A Theophany on Patmos, part 4: Revelation 1:17-20
“And when I saw him, I fell toward his feet like a corpse, and he put his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not! I am the first and the last, and I am the life. I became dead, and behold, I am living into eternity. And I hold the keys to death and hell. Write, therefore, of what you saw, of what is, and of what is about to be after this. The mystery of the seven stars which 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.’”
(Revelation 1: 17-20)
What is John’s response to being confronted by the risen Christ in all of his glory? He falls on his face. This is the proper response to such an experience. It is the response of the prophets themselves (especially note the parallel in Daniel 10: 8-12). We must ask ourselves the question, is this how we behave before God? Is it our first instinct to collapse in utter unworthiness and fear and in worship of that which is infinitely greater than you? Before you answer, remember that when you pray you come before the throne of God on high. You don’t need a theophany to experience God, you just need a sincere and prayerful relationship with him. Again, I place the question before you. Does this describe your response to the creator of the universe?
I think that one of the problems in many of our churches today is that we take the privilege of worship and prayer all too lightly. We think of worship as something we do to benefit God rather than our obligation toward him, and we think of prayer as something that we have a right to, rather than as the awesome privilege it is. Seek to nurture a sense of holy fear when you enter before God’s throne. Yes, approach with great joy and anticipation because of all he has done, but never forget that you have entered into the presence of something wholly supernatural and outside of your capacity to comprehend.
What is Jesus’ response to John? Take courage, is ultimately what he says. He reminds John that he is the firstborn from the dead and that he is the end of all things. He was in existence before creation, and he will remake the new heavens and earth. And all true life is in him. There is no imagery here; Jesus is speaking truth plainly. The emphasis is entirely on the work of Jesus, and is far from us. And it is Jesus who holds the keys to hell. Jesus describes himself as the doorway to heaven (John 14:6), but here Jesus is also reminding us that he holds the key even to damnation. Jesus is the deciding factor when the sheep and the goats will be separated (Matthew 25: 31-46).
John is once again commissioned to write. Twelve times in this book of Revelation, John is commanded to write. It is a reminder of the lasting nature of this book and of Scripture itself. It is also a reminder of the communal nature of faith. God did not give John the vision for the purpose of cheering up John. God gives this vision to John so that John will then share it with the churches. Let us never forget, as we go through our daily lives, that God’s word is to be shared with others. It will plant seeds in the lives of unbelievers and convict believers of their need to grow as well.
Lastly, Jesus explains to John two of the images that he has seen. These two images, of course, will become quite important for they are the central part of the next two chapters of the book. One of the reasons that people go back to the book of Daniel when trying to understand Revelation is that there are many stylistic similarities, not only in the images, but in the way that God is regularly explaining many of them to make sure that both the prophet and we gain understanding of what God is showing. As we close with our section of introductions, we can already anticipate where John, being lead by the Holy Spirit, is headed. Jesus is before him in glory and ready to conquer his foes. We have been introduced to the King of the universe in this chapter, and he is commending us to stand at his side as he marches victorious in battle. In the words of Isaac Watts’ classic hymn:
“Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
to fairer worlds on high, to fairer worlds on high.
We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.”
- The Greek word that John uses here for “perseverance” carries with it connotations of carrying on in boldness. It is not simply surviving the onslaught, but bravely putting your face to the wind and moving into the time of trial.
- The two verbs that John uses in this verse, “gravfw” (to write) and “pevmfw” (to send), are both imperatives. They carry with them a sense of urgency. With God there is no dilly-dallying when it comes to doing his will.
- Notice the contrast in this verse with the deformed statue in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 2). At best, Satan is only a poor counterfeit of Jesus. Here Jesus is arrayed as the perfect priest and king, in Daniel’s vision, we see the attempts of Satan to build a kingdom, yet it will fall apart.
- The Gospel of John is filled with many “I am” statements of Jesus. These statements are the claims of Christ to be the great “I am” of scripture. Here, in this verse, we find another of Jesus’ “I am” statements brought to us through the Apostle John.
- “Fear Not” is the message from Jesus to John. It is through God’s grace and by his mercy that we can stand in his presence. Yet, while we must carry a reverential fear, God’s children must not be afraid in his presence—we are invited guests.
- Jesus is living into eternity. Never again will his sacrifice be necessary as Catholic theology would teach.