In spirit on the Lord’s Day (1:10)
While on the island, he says, “I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice…” (1:10). John found himself in a long line of prophets who had received visions from God. He is in the tradition of Ezekiel, who wrote of his visions in words similar to John: “The Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a loud rumbling sound…” (3:12).
John also stands in the apostolic tradition of visionary experiences. Peter had a vision at Joppa (Acts 10:10; 11:5) and Paul did on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) and in Jerusalem (Acts 22:17-21). Such “visions and revelations from the Lord,” as Paul described them, validated him as a true messenger of the gospel (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Paul said the gospel he preached came through a revelation (Galatians 1:11-12). John referred to God’s prophetic revelation in his book because it validated what he wrote as coming from God.
John’s use of “in the Spirit” does not refer to the Christian’s attitude and relationship to God. Nor does it refer to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, which all Christians have. As the content of Revelation shows, John’s “in the Spirit” referred to a special state in which spiritual knowledge was received from God.
John says he was “in the Spirit” at a specific time—“the Lord’s Day” (1:10). Unfortunately, John does not explain the expression any further. With little to go on, his statement has been variously interpreted. Some see in this the first use of a technical term for the first day of the week—a time of special worship for Christians, perhaps a weekly commemoration of the resurrection.
In support of this idea, mention is usually made of two occasions in the New Testament. One refers to a time when the disciples broke bread on the day prior to Paul’s departure (Acts 20:7). Another mentions an offering being gathered for the poor saints in Jerusalem on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2).
There is another interpretation of John’s use of the “Lord’s Day.” This idea says the expression refers to his being carried forward by the Spirit to the time with which Revelation deals. That would be the time or day when God intervenes in human affairs and ushers in the kingdom. There are many references to this “day of the Lord” in the Old Testament, Isaiah 13:9-10 being a good example.
This would be God’s “day” when his rest is on the earth—and God’s people enter into it through salvation. Hebrews seem to refer to this time in a cryptic manner (4:3-7). In that sense, we should view “the Lord’s Day” in opposition to humanity’s day, as represented by “Caesar’s days,” times set aside to honor the Roman emperor.
Some Greek scholars argue that “the Lord’s Day” would too unusual a grammatical construction if used for the eschatological day of the Lord. However, we should be reminded that these same scholars complain that John’s Greek is idiosyncratic. Perhaps, since John does not make much of the expression, the wisest course would be to follow his lead.
Write to the seven churches (1:10-11)
John is now given his commission. He is to describe the visions and write down the words he hears. Then he is to send them to seven congregations in the province of Asia—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (1:11)
The entire scroll—our book of Revelation—was to be read at each of the seven churches. But why choose seven churches (rather than six or eight)?
In his classic 1909 work, Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, William Ramsay suggested that the seven churches were on an established postal route, with Ephesus the point of entry by sea. A mail courier would deliver the mail at Ephesus and then travel 40 miles north to Smyrna. Next, he would go 40 more miles north to Pergamum. The courier would then turn southeast towards Thyatira, about 45 miles away. The next leg would take him 30 miles south to Sardis, and then east-southeast to Philadelphia, another 30 miles. Finally, the mail courier would ride 40 miles southeast to Laodicea.
We know from the New Testament that there were churches in other cities of Asia. This would include congregations in Troas (Acts 20:5-12; 2 Corinthians 2:12); at Miletus (Acts 20:7); at Colossae (Colossians 1:2); at Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13). It’s also possible there were churches at Magnesia and Tralles. About 20 years later, when Ignatius wrote his letters, the churches in those two cities were well established.
Perhaps only seven churches are mentioned for another reason. Revelation is a book of symbols representing cosmic concepts. John uses the number seven frequently: 54 times. In the ancient world, seven was regarded as the perfect number. It stood for completion. In choosing seven churches, then, Revelation would be telling us that the message is addressed to the entire church—the church universal—wherever it is found.
The churches in the seven cities were real congregations of Christians. They did hear the message. But so did other congregations, not only in Asia, but in many other places where Christians met. This is attested to by the fact that Christians used and preserved the book and have passed it on to us, 1,900 years after it was written.
One other point should be briefly considered. Some have felt that the seven letters represent seven successive periods of church history. While it is an interesting concept, there is no way to demonstrate its validity. At the end of each letter, the church being addressed is told to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (in the plural). That is, every church needs to hear what has been said to the other six. Thus, the emphasis seems to be on the thought that all the characteristics of the seven churches are found wherever and in whatever age Christians live.
One like a Son of Man (1:12-16)
We now begin to read about the first of John’s visions—a picture of the risen Christ in his glorified state. John sees his vision as a kaleidoscope of magnificent Old Testament images and portraits. The vision is a symbolic portrayal of the Lord’s majesty. It is a virtual reality experience of the glory of the resurrected Christ.
What is the purpose of the vision? It sets the tone for the message of the book. It tells us Jesus Christ has total lordship over the creation and the congregation of the saints. He is actively present in the affairs of world and church.
The seven lampstands (1:12-13)
At the beginning of his vision, John turned to see who was speaking, apparently from behind him or to his side. As he spun around, he saw seven golden lampstands or candelabra (1:12). John explains who these symbols represent: they are the seven churches to whom this letter-book is written (1:20). As noted above, the seven churches represent the complete church.
A lampstand carries symbolic meaning. Jesus said God’s people are lamps called to carry the light of the divine presence in a spiritually dark world (Matthew 5:14-16). Christ is the light of the world. Disciples of Christ are lights of the world and stars that shine in a depraved world. However, the light that shines from Christians is a reflected light that originates in Christ.
The picture of seven golden lampstands harkens back to the candlestick of pure gold in Israel’s Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-38). In a vision similar to John’s, Zechariah saw a single golden lampstand. On the top was a bowl with seven lights on it (Zechariah 4:2). We again see continuity between the nation of Israel and the church.
Among the seven lampstands, John saw a figure he described as one “like a son of man” (1:13). This is a title Jesus often used for himself, but it can also be used for other humans (Psalm 8:4; Ezekiel 3:17).
We are not told that this is the glorified Christ. However, we soon see that the passage speaks of him. As well, John’s description closely follows the picture of the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel. Daniel also saw in a vision “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (7:13). This person was led into the presence of the Ancient of Days and was given everlasting dominion, authority, and power over all nations (verse 14). Ezekiel also experienced a vision of “a figure like that of a man” (1:26).
In John’s vision, this dazzling figure is pictured among the seven lampstands. These, we saw represent the seven churches (1:13, 20). This was a powerful statement to the harried churches, showing that Christ is present with his people.
The vision emphasizes the identity of the true spiritual leader of the church. He is the risen Christ, who dwells in the midst of his people. He is with them at all times (Matthew 28:20). This recalls Jesus’ promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
The glory described (1:13-16)
John describes several characteristics of the figure he sees. He wears a floor-length robe and gold sash around his chest (1:13). The high priest wore a robe (Exodus 28:4; 29:5; Leviticus 16:4). Princes and kings did as well. The symbolic meaning here is that Christ is both a priest and king to his people.
John tells us that the figure he saw had hair that was white as wool. This is Daniel’s description of the Ancient of Days, a figure that pictures God (7:9). Thus, John is telling us that Christ shares this feature with his Father. The hoary head is a symbol of great age. This could be a symbol for Christ’s eternal existence, which he shares with the Father. By attributing a quality of God to Christ, Revelation points out the exalted state of Christ. The color white in Revelation represents sinlessness or holiness. Perhaps here we are to understand Christ’s eternal holiness.
Next, John tells us this figure had eyes like a blazing fire (1:14). This recalls Daniel’s vision of a man dressed in linen who had “eyes like flaming torches” (10:6). This characteristic of the risen Savior is repeated twice. First in the letter to Thyatira (2:18) and later, in the description of the victorious Messiah (19:12). It may suggest an unusual ability to see hidden things.
John’s figure had feet he described as “bronze glowing in a furnace” (1:15). Daniel’s figure had arms and legs with “the gleam of burnished bronze” (10:6). This could be understood as Christ’s infinite strength and power.
The figure’s voice was “like the sound of rushing waters” (1:15). This is precisely how Ezekiel described the voice in his vision of the glory of the God of Israel (43:2). Daniel’s figure had a voice “like the sound of a multitude” (10:6).
Next, John tells us the figure held seven stars in his right hand (1:16). The seven stars are defined for John as being symbolic of the angels of the seven churches (1:20). This is one of several places in which Revelation is self-interpreting. John sometimes tells us the meaning of his visions. Some examples are found in Revelation: 4:5; 5:6; 8; 14:4-5; 12:9; 17:9-11; 12, 18; 19:8; 19:10; 20:14).
That Christ holds the stars in his hand may imply that he fully protects the churches. The thought recalls Christ’s words to his sheep, which symbolically represent his people: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
The fact that the stars are in his right hand may indicate that Christ loves his people. This would be important encouragement, given the strong rebuke and dire warnings some of the churches are about to receive.
How could one person hold seven stars, when stars are far larger than earth? This is a symbolic depiction, and John and his readers were not aware of how large stars actually are. Visions are not to be taken literally, but symbolically.
The sharp sword of Christ (1:16-17)
John tells us the figure has a sharp double-edged sword protruding from his mouth (1:16). We will see this image used again as part of the returning Messiah’s imagery (19:15, 21). There it seems to represent divine judgment.
The sword is used in Hebrews as a symbol to show the penetrating quality of God’s word (Hebrews 4:12). Paul speaks of the sword of the Spirit as being the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). The sword is an Old Testament picture as well. Isaiah, writing in the character as the Messiah, says, “He made my mouth like a sharpened sword…” (49:2). What is the connection between the mouth and the sword? God needs only to speak, and it is done. In Genesis 1, God spoke and all things came into existence.
This picture—the sword coming from the figure’s mouth—tells us we are being given only a symbolic representation of Christ’s glory. We are not to believe that he has a literal sword in his mouth.
The final element in the figure’s description is his face, which gleamed like the sun in full brilliance (1:16). This recalls another vision in the New Testament. In the Transfiguration, Jesus’ “face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:12).
John’s vision of Christ glorified had much in common with Old Testament descriptions of God. How John was led to apply them to the figure he saw, we do not know. What is clear is that Old Testament descriptions of God have been applied to Christ. This tells us two things. Christ is to be understood to be God. Also, the God of Israel has been connected with Christ, the Savior of New Testament Israel, the church.
John’s reaction to what he saw is understandable. Shaking with fear, he collapsed and virtually fainted. “As though dead,” is the way John described it (1:17). Daniel related a similar reaction when he saw his “great vision” of the man dressed in linen. He, too, collapsed, his “face turned deathly pale” and he fell into sleep (Daniel 10:8-10). As in Daniel’s case, the figure’s hand touched John and reassured him (1:17).
Christ the living one (1:17)
What follows, until the end of chapter 3, is a long speech by Jesus. We have a “Thus saith the Lord…” to John and the churches reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets. The Lord spoke and the prophets passed on what was said to Israel, either verbally or in writing. John, however, is a prophet to the New Israel, the church.
Christ begins his speech by describing himself under several titles of divinity (1:17-18). He is “the first and the last,” which is roughly the same as the title “the Alpha and Omega” given previously (1:8). This title is a self-description of God in Isaiah. God says “apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 48:12). There is only one God and the God of Israel is One. But since the title is applied to Jesus, he also must be God, but not a “second” God (John 1:1).
Jesus Christ is also called “the Living One” who was dead but lives forever (1:18). The title “the living God” is used of God in both Old and New Testaments (Psalms 42:2; Romans 9:26). It refers to the essential nature of God. He has life within himself—he is eternal. Though Christ voluntarily emptied himself and died for the sins of humanity, through the life that exists in God, he was resurrected and exalted (Philippians 2:6-11).
This would have great meaning for a persecuted church, whose members might be facing martyrdom. Though some people of God may be put to death, the One who has life within himself guarantees that the martyred shall have life everlasting through him. “Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus told his disciples (John 14:9).
Jesus Christ holds the “keys of death and Hades” (1:18). Hades is a representation of death—the “place” where the dead are, meaning the grave (Acts 2:27, 31). The name Hades has nothing to do with a place of hell or torment.
Christ holds the keys. To hold the keys is to have the authority over something (Matthew 16:19). Christ has the right and power to enter into the realm of death and the grave. He can pull people out of death and give them the key to the kingdom of heaven. That is, through a resurrection they can gain eternal life.
This metaphorical term is another way to tell the church that Christ gives life to his people. It is a foundational part of the gospel message. Paul wrote that Christ “has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Death, the last enemy of humanity, will be eliminated or destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). This is also the message of Revelation. At the end of the book we shall see that death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire – a symbolic way of saying they are destroyed. Then, only life will exist.
In the context of the book, this is reassuring to the believers. They need not fear the Roman authority who may execute them.
Write what you see (1:19)
John is now commanded to “write…what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (1:19). On several occasions in Revelation, John was told to write down what he saw (1:11, 19; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; 14:13; 19:9; 21:5).
The grammar here is difficult. Are we to divide Revelation into three parts: 1. What John has seen; 2. What is happening now; 3. What will occur in the future? Or is it a two-fold book? That is, are we to divide what John sees into: 1. what is happening now; and 2. What will occur later?
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
If we are to understand this as a three-fold commission, then “what you have seen” refers to the vision of a Son of Man. “What is now” would refer to the condition of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. “What will take place later” would refer to the rest of Revelation beginning with chapter 4.
The most-widely held view sees the proper division of Revelation as two-fold. In that case, the command to “write” is a general one referring to everything in the book. A clearer way to put the verse would be to use this paraphrase: “Write what you will soon see, both what is already happening and those things will occur in the future.”
The first category would include the description of the seven churches, and references to historical conditions and situations of John’s time. The second category would contain those visions that describe the time of the end of human government, and beyond.
Perhaps there is another way of viewing this two-fold division. We could say that “what is now” represents the heavenly realities of the “good-as-done” determination of God. The “what will take place later” would then refer to the future working out of God’s judgment on this earth.
There is, throughout the New Testament, a tension between the “already” and “not yet” of the Christian life. The kingdom of God is here; but it is not yet complete. We are born again to a new life; but we are not fully what we are to become until the resurrection. Christ has already returned through the Spirit in human minds; his return is yet future.
Likewise, there is a tension in prophecy. The “end” is coming soon or is already here; the end is far off. Some of this tension disappears if we understand “the End” as a reality in the sense that God has willed and determined it. He has only to speak and it will be done. God merely needs to say to “the End”—“Come forth!” (6:1). Everything necessary to make “the End” possible has been accomplished.