emperor worship alluded to in the thirteenth chapter was not enforced until the time of Domitian. Furthermore, it is argued that Nero’s persecution of Christians never extended beyond the city of Rome. In addition, it is suggested that the spiritual decline of the churches remarked upon in chapter three did not have time to take root if written in the time of Nero as his reign was approximately a decade or so after their founding.  This, along with Irenaeus’ testimony, most modern commentators suggest, makes Domitian the best candidate to be ruling at the time of John’s writing.

Late Date Rebuttals and Early Date Argument

On the surface, the late daters seem to have some very convincing arguments. However, it must be noted the credibility of Irenaeus’ testimony must be questioned. In the same text of Irenaeus as the one upon which the church fathers based their conclusion, Irenaeus states that Jesus lived to be in excess of fifty years old.[10] Can Irenaeus’ testimony be trusted in light of such a glaring error?

A second challenge to Irenaeus comes from Dr. Kenneth Gentry. He notes that Irenaeus states that all the copies of Revelation at the time are ‘ancient copies.’ He further observes that Domitian reign was relatively recent, indeed, ‘but almost in our own day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.’ Gentry reasonably asks the question, if the copies are ancient, is not the original older still? He, then, concludes if Domitian was recent history then what was seen in the time of Domitian was John, himself, and not the vision.[11]

Lending even more credence to Gentry’s position is the critique the translators of Irenaeus’ manuscripts, who wrote,

The great work of Irenaeus, now for the first time translated into English, is unfortunately no longer extant in the original. It has come down to us only in an ancient Latin version, with the exception of the greater part of the first book, which has been preserved in the original Greek, through the means of copious quotations made by Hippolytus and Epiphanius. The text, both in Latin and Greek, is often most uncertain.[12]

The translators themselves were uncertain in both the Greek and Latin in several places, and the passage quoted is from a Latin copy, the degree to which one can be certain of the reading of Irenaeus is minimal.

The internal evidence without the crux of Irenaeus is suggestive at best. Since, John was admittedly writing a prophetic book (Rev 1:3); then, any reference to Domitian’s reign could have been written years our even centuries before. Additionally, while Nero’s official persecution was limited to Rome, it is not hard to imagine that regional authorities would have followed Nero’s example. Finally, spiritual decline is not necessarily a slow process. Today’s modern churches with their hundreds in attendance can experience such declines within decade. How much quicker could the house churches in Roman times with only a few people decline?

While the late date theory is merely suggestive, the early date theory is far from conclusive. Early daters rely primarily on internal evidence. They suggest that the apparent existence of the temple in Jerusalem in chapter eleven, and the description of conflict between Jews and Christian (2:9; 3:9) would describe a pre-diaspora environment. They claim that since these conditions would not have existed after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the prophetic nature of the book implies an early writing date.

Perhaps the most important argument for the early date theory is the passage in Revelation 17:10 which states, “They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.” Early daters note that Nero was the sixth emperor to take the throne. While both the early date and the late date are possible, it seems most likely that John wrote his vision during the reign of Nero.

Literary Context

In the preceding passage John tells his audiences that the reason he is told to write is because he is a witness. This sentiment is consistent with other Johannine writings especially, the Fourth Gospel (Jn 21:24, Jn 1:2). John’s eyewitness status is a constant theme within his writings and lends credibility to his status even though he is exiled.

There have been several suggestions for examining the literary context of the book. One approach centers on outlining the book based on John’s use of the phrase “in the Spirit.” Since the phrase occurs at strategic points in the text to shift John’s locale in the vision. Another approach focuses on 1:19 as the key, outlining “what you have seen” (the death and resurrection of Jesus); “What is now” (the message to the seven churches); and “what will take place later (the future prophetic statements). Alan Hawkins, senior pastor of New Life City Church in the Albuquerque, New Mexico Area, suggested a third outline in a series of bible studies in early 2000’s. He proposed there are seven overlapping cycles of history within the text each cycles expands on the one before it to include not only historical events but also ever further into future events until the ultimate consummation of the “New Heaven and Earth” of chapter twenty-one.[13]

Since John’s flow of thought is to encourage the persecuted believers by demonstrating their eventual vindication through the second coming of Christ, Hawkins suggestion is a valid one. Therefore, the passage under consideration contributes to this flow by demonstrating Christ as both the Lord of Lords and as the genuine human being, the first of the “new creation” (Cf. Col 1:15, KNT).[14]

Content

The Voice and The Lampstands

 

12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands…

John first hears a voice (v. 10). The Greek word for speaking implies to use words in order to declare one’s mind and disclose one’s thoughts.[15] By using this word and his description of the one who spoke (vs. 13-16), John wants his audience to know that Jesus is his disclosing His thoughts. These thoughts were not of human origin.

As for the lampstands we are told that they represent the seven churches to whom the book was intended (vs. 4,20). In John’s time lampstands held the fire by which people saw. The use of this symbol represents the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is pictured as fire consistently throughout the New Testament (Cf. Acts 2:3; Rev 4:5). Therefore, these churches are filled with the Holy Spirit as believers. Commenting on this verse, Tim Lahaye writes, “This vision of Christ is graphically descriptive not only of Christ in his glory, but of His relationship to the churches of his day and churches of all ages.”[16] This would have been a comfort to the believers in times of persecution.

The Image of the Voice

and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

John continues by describing the originator of the voice. His first description is “one like a son of man” (v.13). This description refers to Jesus state of human “new creation.” The phrase son of man is an echo of Daniel 7:3 and was Jesus favorite self-designation during his earthly ministry.

The second description is that of the long white robe and the golden sash (Cf. Ex 28:4). John is reminding his readers of Jesus role as high priest (Cf. Heb 4:14-16).

Next his hair is white as snow (v.14). This is an echo of the ancient of days whom the “son of man” ascends to in Dan 7:9. This represents the unity of the Father and The Son. Jesus has unified the Father with humanity, by being the genuine human. It is also reminiscent of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt 17:2) in which God was well pleased.

The eyes which are like blazing fire continues the trinitarian unity of God theme for John (Rev 1:14). Jesus is indwelt by the Holy Spirit in fullness. He sees everything through the Spirit. As the new creation, Jesus is dependent on the Spirit for discernment. This would be significant given the message to the seven churches which begin in chapter three. The Greek construction is literally “his eyes shot fire.”[17] This also could refer to Jesus’ authority to purify the churches, he was about to convict.

Next, His feet were like bronze glowing in furnace. Once Jesus truthfully judged with righteous discernment, next Jesus would bring judgement by pouring out his wrath in the great wine press of God and trampling the grapes under foot (Rev 14:19).

John then describes the sound of the voice as rushing waters (1:15). John is reminding his readers that Jesus words are rivers of life which will flow from their hearts (Cf. Jn 7:9). However, this is not simply life, but abundant life as evidenced by the rushing water (Cf. 10:10).

Jesus is depicted as holding seven stars (Rev 1:16). Verse twenty tells us these are the angels of the seven churches. The word in Greek translated angels simply means messenger. This term can be a designation for a human messenger or spiritual beings. Both have been used in this passage by interpreters. The main objection to it being a spiritual being is that the angels seemingly failed to prevent the spiritual decline of their churches. Responding to this objection, Lahaye writes,

However, in answer to that, even angels, though supernatural, are not divine. Nor can they supersede the human will, because this is a liberty given by God. If Christ has subjected Himself to the position of being on the outside of the door of the church knocking for entrance (Rev 3:20), we can scarcely imagine the angels doing more. If a church has failed in its mission, its in because its angel has been irresponsible, but because the church has rejected the Holy Spirit’s teaching.[18]

The two-edged sword coming out of the mouth is next described by John (1:16). This is picture of the Word of God (Cf. Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12). This ties in to the rushing waters of verse fifteen. All though Jesus’ words bring abundant life, the rejection of those words brings abundant death.

Finally, John says that His face shone like the son in all its brilliance (Rev 1:16). This is an echo of the transfiguration in which Jesus is described in the exact same way. Jesus is present in his full divine glory.

Reassurance

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid.

At the sight of this vision of Jesus John falls unconscious (v. 17). Apparently, when God acts in his full presence, man in its carnal state cannot witness this work of God. Adam fell into a deep sleep (Gen 2:21). Abraham did not witness the self-covenant of God (Gen 15:12). The soldiers fall unconscious at the resurrection of Jesus (Matt 28:4). John was no exception.

Jesus comforts John (Rev 1:17a). He uses the phrase, “Don’t be afraid.” Some variation of this phrase is used 365 times throughout the Bible. Jesus does not want us to live in fear but in the courage of peace.

Jesus’s Self-Identification

I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Jesus first identifies himself as the first and the last (v17b). This speaks of the eternal nature of Jesus. He was the Word who was with God in the beginning (Jn 1). He is the last Word on all things.

.

Finally, Jesus is the holder of the keys of death and Hades (18b). He holds the keys to something controls access to whatever is locked. The word Hades means grave. Jesus controls the access of the physically dead. He died so that we might live (2 Cor 5:15). Jesus has the authority to release people from death or permanently keep them in death if they reject Him.

Instructions

19“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later”

John is to write what he has seen referring to the vision of Jesus. This may also include his witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is also to write of what is now. This probably refers to the seven messages to the seven churches. Finally, he is to write what will take place later. This is a reference to the prophetic nature of the revelation.

God’s Interpretation

20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

All interpretation of scripture belongs to God. It is the Holy Spirit which will guide people into all truth (Jn 16:13). Under the influence of the Spirit (Rev 1:10), John is given the meanings of the stars and lampstands.

Application

John was writing to encourage believers of his day who were suffering persecution. Yet, by the providence of God, John was also writing encouragement for today’s believers as well. Believers of any age should take fact Jesus is who He says He is. It should be a comfort that Jesus did not remain a baby in a manger, nor was he simply a martyred rabbi. He was the Son of God as evidenced by His resurrection (Rom 1). Jesus depiction here is one of Godly authority who has come to protect and purify his people. He is shown as the High Priest who intercedes on our behalf (Heb 4:15). Jesus does not want his followers to fear suffering or even death but to walk confidently through life knowing that He sees all things with true discernment by way of the Holy Spirit. This courage comes from the reality that Jesus is unified with the Father in his humanity so that we can “come boldly to the throne of Grace” (v.16). John certainly experienced an incredible vision of Jesus Christ, one in which all Christians should take comfort and courage from no matter their circumstances or environment. Jesus is victorious; He has conquered the grave. What then can be feared when Jesus, the Lord of Lords is sovereign and at the Father’s right hand?

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

“Thayer’s Greek Lexicon.” Biblesoft. Last modified 2011. Accessed. http://biblehub.com/greek/2980.htm.

 

Bruce, F. F. “Revelation.” In The International Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Rev. 1986.

 

Bugliosi, V. and C. Gentry. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. W. W. Norton, 2001.

 

Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History.

 

Gentry, K.L. Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation. Victorious Hope Publishing, 2010.

 

Gregg, S. Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Thomas Nelson, 2013.

 

Irenaeus. Against Heresies.

 

LaHaye, T. Revelation Unveiled. Zondervan, 2010.

 

Linedecker, C.L. Massacre at Waco: The Shocking True Story of Cult Leader David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. True Crime, 1993.

 

Pagels, E.H. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Penguin Books, 2013.

 

Roberts, A. The Writings. Clark, 1868.

 

Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament: Volume 6 – the General Espitles and the Revelation of John. Baker Book House, 1930.

 

 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture reference is Holy Bible (Niv) (Zondervan, 2008).

[2] V. Bugliosi and C. Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (W. W. Norton, 2001).

[3] C.L. Linedecker, Massacre at Waco: The Shocking True Story of Cult Leader David Koresh and the Branch Davidians (True Crime, 1993).

[4] E.H. Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Penguin Books, 2013), 2.

[5] S. Gregg, Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2013), 9.

[6] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:4.

[7] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Volume 6 – the General Espitles and the Revelation of John (Baker Book House, 1930), 273.

[8] F. F. Bruce, “Revelation,” in The International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Rev. 1986).

[9] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:30:1, 3.

[10] See ibid., 2:22:5.

[11] K.L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Victorious Hope Publishing, 2010).

[12] A. Roberts, The Writings (Clark, 1868), xvii. Emphasis mine.

[13] As far as I am aware Pastor Hawkins has never published any scholarly work on the subject. My knowledge of the teaching comes from an audio recording of the bible study.

[14] N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (HarperCollins, 2011).

[15] “Thayer’s Greek Lexicon,” Biblesoft, accessed. http://biblehub.com/greek/2980.htm.

[16] T. LaHaye, Revelation Unveiled (Zondervan, 2010), 38.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 39.