Revelation Book Club, Class 2 Reading Resource
Why we need to understand Revelation today:
This amazing book, so misunderstood because its genre is unfamiliar, is exactly what the church in every generation and in every country so desperately needs. We need Christ’s perspective on the political, economic, and social/cultural powers that surround us. We need insight into our mission to live out the justice, truthfulness, advocacy and servanthood that Jesus both embodies and requires from his followers. We need to be empowered to live the prayer he taught us, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And we need Christ’s blessing. Without this transforming experience, the church is simply coopted by whatever empire is in power.
But understanding Revelation requires work in three major areas:
1. Historical Context (which we began in our first meeting)
Virtually every section of Revelation is God’s response (see 1:1-2) to what is happening on the ground in the Roman Empire. So if we don’t have a sense of what’s happening in the Roman Empire we will completely misunderstand Revelation. But when we have an understanding of the first century Roman Empire, especially in the Roman provinces of Palestine/Judea and Asia (western Turkey), we begin to learn both how God holds empire accountable and God’s intent for the church that exists in empires.
2. The Roman Imperial Cult
Rome merges political, economic, judicial and military policy with religion. It’s a brilliant move. It’s hegemony. Rome makes the imperial cult inviting and enjoyable so that people want to participate. And their participation in the imperial cult legitimizes Roman government policy which is often a policy of stratification and domination. In our third session, we’ll focus on the characteristics of the Roman Imperial Cult.
The Book of Revelation is a type of literary genre called “apocalypse.” The word, “apocalypse,” is simply the transliteration of the Greek word, apokalypsis,that is found in Revelation 1:1. It means, “to unveil,” or “to reveal” what is hidden. Hence the name, “Revelation.” What does Revelation unveil?
- First, apocalypse reveals that power—political, religious, or economic—is accountable to God. In what way? How does God evaluate and respond to human power? God blesses power when its used to build community, enact justice for those who are vulnerable and care for creation. God judges power characterized by oppression, abuse, lies, corruption, and injustice. All these characteristics flow from the idolatry, that is, from commitment to something other than God. Like all biblical apocalypses (in the ancient world some were secular) the Book of Revelation reveals that truth.
- Second, apocalypse reveals that the people of God living in the midst of an unraveling world, a world dominated by oppression and injustice, are accountable too. We are accountable to worship and serve God. What does God require? We are to speak truth to power, be advocates for the powerless, and live in hope because ultimately God, the redeemer of slaves, is in charge.
In this our second session, we are going to focus on the characteristics of apocalypse as a literary genre. Then we’ll turn to our study of Revelation 1: 9-20.
What is an Apocalypse? Part 1: Historical Context of Apocalypse
In the Bible as well as in Jewish writing not included in the Bible, the use of the apocalyptic genre has a centuries long history. Why is that? What’s happening historically when writers turn to the apocalyptic genre? Why do writers use it?
In the Bible, we first see the apocalypse genre during the Babylonian exile when abusive power has crushed the foundations of Judah’s society. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem—the center of Judah’s religion, government and economy. The ruling class, religious leaders, business leaders and middle class are taken on a forced march across hundreds of miles to Babylonia. The leaders of Israel live out their lives not along the Jordan River but on the banks of the Euphrates River as slaves to the world’s great empire. Judah’s poor, whom the Babylonians view as worthless, remain in Judah without the religious, governmental, economic and cultural structures that made life possible for them. In this time when abusive power has created chaos, biblical apocalyptic is born.
Of course, abusive power doesn’t end with the fall of the Babylonian Empire and neither does apocalypse. In 539 BCE, the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. But for the next 500 years, the Jews lived under the domination of one foreign empire after the next: first the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Seleucids, and then the Romans. Astonishingly, from the time the Babylonians first invaded Judah in 597 BCE through the time of the New Testament, the only time the Jews experienced freedom from empires was from 110 to 63 BCE. So, not surprisingly, from the beginning of the Babylonian captivity through New Testament times, we see many examples of apocalyptic writing. We see it in biblical passages like Ezekiel 40-48, Zechariah 1-14, Isaiah 56-66, Joel 3-4 and the entire Book of Daniel. We also see it in the many Jewish apocalyptic writings written between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.
For many people, the Book of Revelation is just weird—like it comes from out of nowhere. But actually, it was part of a nearly 700-year tradition of Jewish apocalypses. For early Jewish Christians who heard Revelation read in worship, the meaning of this apocalypse was quite clear.
Our job is to do what most “popular” interpreters have not done, namely, to learn the characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic genre before interpreting the meaning of Revelation.
In her book, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, Anathea E. Portier-Young writes about Jewish apocalypses written in the mid-second century BCE. What she says about the apocalypses written then could equally be said about the Book of Revelation written 250 years later. She writes:
Apocalyptic faith maintained that what could be seen on the surface told only part of the story. It looks as if Antiochus (the Greek tyrant who was king of the Seleucid [Syrian]Empire from 175 to 164 BCE) would destroy God’s people, the covenant, holiness itself. It looked as if empire wielded power over life and death. A people with open eyes (opened by the “revealing” of apocalypse) could look through and beyond appearances to perceive the order of all creation and the enduring rule of God. They could name the violence and deception of imperial domination and hegemony, but also see in history a pattern for deliverance to come. The could see their own path and not stray from it, remaining faithful to God’s law. And they could behold a future for humankind, Jerusalem and Judea, earth and heaven, marked by justice, righteousness, and joy.
To summarize Portier-Young’s comments, the purpose of biblical apocalypse is to reveal/see/recognize/identify:
- The lies in the empire’s propaganda
- The violence and deception of imperial domination(the brute use of power), e.g. crucifixion, taxation, military power; and hegemony(creating cultural structures and attitudes that generate “consent” of the people to their ruler), e.g. when the imperial cult uses athletic games, free food, public baths, and free entertainment.
- The characteristics of God’s rule; i.e. what God requires of political, social, judicial and economic power, namely, justice, righteousness and shalom.
- The ultimate victory and deliverance of God’s rule
To dismiss the Book of Revelation from our lives because it is “too weird,” or “too hard to understand,” or God is “so violent,” or it’s only about Christians “being raptured” is to dismantle the church’s ability to discern the evils in empire, weaken her call to speak truth to power, undercut her mission to be advocates for the powerless as salt and light in the world. Clearly, the church needs the Book of Revelation. But to understand Revelation, we need to understand the characteristics of the genre of apocalypse.
One of the ways the genre of apocalypse accomplishes its empowering work in the church is by using symbols. Symbols engage us in a way that’s deeper than prose. The Christians who heard John’s Apocalypse read in their churches were familiar with the symbols John used. But we are not. We need to study and learn the characteristics of apocalypse including what these symbols mean.
What is an Apocalypse? Part 2: Symbolism
As we saw in our first session, the Roman Empire was highly skilled at communicating through visual symbols. If you are ever able to visit places where there are Roman ruins, the Romans’ skill at using visual symbols becomes immediately evident. Nothing was done randomly. You can see it in the design of cities, the architecture of public buildings such as temples, in theaters and colosseums; in statues, reliefs, signage, mosaics, roads, harbors, and aqueducts. Everything was built in a manner that would send a message visually.
The visual symbolism of apocalyptic is a strategic tool. Apocalyptic symbolism responds to the symbolism of empire.
Take, for example, this picture which we studied in our last session. It is a picture of a life-sized marble relief from what’s called the Sebasteion in the city of Aphrodisias. Aphrodisias, a city dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, is a city located between two of the cities mentioned in Revelation: Ephesus and Laodicea. The Sebasteion, a word meaning, “the venerable ones,” is a temple complex devoted to the worship of Roman Emperors. The temple housed 200 life-sized marble reliefs honoring Roman Emperors as gods.
50 of the 200 reliefs celebrate Roman victories over people and places from Judah and Arab nations in the east, to Spain in the west, and Britannia in the north. In each relief, the defeated people are personified as a shamed and beaten female slave. The picture above is inscribed, “Claudius Conquers Britannia.”
This relief prompts the worship of the Emperor Claudius. But is this example of Roman Imperial power something to celebrate? To worship? What happens to a society that worships this kind of power?
One of the ways John dismantles the propaganda of people in power is with symbols. One of his symbols is the Dragon. It’s fascinating that in Revelation, the Dragon can be the Emperor, the Roman Empire, or Satan.
What is the advantage of using symbols?
- First, the first century hearers were familiar with the use of symbols especially in the apocalyptic genre. They understood what the symbols in Revelation mean.
- Second, symbols are more powerful than words. Symbols engage our imaginations. And I think this is especially important for people surrounded by propaganda. Imagine walking by the Sebasteion, seeing people in awe, in worship and reflecting on the Dragon who is Emperor, the Roman Empire and Satan!
- Third, symbols reframe imperial propaganda. They help the church tease out the true nature of Roman power and Roman culture.
- Fourth, symbols empower the church to resist, to stand against abusive oppressive power and to live for the justice and righteousness of the kingdom of God.
Another symbol John uses is the “beast.” In Revelation 13:1, “a beast comes up from the sea.” Who or what is the beast?
The Jewish apocalyptic writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Romans the Kittim, which means: “the invading force from the sea.” The “beast” in Revelation symbolizes the Roman Emperors. As we learned last session, John appears to have grown up in Jerusalem. He could well have seen Vespasian lead the Roman armies, who arrive in ships at the Mediterranean port of Caesarea and march into Judah. Then when Vespasian was made Emperor, John saw Vespasian’s son Titus destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. Vespasian and Titus killed hundreds of thousands of Jews and enslaved hundreds of thousands more. They took the temple treasury and used it and Jewish slaves to build the Colosseum, a temple and a school for gladiators in Rome.
John sees Rome acting as a beast. And John names the beast as Satan’s agent. Yet, shockingly, John observed that people “worshipped the beast and said, ‘Who is like the beast and who can make war against it?’” (Rev. 13:4).
In John’s apocalypse, another beast comes up from the earth (Rev 13:11). This “beast” represents the imperial cult. The imperial cult is all pervasive in Asia Minor. It celebrates the benefits of imperial rule. It is funded and run by the leaders of each community. The leaders of the province of Asia even restructure the year’s calendar around worshipping the emperor. The cult includes a multitude of political, religious, economic and social activities. Everywhere people turn, they see the impact of the imperial cult. Using symbols like “dragon” and “beast” John is challenging the church to stand against, rather than participate in, the Roman imperial cult which was thriving in Asia Minor.
So how do we understand this highly symbolic apocalyptic text?David Barr writes that we must never stop at the surface meaning of the text. In Revelation, the significance of what we see and hear lies on another level:
The simple notion that a text means what it says is always inadequate, but with Revelation it is always wrong [italics mine]. Revelation does not mean what it says; it means what it means. It is a book of signs. Signs are the only appropriate means of communication because John seeks to express things that cannot be said in ordinary speech… . The most important point to remember is this: we are reading an apocalypse, which is a highly symbolic visionary form. Always ask what the symbol portrays.
What is an Apocalypse? Part 2: Symbolism of Numbers, Colors, Animals
In the apocalyptic genre, numbers are used as symbols. In Revelation, number are never literal quantities. Numbers always mean something. Here are some examples:
3 The spiritual order, a heavenly number. In a two-tiered universe, it’s what’s going on “up there.”
3 ½ A broken 7, i.e. the number of evil
4 The created order (e.g. four corners of the earth mean all the earth)
3 and 4 Together they mean heaven and earth
6 Humanity (created on the sixth day of creation)
7 Perfection, completeness (letters to “7” churches are really letters to all churches)
12 Israel (God’s people, the 12 tribes of Israel)
24 The community of faith (12 tribes of Israel plus 12 apostles)
e.g. 144,000 is not a literal number as in the number of people you could squeeze into the football stadium of my alma mater. It is 12×12 and 10x10x10 meaning all of Israel or all of God’s people
Series of sevens does not mean sequential but completion. So any completed set of actions will be a presented as sequence of seven. It simply means completed.
In the apocalyptic genre, colors and animals are also symbols. For example:
Pale (yellow/grey) Death
Eagle Leader of the air
Lion Leader of the wilderness
Ox Leader of the cultivated land
Dragon Satan, “that ancient serpent,” master of deception, bully
Beast Roman Emperors or the Roman Empire, serve the Dragon
Multiple headed means multiple rulers
Multiple horns means powerful, multiple rulers
To review, using these symbols is powerful for two reasons.
- First, they respond to and stand against the symbols the Roman elite used to justify the empire’s power and oppression. For us, these symbols invite us to discover the symbols oppressive powers use today and to demythologize them.
- Second, symbols communicate in a deep, experiential way. Revelation is more than just information. Experiencing Revelation forms us into people who are witnesses for Christ in the context of the powers of our world.
What is an Apocalypse? Part 3: Visions
We’re about to turn to our study of the rest of Revelation 1. In verse 11 we’ll read that John is instructed to write down everything he is about to see.Revelation is a series of visions.
- In chapters 1-3, John has a vision of the risen, glorified Christ and hears Christ’s instructions to the churches.
- In chapters, 4-11, we see a vision of the throne room of heaven. We join with the elders and heavenly beings to worship Jesus as the Lamb who was slain.
- In chapters, 12-22, we watch the great holy war unfold: We see a dragon, beasts, a woman and her children. And while there is blood everywhere and Jesus the Heavenly Warrior is there, the story makes clear that victory over evil is won by the sword the comes out of Jesus’ mouth, that is, through Jesus’ words not through violence. We also see that victory is won by Jesus, as the Lamb who gives his life. Jesus is both Warrior and Lamb.
Three visions. Not sequential but layered. Intermingled. The purpose is not to give us a newspaper account of how the world will end. The purpose is to create an experience that transforms and empowers the church.
In Revelation 1:3, John instructs the churches to read Revelation aloud in worship. Then, after the first century churches living in the Roman Empire heard this story read, they celebrated the Eucharist which has been hinted at throughout Revelation – Christ’s great victory through his body broken and blood shed. This experience – Revelation heard, Eucharist celebrated, church community experienced – empowered the church to see life in the Roman Empire with a new understanding of the issues at stake and with a commitment to, in the words of Revelation, be “witnesses” (in Greek: martyr) who “persevere.”
In some ways, the Book of Revelation is like a movie, an apocalyptic movie like The Lord of the Rings. There’s the quiet village the Hobbits call home. Frodo and his buddies are called out on a great journey. On that journey, they encounter supernatural powers—powers devoted to good and powers committed to evil. There is the evil Sauron with his all-seeing Eye. There are wizards, the gracious and powerful Gandalf and the prideful, evil Saruman. There is the One Ring of power secretly forged in the fiery Mount Doom in Mordor. And there is a host of characters: ents, elves, dwarfs, Gollum, Balrogs, the Nazgul, humans and many others. All are engaged in a great Holy War. The war is won through resistance, great courage, and determination.
When the war is won and Frodo and his friends return home, they are changed. Their experience, what they have seen and done, has “unveiled” (the meaning of “apocalyptic” in Greek or “revelation” in English) what they didn’t know before. They have a new understanding of the issues at stake for life in Middle Earth. I assume that J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the book just before, during and after WW II, wants his readers to have a similar “revelation.”
John wrote Revelation to create a similar transformation in the church. John wrote Revelation for seven churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor (western Turkey) at the end of the first century. However, since Revelation is apocalyptic, it uses numbers as symbols. In the apocalyptic genre, numbers are not about quantity, they are about a quality or characteristic. The number “seven” means, “complete.” So Revelation addresses seven actual churches, but the number means more than that. “Seven” means that John is addressing all churches. Clearly, it is written for us.
Let’s now turn our attention again to this amazing book.
Biblical Text: Revelation 1:9-11
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
Notes on Revelation 1:9-11 – John is Commissioned
9 I, John, your brother
- In the ancient world, leaders were fathers or elders.
- In the Roman world, the father was the pater familias who, according to Roman law, had legal autocratic authority over the family.
- By calling himself, “brother,” John rejects this universally accepted hierarchical authority. John may be referring to himself as a prophet. But like Paul in I Corinthians 12-14 and Galatians 3, he views the church as a place where all are equals.
who share with you in Jesus
- John says that all the churches, because of their faith in Jesus, share three common experiences/commitments. They are:
- Persecution is only mentioned 5 times in Revelation (1:9; 2:9; 2:10; 2:22; 7:14). The Greek word translated, “persecution, isthlipsis. The examples given in Revelation are “poverty, imprisonment, and ostracism for the faith.”
- the kingdom
- The kingdom of God is one of the powerful counter-cultural concepts in the Old and New Testaments. This concept affirms that God is king of the world. And God’s intentions for life on the world flow from the essence of who God is.
- People who serve God and Christ as Lord are members of the kingdom of God. We use power as Christ did. In other words, our power is to be characterized by justice, righteousness, compassion and servanthood rather than bullying, deception and coercion.
- and the patient endurance,
- Patient endurance is one of the themes of Revelation.
- Craig Koester defines endurance as “bearing hardship for the sake of a goal, not merely putting up with things to avoid conflict. Jesus both calls for and exemplifies endurance by his faithfulness to God in the face of opposition.”
- Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza notes that the Greek word, hypomone, translated, “patient endurance,” can mean: “loyal endurance, constant resistance, steadfastness, perseverance, staying power. Rather than faith or love, hypomone becomes the main Christian virtue in Revelation… . This is the challenge facing Christians as representatives of God’s power and empire here and now.”
was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
- Patmos is an island in the Aegean Sea 38 miles southeast of Ephesus.
- It is likely that the Roman provincial authorities exiled John to the island because of his preaching. It’s possible that when those authorities were no longer in power, John was released.
10 I was in the spirit
- Like the prophets of old, John says, “I was in the Spirit.” (e.g. Ezekiel 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 11:1; 43:5). “In the Spirit” has two meanings. First, John’s vision is a spiritual rather than a physical experience. In other words, Christ didn’t come riding up to John on a donkey. And second, the vision is made possible by the Holy Spirit.
on the Lord’s day,
- Koester gives us an important historical context for these words. He writes, “The adjective “Lord’s” was often used for what belonged to the emperor. But in Revelation the expression “Lord’s Day” centers on the worship of God and Christ—who are called “lord” (Rev 4:8; 19:16)—rather than on the ruler cult (13:1-18).”
and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches,
- Like Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:16, 19-20), John hears “a loud voice like a trumpet.” The loud voice commands John to write what he seesand send it to the seven (the symbol for all) churches. In Exodus, Moses was bringing God’s instructions telling the newly freed slaves how to live in covenant relationship with God. Christ, through John, is telling the infant churches how to live in faithfulness to God in the Roman Empire.
Biblical Text: Revelation 1:12-16
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
Notes on Revelation 1:12-16
Here is our first vision in the Book of Revelation. We hear it, and we think, “What?! This is too weird.” But we react that way because we don’t know about the 500 year history of Jewish apocalyptic literature. The Christians in these churches, especially Jewish Christians, heard this vision and thought, “Of course! This makes total sense!” This vision follows the symbols and pattern used in Old Testament apocalyptic visions (see Dan 10:5-11, 12-20; 8:15ff). Jews had been hearing these visions since childhood.
In Revelation, we hear repeated the same visual symbols as found in Daniel. We also hear the same pattern: response of fear, being strengthened by a heavenly being, and receiving further revelation. Let’s take a look at each part of this pattern and unpack the symbols. Notice that John uses similes. With the words, “like” or “as,” John compares aspects of the indescribable vision with something his audience knows.
John’s description moves from the periphery of the vision to the center. John moves from the seven golden lampstands, to the person—the Son of Man, to his clothing, eyes, hair and feet, then the seven stars in his right hand, the sword from his mouth, and his face.
Before we look at this vision, let’s remind ourselves of the important historical context. The vision of Christ we’re about to see is political. It is a powerful response to Roman propaganda about the Emperor. And since we will be seeing a visual portrayal of Christ, let’s go back to a visual portrayal of Emperor Augustus. The vision of Christ is sending a message to the church about all earthly powers. It asks the questions: who is the true ruler and whom do you worship?
At the end of this study, let’s brainstorm about what this message might be for the church then and today.
Who is the true ruler? Whom will you worship? The Propaganda of Augustus
- Portrayed as “imperator”—commander-in-chief, all military power resides in him.
- Reliefs on his breastplate celebrate victories over Hispania, Gaul, Germania, Parthia and link him to Mars, the god of war. Last week we heard Tom Holland, author of Rubiconand Dynasty, say that Augustus killed a million Gauls, enslaved another million and celebrated both in his triumph.
- To be portrayed without a helmet and barefoot, features not likely on a military leader, was to portray Augustus as a god.
- At his lower right, Cupid is riding a dolphin. Cupid’s mother is the goddess Venus. In Roman mythology, Venus was the mother of the Roman people. (In Rev 13 we’ll read that the beast, the Roman emperor, came out of the sea.)
- Julius Caesar claimed her as his personal ancestor. After Caesar’s death, Augustus, Caesar’s adopted son, claimed her as his ancestor as well. In so doing, he claimed divine endorsement of his reign.
Seven golden lampstands (1:12)
- The lampstands take us back again to the temple in the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 25, 37; Numbers 8; Zechariah 4:2-4 and 10). We remember that the temple is the place where heaven and earth intersect.
- In verse 20 we learn that “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Koester observes, “Revelation transforms the single lampstand with seven branches [in the Old Testament temple] into seven lampstands, which represent the seven churches.”
- He continues, “Readers find that they are participants in the vision. The lampstand imagery suggests that they are communities of worship within the tradition of Israel. Just as the seven-branched lampstand stood before God within the sanctuary, their congregations stand before the risen Christ (1:12) …. The exalted Christ is the radiant source of light in the center of this vision, and his churches convey light in their world through their witness.”
The voice that was speaking to me (1:12)
- Notice the parallel with Exodus 19:16,19 when Moses is meeting with God on Mt. Sinai. This is not just another human voice.
In the midst of the lampstands (1:13)
- Jesus is not removed from the life of the churches. He is in their midst, that is, fully engaged with them.
Someone like the Son of Man (1:13)
- The Son of Man is identified as Jesus in chapters 2 and 3.
- This image is primarily drawn from Daniel 7 and 11. David Barr writes about the meaning of this phrase, “Son of Man,” as it is used in both in Daniel and Revelation. Barr says that it means, “literally, a son of humanity; the Greek does not have the definite article. . . In Daniel’s vision the contrast is between the beastly figures of the previous vision with the one like “a son of humanity” (i.e., a human being). The significance, then, is an exalted figure who is truly human.”
clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.
- The way Christ is dressed is a sign of status perhaps as the royal priest of the churches (Dan 10:5; Exodus 25:7; 28:4,31; 29:5). But in the first century, his clothing is a mark of leadership and distinction.
14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow;
- His white hair indicates wisdom and knowledge. Jesus is portrayed as God is portrayed in Daniel 7:9, namely, as the “Ancient of Days.”
his eyes were like a flame of fire,
- His eyes are like a flame of fire. He doesn’t look atus; he looks intous as countries, churches and individuals. Christ’s gaze penetrates and His gaze is fire that makes us holy by burning, purifying, sanctifying (making holy) until all that is impure, all that is foreign to Christ’s design for human life, is burned away. (“For he is like refiner’s fire.” – Malachi 3:2)
- James Resseguie writes,
“The fiery eyes suggest … the ability to see beneath the pretenses of this world (cf. Dan 10:6). They are emblematic of spiritual insight, the keen ability to see beyond surface appearances… . The battle between truth and falsehood requires ears that hear and eyes that see. Jesus has eyes that see.”
15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace,
- His feet are like bronze symbolizing his strength and permanence (in contrast with the feet of clay in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. This strength and stability are important characteristics in the uncertainties of the world.
- Bronze “glowing in a furnace” represents moral purity—the basis of his judgment. This is not a quality one would necessarily associate with Roman emperors!
and his voice was like the sound of many waters.
- His voice has a presence and volume that cannot be ignored (Ezek 43:2).
- Resseguie writes, “The loud voice drowns out the din of everyday rhetoric… . In the presence of this sonorous voice the competing voices of contemporary society recede to the distant background.”
16In his right hand he held seven stars,
- He holds the seven stars that are the angels of the seven churches (1:20). In other words, he is sovereign over the entire church. He holds the entire global church – past, present and future – in his hand.
- Koester writes of an analogy known in the Roman world at the time. He writes, “Cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him ‘divine Caesar; son of the emperor Domitian,’ and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome.”
and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword,
- A sharp double-edged sword comes out of his mouth (Isaiah 11:4; 49:2). Barr writes, “Jesus’ testimony is itself two-edged, both what he said and what he did, which in Revelation focuses on his death.”
- His word is powerful. It cannot be stopped. It cuts through the lies of the Roman imperial cult and of every society.
- Koester writes, “This imagery fits the peculiar nature of conflict in Revelation. Christ defeats evil with the force of truth, culminating in the great battle where his sword—his word—is the only weapon mentioned (Rev 19:15, 21). In the great battle Christ will wield the sword of truth against the nations; but here, his sword, or word, confronts Christian readers (chapters 2 and 3). They too are subject to his word, which in subsequent chapters includes both encouragement and rebuke.
and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
- His face shines as it did on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:2). There it glowed for a moment. But the glorified Christ’s face shines for all eternity.
- Resseguie writes, “This is the source of light for the churches and for the world.”
Biblical Text: Revelation 1:17-20
17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that 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.
Notes on 1:17-20
17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
- Seeing the majesty and power of Jesus Christ, John falls on his face in fear. John is in awe, overwhelmed by the majestic figure of Christ. People in the churches in Asia Minor and all of us are in awe as well.
But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
- Resseguie writes, “The right hand that holds the stars in 1:16 is the same hand that is placed on John. The one who controls the cosmos consoles the individual. Jesus’ assurance to John takes the form of self-declarations that clarify who he is.”
- John has seen the vision of Christ. Now Christ declares who he is. He begins by stating that he is God by using the name for God in Exodus, “I am” (Exod 3:14).
- Then just as God said of himself (Isaiah 41:4; 44:4; 48:12), Jesus says that he is the first and the last (Rev 1:17). As Resseguie affirms, “The origin and goal of history is to be found in God and Christ. Whatever vaunted claims the beast [Rome] may make and however persuasive his appeals to deification may appear to ordinary people, John sets the record straight with the powerful primacy effect of the inaugural vision. The beginning and end, and thus the sovereignty of this world, is found in God and Jesus Christ.”
- Because of his death and resurrection (“I am the Living One; I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever”), Jesus possesses the same sovereignty over history as God possesses. Like God (Deut 32:40; Dan 4:34), Jesus is alive for ever and ever.
- The One who died and was held captive by death now holds the keys of death and Hades. Resseguie writes, “Jesus can open what is tightly sealed—a seemingly impossible task for any human being, except for one human who has passed through these doors. The two step progression in 1:18 refers both to the state (“Death”) and to the place of imprisonment (“Hades”)…. This is the “new exodus” that Jesus achieves: liberation from the prison of death and participation in an eternal kingdom, which Revelation portrays as the new, eternal city (Rev 21-22).”
- For Christians facing the possibility of ostracism or even death at the hands of pagan Rome, this is encouraging information: the tables have been turned.
19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that 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.
- On the basis of who Christ is, what he has done to get there, namely, his crucifixion (a faithful witness in suffering and death), and the significance of that truth for Christians living under the possibility of persecution, John is commissioned again (1:11) to write.
- John is to write what is now and what will take place later (see 1:1-3). In other words, John is to write about not only this first vision but the next two visions he will receive.
- According to Resseguie, each of the seven churches is represented by an angel. The angel in heaven embodies the inner reality of the church on earth. He writes, “The angels of the churches most likely represent the spiritual condition of the church…. The messages to the churches are addressed to angels because the churches’ inner nature needs to change.”
- Koester writes, “Finally, the lampstands represent the churches. Readers find that they are participants in the vision. The lampstand imagery suggests first that they are communities of worship within the tradition of Israel. Just as a seven-branched lampstand stood before God with in the sanctuary, their congregations stand before the risen Christ (1:12). Second, it identifies them as witnesses. . . . The exalted Christ is the radiant source of light in the center of this vision, and his churches convey light in their world through their witness.”
Summary and Application of the Vision of Christ. For each characteristic, let’s ask: How is this different from Augustus?
In the midst of the lampstands (1:13)
Jesus is actively present in the life of each church
Someone like the Son of Man (1:13)
Jesus is truly human. He understands us fully.
Clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. (1:13)
He is our high priest who, in compassion, draws us to God and God to us.
His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; (1:14)
He is the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9). In other words, the One the Roman’s crucified is God.
his eyes were like a flame of fire, (1:14)
He sees through the lies and deceptions of our world and our lives. Those who follow him find that his gaze is freeing them from idolatry and making their lives holy.
his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, (1:15)
According to Daniel 2, Rome has feet of clay. In other words, evil has within it the seeds of its own destruction. Christ is built on the strength and stability that comes from integrity and moral purity. He will be present for all eternity.
and his voice was like the sound of many waters. (1:15)
His word cannot be avoided or ignored.
his right hand he held seven stars, (1:16)
With his right hand, the hand that will lift up John in Rev 1:17, he upholds the well-being of the church (the seven stars).
and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, (1:16)
What comes out from Jesus, namely, his word (teaching), his life, death and resurrection, cannot be stopped by military power, political power, economic power or any evil. The truth of who he is and what he does is the one weapon that destroys evil.
and his face was like the sun shining with full force. (1:16)
John’s vision has moved from a focus on the periphery of the vision to the center. What’s in the center? Think of the light of the sun shining with full force. No matter what circumstances appear to be forming life—ours or the worlds—there is a light that cannot be turned off. In other words, there is hope, there is goodness, there is love, there is faithfulness, there is a future. It comes from Christ.
Based on our text from Revelation in this session, what do you think is John’s message for the church then? Today?
Clearly, Revelation is inviting us to evaluate those in power in our society: political, judicial, military, economic, social power. We are to assess: Is power being used in a way that reflects Augustus or Christ?
Rev. Dr. David Smith
Anathea E. Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, 389.
David L. Barr, Tales of the End, Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012, 7-9.
Table is adapted from Barr, ibid., 12.
Adapted from Barr, ibid., 13.
Adapted from Barr, ibid., 13.
Craig R. Koester, Revelation, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014, 239.
Koester, ibid., 239.
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
Koester, ibid., 243.
Photo of statue taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_of_Prima_Porta#/media/File:Statue-Augustus.jpg
David L. Barr, Tales of the End, Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2012, 68.
James L. Resseguie, The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009, 76-77.
Resseguie, ibid., 77.
Koester, ibid., 253.
Coin image from J. Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010, 38.
Barr, ibid., 69.
Koester, ibid., 253.
Resseguie, ibid., 79.
Resseguie, ibid., 80.
Koester, ibid., 255.