Forms of Special Revelation:
We have been speaking of and citing some of the weaknesses of General Revelation and our need for something more. Yet, let us point out that General Revelation was never designed to teach us our obligation towards God and our proper relationship to him as our creator. Indeed, it was never designed to even guide us in morality even if the fall were not to have taken place. How do we know this? It is because God engaged in Special Revelation prior to the fall of mankind. God gave Adam the law in the garden and regularly communicated with him in terms of instructing him in his role as regent over the creation. We are also told that God was prone to walk through the garden (by implication, to speak with Adam and Eve). Thus, communication beyond what could be learned from nature was part of God’s pre-fall relationship with his creatures. Now, one could argue that all revelation from God is Special Revelation. Was not God the author of the genetic code by which organic creatures function? Was God not the author of the laws of science by which the physical bodies of the universe operate? Certainly the limitation of understanding science lies within us, not within God’s revelation of it in creation. And certainly, in our fallen state, we sometimes mis-interpret the Special Revelation that is given to us. Thus, the important thing to note is that the purpose of General and Special Revelation is different. General reveals broadly and to all; Special reveals narrowly (dealing especially with God and our relationship with and obligation towards him) and only to whom it is delivered. How many people have read the scriptures only to come away with heretical teachings? Thus, not only is it delivered to few, its proper interpretation requires insight from the Holy Spirit, who effectively guides Special Revelation’s delivery.
We can categorize Special Revelation in the following way:
- Manifestations of God: God manifests himself to his people to guide them, encourage them, and teach them. And, God has done this in a variety of ways.
- Theophanies: Where God physically presents himself to the prophet while the prophet is awake and aware of such taking place. For example, God descended upon Mount Sinai when the law was given, He appeared to Job in a whirlwind, and He spoke to Elijah on Mount Sinai to mention just a few.
- Visions: This is where God manifests himself in a vision (not physically) to a prophet who is awake and aware of what is taking place. God came to Abram in a vision, to Samuel, and to the prophet Isaiah again to name just a few.
- Dreams: This is where God manifests himself visually (not physically) to a prophet who is asleep. God communicated this way to Jacob, to Joseph the son of Jacob, and to Joseph, the earthly adoptive father of Jesus again to name just a few.
- In his Son: Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of God given not just to the prophets, but to all people. He is also the perfect image of the invisible God and the object of all Special Revelation. All of scripture, not just the Gospels, points to Jesus.
- Prophesy: God also speaks to and through his prophets. The role of the prophet, as we have already discussed, is to faithfully be the mouth of God to his people. The role of prophesy is two-fold: it is to foretell and to forthtell. While some prophesy does speak of things that will take place in the future (foretell), the bulk of prophesy is to speak forth God’s word to the people of God, for rebuke and encouragement (forthtell). With this before us, God speaks prophetically in a variety of ways.
- Direct Verbal Prophesy: God speaks directly to his prophets and then the prophets relate it either orally or in writing to God’s people. This is the “thus says the Lord” clause in scripture.
- Indirect Prophesy: God also spoke to his people through indirect means. God gave the High Priest the Urim and Thummim, by drawing lots, and signs.
- Typology: As God is the God of history, it is not surprising that God would order events in similar ways as a means of demonstrating his hand at work. Typology is the study of these repetitions through persons, events, or institutions that are repeated with intensification in the events that follow—usually pointing toward Christ. For example, the institution of the priesthood, particularly that of the High Priest was designed to prefigure Christ’s priesthood. Moses, as a mediator for his people, prefigures Christ’s mediatorial work. There are many more such events that God has arranged in such a way as that they point to what is to come.
- Miracles: While miracles are not sufficient in and of themselves to generate faith, but they are given to confirm and strengthen the faith that is already present. They were given as signs that the prophets were genuine and given as signs that Jesus really is the Son of God.
In a sense, scripture is the ultimate Special Revelation of God as it is the record of the forms of Special Revelation we have already spoken of that is preserved in writing for God’s people through history. Scripture is the ultimate manifestation of God’s special Revelation to his people, revealing Christ and uniting in Christ all of these separate forms of Special Revelation. Thus, with the close of scripture, the necessity of such authoritative revelation from God has ceased. Scripture reveals Christ in his fullness for God’s people and thus, the completed canon of scripture is given to us as the capstone upon which our faith is held together. It is, according to the Apostle Peter when comparing the scriptures to his own experience of walking with Christ and witnessing (as well as performing) miracles, something that is “more sure.” Thus, we have General Revelation and Special Revelation, and all of the many forms of Special Revelation find their climax in the Scriptures—the written word of God.
This is a view that is hotly debated by the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in the church, and this is not the place to go into an extensive discussion of the relevant issues. In short, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements would look to what they refer to as gifts of the Holy Spirit (Prophesy and Tongues) from the New Testament as normative for the church in all ages. In response, the question must be asked, “Is the canon of scripture closed?” Certainly that is the Bible’s own testimony about itself, as we have discussed. If there is continuing authoritative prophesy, for example, thus God speaking verbatim (thus says the Lord) through an agent to his people, are you not adding to scripture? There are many good books which argue on both sides of the debate, but the most important aspect of this discussion is what scripture says of itself. Scripture’s testimony, as we have discussed, is that it is complete and sufficient for matters of faith and matters of life. If it is complete and sufficient, why is there need for further supernatural revelation to be given?
“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.
“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.
“It said: ‘Write what you see into a book and send it to the seven churches; to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicia.’”
Here we have John’s specific task. One thing of interest is the contrast between the specific call of John and that of the Old Testament prophets. When God calls to them, he calls them to speak (Isaiah 6:9, Jeremiah 1:9, Ezekiel 3:1, Hosea 2:1, etc…). John is called to write. In fact, Nahum is the only Old Testament prophet whose writings are introduced as a book (Nahum 1:1).
In the case of Revelation, Jesus is the one doing the speaking, as he is the true prophet. John, as his servant, is given the commission to write that which has been spoken for the edification of the church. Like the faithful servants of the Old Testament prophets, John faithfully transcribes that which Jesus is relaying to him.
It is also worth noting that the churches are listed in order that the letter would probably be delivered. Patmos was 50 miles off the coast of Ephesus (it was actually in the domain of Miletus, another Asian city, but one where we have no record of a first century church). It would be read in Ephesus and copied for their own use and then transferred to the next church on the list. The cities are listed in clockwise order as you would travel through the Roman region of Asia along primary thoroughfares.
There is evidence of a second century church in Miletus, though. In Acts 20: 17-38, Paul meets with the Ephesian Elders in Miletus, but there is no reference to there being a church in that city at the time. In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul relays that Trophimus was left in Miletus because he was sick, perhaps that is the beginning of a church plant. There are no other references to a potential church in the city.
“I John, your brother and participant in the suffering, the kingdom, and the perseverance in Jesus: I was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit in the day that belongs to the Lord and I heard behind me a voice as great as a trumpet.”
(Revelation 1: 9-10)
Again, John states his name. What is interesting about this is the contrast between John’s statement and the statement of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament prophets almost always gave their pedigree. Isaiah was the son of Amoz, Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, Ezekiel was the son of Buzi, Joel was the son of Pethuel, Jonah was the son of Amittai, etc… Yet, any form of lineage is absent from John’s introduction. He does not even list the region that he hails from as many of the prophets do.
What are we to make of this? It is a reminder that as Christians, our lineage is in Christ and in him alone. In the Old Testament times, when they were still looking forward with anticipation, there was a need to stand in the authority of their forbears. As Christians, though we stand gratefully on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith, we do not stand on tradition for tradition’s sake. All we do and all we accept of those who have gone before us, must be judged against the same rule of scripture. There is no authority for the Christian but God’s word, and there is no lineage either biological or theological that is of any value apart from Christ. John’s pedigree is “Christian,” and that is enough.
And what role does John play in the larger scheme of things? John simply says that he is a fellow participator in the things of God. Like the other writing apostles, John places no merit in his position as an apostle. He does not use it to rule in authority over men—though as an apostle, he has greater authority over men—but considers himself a brother in faith to his people. Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he is to be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b). The apostles understood this well and it would do us well to understand this better.
Also note the close connection between suffering, perseverance, and the kingdom of God that John makes. It is a reminder of Jesus’ words at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the ones who have been persecuted in the name of righteousness, for to them is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they reproach you, persecute you, and say evil and lies of you because of me. Rejoice and Exalt! For your reward is great in heaven. For thus they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”
To those who would suggest that Christians ought not to suffer—that God only wants us healthy, wealthy, and wise—I commend to you the scriptures. God’s word consistently tells us that if we are followers of Christ, we will have trials in our life, and they will be abundant. The world hates the Lord who we serve and we ought to expect to be treated with contempt (John 15:20).
Why is this? James tells us that through trial we grow in faith and faith brings perseverance (James 1: 2-4). In fact, with this in mind, trial is not a curse, but a blessing for it brings us closer to God if we persevere. Why is this important to bring out? Because the dispensationalist will tell you that God is going to remove the elect from the world before the great tribulations of Revelation begin. I ask then, why would God deny his church such a great blessing and privilege as to persevere through even the greatest tribulation?
Next, John not only gives us his location as he received the revelation, but he further connects himself to the people who are suffering in persecution to whom he is writing. John is in exile because of his witness and preaching of Jesus. Living in a modern society, I find John’s state interesting. We live in an age where we strive to protect our leaders from suffering. Generals designate their authority to lesser commanders and so forth, orchestrating the battles from a safe distance. Most church pastors have adopted this mentality. They tend to do very little “hands on” evangelism and ministry—especially if they serve a large congregation—in favor for training others to do the task.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no way that a pastor can do everything in a church, but because they cannot do everything, many pastors take that to mean that they are not obligated to do anything. Here we have John, the last living apostle, probably one of the few, if not only, men alive at this point that actually spoke with Jesus face to face, and he is suffering in exile because of his preaching. John’s example should serve as a reminder to all who would shepherd God’s flock that they will have to sleep under the stars.
Patmos was a little island (about 35 miles in circumference), about 50 miles off the shore of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea. Roman Emperors would often exile political prisoners on the island. In this instance, under the reign of Domitian, John is exiled. We don’t know the details of what got him sentenced apart from the fact that it was because of his faithful testimony to the Gospel. We learn from Josephus, the Jewish historian, that John was given a pardon after Domitian’s death by Nerva in 96 A.D. and returned to Ephesus. John was the only Apostle not to suffer the death of a martyr, though he did experience persecution.
John tells us next that it was the Lord’s Day and he was “in the Spirit.” Though some will debate it, this is pretty clear evidence that by this point, for the Christian, the Sabbath had been moved from Saturday to Sunday (from the last day of the week to the first). We do this primarily to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but it is important for us not to stop there in our understanding of the Christian Sabbath.
Most of the earliest Christian converts were Jewish as well as being Christian. In fact, they would not have seen a contradiction between the two. Christianity was the fulfillment of all that Judaism had anticipated. In practice, then, they usually celebrated both the Saturday Sabbath and the Sunday Sabbath.
Yet, as Gentiles flooded into the church through the missionary efforts of those like Paul, the Gentiles were not expected to keep all of the requirements that had been placed on the Jews. The food laws and the circumcision laws were not applied to them. In fact, the Jerusalem counsel only mandated four restrictions (Acts 15:19-20):
- Abstain from things polluted by idols
- Abstain from sexual immorality
- Abstain from food that has been strangled
- Abstain from eating meat that has the blood still in it
Not being required to conform to Jewish tradition, the gentile Christians tended only to keep the Christian, or Sunday, Sabbath, not both.
In 70 AD, the Romans came in and sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple. When they did this, they went out of their way to eliminate potential pockets of resistance and groups that might form an insurrection. This helped to drive the wedge even deeper between Christians and Jews, until there was a fairly distinct separation between Christian and Jewish Sabbaths.
Yet, the change from Saturday to Sunday Sabbath-keeping was not simply a historical issue, but a theological issue. It is important to note the comparison. In the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath for the following reasons:
- To rest from the labors of the week (Genesis 2:1-3)
- To commemorate God’s creative work (Exodus 20:11)
- To commemorate God’s consecration of His people as a holy and set apart (Exodus 31:12-15)
- To gather as a people in the name of God (Leviticus 23:1-3)
- To commemorate God’s redemption of His people (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
As Christians, we look to Christ’s completed work for our hope and as the focus of our Sabbath day. In turn, we keep the Sabbath for the same reasons, but with a Christological focus. As Christ was resurrected on Sunday and the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost on Sunday, we celebrate our Sabbath on Sunday.
- The Christian Sabbath is still a needed rest from the labors of the week.
- Not only do we commemorate God’s creative work, which was begun on a Sunday, but we anticipate God’s re-creative work in the new heavens and the new earth, which was secured on a Sunday, as it is Christ’s resurrection that secured for us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Peter 1:4).
- We commemorate God’s election, setting us apart as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 1:14-16).
- We gather as a people in the name of the Lord.
- To commemorate God’s redemption of His people, not only through the history of redemption, but also in the saving work of Jesus, through which we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin and are being prepared for eternity with Christ in heaven. Because Christ is resurrected, we have the hope of resurrection as well (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:18).
John also tells us that he was “in the Spirit” when he received the revelation from Jesus. While there is some discussion as to just what John means, we can at least say that John was involved in worship. We can say this for a number of reasons. First of all, his vision was on Sunday, as we previously discussed, which is a day set apart for the worship of God. Secondly, scripture encourages us to pray with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26, Jude 20). And third, we see in Isaiah’s call and probably in Jeremiah’s call, that they were in the context of worship (for are not our souls best prepared for God’s call in this context?). Isaiah was serving in the temple when God called him. Though we do not know the context that Jeremiah was in when God called, we do know that he was a priest who resided in the city of Anathoth, which is less than 3 miles from Jerusalem.
Some will argue that this is referring to a prophetic state that John was in. John certainly ended up in that state, but to imply that John was in the prophetic state prior to the theophany is difficult to support. Throughout the scriptures, the Holy Spirit is found to be descending on people in a prophetic way (1 Samuel 19:20-24, Ezekiel 2:2, Acts 10:10, 2 Corinthians 12:2), but what is consistent is that the person has no control over the timing of it. God is sovereign not only in his creation and his election, but he is sovereign even in his revelation of himself. My suggestion is that John was involved in sincere prayer and worship and God chose that very appropriate time to reveal himself to him.
We then hear the voice that calls to John from behind. It is worth noting the imagery that John uses here: it is loud like a trumpet. Trumpets are used in the Old Testament for a variety of reasons. It is used to call people together for worship (Exodus 19:13, Leviticus 25:9) or for warfare (Judges 3:27, Nehemiah 4:20). They were used in worship (Psalm 150:3) and to announce a new king over God’s people (1 Kings 1:34). But there is one usage that carries over from the Old Testament into the New, and that is the use of trumpets to announce the presence of the Lord (Exodus 19:16-19, Isaiah 27:13, Matthew 24:31, 1 Corinthians 15:52, etc…). Here John is in the presence of the Lord.