JESUS AND HIS CHURCH –  Revelation 1:12 – 20
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
John turned to see ‘the voice that was speaking’ to him, and he saw Jesus Christ.
A. THE SEVEN GOLDEN LAMPSTANDS [1:12,20]
John saw seven golden lampstands and someone among them. Verse 20 tells us that the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
This is John’s second mention of the number ‘seven’. It is the number of perfection. Despite the problems about to be identified, this symbol attributes ‘perfection’ to the church. The message of Revelation is not just to the seven churches mentioned by name but to the whole church invisible and universal – the true church of all ages, the full and perfect number of God’s people from all generations, deemed and reckoned ‘perfect’ in Jesus Christ.
Check out these references to the perfection credited to all who are in Christ Jesus:
The perfection of the church is embedded not only in the word ‘seven’, but in the symbol of the ‘lampstands’. This takes us right back to Exodus 25:31-40, where instructions and reports are given regarding the crafting of the lampstand for the Tabernacle. Of this lampstand we learn:
That it had seven arms.
That it was made of pure gold.
That is was crafted [hammered out] from one piece of gold.
That is was consecrated to God, that is, deemed to be holy because it was set apart by God and for God.
The lampstand, delicately beaten out from the one piece of pure gold was the work of a master craftsman from the tribe of Judah, chosen and gifted by God for this task, and filled with the Spirit of God [Exodus 35:30-33]. Even so the Church is crafted by Jesus Christ, who is from the tribe of Judah, chosen and enabled by God for the task, and filled with the Spirit of God. We, the Church, are his workmanship – ‘pure gold’ and ‘one’.
Its position in the Tabernacle was in the Holy Place, immediately opposite the Ark of the Covenant/Mercy Seat in the Most Holy Place, with only the Curtain and the Golden Altar of Incense between them. Given that the Curtain was ripped away at the moment Jesus Christ died, the Lampstand, that is the Church, is thus in the immediate presence of God, and of his mercy. [About the Incense Altar and the Ark/Mercy Seat we will learn more later.]
By this symbol of the seven golden lampstands [which in fact means seven times seven lamps, multiplying the emphasis on perfection] God gives to John a message of assurance for the Church: that the Church, carefully and painstakingly created by Jesus Christ and perfect in Christ, is, even now, already, safe and secure in the presence of God.
But this is not all that we can learn from the symbol of the lampstands as it refers to the Church. Jesus does not take his Church out of the world. He left his Church in the world to shine forth his light – as lampstands, bringing light of his truth into the darkness of the world.
The golden lampstand in the tabernacle/temple was also positioned so that its light shone outwards – not back towards the curtain, not back towards God, but outwards, lighting up the space in front of it [Numbers 8:1-4]. It was also to be kept burning continually [Leviticus 24:1-4]. The church, already in the presence of God in Christ, continually shines his light out into the world.
Check out these verses:
Note the reference to the world’s hatred or persecution of the Church in each of these verses or their context. The purpose of lampstands is to bear the light, to shine in the darkness. But those who love the darkness hate the light [see John 3:18]. For this reason Jesus was rejected. For this reason his Church is rejected.
B. JESUS [1:13-18; 2; 3]
B.1 Someone “like a son of man” – 1:13-16
John sees someone ‘like a son of man’ among the lampstands. Revelation 2:1 tells us that he ‘walks’ among the lampstands. His description parallels the descriptions elsewhere in the Scripture given to one like a ‘son of man’ and also to God himself.
Compare these references with Revelation 1:13-16:
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Before we look at John’s description in more detail, it is good to remember that ‘Son of Man’ was the title Jesus most frequently used to refer to himself. He used it particularly in reference to his suffering and in reference to his return in glory and judgment. It is a title that holds within itself the tension in which the Church finds itself in this age between Christ’s two comings – the tension of suffering and kingdom.
Just as one ‘like the Son of God’ [Daniel 3:25, KJV] walked around in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, so Jesus, one ‘like a son of man’ is in the midst of the Church as it suffers hatred and persecution.
What did John see?
 Dignity and authority – the long robe and the golden sash [verse 13].
 Radiant, powerful, glorious brilliance – similar to the glory of God [verses 14-16b]. In 2:18 this brilliance is ascribed to Jesus as the Son of God. By this radiant glory Jesus is identified as God.
 His voice like the sound of rushing waters [1:15]. The sound of rushing waters is over-powering, inescapable. It drowns out everything else. Such is the voice of Jesus in this vision.
 Seven stars in his right hand [1:16; 2:1; 3:1]. In verse 20 Jesus explained to John that the ‘seven stars’ are the ‘seven angels (or messengers)’ of the seven churches. The same word that translates ‘angels’ also means ‘messengers’, so it is not clear how we are supposed to understand this. The most probable meaning is that these ‘angels’ are the pastors/leaders of the churches. This interpretation is supported by the fact that each of the letters to the churches in chapters two and three is addressed not to the church but ‘to the angel of the church in …’ The important truth is that whether they are heavenly beings, human messengers, or the teachers/leaders of the churches, Jesus has them in his right hand – a symbol of his power and authority. He is in control.
 A sharp double-edged sword coming out of his mouth [1:16; 2:12]. The phrase ‘out of his mouth’ alerts us immediately to the identity of this ‘double edged sword’ – it is the Word, the truth of God spoken by Jesus. This is the sword that Jesus uses to fight against heresy [Revelation 2:14-16] and against his enemies in the final battle [Revelation 19:15,21]. The Word of God, not a physical sword, is the weapon wielded by Jesus in the last battle.
Check these Old Testament references:
Isaiah 11:4; 49:2
What do these Scriptures teach about the Word of God?
This double-edged sword coming out of the mouth of Jesus is at the one time both a warning and a reassurance: a warning to have nothing to do with the false teaching that threatens the church in all ages, and a reassurance that Jesus Christ is the Judge and he will return in judgment.
B.2 Reaction and response – 1:17 - 19
John is utterly overwhelmed. Like Isaiah [6:5], Ezekiel [1:28], Daniel [7:15], the shepherds [Luke 2:9], Peter, James and John himself [Matthew 17:5,6], and Saul [Acts 9:3,4] he is seeing a vision of the Lord and he is greatly disturbed. Fear is the automatic and over-riding reaction. Even though he has seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ [John 1:14], even though he has seen the glorious brilliance of Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration [Matthew 17], he is unprepared for what he now sees and hears. The powerfulness of the voice of Jesus, the intensity of his brilliance, and all the related imagery, leave John totally without strength. Who can live, who can survive in the presence of such power, such authority, such glory! What sinner can survive in the presence of this holy and almighty God?
But the right hand of this glorious Jesus reaches out and touches him … just as it reached out and touched the leper, just as it reached out and raised Jairus’ daughter from death to life, and to many others. Just as it reached out and touched John on the Mount of Transfiguration [Matthew 17:7]. And the voice of Jesus, just as it did then, so here says ‘Do not be afraid.’
[Note on John’s use of symbols: We have here an insight into John’s use of symbols. He has just told us that Jesus has a ‘sharp double-edged sword’ coming out of his mouth, yet this same Jesus speaks to John. Imagine trying to speak with a huge sharp sword stuck in your mouth! You can’t do it. And he has just told us that Jesus is holding ‘seven stars’ in his right hand, yet Jesus placed his right hand on John. Not possible physically. The symbols are just that: symbols. We are not meant to try to construct a physical picture from the various symbols. The truths represented by the symbols are solid and permanent. The symbols themselves have no physical reality and no permanence. It should not surprise us when we cannot create a visual physical reality from them, or when they seem to rule each other out.]
‘Do not be afraid …’
The fear with which John reacted is both valid and invalid. It is valid because no sinner can survive in the presence of the holy God; but this fear is invalid for those who have received forgiveness in Christ.
What do these Scriptures teach about sinners in the presence of the holy God?
What do these Scriptures teach about the free and confident access to God that believers have because of Jesus Christ?
Jesus does not condemn John’s fear, because as far as it goes it is justified. John is a sinner, and here he is in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Mighty God, the Holy One. But he does tell John not to be afraid. The basis of this ‘Do not be afraid’ is explained in Jesus’ self-description that follows.
When we read what follows this ‘Do not be afraid!’ in verses 17 and 18 we realize that these words do not address only John’s immediate fear in the presence of the exalted Christ, but also address the whole context of evil, persecution and threat of death in which John and the church were living, and in which the church still lives. This ‘Do not be afraid!’ could well be a summary of the whole book of Revelation. Do not be afraid: look at Jesus, see who he is, see what he has done, see what he will yet do.
‘I am the First and the Last’ [see also 2:8]
By these words Jesus identifies himself as God [see Revelation 1:8 and 21:6, where God describes himself as ‘the Alpha and the Omega’ and ‘the Beginning and the End’]. In Revelation 22:13 Jesus speaks of himself with three similar phrases:
The Alpha and the Omega
The First and the Last
The Beginning and the End.
He was there at the beginning of all things. He will be there at the ‘end’ of all things.
He is the origin of all things. He is the consummation of all things.
He brought everything into existence. He will bring everything to its goal.
In all of this he is what God is.
What do these Scriptures teach about Jesus Christ?
There is a very important truth that we need to recognize here, that is discussed briefly in Section A of the study: The Big Picture – The Genesis Connection.
In Genesis, where ‘the heavens and the earth’ and the human story started, it is obvious that we very quickly messed things up. Genesis 3 records the devastating human ‘fall’ that occurred, and the disintegration that followed. God’s creative plan and purpose appear to have been aborted. All seems ‘lost’. Everything has ended almost as soon as it began. Physically ‘the heavens and the earth’ and human life survive, but not in the manner intended by God.
Spiritually, humans are cut off from the one source of their spiritual life. Century after century. Millennium after millennium.
And we humans ask again and again: Why does God not stop the suffering? Why does God not stop the sin? We know that something is wrong. All of our news broadcasts are packed with life gone wrong. Our songs express it. Our novels and movie scripts ponder it. Our art reflects it. We know deep within us that this life we now live – the suffering, the pain, the tensions, the violence, the divisions, the emptiness, the striving for meaning, significance and identity – is not what life should be. We long for something better … until we give up hoping.
Into this vortex of human pain and pathos comes this word of Jesus: ‘I am the Beginning and the End … I am the Alpha and the Omega … I am the First and the Last’.
We owe our origin and our existence to him. He is our beginning, our source. Back then in Genesis 1 and 2 when we were created in his image, that was the work of Jesus Christ. Out of nothing, by the power of his Word he created us. He spoke, and there we were.
And it is also Jesus Christ who will bring us, and ‘the heavens and the earth’, to our goal. The pain, the suffering, the incompleteness is not the end. The persecution being experienced by John’s original readers is not the end. Jesus Christ is ‘the last’, Jesus Christ is ‘the end’. He is the ‘eschatos’.
All the mysteries of God are revealed in him.
All the purposes of God reach their goal in him.
All the promises of God are fulfilled in him.
What God accomplishes in and through Jesus Christ encompasses the whole universe; it encompasses all nations. Through him and because of him all that is, is liberated from Genesis 3 and set free for the glory for which it was created.
‘I am the Living One …’
In the Greek text this is connected to the previous statement ‘I am the First and the Last and the Living One’. Jesus Christ was there at the origin of all things, and he will be there at the consummation of all things, and he has been here at all points in between, because he is ‘the Living One’. He lives. Not only does he live, but he himself is life, and, of necessity, the source and giver of life.
Check out these texts about Jesus and life:
John 6:35, 40, 51
‘I was dead … ’ [see also 2:8]
Here Jesus states a bald and startling fact ‘I was dead’. It clashes with all that he has just said. It clashes with the radiant power and glory we have just seen. How can this glorious Being ever be ‘dead’? How can he who is the source and origin of all things ever be ‘dead’? How can he who is ‘the Living One’ ever be ‘dead’?
But there is more here than meets the eye. The Greek word translated ‘was’ literally means ‘I became’ – I became dead. Here, in a decisive action [it is Aorist Tense], the Living One, became dead. Here the Living One deliberately became something that he was not; he who is life, took death upon himself [‘became’ is in the Middle Voice].
Read John 10:17-18 and Mark 10:45.
What is this death that the Living One took upon himself?
It is the wages of our sin [Romans 6:23; 1Peter 2:24].
It is the curse that was upon us [Galatians 3:10,13].
It is the price necessary for our release [Mark 10:45; 1Peter 1:18-21].
It is the substitutionary sacrifice necessary to gain our acquittal, reconciliation and atonement [Romans 3:23-26; 5:6-10; Colossians 1:20-22].
It is that separation from God that automatically results from sin [Matthew 27:46].
This death is just as much about life, and Jesus’ power to give and sustain life, as the fact that he is ‘the Living One’. By this deliberate and decisive death Jesus redeems those trapped in spiritual death, setting us free from death. By this death Jesus gives us life. This deliberate, decisive death which Jesus took upon himself is totally consistent with his eternal existence as the Living One, the Life, the Source and Goal of all things.
In this ‘I became dead’ Jesus also expresses his deep love for us. Although Revelation mentions God’s love only three times [1:5: 3:9,19], yet here at the very beginning we are assured of that love. As John states in his first letter:
‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us’ [3:16].
‘This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love … that he … sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins [4:9,10].
‘ … and behold I am alive for ever and ever!’
It was neither intended nor expected that death would hold him. It was in fact impossible for death to hold him [Acts 2:24-32]. Jesus came to die, but he did not come only to die. His resurrection was always the intended and necessary sequel to his death. So he says to John ‘and behold, living I am …’ [the word translated ‘alive’ is identical to ‘Living One’ earlier in the verse].
The Living One, the One who for their sakes became dead, is now living for ever and ever – literally ‘into the ages of the ages.’
‘And I hold the keys of death and Hades’ [compare 3:7]
[Note: ‘Hades’ refers to the realm of the dead. It is where the souls of unbelievers go when they die. For example, in Luke 16:19-31 two men died. The godless rich man went to ‘Hades’ [Greek text], while Lazarus, a believer, went straight to ‘Abraham’s side’.]
John’s readers were facing physical death because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ. Jesus has already destroyed the one who held the power of death, the devil, and he has already set people free from slavery to the fear of death [Hebrews 2:14]. Now he says that it is he who holds ‘the keys of death and Hades’.
Because he lives, those who believe in him also live [John 14:19].
Because he lives, those who die believing in him live even though they die [John 11:25,26].
Because he lives, believers who die go immediately into his presence [2Corinthians 5:7; Philippians 1:21-23].
Death is not in charge. Jesus is: he holds the keys. What he shuts no one can open. What he opens no one can shut [Isaiah 22:22; Revelation 3:7].
This powerful, conquering Jesus is the One who is in control, even over death. It is he who is speaking to his church through his servant John. It is he who is in the midst of his suffering church – the glorious One standing ‘among the lampstands’ [Revelation 1:12,13,20]. Although he is even now at his Father’s throne seated at his right hand and the focus of praise, yet he is also here in his church. In the same way, although the church is here on this earth, still subject to suffering and to physical death, his church is also, right now, seated in him in the heavenly realms [Ephesians 2:6]. Dying, but already beyond death [John 5:24]. Because Jesus, the Living One, became dead for us. Because Jesus, the Living One, holds the keys. He has already set us free.
This vision of the glory, power and authority of Jesus [1:12-20] is the first revelation that God gives to his suffering church. This is the foundational truth upon which all of the other visions and revelations are built. This is the picture we are to keep in mind as we read through Revelation. We must keep revisiting this scene even as we look at others. This Jesus is the Jesus we will see in action in different contexts right through this book, in scenes that are quite frightening and overwhelming. When we see him there let us always remember this, that he is this Jesus – the Son of Man who loves us and gave his life for us, this Jesus who says to us here ‘Do not be afraid … I hold the keys! Do not be afraid … I have already conquered!’
Questions for you:
What has this vision of Jesus Christ taught you about him?
What has this vision of Jesus Christ taught you about yourself as a member of his church?
How does this vision of Jesus Christ encourage you to live for him in the world?