The First Vision (Revelation 1:9-20)

The Revelation or the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.  We talked last week about Apocalyptic literature as an attempt to portray a present historical crisis against the background of world history, and it is hidden in images as if the crisis were taking place in heaven or in a spiritual realm.  That present struggle is seen a a part of the age-long battle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.

The Apostle John, as we have said, is writing to the churches about a present and coming persecution, probably beginning about 95AD when the Roman Emperor Domitian declared himself to be emperor-god, and systematically persecuted Christians for not worshiping him.  Of course, such a persecution carries the weight of being political traitors to the government.  John’s purpose in the light of this is to speak to the people about God and the testimony of Jesus Christ in this crisis.

  1. Verses 9-11

By way of introduction to the first vision or series of revelations John shares while he is a political prisoner on the Island of Patmos.  Throughout we will find him attempting to comfort and encourage people who are suffering this persecution.  He himself is being persecuted, a political prisoner for his faith, an elderly man probably still being made to do forced labor in the quarries of Patmos.

John identifies himself as “your brother who shares with you in Jesus the tribulation, the kingdom, and the patient endurance.”  He ties these 3 together grammatically:  tribulation = ordeal or suffering; kingdom = sovereignty or reign of Jesus Christ, therefore the suffering has a purpose and royal dignity; patient endurance = not passive resignation but active and courageous endurance. In other words, John speaks of a courageous, dignified suffering, a suffering that does not give in to the indignities heaped upon these Christians.  It is dignified because Jesus is Lord and they belong to him, even though this seems like an impossible time.  He will use it for his purpose and his glory.  John and his people refused to kneel to the statue of Domitian in Ephesus.  It ws an act of loyalty to the Lord of the universe.

The vision begins: John was worshiping on the Lord’s Day – a reference to Sunday because the New Testament Church focused on the weekly celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.  He says he was in the Spirit – he was experiencing spiritual joy and ecstasy.  This is not a dream that comes when one is sleeping, but a vision while one is awake.  John is ordered to write what he sees to the 7 churches.

I promised that we would look at some different ways of interpreting this letter of visions.  This list is seen in two different ways.  The first is the way we are going to understand it.  These 7 churches or cities are representative of 7 areas or groups of churches in Asia Minor.  In other words, these were real churches, or real areas of churches.  A second interpretation, especially among those who like to understand the Bible in terms of dispensations or separate periods of history, understand the 7 churches this way: (OVERHEAD)

            EPHESUS – the 1st Century

            SMYRNA – period of persecution

            PERGAMUM – Age of Constantine

            THYATIRA – Middle Ages

            SARDIS – Reformation Era

            PHILADELPHIA – Time of the modern Missionary Movement

            LAODICEA – Apostasy of the Last Days

Note: There are some initially appealing things about this interpretation, and some serious problems with it.  For example, Sardis is described in Rev. as “more dead than alive,” which is an rather strange interpretation for the period of the Reformation.  There are others.  I believe in this case, given the historical context, we are talking about 7 churches in 7 geographical areas, along with the number 7 being the number that symbolizes the whole of the church at that time.

John’s introduction to his vision shares what he sees.  The more we just sit back and try to see some of these descriptions in our minds the more we will appreciate what we are studying.  This is a piece of biblical multi-media.  It is very visual.  John paints word pictures that he intended for us to visualize in our imaginations and sense the best we can their symbolic meanings.  We will take them apart, but we will miss some of the beauty and intrigue if we do not see them as pictures first.  Now we will take the symbols apart – and then put the picture back together.

  1. “I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet”  This is a symbol of royalty, acclaim.  This is one of those symbols that will reappear.  Throughout the book there are repeated images pointing to the glory and dominion of Christ in contrast to the apparent vulnerability of the Christians.
  2. “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.  And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands…”  Later in verse 20 Christ clearly says that the 7 lampstands are the 7 churches.  Here is a central symbol throughout the Bible.  God is Light.  Christ is the Sun.  The church is the light-bearer.  The light is the Word of God.  (cf. John 1:1)
  3. “and among the lampstands was someone like the son of man…”  This simply means that he looked like a man.
  4. “dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest”  Both of these images are intended to convey a picture of a person of distinction, a person of authority and power.  This is the attire of the high priest.
  5. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow…”  Is suspect you immediately would identify this with dignity and wisdom, although in our time unlike any before it, the dignity, wisdom and respect of age seems to often lose out to the youth culture in which we would rather be young and beautiful than wise.
  6. “and his eyes were like blazing fire” a picture of intense life, penetrating clarity of vision.
  7.  “His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace,…”  Burnished bronze refers to something highly refined, perfected, beautiful.  There are several references here to Daniel and images of strength, very solid in its beauty.
  8. “and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”  This is an interesting symbol for a man who is on a small island in the Aegean Sea.  This is a reference to the voice of God.  In Ezekiel 43:2 we read, “and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east.  His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory.
  9. “In his right hand he held seven stars,…” Again, in verse 20 Christ interprets this for John as the “angels of the 7 churches.”  Some interpret this as a sort of guardian angel for each church.  I think it is the spirit of the church or it’s identity, the totality of what the church is spiritually.
  10. “and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.”   This is a reference we would not immediately see.  A tongue shaped knife or sword was used by the Roman soldier as an offensive weapon – very sharp and capable of cutting a person in half.  This is about fear.
  11. “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”  Again the image of light, the sun the source of light, light in all its strength and beauty.  No doubt this was a powerful image for a man stranded on a desert island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.

Having taken it apart, we have seen some of the symbols, but we have done it injustice.  Now lets read it again, and try to see what John saw.  Visualize it.  Feel it.  Here is the picture that Eugene Peterson sees:

I turned and saw the voice.      I saw a gold menorah (candlestick) with seven branches.

And in the center, the Son of Man,

in a robe and gold breastplate, hair a blizzard of white,

Eyes pours fire-blaze, both feet furnace-fired bronze,

His voice a waterfall, right hand holding Seven Stars,

His mouth a sharp-biting sword,  his face a summer sun.

What do you think they were called to experience with this picture in the churches of Asia Minor?  John’s reaction would be expected from any of us.  He fell down to worship and was as dead in his fear.  “Then he placed his right hand on me and said,…” Let’s especially note Jesus words.  These are words of comfort that will be repeated in this pastoral letter to the churches:

  1. Fear not: this is the constant message to the churches from the one who loves them and is Lord.  Do not be afraid.  The Bible is full of this message.
  2. “I am the first and the Last”  — the Alpha and Omega again, the one was before and outlasts anything that is happening right now.
  3. “I was dead, and become I am alive for ever and ever!”  This is clearly the resurrected Christ speaking.  How important is this message in the face of suffering and persecution?
  4. And even more important, “I have the keys of death and Hades.”  Hades is the place of the dead.  This says that Christ will free those who have died in Him.  He is the supreme Christ.

Again we are reminded that we need to see the pictures and feel the power of the message of comfort, hope, and encouragement.  Now lets take a moment, see the picture in our minds and hear Christ saying these words to us in whatever our circumstance is this evening.

Next time we will look at the first letter – to the Church at Ephesus.