Tag Archives: John the Seer

Revelation 2 The Messages to the First Four Churches

Revelation 2: 1-7 The Message to Ephesus

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

 2 “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

The next two chapters are made up of seven messages to the seven churches of Asia. While each message is directed to a specific church dealing with specific challenges these messages also allow the reader to see their own community in light of the struggles and triumphs of these churches. Each message shares a basic pattern:

Call to repent
Commendation for resistance to false messages

All these cities shared a number of common features being a part of the Roman empire: they all had populations that mixed Romans, Greeks, and Jewish populations as well, all the Christian groups in these cities were small minorities in a sea of polytheistic religious practices including the worship of the emperor who had to navigate life in a complex world where society and religion were closely intermingled, and all of these cities were dependent on their connection to Rome for trade and it was common for local leaders to attempt to pay tribute to Rome. Contrary to what many people would guess, worshipping of the Roman emperor as a ‘god’ or a ‘son of a god’ seems to have emerged not in Rome but in the provinces where local officials were attempting to demonstrate their loyalty and curry favor with the empire.

Monumental Gate in Ephesus dedicated to Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god and high priest and the members of his family By Hawkeye58, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3669323

Ephesus was a port city that relied upon trade. Artemis was one of the major deities worshipped in Ephesus and often being a part of a trade in the ancient world was associated with a temple. When Acts 19 relates the story of Paul being in Ephesus we can see the connection between the trade of the silversmiths, the temple of Artemis and the way in which Paul’s message was viewed not only as a different religious sect but a challenge to the economy of the city and was enough to cause a riot. Ephesus was also a port where slaves were traded along with all other forms of commerce.

In the introduction to the message of the church in Ephesus’ angel we are directed back to the image of Christ which John initially sees in Revelation 1, the seven stars and seven lampstands. The church in Ephesus is commended for its discernment between true and false apostles and their endurance in their allegiance to Jesus. Craig Koester suggests that where they have fallen is related to this: “the problem seems to be that their opposition to false teachers has led to a loss of love for other believers. Therefore, the Ephesians are called to do the work they did at first, which would have been acts of service for others.” (Koester, 2014, p. 269) This is one of the challenges Christians of many times have had to deal with. It is too common for communities that become rigid in their boundaries to become suspicious and hostile to outsiders, but Christian communities were to be communities of hospitality, service and love and yet remain true to their commitments to the gospel in a pluralistic world. They are called to repentance, to turn back to their first love and if they fail to repent they ultimately will fail to be church. The image of their lampstand being removed also means that the community has been symbolically removed.

The Nicolaitans are mentioned for the first time here. We don’t know much about this group. It is often conjectured that they were willing to eat meat offered to idols, like some of the believers Paul addressed at Corinth (1 Corinthians 8). This educated guess makes sense in a world where meat was often available at festivals (in a world before refrigeration most times when you ate meat would be at festivals and almost every festival in the ancient world would have religious aspects). Ultimately the Nicolaitans probably advocated for a less distinctive Christianity where people could still partake in the public events and trade groups associated with local and Roman customs, authorities and powers. To John this level of accommodation betrays their allegiance to the one who holds the seven stars and seven lampstands.

In the conclusion we have the first use of one of Revelation’s favored words: conquer (Greek nikao). This word has aspects of conquering in military, sporting and in the terms of remaining faithful and it will be important to watch how Revelation redefines this term in light of Christ victory (conquest). This Greek word is probably best known today in its use by the giant athletic shoe and clothing company and cultural icon Nike. Those in Ephesus are commended to conquer in light of Christ’s conquest which comes through love and steadfastness. If they conquer they are promised to eat from the tree of life which is mentioned in Genesis 3 and reappears in Revelation 22.

Revelation 2: 8-11 The Message to Smyrna

 8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

 9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

The second message to the church in Smyrna is shorter and reflects a different situation for the church being addressed. The church in Smyrna is undergoing affliction and poverty yet their faith seems to be strong. Their steadfastness in this cultural has probably had an economic cost, but instead of storing up treasures on earth this community seems to have placed their riches in heaven where neither moth nor rust consume (Matthew 19-21). They have resisted assimilation into the ways of the empire and local culture. They may also be experiencing conflict with the Jewish community or Christians that have argued for retaining the practices of the Jewish law.

As mentioned above trade in the ancient world was also linked with both religious and political practices that many early Christians may have found troubling. There was no separation of church and state like we can discuss in modern times. Successful merchants were expected to show patronage to both the civic projects which would pay homage to the Roman empire and to show their devotion to the appropriate deities for their trade. Christians and Jews both would have resisted this. Jews within the empire were known and had some level of protection for their practice. Within the Roman empire, with its emphasis on piety, security, concord and peace, there were many who were intrigued by a religion like Judaism with its focus on the law. As Christianity and Judaism begin to move farther apart in this period the early Christians probably lost the shelter of being known as a Jewish movement and may have encountered animosity from Jewish people not wanting to be associated with what was perceived as a heretical and dangerous movement.

The term ‘synagogue of Satan’ sets up an opposition between the ‘congregation of the Lord.’ In Revelation’s time the conflict was fresh and the early Christians were a very small group within the empire. There probably was some sense of betrayal by those in the synagogues over their exclusion or perhaps even identification to authorities. Yet this term has an unfortunate history within the church. The church would in the span of two centuries move from being a small group sometimes actively persecuted within the empire and other times excluded from commerce and the broader society to an accepted and eventually the official religion of the empire. The church as a power within Roman and other societies would use this and other passages in the New Testament as justification for their later persecution of the Jewish people. The connection of the church and the synagogue would be lost only to be recently appreciated again.

This message is one of encouragement for a community either enduring or about to endure hardship. John mentions imprisonment as a part of the suffering they will endure and to remain faithful until death. In documents shortly after Revelation’s composition we start to see the early church writing about early martyrs like Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity, Ptolemaeus and many others. Their steadfast witness would become an important illustration of the content of their hope. Those who conquer will be given the crown of life, and perhaps they will see themselves among the elders casting their crowns before the throne. The resurrection was central to the hope of the early church and the witness of those willing to be faithful unto death gave a new meaning to the word which is translated as witness (martyr). In light of the militaristic images throughout much of Revelation we see now the church in Smyrna addressed like soldiers going into battle, and yet their conquering will not be through taking other lives but in the willingness to give up their own on the model of Christ.

Revelation 2: 12-17 The Message to Pergamum

12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:

 13 “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. 15 So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the -churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

The third message is addressed to the church in Pergamum and it has a two-sided message of encouragement and repentance. They are living in a culture that is opposed to the Lordship of Christ and in Antipas we see evidence of the only person in these messages who has been killed for his faith at this point. In a culture that called for them to assimilate to the practices of the community around them and to pay homage to the emperor the early Christians found themselves labeled as atheist and disturbers of the peace.

Pergamum was a city where the imperial cult was a source of pride. As mentioned above the worship of Caesar as a god was practiced more commonly throughout the provinces as a way of showing their piety, devotion and to curry favor with Rome. They established the first provincial temple dedicated to Augustus and the goddess of Rome after receiving permission to establish a sacred precinct to Augustus in 29 BCE (Koester, 2014, p. 284). Rome’s economic and military power became enshrined as a civil religion where the emperor and the might of Rome was lifted up, honored and worshipped.

Pergamum Theater By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commo

The early Christians would have met strong resistance in Pergamum for their unwillingness to participate in the civic religious festivals and honors. Yet, in the midst of this there are apparently some in the community who are trying to find a way to remain connected to the society and a part of the church. There would have been strong pressure to accommodate with the culture in both eating and participating in some of these rituals.

The reference to the stories of Balak and Balaam from Numbers 22-25 may have indicated some Jewish background for this community or at least familiarity with this story from the people of Israel’s approach to the promised land. Balaam is commissioned by King Balak of Moab to curse the people of Israel as they moved toward Moab but, after the incident with a talking donkey saving Balaam from the angel of the LORD, Balaam extends three blessings to Israel. Yet, the people of Israel at Shittim begin to have sexual relations with the women of Moab and are invited to participate in the worship of other gods and this kindles the LORD’s anger at this infidelity to God’s calling of them as the LORD’s chosen people who are to have no other gods. John uses this story to chastise those who he feels have been unfaithful to their calling by participating in these practices. The Nicolaitans are mentioned in connection with this and probably are willing to take part in these festivals and eat the food offered there. John wants those in the congregation participating in this that they have aligned themselves with the forces opposed to God and that Christ will be making war against these forces.

Fornication in scripture does not always mean sexual immorality. Most frequently this term is used metaphorically to refer to idolatry (ex. Hosea 1,2, Jeremiah 3,). It can also refer to participating in commercial activities that were viewed as unfaithful (and this is a common use in Revelation). Sometimes fornication is literally fornication but frequently in the prophets and Revelation it is a metaphorical unfaithfulness through idolatrous and commercial practices.

To those who conquer there is the promise of manna and a white stone with a new name on it. Manna is the bread that the LORD fed the Israelites with in the journey in the wilderness from Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 16: 4-8). The white stone could have a couple of meanings in the society: indicating a positive vote, a token of admission or as a stone of protection like in an amulet. I find the idea of the positive vote most likely since voting in the ancient world was often done by placing a small stone in an urn and typically a white stone was a positive vote while a black stone was a negative vote. The name on the stone is probably the name of Christ but could be a new name given to the individual believer as a sign of their new identity.

Revelation 2: 18-29 The Message to Thyatira

 18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:

 19 “I know your works — your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come. 26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered — 28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

The message to the church of Thyatira is predominantly addressed to a faction within the church associated with a woman named Jezebel here. The community is growing in their practices of faithfulness, hospitality, service and endurance with exception to this group and for those who have not associated with this group the are only called to hold fast.

Jezebel is a reference to the wife of King Ahab, daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians who is in direct opposition to the prophet Elijah and along with King Ahab turns Israel away from worshipping the LORD the God of Israel to worshipping Baal (I Kings 16: 30-22:40). John and this woman apparently had struggled for authority in the church and John had probably used the language of Jezebel to name her in previous incidents. The woman titled Jezebel was probably a resident member of the congregation and so that provided an additional challenge for John who was not. As mentioned above the fornication is probably a metaphorical use of the term where her followers participated in the society’s religious and commercial practices in a way that John deemed idolatrous and unfaithful. The ‘deep things of Satan’ is probably a parody of the ‘deep things of God’ where some group claims to have some deeper knowledge of God’s will or intention. As in Daniel 2:22 where God reveals the deep and hidden things or 1 Corinthians 2: 10 where the Spirit searches even the depths of God, there may have been some claim made by this group of some deeper knowledge of God’s will that John denies. In language that parallels Jeremiah 17:10, John now sets this group apart as one under God’s judgment for their deeds.

The community that conquers is now to rule alongside Christ. They will also receive the promised ruler, the morning star, who is Christ. This is also the only use of Son of God in Revelation, although Jesus will refer to God as Father, and the community who will eventually receive the morning star and Son of God cannot extend those titles to anyone else. In a society where Caesar was lifted up as a son of a god this exclusive claim that the early Christians made in their society had political consequences. Yet, they look forward to a time when the world is reversed and the faithful ones rule the nation rather than those Revelation will later label as monstrous.

Revelation 1 Opening Revelation

Diego Velazquez, Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos (1619-1620)

I have struggled with how to begin this since this has seemed like a Herculean task to approach a book which has given rise to any number of wild and disparate interpretations both recently and throughout the history of the church. If the brief survey of the history of interpretation of Revelation I wrote and my own study of church history and biblical interpretation has shown me anything it is that any reading of scripture is a provisional reading that is informed by the time and position of the interpreter—and yet scripture in its own living way continues to speak across the millennia. So, it is in a sense of humility that I begin this reading of Revelation. This is a reading of one pastor who comes to this strange book with a sense of wonder and awe as we enter into the mysteries that John the Seer relates to us in his recording of this vision. I begin having some sense of where this is going because I’ve been working through the book as a whole as I attempt this beginning, so here are some aspects that inform this reading:

  • This reading is canonical in the dual sense that I am beginning with the belief that Revelation is both a part of the broader canon that Christians consider the scripture and that its placement within that canon also shapes the way we hear Revelation. The same God, the same Jesus who is witnessed to throughout the rest of the scriptures is who we encounter in Revelation. There will be portions of Revelation that can only be clear in hearing it in dialogue with the rest of scripture.
  • It is intertextual in the sense that I will often refer back to other places throughout scripture where Revelation’s images resonate. Revelation is a much clearer and richer document when one listens closely to Ezekiel, Daniel, Exodus, Psalms, Deuteronomy and the gospels and Paul’s letters. John the Seer was either a Jewish Christian or a gentile extremely well steeped in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) since it is rare when Revelation does not subtly echo these scriptures.
  • That the God of Revelation is the loving God we encounter in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This is about a God who does love the world as John 3: 16 reminds us. This is about a God who is the creator who does care about this world God created. In that sense it will be an ecological reading. It will also be a gracious reading. My work with Jeremiah and Exodus has given me some empathy for the way God’s involvement with humanity comes at a cost: God becomes brokenhearted about the state of the world and the state of God’s people.
  • The God of Revelation chooses sides and is not the unmoved mover of deist and philosophical thought. This is not a new thing in scripture. The story of the Exodus is a story of a God who chooses those who are oppressed and weak and intervenes. The book of Revelation is a similar story. Like in the book of the Exodus, we will also see God use an incredible amount of restraint allowing time and space for repentance and renewal. The cry of the saints, “How long Lord” which echoes the words of the Psalmist, indicate the cost of God’s patience and yet God will not ultimately allow the forces that work against God’s will for the world to prevail.
  • The violent language of the book of Revelation has often been a source of discomfort for interpreters, much like the more violent portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. In some ways we will see some of this language has been misinterpreted but I do think we need to wrestle with the violence that is a part of this book. Much more on this as we proceed into the images of Revelation.
  • Revelation is a profoundly anti-imperial book. Specifically, the empire of this time is the Roman empire. This also is nothing new for the scriptures. From the book of Genesis onward there has always been a suspicion of the claims of nations, kings and empires. The story of the Exodus, which is the foundational story for the Jewish people, is a story of God taking a people out of the empire of the day and creating a way for them to be a different kind of society. Revelation with its calls to ‘flee from Babylon’ stands within this tradition. In this sense it is a work that gives us a lens to understand our own interactions within our own societies, nations and world. Revelation is not the only voice within the scripture which addresses how people of faith live and work within the empire, but it is also not a lone or outlying voice in the broader scriptures.

Revelation 1:1-8

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse from the Greek title of the book, gets its title from the opening line which declares it is a revelation of Jesus Christ. Without entering into a long conversation about ‘apocalyptic literature’ I think perhaps a good place to start is with the meaning of the word Revelation or apocalypse. An apocalypse, in the way we normally use this term, typically means something like an event involving destruction on a catastrophic scale or something that involves the final destruction of the world. But the translation of apocalypse to revelation is telling. Revelation means something which is revealed or disclosed and that is what this book claims to be. While the book of Revelation does point to a conflict between the forces that are at work destroying the world and God’s unwillingness, as world’s Creator, to let these forces of death and destruction continue to exercise power and dominion forever it is more concerned with disclosing the images seen than anything else. The book is a book of hope filled with powerful images that continue to resonate thousands of years later. John, the named author of Revelation, writes down these visions to disclose them to church of his time and by extension to the church of our time.

The John of Revelation is probably not the same John who wrote the gospel of John and the letters of John. Ever since Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) showed that the two works could not come from the same person because of writing style and content the position of Revelation has been questioned. Dionysius and eventually the church accepted Revelation as a part of the canon but without apostolic authorship there would continue to be questions about the authority of Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 34) Yet, Revelation is a part of the collection of works we consider as our scriptures and regardless of the apostolicity of the author has been valued throughout the church’s life. John, or John the Seer as I will sometimes refer to him, attempts to put into words that which seems to defy description. His language is the language of the scriptures, what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or ELCA, the denomination I am a part of) in its Book of Faith initiative would refer to the first language of faith.

John considers this a prophesy and the language of this first chapter resonates strongly with the call scenes of the prophets into service to testify to the word of the Lord (see for example Isaiah 6: 1-13; Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Ezekiel 1:1-3:11). John’s self-understanding is probably that of a prophet, one who has been called to deliver a message on behalf of God. The prophets point to a different way of understanding the world in light of God’s revelation to them. They often are unpopular with those in authority since they are calling their hearers back to God’s alternative way of living in the world. John’s message to the church should be heard in this light. This will become clearer as we approach the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three.

John also, like Paul and other writers of the Christian epistles, is writing a letter and this first chapter holds many similarities to letters like the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, etc. While John is addressing the seven churches in Asia (modern day Turkey) who we will encounter in the following chapters we will find the number seven is significant in the book of Revelation since it denotes completion or wholeness and so while this is a letter to seven specific churches it is also a letter or book to the larger church. Like the letters that Paul writes these introductions can densely packed with language that articulate key points of the author’s faith. These key affirmations include:

  • ‘from him who is and who was and who is to come’ this way of referring to God probably goes back to the divine name, “YHWH” that God gives Moses in Exodus 3: 13-22. The circular way of naming God without actually saying the name of God probably also reflects the desire not to violate the commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5: 11)
  • ‘Seven spirits before the throne’ as mentioned above seven will appear continually throughout Revelation to denote completion or wholeness. Below we will see seven stars and seven lampstands and the seven spirits may well be connected to the seven eyes for the lamb or the seven churches.
  • Jesus Christ as ‘faithful witness,’ ‘first born of the dead’ and the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ uses several titles to refer to Jesus which each can be unpacked briefly. Jesus as faithful witness becomes the model or icon that the readers of Revelation are to emulate. The word for witness is the word which ‘martyr’ comes from and that is an important concept for Revelation. While being a faithful witness does not require death or suffering in a society that is established in a manner that is counter to God’s will it will often be uncomfortable and involve persecution. ‘First born of the dead’ resonates strongly with the Pauline language used to describe the impact of Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1: 15,18). ‘Ruler of the kings of the earth’ also resonates with Pauline language for who Christ ultimately is, even though the powers and principalities seem to exercise power they will also bow with everything on heaven and earth to the resurrected Christ (ex. Philippians 2: 9-11)
  • ‘to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood’ again reflects the language of places like Romans 3:25 where Paul can use sacrificial language in relation to Jesus’ death on the cross. This will also be important in the gospel of John in particular in its way of describing Jesus’ death. In this light the image of Jesus as the sacrificed lamb throughout Revelation expands this image.
  • ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’ these words are a particularly audacious claim made early in the book which refers back to Exodus 19: 5-6 and point to what the role of the church is for the book of Revelation. The church is now joined to the vocation and calling of Israel, and in many ways the church becomes Israel. This is an audacious claim and yet it also points to the critical roll that John identifies for these churches receiving this message.

John then transitions into their shared hope of Christ’s return which every eye will see. Those who witnessed faithfully and those who opposed Christ will see and be confronted with the kingship of Jesus. It will be an event that impacts all the people of the earth, not only Israel or the church. Much like the closing of the book these initial confessions end like a prayer.

Finally, in this opening is the first use of ‘Alpha and Omega’ and another reference to the one ‘who is and was and who is to come.’ This is significant because in this revelation of Jesus Christ we will soon see this language paralleled in the description of Jesus and this will become one of the several places where the New Testament points to a close correlation between Jesus and the LORD the God of Israel. In the Christological controversies of the early church where they attempted to find language to talk about Jesus the New Testament’s way of using titles reserved for God for Jesus would prove decisive as the early Christians began to understand the Jesus was a revelation of the God of Israel.

Revelation 1: 9-11

9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

John indicates his connection with the churches receiving the letter. He is one of them who shares in their struggles who live in the time in between the resurrection and Christ’s return. In this time the powers and principalities continue to call for allegiance and at times worship and yet as followers of the resurrected Christ and the LORD the God of Israel they are called to have only one God, one Lord. John is on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea about forty miles southwest of Miletus and Ephesus on the sea route to Corinth and Athens. John may have been sent to Patmos by regional authorities because of his testimony but he is also the only person we have a witness of being sent to Patmos and there is no evidence it was a prison colony. Yet, John is isolated from these seven communities he is writing to on that day he receives the vision. Like the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians he is, “in the spirit” most likely on a Sunday (the day of the Lord’s resurrection) but possibly on a Saturday (the Sabbath). The voice like a loud trumpet resembles the language of Exodus 19:16 and 20:18 where God speaks to the people. Yet the voice like a trumpet is hearable as language and instructs John to write what he sees and send it on to the seven churches.

Revelation 1: 12-20

Goslar, Friedhof Hildersheimer Strasse, Grabmonument aus dem 19. Jahrhundert, Christusdarstellun nach Offenbarung

12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 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.

John turns toward the voice mentioned above and the begins to write what he sees in the book we have. The vision is full of symbolism and echoes of the scriptures. ‘One like the Son of Man,’ is an image that goes back to Daniel 7:13-14, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” This is what is referred to when Jesus uses the ‘Son of Man’ title in the gospels. Because of this usage by Jesus in the gospels we shouldn’t be surprised that the speaker is Jesus. Yet, Jesus also has the traits of the Ancient one (God) spoken of immediately prior to the ‘Son of Man’ quotation from Daniel “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; his throne was like fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7: 9-10) We begin to see the ways in which Revelation links Jesus to the Lord the God of Israel, something that will continue throughout this initial vision. The initial description of the resurrected Christ appearing to John is an awesome and fear inducing sight for the seer.

The sharp two-edged sword which comes out of his mouth will be a recurring image in Revelation. On the one hand, it does refer to speech as in Isaiah 49:2 when the servant of the Lord’s mouth is like a sharp sword. On the other hand, it is also the force by which Christ defeats evil, how truth overcomes the lies. The word of God is never a tame thing that should be wielded carelessly, it can cut both the church and the nations as it will here in Revelation.

John, overwhelmed by the image, falls down at the feet of the risen Christ, and unlike later when he bows down to another messenger he is not corrected. Falling at the feet of the risen Christ is an acceptable response and John is met with encouragement. “Do not be afraid” is a frequent instruction upon hearing from God or receiving God’s message. Now Jesus uses words for himself that are patterned after the words the Lord God uses, he is the ‘first and last’ paralleled to ‘Alpha and Omega’ and ‘the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever;” paralleled to ‘him who is and who was and who is to come.’

Jesus now holds the keys to Death and Hades. Even though in this time the forces of destruction can kill the faithful and send them to the realm of Death and Hades the book of Revelation looks towards that time when Christ claims this power and opens the realm of Death and Hades causing them to surrender those held there. Death remains real for the followers of the risen Christ, but it is not the final reality. As Paul could say, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6: 5)

The image of seven stars and the seven lampstands is one of the few explained images in the book of Revelation itself. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches themselves. This image takes on an additional resonance when one realizes that the lampstands in the image is like the lampstand for the tabernacle and later temple (Exodus 25: 17-22). This is another place where Revelation makes an audacious connection between the churches and Israel. As mentioned above when discussing Revelation 1:6 when the calling of Israel is used now the imagery of Israel also gets linked to the churches.