A Theophany on Patmos, part 3: Revelation 1:12-16
“And I turned back to see the voice that was speaking with me, and turning, I saw seven golden lampstands. In the midst of the lampstands was one like the son of man, dressed in a long robe and with a golden belt wrapped around his chest. As for his head, the hair was white like wool and like snow, and his eyes were like a flame of fire and his feet were as fine bronze as if having been burned in a furnace. His voice was like the sound of much water, and he was holding seven stars in his right hand and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face appeared like the sun in power.”
(Revelation 1: 12-16)
As we wrestle with understanding what John is actually seeing, I think that it is important first to look at the images themselves and then to put them together. It is worth noting once again, that I hold that every image that is given to us in this book of Revelation either will be explained for us by John himself, or will be explained for us by the way the Old Testament uses those images.
Seven Golden Lampstands: This image is one of the more straight-forward images in the book of Revelation because it is explained for us, yet, to understand its full ramifications, we must also look back at the Old Testament for explanation. We are told in Revelation 1:20 that the lampstands refer to the seven churches that are listed above.
Again, we must understand the churches as representative of the Church as a whole, through the ages. We also must be reminded as to the purpose of the church, which is to proclaim God’s glory. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5: 13-16 that the church is to be both salt and light. Salt is a preservative, it prevents food from rotting as quickly. Light illuminates the things that are hidden in the darkness. The church must be about this kind of work. We must be a preservative in our society and we must shine the light of the Gospel into even the darkest places. Sadly, the church has rarely done this well.
But, there is far more here than initially meets the eye. We need first go to Exodus 25: 31-40 to more fully understand what we are looking at. Here we find another golden lampstand described. This is what is commonly referred to as a menorah. It consists of a vertical lampstand with three branches stretching out from either side. In the tabernacle, the menorah stood just inside of the veil to the Holy Place. As the priest would enter, the menorah would be on his left and the table of shew-bread was on his right. In the rear of the Holy Place (between the Holy and the Holy of Holies) was the altar of incense.
The menorah symbolized the life that God gave to his people and the fidelity of the priesthood (and the fidelity of the God who has called the priests). It also served the purpose of providing light inside of the temple at night. In the vision that the prophet Zechariah was given (Zechariah 4), the lamps on the menorah is described as “the eyes of Yahweh, which range across the whole earth.” The image given to him is of God’s omnipotence and of God’s omnipresence, for they rove across the earth. The Hebrew word for rove carries with it not only the connotations of going to and fro, but it carries with it the connotations of upturning things. God is not only present in the world as a cosmic guide of some sort, but he is active turning lives and kingdoms upside down to accomplish his ends.
As we move back to Jesus, then, we see him in the presence of one of these menorahs. There is some debate over whether John is seeing seven menorahs or whether he is seeing one menorah holding its seven lamps. I would suggest that since there was only one menorah in the temple, since the Holy Spirit is described in Revelation 4:5 as seven torches of fire (not 49), and since the emphasis is on the fullness of Christ and his work, not on the fullness within the seven churches (remember that seven is a number of fullness and to suggest that each church had a fullness of testimony seems to deny Revelation 2&3), that we should see this as a single menorah which Christ is standing before, just as the High Priest in the temple would. As High Priest, it is Jesus who lights or extinguishes the lamps of these churches.
It is also worth noting that in the construction of the menorah, all of the lampstands were connected on the same base. It is a reminder to us that no church, no denomination, and no individual Christian stands alone in this world. We are part of the body of Christ, which means when our brother is persecuted, no matter where they happen to be or how far away they are from us, we hurt on their behalf.
Lastly, it is worth noting that Jesus is standing in the midst or in the presence of these lamps. In the tabernacle, beside the menorah, stood the table of the presence or the table of shew-bread. This was a holy table that held on it the bread of the presence of God. There were twelve loaves of bread (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) that were consecrated as holy and laid upon this table. Each Sabbath, the priests would eat this bread and then replace it with 12 new loaves. Except for rare times of crisis, only the priests were allowed to eat this bread (see 1 Samuel 21).
Largely, these loaves represented that the tribes of Israel were always in the presence of God. Yet, John sees a vision of the lampstands apart from the bread of the presence. Or does he? I think that we can safely say that the bread of the presence is here, in Jesus. No longer must the people of God be represented in a physical temple, because Jesus is the new temple, and his church is kept in him. We, as Christians, have been consecrated as Holy by the work of Jesus, and in Jesus we are in the presence of God at all times, for Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, enthroned over creation.
One like a son of man: This was probably Jesus’ favorite name for himself (see Matthew 20:28 & Luke 9:44 for example). Yet, we also must make note of the Old Testament’s use of title. Oftentimes, when God is addressing a prophet (especially the prophet Ezekiel), God refers to him as “son of man.” This title designates the lowliness of the person being referred to. Jesus chose to take on flesh. And though his taking on flesh did not demean his Godhood in any way, it was an act of infinite humility and degradation (Philippians 2:7).
But we must attend, also to Daniel 7: 13-14. For here, in Daniel’s vision, he witnesses “one like the son of man” receiving dominion over all the peoples of the earth. Daniel is seeing a picture of what John will soon be seeing in Revelation 5. This is Jesus, in both visions, receiving his rightful place of honor. God revealed it to Daniel to point to the first coming of Christ, and is now revealing it to John to point to the second coming.
Clothed in a long robe and a golden belt: There seems to be some degree of discussion as to the nature of Jesus’ robe and sash. Some have suggested that these are judicial robes and others have suggested that these robes represent the dignity of Christ. There is no doubting the dignity of our risen Lord or the fact that he is coming as Judge. Yet, to gain a better understanding of these robes, we must again return to Exodus.
If we look at Exodus 28, we will see the instructions that God has given for the high priest’s garments. He is to wear a long robe, a breastpiece, a tunic, turban, and a sash. Here, we see Jesus with the robe and sash. The tunic was worn beneath the robe, so it is not surprising that we are not given a description of it. The breastpiece was used to hold the Urim and Thummim. These stones were given to the high priest to aid in the discerning of God’s will. Since Jesus is God himself, and the Father and Son are one in communication, Jesus needs no aides to discern God’s will. Thus the breastpiece is unnecessary.
The golden belt or sash is like a wide girdle that goes around the torso of the wearer. Josephus tells us that when this belt was worn low, it was used for labor or travel, but when it was worn about the chest, as we see here, it was an ornamental piece, which is how the priests wore theirs.
While the priestly connection is clear, we must go back to Daniel’s prophetic visions. In Daniel 10:5, we see a man who very much resembles the description that John gives us of Jesus. In fact, the resemblance goes far further than his wardrobe, but it extends to the flaming eyes and glowing legs as well. Likewise, Daniel’s response is the same as John’s (to fall down in fear). Though the one Daniel met was not called “one like the son of man,” he is referred to as “one like the children of man.” While this is not exactly the same language, I think that the same idea is being conferred. Daniel’s meeting is with the pre-incarnate Christ.
Hairs like wool and white as snow: The obvious connection to Daniel 7:9 must be made, where the Ancient of Days (God the Father) is described with hair like pure wool. Yet, John is not getting his images confused. There are two points that must be made here. First, Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). If God the Father is described thus, then it is fitting that God the Son should be described thus.
Yet, there is something more going on here. All of the imagery that we are given here is light imagery. You have lampstands that illuminate the darkness representing the churches, you have stars in Jesus’ right hand representing the angels of the churches. And Jesus is described with eyes flaming with fire, feet that glowed like molten metal, a face that shone like the sun at full strength, and a sash of gold around his chest. Jesus is glowing brightly in the darkness of this world.
The scriptures are filled with this kind of imagery. Daniel’s vision was this way as was Ezekiel’s. After Moses met with God on Sinai, his face shone brightly. When Jesus was transfigured, he shone brightly. John himself writes that God is light and in him is no darkness (1 John 1:5). Jesus’ birth was heralded by a great light in the heavens and his resurrection was heralded by an angel that shone like lightning on that Easter morning. I think that Jude alludes to this when he speaks of the fallen angels being kept in “eternal gloom” until judgment day (Jude 6). When you have been in the presence of the God of creation in His full glory and majesty, even the brightest day on earth is as pitch blackness.
I think that the imagery here is not of white hair as one would think of the aged, but of an illuminated person, where all of them glows with a white glow. Probably the easiest way to illustrate this would be to have someone, no matter what their hair color, stand in front of a large spotlight. When the spotlight is turned on, their hair will take on a whitish glow, even if the hair is as black as India ink. Turn up the wattage a million-fold and then you will begin to get the idea of what John is seeing. Jesus is there, speaking to him, and electricity is coursing through the air. It is positively breathtaking—which is what happens with John, he falls down like a dead man.
Eyes Like Fire and Feet like molten bronze: Again, we have light imagery. When Jesus came in his first incarnation, he came as a meek servant and as a sacrifice. Now we see Jesus clothed with his rightful power and authority. There is no mistaking that this is king and God over the universe and that he is rightfully worshipped. It is also worth noting that this is military imagery. Soon we will see the sword, but fiery eyes denote power and might—a blessing for Christ’s church, but for Christ’s enemies, as James says in the second chapter of his epistle top the church, they tremble. Bronze was a metal still in use for warfare at this point in history because it is harder than iron, and here Jesus’ feet are portrayed as armored, ready to crush the head of his enemy.
A Voice like Much Water: Have you ever stood in front of a waterfall and tried to have a conversation? It is nearly impossible. This is the idea that John is trying to get across. Jesus’ voice is booming and loud. It is almost deafening. Again, we not only see Jesus speaking with authority, but the “bigness” of what is happening is being emphasized. Jesus is speaking in such a way that cannot be denied or ignored. It is also worth looking at Daniel 10:6, which describes Jesus’ voice as like the sound of a multitude of people. Whether it be a flood of water or a flood of persons, the image is the same, Jesus demands that all eyes and ears be brought into focus on himself—and rightfully so.
Seven Stars in His right hand: First of all, the right hand was a symbol of authority and power. People were given the right hand of fellowship when they were acknowledged as part of a group. Jesus sat at the right hand of the Father after the resurrection. The right hand was also the hand that you used to attack. Your sword was held in the right hand and the defensive shield was held in the left.
Again, John tells us the explanation of this symbol. The stars represent the angels of the seven churches. Here we see a picture of these angels being under the sole authority of Christ himself. Any power or any work that these angels might do is at the discretion of Jesus. Again, we see Jesus here not as the servant but as the reigning king.
Now, there is a great deal of debate about the nature of these angels. The Greek word, a[ggeloV, which is used here literally means “messenger.” In Greek, this can refer to either a human messenger or a supernatural one. Many have debated as to which John is referring to here in Revelation. The primary argument for suggesting that these angels are human ones is that each of the subsequent seven letters are addressed to the “angel” of the church in … I would like to put forward several reasons for seeing these angels as supernatural beings.
- The term a[ggeloV is used 171 times in the New Testament. Of those times, it is only used 7 times to refer to human messengers. John himself uses the term 70 times between his Gospel and The Revelation (the term is not used in his 3 epistles), and in every instance (apart from these few debated instances) John uses the term exclusively to refer to supernatural beings.
- Outside of the New Testament canon, in other pieces of apocalyptic literature, the term a[ggeloV is never used to refer to a human messenger.
- Generally, in scripture, the image of stars represents supernatural beings of power and authority (Isaiah 14: 12-13, Daniel 12:3, Jude 13). In fact, Jesus himself is referred to as the bright morning star (Numbers 24:17, Revelation 22:16).
- Angels are recorded as functioning as defenders and protectors of specific people and groups. The Archangel Michael had been given charge over the people of Israel (Daniel 12:1). Angels intercede for little children before God (Matthew 18:11). They may function as witnesses (1 Timothy 5:21) and can be seen pronouncing God’s word to his people (Judges 2:1-4, Luke 1). Likewise, while the precise interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:10 is hotly debated, there seems to be a sense that angels are present with Christians when they gather to worship.
- Lastly, I think that this is the natural reading of the text, remembering the apocalyptic nature of this book. These are spiritual visions that John is having, not earthly ones. Later in the visions we will see that the true church is sealed and protected against the worst of the tribulations. It seems to fit with the tone of this book to see heavenly beings as being a part of the protecting of these seven churches.
Does this mean that we should adopt a theology of guardian angels? I think that the scriptures are remarkably silent about this issue. Why? Because the object of our worship must not deviate from Christ, and our sense of assurance that we will not fail must come from Him. It is in God’s hand that we rest and it is by God’s grace that we persevere. Christ may use his angels in the guarding and guiding of his church, but they are acting under orders of the king. It is for Christ’s glory that we either live or die; He does not need to entrust us to his underlings.
A Two-Edged Sword came from his Mouth: We would be remiss if we did not look to Hebrews 4:12:
“For the Word of God is living and effective, cutting more than all two-edged swords, penetrating until it divides soul and spirit, joint and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and the intents of the heart.”
This image is portrayed for us vividly. Christ is the word of the Lord made flesh, and the words of his mouth convict of sins and for some, will condemn to eternal damnation.
Yet, once again, we need to remind ourselves of the military and kingly overtones that are in this passage. Christ has come as king and ruler. This means blessing for some, but for Christ’s enemies, it means that they will face the sword.
His face shone Like the Sun at Full Strength: Once again, we are confronted with light imagery. Jesus does nothing small. This image should take our minds immediately back to Exodus 34: 29-33, where Moses, after speaking with the Lord, came down with a shining face. But it also ought to make us think of the transfiguration of Christ himself (Matthew 17), where Jesus was transfigured and his face became bright like the sun. When even the smallest hint of heaven shines through this veil of sin that blankets the world, it is blinding to the eye. Paul says for now we see as if through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), but here, as he saw on the mountain of transfiguration all of those years earlier, John sees Jesus clearly, and the image is blinding.
So, what is the point of all of this? When looking at most of the prophetic calls, one thing is consistent: God makes himself known in a big way. For Isaiah, it was a vision of heavenly worship that he witnessed, and it rocked the temple. For Jeremiah, it was the voice of God and the actual touch of God’s hand on his mouth. For Ezekiel, it was of the angels carrying the Ark of the Covenant and of Christ exalted. For Daniel, it was a similar face-to-face with the pre-incarnate Jesus.
This vision that John is having is an affirmation that God is in control and that Christ reigns. John lives in a pagan world that is persecuting and martyring Christians. His world is a world where Roman emperors demand the worship of their citizens. John’s world is a world where cults abound and cities are dedicated to false gods. Yet John sees Christ walking in power and authority amongst his churches. Christ has the angels of the churches in his hand, ready to be dispatched, and the sword of Christ is drawn and at ready. What is coming will break the back of the enemies of the risen King.