By Christopher VanDusen
The year 2020 has taught many believers in the Lord Jesus Christ that life can change drastically and swiftly, bringing many great troubles, temptations, and sufferings. This leaves many of us looking forward to 2021 with great anticipation of even more trouble. As we have seen the rise of social upheaval, and increased persecution in the western world, we can only expect more of it in the next year. How are we to prepare for the cataclysmic events that seem to be looming on the horizon, especially of even more persecution in the westernized world? We need a message from the Lord. But before we can adequately receive that message, we need to know who the Lord is. We need to see who He is, and understand who is speaking to us. This is precisely what the apostle John experiences, and describes, in Revelation 1:9-20.
The Book of Revelation, like no other time in recent history, is a book for the church of 2021. It was written to seven churches that were experiencing the same things that we’re experiencing — social unrest, political conflict, economic disaster, natural calamity, and the crumbling of nations that were once strong and powerful. Its message comes in the form of a “revelation” that God gave to the Lord, to send to John through an angel, so that John could record it for the churches.
In the introduction to Revelation, John describes these sources. Then, he summarizes the book’s message as “the things that must soon take place”. In other words, the purpose of the book is to tell the churches the events that would soon happen at that time. John promises blessing for those who share this book with the churches, learn it, and rightly respond to it.
Next, John greets the churches with grace and peace from the Father, Spirit, and Jesus Christ. He describes the Lord as trustworthy, as the Bringer of the resurrection, and as the Ruler of all earthly kings. Then, he reminds the churches that Jesus loves them, has saved them from their sins, and made them a kingdom of priests for God. Finally, he concludes his greeting by promising that Christ will return, which is followed by His confirmation of this as the One who is in control of history.
In verses 9-20, John begins to describe the first vision that he received from the Lord’s angel:
“9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 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 what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are 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.'” (ESV)
In this passage, John describes eight truths that the churches need to know before they can receive the Lord’s direct message to them:
- John is a Partner in the Struggle of Jesus (v. 9a)
- John was Imprisoned for Speaking for Jesus (v. 9b)
- John’s Position When He Sees Jesus (v. 10a)
- John is Prescribed with Sending the Sights to the Churches (vss. 10b-11)
- John Perceives the Sight of Christ (vss. 12-17a)
- Jesus Pacifies Him with His Surpassing Life (vss. 17b-18)
- Jesus Presses Upon Him His Scribal Duty (v. 19)
- Jesus Presents the Stars and Lampstands (v. 20)
John is a Partner in the Struggle for Jesus
The first truth that John relays to the churches is that he’s a partner with them in Jesus’s struggle. He does so by describing himself as,
“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus . . .”
First, he reminds them that he’s one of their “brothers” in God’s family, so they all share the same heavenly Father, and the same ultimate goal and purpose of pleasing Him, and knowing Him. As such, he writes this revelation, not as an impersonal messenger, but as one who loves them.
Because he’s their brother in Christ, he’s also a “partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus”. The word “tribulation” simply means “trouble”. “Kingdom” refers to Jesus’s kingdom that consists of His reign over the entire universe, which is most manifested at this time in the lives of His people, who obey Him as their King. The phrase “patient endurance” means “perseverance”, as the NASB translates the Greek, and refers to the endurance of tribulation and suffering in this world that comes as a result of being “in Jesus”. All of these things are “in” Him because John and the churches only experience them as a consequence of sharing in Jesus’s life and power, which involves suffering what He suffered, participating in His kingdom, and enduring what He endured.
John was Imprisoned for Speaking for Jesus
John next describes where he received the vision of Jesus, and why he was there, by saying he was “on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”. Patmos was an island off the west coast of the land mass that’s now know as Turkey. At that time, this area was in the Roman province of Asia. The island was used by the Roman Empire to imprison political prisoners who were a threat to Roman society. John was such a threat. He had been banished to this island “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”.
By “the word of God”, John means the message of God that he proclaimed through “the testimony of Jesus”. By “testimony”, he’s referring to the “witness”, or “evidence”, of the fact that Jesus is God’s eternal and divine Son, who came to earth to live, to die for our sins, rise from the dead, and go into heaven as the Ruler and Judge of the universe. Most importantly, this testimony first came from Jesus Himself, but after His ascension into heaven, He empowered and sent His disciples to bear witness to His identity, work, and return. It was for doing this that John was arrested by the Roman authorities, and confined to the island of Patmos.
John’s Position When He Saw Jesus
In verse 10a, John describes when and how his vision of Jesus began by saying,
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day . . .”
The phrase “in the Spirit” is used multiple times in the Old Testament to describe the manner in which prophets received direct revelation from God. Since it’s the Spirit, and not my spirit, it’s clear that the Spirit is God the Holy Spirit. To be in Him means to be enveloped by His power, so the prophet can receive revelation. In this case, it means that John was enabled to see a vision that transferred him out of his normal experience, into the spiritual realm.
But what does John mean when he says that he was in the Spirit “on the Lord’s day”? In the history of interpretation, there have been two reasonable solutions presented. First, some think that this phrase should be understood as “the day of the Lord” that’s often mentioned in the Old Testament prophets, and is referenced by Paul in 1 Thessalonians. It refers to the final, climactic, day of judgment and salvation, when the Lord comes to judge His enemies, and to set up the complete manifestation of His kingdom.
But does this interpretation make sense? If we substitute, “the return of Christ” for “the Lord’s day”, we can find out. If these two phrases mean the same thing, then John is saying that he was “in the Spirit during the return of Christ”. Now, was John actually “in the Spirit” during Christ’s return? The answer is clearly “no”. Nevertheless, some say that John’s not speaking of literally experiencing the return of Christ, but of experiencing it in the vision. Yet, this still doesn’t work, since the first vision isn’t one of Jesus returning to earth, but of Him standing among the seven churches!
The only interpretation that fits the context, and the construction of the Greek phrase, is to see John as referring to the first day of the week, or Sunday. From a very early date, the church called Sunday “the Lord’s day” to mark it out as that day of the week on which the Lord rose from the dead. It was for this reason that the church gathered on Sunday, or “the Lord’s day”. It was also on this day that the church celebrated “the Lord’s supper”, which was most appropriate for the Lord’s day. If John is saying that he was “in the Spirit” on a specific day of the week, it makes complete sense of the phrase.
But why would John point out the fact that he received his vision on Sunday? I think there’s one major reason. Since Sunday is the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, he pointed this out to emphasize the fact that Jesus is alive, in heaven, and in control of what the churches were going through. Further, the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection also involves the celebration of the fact that He’s coming back someday, which is a recurring theme in Revelation.
So, when John saw this vision, he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”.
John is Prescribed with Sending the Sights to the Churches
John’s vision is introduced by a voice that he hears like this:
“. . . I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.'”
The fact that John hears this voice “behind” him tells us that the messenger doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, but to the message. This is further highlighted by the fact that this voice is “loud” and “like a trumpet”. These descriptions signify that John is to take immediate action to obey the command of the voice, like a soldier being called to ready himself for battle.
The first command is to “write what you see in a book”. The Greek word for “book” actually means “scroll”, since the bound pages that we know as “books” weren’t in use at that time. John was to write all that he saw in the vision on a long scroll.
The second command is to send this scroll “to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea”. These were cities in the province of Asia, near the west coast of what’s now Turkey. The order that John’s deliverer was to follow logically followed the road from Ephesus, the city closest to the coast, and through the six other cities. Each city was home to one church, or literally “assembly”, of believers, that gathered on at least a weekly basis for corporate worship. And each of these churches was to learn what John had seen in the vision.
John Perceives the Sight of Christ
In verses 12-17a, John describes his first vision of the Lord by saying,
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”
When John turns around to see who just talked to him, he first sees “seven golden lampstands”. This is an allusion to the lampstands that burned in the tabernacle, and later the temple, and represented the presence of God, giving light to the priests who served there.
After seeing the lampstands, he sees “a son of man” presiding among them. “Son of man” is a reference to the Old Testament vision that Daniel saw of “one like a son of man” who approached God, and received dominion over the entire universe, including the authority to judge everyone (Dan. 7). This is nothing less than a description of a man who possesses divine authority. Further, this man is “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest”. These pieces of clothing are similar to those worn by Israel’s high priest, so they symbolize the Lord’s work as the High Priest of His church, representing them before God the Father.
Second, John describes this Man’s pate hairs as “white, like white wool, like snow”. This whiteness denotes absolute purity, sinlessness, and holiness. He must be such to give His church access to God. Third, His piercing eyesight is “like a flame of fire”, representing the fire of judgment that burns all that’s unworthy, and can purify what He judges. Fourth, His feet are like smelted bronze that’s been “refined in a furnace”, or made to glow red hot, again representing His purifying work of walking among His churches. Fifth, His proclaiming voice is “like the roar of many waters”, showing that what He says is powerful, authoritative, and able to destroy His enemies. Sixth, He possesses “in his right hand . . . seven stars”. In the ancient world, the right hand was the hand of power and authority, so this means that He has complete control over these stars. Seventh, His mouth produces “a sharp two-edged sword”, which was used by soldiers in battle. This represents the power of His Word to destroy His enemies. Finally, John describes His profile “like the sun shining in full strength”, depicting the blinding glory of God’s presence.
In verse 17, John describes his reaction to seeing this vision of Jesus. He says that he “fell at his feet as though dead”. In other words, he passed out when he saw this vision of Christ’s glory.
Jesus Pacifies Him with His Surpassing Life
In verses 17b-18, John describes Jesus’ comforting words to him, since he’s just passed out from seeing Him:
“But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Again, John points out that Jesus put His right hand on him to call attention to His power and authority to bring John out of his unconsciousness. And why did he pass out? Because he had “fear” from seeing Christ’s glory. That’s why Jesus tells him to “fear not“. He had been afraid of Jesus, so Jesus had to comfort him.
The first way that Jesus does this is by calling Himself “the first and the last”. This is a reference to His description of Himself as “the Alpha and the Omega” in verse 8. These words are the names of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and in the context of verse 8, Jesus is confirming John’s promise of Christ’s return. The way He does this is by saying that He’s the beginning and end of the entire universe. That’s why He follows this description by saying that He exists, always has existed, and always will exist. So, as “the Alpha and Omega”, or “the first and the last”, He’s the One who began and will end the universe. To put it another way, He has control over all events, including what will happen to John in the vision.
The second way that Jesus comforts John is by saying that He’s “the living one”. He explains this by saying that He “died and behold [He’s] alive forevermore, and [He has] the keys of Death and Hades”. This is a proclamation of His resurrection from the dead, which gave Him a new, perfect, body, that will never die. More than that, He has “the keys of Death and Hades”. By “keys”, He means the power to access, close, or open, “death and Hades”. In the Bible, “death” refers to separation from life, while “Hades” is where the dead go. As the One who has risen from the dead, Jesus has control over both death, and the destruction, misery, and punishment that death brings.
Jesus Presses On Him His Scribal Duty
In verse 19, the Lord elaborates on the command that the previous voice gave to John by saying,
“Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”
Jesus uses the word “therefore”, since He’s basing John’s obligation to obey this command on what He’s just said. The reason John must write these things is that the Lord is in control of history; has risen from the dead; will always be alive; and has control over death and the realm of the dead. Thus, what He’s showing John is trustworthy, and must be reported to His churches.
The things that the Lord tells John to write consist of three categories. First, he’s to write what he’s just “seen” of the Lord. Second, he’s to write “those that are”, or the things that the Lord is about to tell the seven churches, and then some things He’ll show them after His words. Finally, John’s to write “those that are to take place after this”, or the events that are prophesied about Christ’s return, and what happens after that.
Jesus Presents the Stars and Lampstands
In verse 20, the Lord concludes His introduction to His direct messages for the churches by revealing the meaning of the stars and lampstands:
“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.”
Jesus calls the stars and lampstands “the mystery”, which simply means “secret”. The seven stars that He holds in His hand are “the angels of the seven churches”. There are two reasonable understandings of what Jesus means by “angels”. First, some think that He’s literally speaking of spiritual beings that serve Him as His messengers. This would mean that each church has an angel that serves it, and these spirits are the persons to whom John is directed to write for the seven churches. However, this doesn’t make sense to me, since it’s very unlikely at this late point in the history of the church that Jesus would use angels to deliver a message recorded on a physical scroll. It seems that the best option is to see the word “angels” as a transliteration of the plural of the Greek word angelos, and to understand it as conveying the literal meaning of the word, which is “messengers”. Hence, Jesus is speaking of human messengers that were tasked with delivering the scroll to their respective churches.
The second symbol that Jesus interprets is the “seven golden lampstands”, which He says are “the seven churches”. The significance of this is that they shine the light of God’s presence and Word, and that Jesus stands “among” them in the vision, so He’s present with all the churches.
Persevere for God’s Word and Behold the Son of Man
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how does this passage apply to you?
First, in the context of Revelation, John is your brother and partner in the tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance that are in Jesus, so you can understand at least some of what he went through on the island of Patmos.
Second, just as the Lord stood among the seven churches in Asia, so today He’s stands among all the churches of the world, including yours. This means that He’s the One who keeps the light of life and truth burning in your church.
Third, the Lord isn’t just the Lord of your church, but He’s also our High Priest, who represents us before God the Father, and gives us full access to Him.
Fourth, our Lord’s eyes are like fire, and His feet are like red hot bronze, so His knowledge of what we do is perfect, and He evaluates all we are and do according to the command of love that He’s given us. He’s not only our High Priest, but He’s our judge, and He’s ready and willing to discipline us and our churches.
Fifth, our Lord’s Word is as powerful and authoritative as “the roar of many waters”, and as destructive as “a sharp two-edged sword”, so we need to heed it, and wield it courageously and wisely.
Sixth, just as our Lord held the messengers of the seven churches in His right hand, so now He has control over all those who deliver His Word to His churches.
Seventh, our Lord isn’t just worthy of our love, but He’s also worthy of our fear and worship, as John showed. When we think about His divine glory, we ought to be moved to please Him more.
Finally, just as the Lord told John to “fear not”, so we ought not to be afraid of Him, since He’s in control of all things, was raised from dead, will always live, and has control over our death, and over hell.
If you aren’t a participant in the trouble, kingdom, and endurance of suffering that are in Jesus, then you don’t trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and are still rebelling against Him. One day, He’ll look at you with His fiery eyes and judge every thing you’ve done, and punish you for your sins against Him forever. The good news is that God sent Him to this earth to become a man, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our rebellion. Then, He raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as our Ruler. He now commands everyone to change their minds, and to trust in Him as their Lord and Savior to receive His forgiveness, peace, and mercy. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion against the Lord, and are trusting in Him alone to save you from your sins. If you’ve done that, then He requires all of His people to be baptized under water as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.