Revelation’s First Vision: The Glory of the Risen Jesus (Rev 1:1-20)

The first vision communicated in the book of Revelation is not a vision of doom or judgment. It is a vision of Jesus. Specifically, John gets a glimpse of Jesus in all his glorified majesty now that he is reigning in heaven, with imagery that is steeped in Old Testament depictions of God himself! (More on that below.)

In Rev 1:9-10 we’re told that John is worshiping God from his place in exile on the island of Patmos. Even though he’s been banished from his church communities back on the mainland, he continues to worship in solidarity with them on the Lord’s Day — a.k.a Sunday. (Even within the time of the first apostles, Christians had begun worshiping on Sunday rather than, or in addition to, the traditional Jewish Sabbath/Saturday, since Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday; see Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2.)

Suddenly John “came to be in the Spirit” (1:10). This phrase echoes the experiences of Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel (see Ezek 2:2; 3:12) and signifies the action of God’s Holy Spirit enabling him to see into the spiritual realm and glimpse realities of heaven. [1]

It’s of great significance for us as readers of Revelation to see that God graciously reveals himself to his worshipers. As Amos 3:7 (CSB) says, “Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” In other words, it’s in God’s nature to share and to reveal truth to those who sincerely seek it. [2] He loves to reveal things to his friends (hence we have the Revelation).

Now that the window into the spirit realm has been opened, John hears a loud and powerful voice speaking to him, and when he turns around to see who it is, he sees “seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was one like the Son of Man, dressed in a robe and with a golden sash wrapped around his chest. The hair of his head was white as wool—white as snow—and his eyes like a fiery flame. His feet were like fine bronze as it is fired in a furnace, and his voice like the sound of cascading waters. He had seven stars in his right hand; a sharp double-edged sword came from his mouth, and his face was shining like the sun at full strength” (Rev 1:12-16, CSB).

As I mentioned in a previous post, symbolism is a key part of Revelation’s message, and it’s critical that we do our best to try and unpack the symbols the way a first-century Christian living in the Roman Empire would have. That means we need to think first and foremost about imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament), and secondly from Greco-Roman culture.

This first vision is a great place to practice. Let’s examine what truths the imagery here might point us to.

“Son of Man” is a title that comes from Daniel 7:9-14, which itself is a spiritual vision wherein God grants authority over all the kingdoms of the earth to a human-like figure. We read in the Gospels that Jesus often applied this phrase to himself, and there is absolutely no doubt that he is the figure in John’s vision. Referring to Jesus as the “Son of Man” accomplishes several things: it links him to Daniel’s prophecy, which in turn highlights the authority he has from God as the Messiah. It also points to the fact that Jesus represents the human race before God — he’s the perfect man, as the first man Adam failed to be. And lastly, it reminds us of Jesus’ humanity — he’s one of us, expressing his solidarity with us.

Sephardic style Menorah (Image credit: Roy Lindman, via Wikipedia, edited)

 

Jesus is standing among “seven lampstands.” Rev 1:20 identifies these for us as representing the seven churches on the mainland that John will be writing to in chapters 2-3. The number “seven” is significant throughout Revelation — in Jewish conceptual thought, it represented completeness or perfection. These seven churches stand in a representative fashion for any and all Christian churches throughout the world and throughout history. The message Jesus has for them is relevant for every church to listen to.

And the depiction of the churches as “lampstands” highlights their mission to shine God’s light in the world (see Matt 5:14-16). First readers of Revelation may have pictured the golden lampstand (the Menorah) in God’s Temple, which was a symbol of God’s presence. Jesus standing among lampstands thus gives a doubly-enforced focus on the Lord’s presence among his churches. He is with us always, and we don’t carry out his mission alone (see Matt 28:20).

Jesus’ hair being “white as wool” is an odd but significant detail. If calling Jesus the “Son of Man” would have reminded readers of the vision in Daniel 7, the “white hair” may have, too. There is a figure with white hair mentioned in that same scene (Dan 7:9), but notice the great surprise of how Revelation transforms Daniel’s image. In Daniel, the Son of Man comes before the Ancient of Days (God the Father), who has white hair and white clothes (symbols of purity, wisdom, and honor). But in Revelation, Jesus bears these traits. He is the exact image of God the Father. The sound of his voice is as powerful as the roar of the ocean, which is yet another trait ascribed to God in the Old Testament (Ezek 43:2).

Many other passages in Revelation will emphasize the oneness of Jesus and the Father, in symbolic and straightforward ways. I dare say you can’t read Revelation carefully and come away with the idea that Jesus isn’t divine. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. As Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

That powerful word is pictured here in Rev 1 as a sharp, two-edged sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. This is an image that isn’t meant to be pictured literally — Jesus isn’t one of those sword-swallowers you’d find at a circus. This is actually a visual metaphor for the power of Christ’s word. If his words are compared to a sword, it means that he can judge and execute with a single word. This is an image of Christ as the Judge. His word is law. It’s an image from the Old Testament, in fact — from Isaiah 11:4, a prophecy about Messiah: “but he will judge the poor righteously and execute justice for the oppressed of the land. He will strike the land with a scepter from his mouth, and he will kill the wicked with a command from his lips.”

Jesus’ first words in the book are, “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. This was his word to John because the vision was so overwhelming. But it’s also Jesus’ word to us, who may be feeling overwhelmed by life and by our own trials. Christ’s first word to us is, “Don’t be afraid.”

Why? Why don’t we need to be afraid? Because of who he is: “I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:17-18). We don’t have to be afraid, because of who Jesus is. We have hope because he lives. And because he lives forever, so will all who believe in him.

Once again, this passage echoes a prophecy from Isaiah, where God speaks comfort to his people:

Isaiah 41:10-13 — “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand. Be sure that all who are enraged against you will be ashamed and disgraced; those who contend with you will become as nothing and will perish. You will look for those who contend with you, but you will not find them. Those who war against you will become absolutely nothing. For I am the Lord your God, who holds your right hand, who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.'”

Revelation is meant to give us instruction, encouragement, and hope (see Rom 15:4), not make us panic or turn us into doomsday-preppers. This book is meant to make Christians LESS afraid, not MORE afraid!

Less afraid of evil (God will win! Satan is desperate because he knows his time is short). Less afraid of death (Jesus has conquered death for us; we will be resurrected to live forever with God in paradise). And less afraid of evangelizing (we will be richly rewarded for faithful witnessing; it’s the ultimate purpose for our lives).

The first vision in the book puts the focus where it should be: on Jesus. On his glory as our risen King and on the encouragement we should find from knowing he rules and reigns and is present with his church.


[1] See Buist M. Fanning, Revelation, ZECNT (Zondervan, 2020), 96.

[2] Sigve K. Tonstad, Revelation, Paideia Commentary (Baker, 2019), 26.



Categories: revelation

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3 replies

  1. How do I get a rerun of your talk on John Mark? carol b.

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  1. How to Apply the Messages to the Seven Churches (Rev 2-3) – Theology Pathfinder

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