Chapter 1: King of Kings

David Chilton

Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of The Book of Revelation


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Chapter Text

Title and Benediction (1:1-3)

  1. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants the things that must shortly take place; and He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John;
  2. who bore witness to the Word of God and to the Witness of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
  3. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and keep the things that are written in it; for the time is near.

1        St. John makes it clear from the onset that his book is a revelation, an unveiling or disclosure of God’s purposes. It is not intended to be mysterious or enigmatic; it is, emphatically, a revealing of its subject. Specifically, it is the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him – in other words, a revelation mediated by our Lord Himself (cf. Heb. 1:2), about the things that must shortly take place. The Revelation, therefore, is not concerned with either the scope of world history or the end of the world, but with events that were in the near future to St. John and his readers. As we shall see throughout the commentary, the Book of Revelation is a “covenant lawsuit,” prophesying the outpouring of God’s wrath on Jerusalem. It is a prophecy of the period known in Scripture as “the Last Days,” meaning the last days of the covenantal nation of Israel, the forty-year “generation” (Matt. 24:34) between the Ascension of Christ (A.D. 30) and the Fall of Jerusalem to the Romans (A.D. 70).[1] It foretells events that St. John expected his readers to see very soon.

This clearly militates against any “futurist” interpretation of the book. The futurists would have it that St. John was warning the Christians of his day mostly about things they would never see – meaning that the Book of Revelation has been irrelevant for 1900 years! To claim that the book has relevance only for our generation is egocentric; and it is contrary to the testimony of the book itself. It must be stressed that the Greek expression for our English word shortly plainly means soon, and those who first read the phrase would not have understood it to mean anything else (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; 25:4; Rom. 16:20; Rev. 22:6). A futurist interpretation is refuted in the very first verse of Revelation.

Before we go any further, we should also note that St. John’s opening statement presupposes the Biblical philosophy of history: God is Lord of all, He has an all-embracing plan for His creation, and He rules every atom of reality according to His plan. After all, how does God know the future? The Bible does not indicate that God has some sort of crystal ball with which He can perceive future events. Think about it. There is really no such thing as “the future,” in the sense of something “out there” that can be divined with the proper equipment. To say that something is in the future is simply to say that it does not yet exist. How then does God know the future? The Bible gives only one answer: God knows the future because He planned it:

The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His Kingdom rules over all. (Ps. 103:19)

Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. (Ps. 115:3)

And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can hold back His hand, or say to Him: What have You done? (Dan. 4:35)

We have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will. (Eph. 1:11)

Thus, even though “the future” does not yet exist, it is absolutely certain and secure, because the all-powerful Lord of the universe has infallibly planned it. He “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (Rom. 4:17). God knows all things exhaustively because He planned all things exhaustively.

Arthur Pink wrote: “The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. His government is exercised over inanimate matter, over the brute beasts, over the children of men, over angels good and evil, and over Satan himself. No revolving of a world, no shining of a star, no storm, no movement of a creature, no actions of men, no errands of angels, no deeds of the Devil – nothing in all the vast universe can come to pass otherwise than God has eternally purposed. Here is a foundation for faith. Here is a resting place for the intellect. Here is an anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast. It is not blind fate, unbridled evil, man or Devil, but the Lord Almighty who is ruling the world, ruling it according to His own good pleasure and for His own eternal glory.”[2]

Now St. John says that these things regarding the future were signified, or “sign-ified,” to him by the angel. The use of this word tells us that the prophecy is not simply to be taken as “history written in advance.” It is a book of signs, symbolic representations of the approaching events. The symbols are not to be understood in a literal manner. We can see this by St. John’s use of the same term in his Gospel (12:33; 18:32; 21:19). In each case, it is used of Christ “signifying” a future event by a more or less symbolic indication, rather than by a prosaic, literal description. And this is generally the form of the prophecies in the Revelation. It is a book of symbols from beginning to end. As G. R. Beasley-Murray well said, “The prophet wishes to make clear that he does not provide photographs of heaven.”[3] This does not mean the symbols are unintelligible; the interpretation is not what any individual chooses to make it. Nor, on the other hand, are the symbols written in some sort of code, so that all we need is a dictionary or grammar of symbolism to “translate” the symbols into English. The only way to understand St. John’s system of symbolism is to become familiar with the Bible itself.

2-3      An important relationship is set up here. Verse 1showed us Jesus Christ giving the Revelation to St. John; now St. John states that he himself bore witness to the Word of God and to the Witness of Jesus Christ. Thus we see that Jesus is the preeminent Witness-Bearer, testifying to His servants; and we see also that St. John bears witness of Christ’s Witness, testifies of Christ’s Testimony. He can do this because he is one of Christ’s servants, and has become like his Master. In giving testimony, St. John is conformed to the image of Christ. These two patterns – Christ and His servants bearing dual witness, and Christ’s servants bearing His image – are carried on throughout the book, and will inform our understanding of such passages as 11:4-12.

Because this dual testimony (the Book of Revelation) is the very Word of God, a blessing – the first of the prophecy’s seven “beatitudes” (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14) – is pronounced upon those who are faithful to its message. Let us note the specific form of the blessing, for it offers another important pointer to the book’s content: Blessed is he who reads and those who hear. St. John has written this prophecy, not merely (or primarily) for individual edification, but for the Church in its official gathering for worship. From the beginning, the Book of Revelation is placed in a liturgical setting, in which a Reader reads out the prophecy to the congregation. The Greek word for reads is often used in the New Testament for this liturgical activity (Luke 4:16; Acts 13:27; 15:21; 2 Cor. 3:15; Eph. 3:4; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13). The Book of Revelation, as we shall see, is greatly concerned with liturgy; indeed, worship is a central theme of the prophecy. By showing us how God’s will is done in heavenly worship, St. John reveals how the Church is to perform His will on earth.

From the liturgy of special worship we go out into the world, to serve God in the liturgy of life. We respond to Truth (“Amen”) in special worship, and then respond further in general worship, throughout our whole life. St. John’s benediction is thus not only for the one who reads and those who hear, but for those who keep its message. The goal of the book is not merely to inform us about “prophetic” events. The goal of apostolic instruction is always ethical: It is written to produce “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). The Revelation gives us commandments to keep; and, in particular, the first-century readers were to heed and obey its instruction, for the crisis was upon them. The time is near, St. John warns, again emphasizing the contemporary relevance of his prophecy. He repeats this warning at the end of the book (22:6-7,10). The ancient world would soon be in an uproar as kingdoms shook and crumbled to their foundations, and the Christians needed the Revelation as a stable guide during the period of dramatic change which was to come. The end of the world was approaching – not the destruction of the physical universe, but the passing away of the old world-order, the governing of the world around the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. God had established a new nation, a new priesthood, a new humanity worshiping in a new sanctuary. God’s House was nearing completion, and the old, provisional dwelling, like scaffolding, was about to be torn away.

Greeting and Doxology (1:4-8)

  1. John to the seven churches in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His Throne,
  1. and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood,
  1. and has made us to be a Kingdom and priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
  1. Behold, He is coming with the Clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the Land will mourn over Him. Even so, amen.
  1. I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

4-6      St. John addresses his prophecy to the seven churches in Asia. It is obvious from the descriptions that follow (chapters 2-3) that he definitely has these actual churches in mind. The notion propagated by C. I. Scofield and others that these represent “seven phases of the spiritual history of the church”[4] is a mere fiction, with no objective evidence; and it is quite arbitrarily and selectively applied. There are at least three fallacious presuppositions held by those who advocate this doctrine.

First, the “seven ages” doctrine presupposes that the Book of Revelation covers all of Church history, from beginning to end. In defending his view, Scofield says: “It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the church period there should be no such foreview.”[5] Very true, perhaps; but who says the Book of Revelation does cover Church history? St. John certainly doesn’t. His only claim is that the prophecy covers “the things that must shortly take place” (1:1), and that the time of which it speaks is near (1:3). Thus, the most basic presupposition of the “seven ages” view is utterly false.

The second presupposition holds that the Church will end in defeat and apostasy: The Laodicean, lukewarm, practically apostate church, about which Christ has nothing good to say (3:14-22), is supposed to symbolize the Church of Jesus Christ at the end of the age. (A corollary of this view is that the “Last Days” spoken of in Scripture, in which apostasy is rampant, are the actual last days of earth’s history.) The fact that the Church ends in victory and triumph is, of course, what the present commentary is intended to demonstrate; thus no more need be said here. But it is important to note that the notion of end-time apostasy is a presupposition of the “seven ages” view; and those who hold it are assuming what they purport to prove.

The third presupposition, of course, is that we are living in the last age of the Church (again, we should note that these people are too often unable to think of themselves as living at any time other than the climax of history). This presupposition is erroneous. The prophecies of the glorious condition of the Church, to be fulfilled before the return of Christ, are far from their accomplishment. We probably have thousands of years to go before the End. We are still in the early Church! And, while it is fashionable for modern Christian intellectuals to speak of our civilization as “post-Christian,” we should turn that around and make it Biblically accurate: Our culture is not post-Christian – our culture is still largely pre-Christian![6]

Although, therefore, we may not say that the seven churches represent seven ages in Church history, there is an important point to be observed here. The fact that seven churches are mentioned in a book packed with numerical symbols should not be overlooked. Seven is the number in Scripture that indicates qualitative fullness, the essential nature of a thing (as ten indicates “manyness,” a fullness of quantity); here it represents the fact that the Revelation is intended for the whole Church in every age. The messages to the churches of Asia are to be applied to all, just as St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Philippians have worldwide significance. But in our application of these letters, we must be careful not to rip them out of their historical context.[7]

St. John uses the characteristic blessing of the apostles: grace (the favor of God bestowed upon those who, apart from Christ, deserve wrath) and peace (the state of permanent reconciliation with God through Christ’s atonement). These blessings, he says, are from each member of the Godhead: the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Son. Each of the Three participates fully and equally in extending grace and peace to the elect. The Father chose us from before the foundation of the world, and sent His Son to redeem us; the Son, in our place, lived a perfect life in obedience to the Law and paid the full penalty for our sins; and the Spirit applies the work of Father and Son through regeneration and sanctification. The fitting summary of all God has done for us is contained in these words: grace and peace.

The Persons of the Trinity are named here in liturgical (as distinguished from theological) order. Michael Wilcock’s explanation is very helpful: “John’s vision is going to take him into the heavenly sanctuary, of which the Jewish Tabernacle was a copy and shadow (Heb. 8:5); and perhaps the unusual order of the Trinity here (Father, Spirit, Son) corresponds to the plan of the earthly sanctuary, where the ark in the Holy of Holies represents the throne of God, the seven-branched lampstand in the Holy Place before it represents the Spirit,[8] and in the courtyard before that stands the altar, with its priest and sacrifice both representing, of course, the redeeming work of Christ.”[9]

The greeting is a clear expression of the Trinitarian faith – later hammered out in creedal form at the councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (381), but certainly explicit in the teaching of the Bible.[10] The doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God (one Person) who is three distinct Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that each of those Persons is Himself God. There are not three Gods – only One. Yet those three Persons are not different ways or modes of God making Himself known to us, nor are they to be confused with one another; they are three distinct Persons. Cornelius Van Til states it about as clearly as anyone has: “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are each a personality and together constitute the exhaustively personal God. There is an eternal, internal self-conscious interaction between the three persons of the Godhead. They are co-substantial. Each is as much God as are the other two. The Son and the Spirit do not derive their being from the Father. The diversity and the unity in the Godhead are therefore equally ultimate; they are exhaustively correlative to one another and not correlative to anything else.”[11]

What this means is that God is not “basically” one, with the individual Persons being derived from the oneness; nor is God “basically” three, with the unity of the Persons being secondary. Neither God’s oneness nor His “threeness” is prior to the other; both are basic. God is One, and God is Three. There are three distinct, individual Persons, each of whom is God. But there is only One God.[12] To put it in more philosophical language, God’s unity (oneness) and diversity (threeness, individuality) are equally ultimate. God is basically One and basically Three at the same time.[13]

First, St. John describes the Father: Him who is, and who was, and who is to come. Philip Carrington has caught the spirit of this expression, which is atrocious Greek but excellent theology: the Being and the Was and the Coming[14] God is eternal and unchangeable (Mal. 3:6); as the early Christians faced what seemed to them an uncertain future, they had to keep before them the absolute certainty of God’s eternal rule. God is not at the mercy of an environment; He is not defined by any external conditions; all things exist in terms of His inerrant Word. Threatened, opposed, and persecuted by those in power, they were nevertheless to rejoice in the knowledge of their eternal God who “is to come,” who is coming continually in judgment against His adversaries. God’s coming refers not simply to the end of the world but to His unceasing rule over history. He comes again and again to deliver His people and to judge the wicked.[15]

Second, St. John speaks of the Holy Spirit as the seven Spirits who are before His Throne. Although some have tried to see this as a reference to seven angels, it is inconceivable that grace and peace can originate from anyone but God. The Person spoken of here is clearly on a par with the Father and the Son. The picture of the Holy Spirit here (as also in 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) is based on Zechariah 4, in which the prophet sees the Church as a lampstand with seven lamps, supplied without human agency by an unceasing flow of oil through “seven spouts to the seven lamps” (v. 2) – the interpretation of which is, as God tells Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” (v. 6). The Holy Spirit’s filling and empowering work in the Church is thus described in terms of the number seven, symbolizing fullness and completeness. So it is here in Revelation: “To the seven churches… grace and peace be unto you… from the seven Spirits.” And the Spirit’s work in the Church takes place in terms of God’s dominion and majesty, before His Throne. This is, in fact, a marked emphasis in the Book of Revelation: The word Throne occurs here forty-six times (the New Testament book that comes closest to matching that number is the Gospel of Matthew, where it is used only five times). The Revelation is a book, above all, about rule: it reveals Jesus Christ as the Lord of history, restoring His people to dominion through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The word Throne is used particularly in Scripture to refer to God’s official court, where He receives official worship from His people on the Sabbath.[16] The entire vision of the Revelation was seen on the Lord’s Day (1:10) – the Christian day of corporate, official worship; and all the action in the book centers on the worship around the Throne of God. St. John wants us to see that the public, official worship of the Sovereign Lord is central to history – history both as a whole and in its constituent parts (i.e., your life and mine). The Spirit communicates grace and peace to the churches, in the special sense, through public worship. We can go so far as to say this: We cannot have continuing fellowship with God, and receive blessings from Him, apart from the public worship of the Church, the “place” of access to the Throne. The Spirit works in individuals, yes – but He does not work apart from the Church. His corporate and individual workings may be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. The notion that we can have fellowship with God, yet separate ourselves from the Church and from the corporate worship of the Body of Christ, is an altogether pagan idea, utterly foreign to Holy Scripture. The Church, as the Church, receives grace and peace from the sevenfold Spirit; and He is continually before the Throne, the special sphere of His ministry.

“Our lives are congested and noisy. It is easy to think of the Church and the sacraments as competing for our attention with the other world of daily life, leading us off into some other life – secret, rarified, and remote. We might do better to think of that practical daily world as something incomprehensible and unmanageable unless and until we can approach it sacramentally through Christ. Nature and the world are otherwise beyond our grasp; time also, time that carries all things away in a meaningless flux, causing men to despair unless they see in it the pattern of God’s action, reflected in the liturgical year, the necessary road to the New Jerusalem.”[17]

The third member of the Godhead (in this liturgical order) is Jesus Christ, spoken of by St. John under three designations: the faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. R. J. Rushdoony has forcefully pointed out how the term Witness (in Greek, martyr), has acquired connotations foreign to the word’s original meaning: “In the Bible, the witness is one who works to enforce the law and assist in its execution, even to the enforcement of the death penalty. ‘Martyr’ has now come to mean the exact reverse, i.e., one who is executed rather than an executioner, one who is persecuted rather than one who is central to prosecution. The result is a serious misreading of Scripture.… The significance of Jesus Christ as ‘the faithful and true witness’ is that He not only witnesses against those who are at war against God, but He also executes them…. Jesus Christ therefore witnesses against every man and nation that establishes its life on any other premise than the sovereign and triune God and His infallible and absolute law-word.”[18]

The theme of Christ as the preeminent Witness is important in Revelation, as we noted above on v. 2. By way of supplementing Rushdoony’s analysis, we may observe that a central aspect of Christ’s witness-bearing was His death at the hands of false witnesses. Those in this book who bear witness in His image will also do so at the cost of their lives (6:9; 12:11). The modern connotation of the word martyr is thus not so far-fetched and unbiblical as it might appear at first glance; but it is necessary, as Rushdoony has shown, to recall the basic meaning of the term.

Jesus is also the Firstborn from the dead. By His resurrection from the dead, He has attained supremacy, having “first place in everything” (Col. 1:18). As Peter said on the Day of Pentecost: “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet. Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36). God fulfilled the promise He had made long before: “I will make Him My Firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27).

St. John obviously had this passage from the Psalms in mind, for the next designation he gives to our Lord is the Ruler of the kings of the earth. Christ’s priority and sovereignty are above all. He is not “only” the Savior, waiting for a future cataclysmic event before He can become King; He is the universal King now, in this age – sitting at His Father’s right hand while all His enemies are being put under His feet. This process of taking dominion over all the earth in terms of His rightful title is going on at this moment, and has been ever since He rose from the dead. As Firstborn (and only-begotten!), Christ possesses the crown rights of all creation: ”All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me,” He claimed (Matt. 28:18). All nations have been granted to Him as His inheritance, and the kings of earth are under court order to submit to Him (Ps. 2:8-12). Commenting on Christ’s title Ruler of the kings of the earth, William Symington wrote: “The persons who are here supposed to be subject to Christ, are kings, civil rulers, supreme and subordinate, all in civil authority, whether in the legislative, judicial, or executive branches of government. Of such Jesus Christ is Prince; (ὁ ἄρχων) , ruler, lord, chief, the first in power, authority, and dominion.”[19]

This, in fact, is precisely the reason for the persecution of Christians by the State. Jesus Christ by the Gospel has asserted His absolute sovereignty and dominion over the rulers and nations of earth. They have a choice: Either submit to His government and law, accepting His non-negotiable terms of surrender and peace, or be smashed to bits by the rod of His anger. Such an audacious, uncompromising position is an affront to the dignity of any self-respecting humanist – much more so to rulers who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as gods walking on earth. Perhaps this Christ can be allowed a place in the pantheon, along with the rest of us gods; but for His followers to proclaim Him as Lord of all, whose law is binding upon all men, whose statutes call into judgment the legislation and decrees of the nations – this is too much; it is inexcusable, and cannot be allowed.

It would have been much easier on the early Christians, of course, if they had preached the popular retreatist doctrine that Jesus is Lord of the “heart,” that He is concerned with “spiritual” (meaning non-earthly) conquests, but isn’t the least bit interested in political questions; that He is content to be “Lord” in the realm of the spirit, while Caesar is Lord everywhere else (i.e., where we feel it really matters). Such a doctrine would have been no threat whatsoever to the gods of Rome. In fact, Caesar couldn’t ask for a more cooperative religion! Toothless, impotent Christianity is a gold mine for statism: It keeps men’s attention focused on the clouds while the State picks their pockets and steals their children.

But the early Church was not aware of this escapist teaching. Instead, it taught the Biblical doctrine of Christ’s Lordship – that He is Lord of all, “Ruler of the kings of the earth.” It was this that guaranteed their persecution, torture, and death at the hands of the State. And it was also this that guaranteed their ultimate victory. Because Jesus is universal Lord, all opposition to His rule is doomed to failure, and will be crushed. Because Christ is King of kings, Christians are assured of two things: warfare to the death against all would-be-gods; and the complete triumph of the Christian faith over all its enemies.

For this reason, St. John breaks into a doxology of praise to Jesus Christ, who loves us and freed us from our sins by the ransom-price of His blood, and has made us to be a Kingdom and priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Not only have we been redeemed from our slavery, but we have been constituted as a Kingdom of priests. The Kingdom has begun: Christians are now ruling with Christ (Eph. 1:20-22; 2:6; Col. 1:13), and our dominion will increase across the world (Rev. 5:9-10). We are a victorious, conquering priesthood, bringing all areas of life under His rule.

7-8      Verse 7 announces the theme of the book, which is not the Second Coming of Christ, but rather the Coming of Christ in judgment upon Israel, in order to establish the Church as the new Kingdom. He is coming with the Clouds, St. John proclaims, using one of the most familiar Biblical images for judgment (cf. Gen. 15:17; Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-20, 24; 19:9, 16-19; Ps. 18:8-14; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Ezek. 32:7-8; Matt. 24:30; Mark 14:62; Acts 2:19). This is the Glory-Cloud, God’s heavenly chariot by which He makes His glorious presence known.[20] The Cloud is a revelation of His Throne, as He comes to protect His people and destroy the wicked. One of the most striking descriptions of God’s “coming in the clouds” is in Nahum’s prophecy against Nineveh (Nab. 1:2-8):

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
The LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on His foes
And maintains His wrath against His enemies.
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power;
He will not leave the guilty unpunished.
His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,
And clouds are the dust of His feet.
He rebukes the sea and dries it up;
He makes all the rivers run dry.
Bashan and Carmel wither
And the blossoms of Lebanon fade.
The mountains quake before Him
And the hills melt away.
The earth trembles at His presence,
The world and all who live in it.
Who can withstand His indignation?
Who can endure His fierce anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire;
The rocks are shattered before Him.
The LORD is good,
A refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in Him,
But with an overwhelming flood
He will make an end of Nineveh;
He will pursue His foes into darkness.

His coming in the clouds thus brings judgment and deliverance in history; there is no reason, in either the overall Biblical usage of this term or its immediate context here, to suppose that the literal end of the physical world is meant (although the sense can certainly be applied to the Last Day as well). St. John is speaking of the fact, stressed throughout the “last days” period by the apostles, that a crisis was quickly approaching: As He had promised, Christ would come against the present generation “in the clouds,” in wrathful judgment against apostate Israel (Matt. 23-25). And every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him (the Gentiles, John 19:34, 37): The crucifiers would see Him coming in judgment – that is, they would experience and understand that His Coming would mean wrath on the Land (cf. the use of the word see in Mark 1:44; Luke 17:22; John 3:36; Rom. 15:21). The Lord had used the same terminology of His Coming against Jerusalem at the end of that generation (Matt. 24:30), and He even warned the high priest: “You shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). In other words, the apostates of that evil generation would understand the meaning of Christ’s Ascension, the definitive Coming of the Son of Man, the Second Adam (Dan. 7:13). In the destruction of their city, their civilization, their Temple, their entire world-order, they would understand that Christ had ascended to His Throne as Lord of heaven and earth. They would see that the Son of Man had come to the Father.

Jesus had said also that “all the tribes of the Land will mourn” on the day of His Coming (Matt. 24:30), that “weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:51). St. John repeats this as part of the theme of his prophecy: all the tribes of the Land [the Jews] will mourn over Him. Both Jesus and St. John thus reinterpreted this expression, borrowed from Zechariah 12:10-14, where it occurs in an original context of Israel’s mourning in repentance. But Israel had gone beyond the point of no return; their mourning would not be that of repentance, but sheer agony and terror.

Yet this does not negate the promises in Zechariah. Indeed, through Christ’s judgment on Israel, by means of her excommunication, the world will be saved; and, through the salvation of the world, Israel herself will turn again to the Lord and be saved (Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 23-24). Because Christ comes in the clouds, in history, judging men and nations, the earth is redeemed. He comes not simply for judgment, but for judgment unto salvation. “When Your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). From the beginning, the ultimate purpose of the coming of Christ has been redemptive: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:17). Christ “comes in the Clouds” in historical judgments so that the world may know the Lord God as the eternal and unchangeable Source and Goal of all history (Rom. 11:36), the Alpha and the Omega, the A and Z (cf. Isa. 44:6), who is and who was and who is to come, the eternal Origin and Consummation of all things. Almighty is the usual translation of the Greek word Pantokratōr, which means the One who has all power and rules over everything, the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament expression Lord of Hosts, the “Captain of the Armies” (meaning the armies of Israel, or the star/angel armies of heaven, or the armies of the heathen nations, whom God used to pour out His wrath on His disobedient people). Christ was about to demonstrate to Israel and to the world that He had ascended to the Throne as Supreme Ruler.

Jesus Christ, Transcendent and Immanent (1:9-16)

  1. I, John, your brother and companion in the Tribulation and Kingdom and perseverance which are in Christ Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus.
  2. I came to be in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud Voice like a trumpet,
  3. saying: Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
  4. And I turned to see the Voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands;
  5. and in the middle of the seven lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed in a robe reaching to His feet and with a golden sash around His chest.
  6. And His head and His hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like blazing fire.
  7. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and His Voice was like the sound of rushing waters.
  8. In His right hand he held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.

9          In this remarkable verse we have a concise summary of St. John’s worldview, his fundamental outlook on what life is all about. It stands in stark contrast to the views of modern American evangelical and dispensational theology, which holds that (1) there is no tribulation for the Christian, (2) Christ does not have a Kingdom in this age, and (3) the Christian is not required or expected to persevere! But for St. John and his readers, the Christian life did involve these things. Of course, tribulation is not the whole story of the Christian life; nor does the Church suffer identically in all times and places. As the Gospel takes hold of the world, as Christians take dominion, tribulation is lessened. But it is absolute folly (and wickedness) for Christians to suppose that they are somehow immune from all suffering. Jesus had warned his disciples that tribulation, suffering, and persecution would come (John 15:18-20; 16:33; 17:14-15).

More particularly, however, St. John is thinking about a special period of hardship; not just tribulation in general, but the Tribulation, the subject of much apostolic writing as the age of the Last Days progressed to its climax (1 Thess. 1:6; 3:4; 2 Thess. 1:4-10; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-12). During this period of political upheaval and social disruption, apostasy and persecution broke out with a vengeance, as Jesus had foretold (Matt. 24:4-13). Christians suffered greatly; yet they had the certain knowledge that the Tribulation was but the prelude to the firm establishment of Christ’s rule over the earth. St. Paul and St. Barnabus had encouraged other Asian Christians to continue in the faith, reminding them that “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). What gave their suffering meaning was that it was in Christ Jesus, in union with His suffering; as St. Paul wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and 1 fill up what is lacking of the tribulations of Christ in my flesh, on behalf of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24).

Thus St. John’s worldview does not involve only tribulation. He is also in the Kingdom… in Christ Jesus. As we saw above (v. 5-6), the New Testament doctrine, based on such Old Testament passages as Daniel 2:31-45 and 7:13-14, is that the Kingdom has arrived in the First Coming of Jesus Christ. Since His Ascension to the Throne, He has been reigning “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet” (Eph. 1:21-22; cf. Mark 1:14-15; Matt. 16:28; 28:18; Acts 2:29-36; Col. 1:13). If all things are now in subjection under His feet, what more could be added to His dominion? Of course, the “rulers and authorities” still have got to be put down; that is what much of St. John’s prophecy is about. But in principle, and definitively, the Kingdom has arrived. This means that we do not have to wait for some future redemptive or eschatological event before we can effectively take dominion over the earth. The dominion of God’s people throughout the world will simply be the result of a progressive outworking of what Christ Himself has already accomplished. St. John wanted his readers to understand that they were in both the Great Tribulation and the Kingdom – that, in fact, they were in the Tribulation precisely because the Kingdom had come (Dan. 7:13-14). They were in a war, fighting for the Kingdom’s victory (Dan. 7:21-22), and thus they needed the third element in St. John’s worldview: perseverance in Christ Jesus. Perseverance is an important word in the message of the Revelation, and St. John uses it seven times (1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12).

Here, too, there is a radical contrast with much of modern dispensationalism. Because the diluted version of Christianity currently fashionable in contemporary America rejects the concepts of the Kingship and Lordship of Christ,[21] it also rejects the Biblical teaching on perseverance – and the predictable result is that comparatively few converts of modern evangelicalism are able to stick with even that minimally-demanding faith![22] The popular doctrine of “eternal security” is only a half-truth, at best: it gives people an unbiblical basis for assurance (e.g., the  act that they walked down the aisle during a revival meeting, etc.), rather than the kind of assurance given in Scripture – assurance that is related to perseverance (cf. 1 John 2:3-4). The Bible teaches not simply that we are preserved, but that we also persevere to the end (see John 10:28-29; Rom. 8:35-39; 2 Cor. 13:5; Phil. 1:6; 2:12-13; Col. 1:21-23; 2 Pet. 1:10).

St. John tells the suffering but reigning and persevering Christians of Asia that he is their brother and companion in all these things, even now in exile on the island of Patmos. This was a punishment for his apostolic activity, but the language in which he expresses it is interesting: Because of the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ. St. John does not say that he is imprisoned on a rock in the sea on account of his own testimony about Christ, but on account of God’s Word and Jesus’ Testimony. He suffers because God has spoken, because Jesus has testified. Christ the faithful Witness has borne the Testimony against the would-be gods of this age, and they have fought back by imprisoning the apostle. This is why the Tribulation and Kingdom and perseverance in which these believers share are all in Christ Jesus: His Testimony has determined the course of history.

10       When St. John says he came to be in the Spirit, he does not mean that he felt good. The expression has nothing to do with his personal, subjective attitude or frame of mind; but it does refer to a definite experience. This is technical prophetic language (Matt. 22:43; cf. Num. 11:25; 2 Sam. 23:2; Ezek. 2:2; 3:24; 2 Pet. 1:21), and refers to the fact that the author is an inspired apostle, receiving revelation, as he is admitted to the heavenly council-chamber.[23]

St. John tells us that this vision was seen on the Lord’s Day. The origin of this important term goes all the way back to the first Sabbath, when God rested from creation (Gen. 2:2-3). The term rest in Scripture often refers to God being seated on His throne as Judge, receiving worship from His creatures (1 Chron. 28:2; Ps. 132:7-8, 13-14; Isa. 11:10; 66:1). This original Sabbath was the prototype of the “Day of the Lord” in Scripture, the Day of Judgment. The weekly Sabbath in Israel was a reenactment (and pre-enactment) of the first and final Day of the Lord,[24] in which the people gathered together for judgment, execution, the judicial declaration of forgiveness, and the proclamation of the King’s Word. For us too, this is the meaning of the Lord’s Day, when we come before God’s throne to be forgiven and restored, to hear His Word, and to commune with Him (thus, in a general sense – and not exactly the special sense in which St. John uses it here – all Christians are “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day: In worship, we are all caught up to the Throneroom of God.)[25] The Lord’s Day is the Day of the Lord in action.

One of the most basic Biblical images for the Judgment is the Glory-Cloud, and this theophany is generally associated with three other images: the Spirit, the Day (or light, since the light of day was originally “cloned” from the light of the Cloud[26]), and the Voice (often sounding like a trumpet; cf. Ex. 19:16-19). In fact, these three are mentioned right at the beginning in the Garden, when Adam and Eve “heard the Voice of the LORD God traversing the Garden as the Spirit of the Day,” as the text literally reads (Gen. 3:8).[27] What Adam and Eve heard on that awful day of judgment was not a gentle, cool breeze wafting through the eucalyptus leaves – they heard the explosive thunderclaps of the God of heaven and earth blasting through the Garden. It was terrifying, and that is why they attempted to hide. Repeating this theme, St. John tells us: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud Voice like a trumpet.” St. John was going to be caught up into the Glory-Cloud to receive revelation, and his readers were expected to understand this imagery.

11-15 The Voice of God instructs St. John to write in a book the Revelation and send it to the seven churches of Asia. He turns to see the Voice – and sees the Lord Jesus Christ. This minor detail establishes a pattern that is repeated throughout the book – John hears first, and then he sees. At the end of the prophecy (22:8) he tells us: “I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw…. ” This pattern is not always followed in the book, but it happens often enough that we should be aware of St. John’s use of it – for it is occasionally important in understanding how to interpret the symbols (cf. 5:5-6): The verbal revelation is necessary in order to understand the visual revelation.

St. John suddenly finds himself in the Holy Place, for he sees seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the seven lampstands one like a Son of Man. The imagery here is clearly taken from the Tabernacle, but with a significant difference: in the earthly Holy Place, there was one lampstand, with seven lamps; here, St. John sees seven lampstands, connected to each other in the Person who stands in their midst. The symbolism involved here will be discussed under verse 20; the important thing to note at present is simply the picture conveyed by this imagery: Jesus Christ is the one Lampstand, uniting the seven lamps – each of which turns out to be itself a lampstand; Christ is surrounded by light. As St. Germanus, the eighth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, put it at the outset of his work on the Liturgy: ”The Church is an earthly heaven in which the super-celestial God dwells and walks about.”[28]

The description of Christ in verses 13-16 involves a blend of Old Testament images: the Glory-Cloud, the Angel of the Lord, the Ancient of Days, and the Son of Man. Our understanding will be heightened if we read this description in conjunction with the following passages from Daniel:

I kept looking
Until thrones were set up,
And the Ancient of Days took His seat;
His vesture was like white snow,
And the hair of His head like pure wool.
His throne was ablaze with flames,
Its wheels were a burning fire.
A river of fire was flowing
And coming out from before Him;
Thousands upon thousands were attending Him,

And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him;
The court sat,
And the books were opened. (Dan. 7:9-10)

I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the Clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a Kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations, and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His Kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)

I lifted my eyes and looked, and behold, there was a certain man dressed in linen, whose waist was girded with a belt of pure gold of Uphaz. His body also was like beryl, His face like lightning, His eyes were like flaming torches, His arms and feet like the gleam of polished bronze, and the sound of His words like the sound of a multitude. Now, I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, while the men who were with me did not see the vision; nevertheless, a great dread fell on them, and they ran away to hide themselves. So I was left alone and saw this great vision; yet no strength was left in me, for my natural color turned to a deathly pallor, and I retained no strength. But I heard the sound of His words; and as soon as I heard the sound of His words, I fell into a deep sleep on my face, with my face to the ground. Then behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And He said to me, “O Daniel, man of high esteem, understand the words that I am about to tell you and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you.” And when He had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. (Dan. 10:5-11)[29]

These and other passages are combined to form the picture of Christ in St. John’s introductory vision. The robe reaching to His feet and the golden sash around His chest[30] (cf. Ex. 28:4; 29:5; 39:27-29; Lev. 16:4) are reminders of the official dress of the High Priest, whose clothing was a representation of the Glory-Spirit, a symbol of the radiant image of God. “Contributing to the impression of radiance was the flame-colored linen material prescribed for the ephod, with its band and breastpiece, and for the bottom of the robe of the ephod – a shimmering blend of bright reds and blues with the metallic glint of threads of gold. Highlighting the fiery effect were the rings and the braided chains of gold, the radiant golden crown of the mitre, and the gleam of precious stones set in gold on the shoulder straps of the ephod and the breastpiece. Artist could scarcely do more with an earthly palette in a cold medium to produce the effect of fiery light.”[31]

Fiery light: that is exactly the impression given by the vision of Christ here. The whiteness of His head and hair (like the Ancient of Days in Dan. 7),[32] the flaming fire from His eyes (like the throne of Dan. 7 and the eyes of the Son of Man in Dan. 10), and His feet like bronze glowing in a furnace (the term for bronze may refer to an alloy of gold and silver; cf. Mal. 3:2-3) – all these combine to make the point of Christ’s appearance in a flashing, brilliant blaze of glory: And His face was like the sun shining in its strength (v. 16). Compare with this Jesus Ben Sirach’s striking description of the glory of the High Priest:

How splendid he was with the people thronging around him,

when he emerged from the curtained shrine,

like the morning star among the clouds,

like the moon at the full,

like the sun shining on the Temple of the Most High,

like the rainbow gleaming against brilliant clouds,

like roses in the days of spring,

like lilies by a freshet of water,

like a sprig of frankincense in summertime,

like fire and incense in the censer

like a vessel of beaten gold

encrusted with every kind of precious stone,

like an olive tree loaded with fruit,

like a cypress soaring to the clouds;

when he put on his splendid vestments,

and clothed himself in glorious perfection,

when he went up to the holy altar,

and filled the sanctuary precincts with his grandeur;

when he received the portions from the hands of the priests,

himself standing by the altar hearth,

surrounded by a crowd of his brothers,

like a youthful cedar of Lebanon

as though surrounded by the trunks of palm trees.

(Ecclesiasticus 50:5-12, Jerusalem Bible)

Completing the glorious picture of Christ is the statement that His Voice was like the sound of rushing waters. St. John is identifying the voice of Christ with the sound of the Cloud – a sound which, throughout Scripture, resembles numerous earthly phenomena: wind, thunder, trumpets, armies, chariots, and waterfalls;[33] or perhaps we should say that all these earthly phenomena were created to resemble various facets of the Cloud.[34] The conclusion should be obvious: The resurrected, transfigured Jesus is the incarnate Glory of God.

16       In His right hand He held seven stars; St. John goes on more fully to interpret this in verse 20, but we should consider first the immediate impression this sight would give to St. John and his readers. The seven stars make up the open cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, poetically thought of in the ancient world as being bound together on a chain, like a necklace. The Pleiades, forming part of the constellation Taurus, are mentioned in Job 9:5-9; 38:31-33; and Amos 5:8. The sun is with Taurus in Spring (Easter), and the Pleiades are thus a fitting symbol in connection with the coming of Christ: He holds the stars that announce the rebirth and flowering of the world. The other Biblical references make it clear that the One who holds the seven stars is the almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

But there is another dimension to this imagery. The symbolic use of the seven stars was quite well known in the first century, for the seven stars appeared regularly on the Emperor’s coins as symbols of his supreme political sovereignty. At least some early readers of the Revelation must have gasped in amazement at St. John’s audacity in stating that the seven stars were in Christ’s hand. The Roman emperors had appropriated to themselves a symbol of dominion that the Bible reserves for God alone – and, St. John is saying, Jesus Christ has come to take it back. The seven stars, and with them all things in creation, belong to Him. Dominion resides in the right hand of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Naturally there will be opposition to all this. But St. John makes it clear that Christ is on the offensive, coming forth to do battle in the cause of His crown rights: out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, His Word that works to save and to destroy. The image here is taken from the prophecy of Isaiah: “He will strike the Land with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked” (Isa. 11:4). It is used again in Revelation to show Christ’s attitude toward heretics: “I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16); and yet again to show the Word of God conquering the nations 09:11-16). Not only is Christ in conflict with the nations, but He declares that He will be completely victorious over them, subduing them by His bare Word, the sharp and powerful two-edged sword that comes from His mouth (Heb. 4:12).

St. John’s Commission (1:17-20]

  1. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,
  2. and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, amen; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
  3. Write therefore the things you have seen, and what they are, and what things shall take place after these things.
  4. As 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.

17-18 When he saw the Angel of the Lord, Daniel says, “I fell into a deep sleep with my face to the ground. Then behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees…. And when He had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling” (Dan. 10:9-11). St. John’s reaction to the sight of the glorified Lord is much the same; yet Christ tells him not to fear. While fear is a proper first reaction, it must be replaced. Ultimately, the awesome majesty of God is not a reason for terror in the Christian; rather, it is the ground of our confidence and stability. The presence of Christ is, very properly, the occasion for unbelievers to faint away and hide, out of sheer fright (cf. 6:15-17); but our Lord comes to St. John (as to us) in love, and sets him on his feet. The presence and activity of God in the Cloud was to the Egyptians a terrifying omen of their destruction; but, for the covenant people, He was the Comforter and Savior. The same contrast is set out in Habakkuk 3:10-13:

The mountains saw You and quaked.
Torrents of water swept by;
The deep uttered its voice,
And lifted high its hands.
Sun and moon stood still in the heavens;
They went away at the light of Your arrows,
At the radiance of Your gleaming spear.
In wrath You strode through the earth
And in anger You threshed the nations.
You went forth to deliver Your people,
For the salvation of Your anointed one.
You crushed the head of the house of evil,
You laid him open from thigh to neck.

Jesus is God, the First and the Last, as the LORD says of Himself in Isa. 44:6: “I am the First and I am the Last, and there is no God besides Me” (cf. Isa. 48:12). Appropriating another Old Testament title for God, Jesus declares that He is the living One (cf. Deut. 5:26; Josh. 3:10; Ps. 42:2; Jer. 10:10): He is self-existent, independent, the All-Controller and He, “having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death is no longer master over Him” (Rom. 6:9). St. John can be resurrected in verse 17 because of the truth of verse 18, that Christ is alive forevermore. As the Risen Lord, Christ has the keys of Death and of Hades.[35] The Empire claimed to have all authority, to possess the power over life and death, and over the grave; Jesus declares instead that He – and not the State, nor the emperor, nor Satan, nor the ruler of the synagogue – has command over all reality. He is the Lord of life and death, of all history, and of eternity; and it is in terms of this complete dominion that He commissions St. John to write this book which so clearly and unequivocally sets forth the truth of His eternal and comprehensive government.

19       St. John’s commission was interrupted by his falling into a dead faint; now that he has been ”resurrected,” he is again commanded: Write therefore[36] the things you have seen, and what they are, and what things are about to take place after these things. Some interpreters read this as a threefold outline of the whole book: St. John writes about what he has seen (the vision of Christ), then about the present (the churches, in chapters 2-3), and finally about the future (chapters 4-22). Such a division is quite arbitrary, however; the Revelation (like all other Biblical prophecies) weaves past, present, and future together throughout the entire book.

A more likely meaning of this statement is that St. John is to write what he has seen – the vision of Christ among the lampstands holding the stars – and what they are, i.e., what they signify or correspond to. The word are (Greek eisin) is most often used in Revelation in this sense (1:20; 4:5; 5:6, 8; 7:13-14; 11:4; 14:4; 16:14; 17:9, to, 12, 15). Thus verse 20 goes on to do just that, explaining the symbolism of “the things you have seen” (the stars and lampstands). St. John is then commissioned to write the things that are about to happen, or (as he told us in verse 1) “the things that must shortly take place.” It appears that the phrasing is intended to provide a parallel to the description of the One “who was and who is and who is coming”: Thus “the process of temporal history reflects the eternal nature of God.”[37]

We might pause at this point to consider an error that is common among those who adopt a preterist interpretation of Revelation. The two facts of St. John’s symbolic style and his clearly anti-statist content have led some to believe that the politically sensitive message determined the use of symbolism – that St. John wrote the Revelation in a secret code in order to hide his message from the imperial bureaucrats. This is the view of James Kallas (who, incidentally, also holds that John wrote in the time of the emperor Domitian, rather than Nero):

He writes in deliberately disguised language. He resorts to imagery the Romans will not understand. He cannot write in a literal and obvious way. He cannot say in clear and unambiguous terms what lies closest to his heart. What would happen if he wrote what he believed, that Domitian was a blasphemous son of the devil himself? What would happen if he cried out that the Roman empire, in its demand that men bow down and worship Caesar, was a diabolical scheme of Satan himself designed to win men away from Jesus? The letter would never be delivered. It would never clear the censors.

And thus he must camouflage and conceal his true meaning. He must resort to non-literal symbolism, to obscure and apparently meaningless references which his Roman censors would see merely as the senile musings of a mad old man.[38]

There may be some truth to this, as a tangential slant on the use of the number 666 in 13:18 in reference to Nero (not Domitian) – a “code” that the Romans would be unable to decipher correctly. But even without that reference, the Book of Revelation is a clearly treasonous document, and any State bureaucrat would have been able to figure that out. Consider what we have seen already in St. John’s description of Jesus Christ: The mere assertion that He is Ruler of the kings of the earth is an assault on the emperor’s autonomy. The very first chapter of Revelation is actionable, and the symbolism does not obscure that fact in the slightest. The reason for the use of symbolism is that the Revelation is a prophecy, and symbolism is prophetic language. We must remember too that the Roman government knew very well who St. John was. He was not “a mad old man” who had been exiled for mere “senile musings.” He was an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, under the imperial ban on account of the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus (1:9).

20       Jesus explains to St. John the mystery of the seven stars and of the seven golden lampstands. Here, too, it is important to stress that these are not code-names. Biblical symbolism doesn’t work that way. Instead, Biblical symbolism sets things in relationship to each other; it builds associations in our minds, and asks us to see objects from this perspective. These statements about the stars and lampstands are not “definitions,” but state different ways of looking at the angels and the churches. Michael Wilcock’s comments help us understand this use of symbolism: “A very cursory study of the New Testament use of the word ‘mystery’ shows that it does not there carry its usual modern sense of ‘puzzle.’ It is indeed something hidden, but not in such a way that you can follow a series of clues and eventually find it out; rather, it is a truth which you either know or do not know, depending on whether or not it has been revealed to you.”[39] Thus, when Christ identifies these things with each other, He is not saying “that one is a symbol while the other is what the symbol ‘really’ means. He is saying that here are two things which correspond to each other, being equally real from different points of view.”[40] In other words, “we have, not an explanation of a symbolic term by a real one, but a statement that these two terms, which are equally real, are simply interchangeable…. John is not giving explanations, but equivalents. He is not concerned to tell us that ‘lampstands,’ which we do not understand, means ‘church,’ which we do. He is rather concerned to tell us things about the lampstands and the bride and the city and the church, the twenty-four elders and the 144,000 and the numberless multitude; their meaning we should know already from the rest of Scripture, and he merely reminds us in passing that all of these correspond to one another and are different descriptions of the same thing.”[41]

The seven stars thus “correspond” to the angels of the seven churches.[42] Angels and stars are often linked up in the Bible (cf. Jud. 5:20; Job 38:7; lsa. 14:13; Jude 13; Rev. 8:10-12; 9:1; 12:4), and here the “angels” of the churches are associated with the constellation of the Pleiades (see comments on v. 16). In addition – and this is one of those things that, as Wilcock pointed out above, “we should know already from the rest of Scripture” – both angels and stars are associated with government and rule (cf. Gen. 37:9; Jud. 5:20; Dan. 8:9-11; 10:13, 20-21). Now, when the Lord speaks to the seven churches in Chapters 2-3, He addresses the angel of each church; clearly, Christ holds the angels of the churches responsible for the life and conduct of their respective churches. Then, in the later portions of the prophecy, we see seven angels pouring out judgments upon the rebellious earth (cf. Rev. 8-9, 16). These all are correspondences: The seven stars, the constellation of resurrection and dominion, are the angels, which correspond to the government of the Church.

A further aspect of the Bible’s angel-imagery which supports this interpretation concerns the relationship between angels and prophets. The chief mark of the Biblical prophet was that he had stood in the presence of God and the angels during the sessions of the heavenly Council (cf. Isa. 6:1-8; Ezek. 1-3, 10), thereby becoming its authoritative spokesman to God’s people (cf. Jer. 15:19). The essential difference between the true prophet and the false prophet was that the true prophet had been taken up by the Spirit into the Cloud to take part in this assembly:

Thus says the LORD of hosts:
Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you.
They are leading you into futility;
They speak a vision of their own imagination,
Not from the mouth of the LORD…
But who has stood in the Council of the LORD,
That he should see and hear His Word?
Who has given heed to His Word and listened?…
I did not send these prophets,
But they ran.
I did not speak to them,
But they prophesied.
But if they had stood in My Council,
Then they would have announced My words to My people,
And would have turned them back from their evil way
And from the evil of their deeds. (Jer. 23:16-22)

The prophets not only observed the deliberations of the heavenly Council (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-22); they actually participated in them. Indeed, the LORD did nothing without consulting His prophets (Amos 3:7). This is why the characteristic activity of the Biblical prophet is intercession and mediation (cf. Gen. 18:16-33; 20:7, the first occurrence of the word prophet in Scripture). As members of the Council the prophets have freedom of speech with God, and are able to argue with Him, often persuading Him to change His mind (cf. Ex. 32:7-14; Amos 7:1-6). They are His friends, and so He speaks openly with them (Gen. 18:17; Ex. 33:11; 2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; John 15:15). As images of fully redeemed Man, the prophets shared in God’s glory, exercising dominion over the nations (cf. Jer. 1:10; 28:8), having been transfigured ethically (cf. Isa. 6:5-8) and physically (cf. Ex. 34:29). They thus resembled the angels of heaven, and so it is not surprising that the term angel (Heb. mal’ āḵ, Greek angelos) is used to describe the Biblical prophet (cf. 2 Chron. 36:15-16; Hag. 1:13; Mal. 3:1; Matt. 11:10; 24:31; Luke 7:24; 9:52). In fact, the archetypical Prophet in Scripture is the Angel of the LORD.[43]

There is therefore abundant Biblical precedent for the prophetic rulers of the churches to be referred to as the angels of the churches. It is likely that each angel represents a single pastor or bishop; but St. John could be referring to the stars/ angels simply as personifications of the government of each church as a whole. And the Lord of heaven and earth is holding them in His right hand. (This is the same hand that Christ used to resurrect St. John in v. 17; St. John is thus an “angel.”) In a more general sense, what is true of the angels is true of the Church as a whole: St. Paul urged the Philippians to prove themselves to be “blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights [luminaries, stars] in the world” (Phil. 2:15).

The seven lampstands are (correspond to) the seven churches; and the seven churches are, as we have noted already, both the particular churches referred to and the fullness of the whole Church in every age. In terms of the symbolism of the number seven as it relates to the Church, the comment of Victorinus (a bishop martyred in A.D. 304) regarding the Apostle Paul is interesting: “In the whole world Paul taught that all the churches are arranged by sevens, that they are called seven, and that the Catholic Church is one. And first of all, indeed, that he himself also might maintain the type of seven churches, he did not exceed that number. But he wrote to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Thessalonians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians; afterwards he wrote to individual persons, so as not to exceed the number of seven churches.”[44]

The one lampstand (a stylized tree) of the old Tabernacle is now Christ (the Tree of Life) with His seven lampstands. Before, in the Old Testament, the Church had a centralized, national character; and the unity of the particular congregations of Israel was focused geographically, in Jerusalem. But that is no longer the case. The Church, the New Israel, has been geographically and nationally decentralized – or, better, multicentralized: The Church is still a seven – still a unity – but what holds it together is not a special, holy piece of real estate; the unity of the Church is centered on Jesus Christ. The Church is no longer tied to one place, for it has been sent into all the world to take dominion in the name of the universal King.[45] There is no longer any special space on earth that is holy; rather, the whole world has become “holy space,” for Jesus Christ has redeemed it. And in recapturing the world, He has recreated the Church in His image. For just as Christ is seen here in a blaze of glorious light, so the Church which He carries and upholds is characterized by light (cf. the description of the Church in 21:9-22:5). The lightbearing churches, whose very governments glisten with starlike brilliance, shine upon the world with the light of Jesus Christ, with the result that men will see their good works and glorify their Father who is in heaven.

[1] See David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1985), pp. 112, 115-22. I have explained this in much greater detail in a series of articles on the Last Days, published in The Geneva Review, P.O. Box 131300, Tyler, TX 75713.

[2] Arthur Pink, The Sovereignty of God (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1928] 1968), pp. 43f.

[3] G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., [1974] 1980, p. 51.

[4] The Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press, 1909), note on Revelation 1:20; this notion has also been popularized in the notes of such “study Bibles” as the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible: New International Version (Indianapolis: B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co.; Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1983), “Outline Studies of the Bible,” No. 4308j (“The Seven Churches of Asia”), p. 1602.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cf. Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1957), pp. 38-47, 63-66; Benjamin B. Warfield, “Are There Few That Be Saved?” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), pp. 334-350. Warfield cites William Temple: “The earth will in all probability be habitable for myriads of years yet. If Christianity is the final religion, the church is still in its infancy. Two thousand years are as two days. The appeal to the ‘primitive church’ is misleading; we are the ‘primitive church’ “; and James Adderly: “But we must remember that Christianity is a very young religion, and that we are only at the beginning of Christian history even now” (pp. 347f.).

[7] It so happens, however, that there is a sense in which St. John intended his descriptions of these seven churches to be legitimately related to seven “ages” of the Church; see the introduction to Part II, below.

[8] Wilcock’s footnote: “Compare 1:4 with 4:5, 5:6, and Zech. 4:1-5, 10b: lamps=eyes=spirits. The symbolism of the lamps in 1:12, 20 is not so very different; here it is the Spirit, there the earthly dwelling-place of the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16), which is being depicted.”

[9] Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 34.

[10] One of the most helpful works on the meaning of the creeds, including their sociological implications, is Rousas John Rushdoony’s The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, [1968] 1978); see also Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils. and Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984).

[11] Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics (class syllabus, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, 1959), p. 8.

[12] Contrast this with the all-too-common Sunday School “illustrations” of the Trinity – such as an egg, the sun, a pie, or water. These are generally more misleading than helpful. In fact, their ultimate implications are heretical. They end up either dividing God into three “parts” – like an egg’s shell, white, and yolk – or showing God as one substance taking on three different forms, like water (solid, liquid and gas).

[13] On the radical impact of the doctrine of the Trinity in every area of life, see R. J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order and The One and the Many (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, 1978).

[14] Philip Carrington, The Meaning of the Revelation (London: SPCK, 1931), p. 74. In effect, the whole phrase is one proper noun, and indeclinable. The grammatical problem arises from St. John’s attempt to render into Greek the theological nuances contained in the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14: I AM WHO I AM. St. John is not afraid to massacre the Greek language in order to get across a point, as in John 16:13, where he “incorrectly” uses a masculine pronoun in order to emphasize the Personality of the Holy Spirit (Spirit in Greek is neuter, but St. John wanted to stress that He is truly a He and not an It).

[15] There are several good discussions of the various meanings of Coming in Scripture. See Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1945, 1947), pp. 175-91; Loraine Boettner, The Millennium, pp. 252-62; Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, [19541 1983), pp. 68-80; David Chilton, Paradise Restored, pp. 67-75, 97-105; Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), pp. 70-93.

[16] See, for example, 1 Chron. 28:2; Ps. 132:7-8, 13-14; Isa. 11:10. Cf. Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 20f., 39ff., 46, 111ff. As Geerhardus Vos observed, the significance of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament is that ”it is the palace of the King in which the people render Him homage” (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 19481, p. 168).

[17] Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the West (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), p. 226.

[18] Rousas John Rushdoony. The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press. 1973). pp. 573f.

[19] William Symington, Messiah the Prince: or, The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: The Christian Statesman Publishing Co., [1839] 1884), p. 208.

[20] See Chilton, Paradise Restored, pp. 57ff., 97ff.; cf. Kline, Images of the Spirit.

[21] For a recent example of this position, see Norman Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September 1985), pp. 250-66. Writing against the postmillennialism of R. J. Rushdoony and other “reconstructionists,” Geisler actually says: “Postmillenarians work to make a Christian America. Premillenarians work for a truly free America” (p. 260). The choice is clear: Shall we choose Christianity? Or shall we choose freedom instead? Geisler must be commended for having stated the matter with such precision; technically speaking, however, he is not the first to have posed the dilemma in this way. He stands in an ancient tradition (Gen. 3:1-5).

[22] See Walter Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), and Arend J. ten Pas, The Lordship of Christ (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1978).

[23] See the discussion of the prophet in Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit, pp. 57-96; esp. pp. 93f.

[24] See Chilton, Paradise Restored, pp. 133ff.

[25] See Kline, Images of the Spirit, pp. 97-131.

[26] Ibid., pp. 106ff.

[27] For a full exegesis of this text, see ibid., pp. 97-131; cf. Chilton, Paradise Restored, pp. 58, 134ff.

[28] St. Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy, Paul Meyendorff, trans. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), p. 57.

[29] Cf. the discussion of this text in relation to Rev. 12:7-9 below.

[30] According to Josephus, the priest wore the sash around his chest when he was at rest and “not about any laborious service” (Antiquities of the Jews, ii.vii.2)

[31] Kline, Images of the Spirit, p. 43.

[32] Note that white hair is glorious, in contrast to the “perpetual youth” culture of our age.

[33] See Chilton, Paradise Restored, p. 58; cf. Ex. 19:16, 19; Ezek. 1:24.

[34] See Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1951) 1977), pp. 88ff.

[35] Adam originally held the Key of Death and Hades, for he was the Priest of Eden, with the priestly responsibility of guarding the Gate of Paradise (Gen. 2:15; see Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (privately published syllabus, 1981), Vol. I, pp. 127ff. When he abdicated that responsibility, he himself was turned out into death, away from the Tree of Life, and the cherubim took his place as guardians, holding the flaming sword (the key). By the Resurrection, Jesus Christ as the Second Adam returned to Paradise as Priest, the guardian of Eden’s Gate, to cast the Serpent into Death and Hades (cf. Rev. 20:1-3).

[36] The therefore shows the connection with St. John’s original commission in v. 11.

[37] Philip Carrington, The Meaning of the Revelation, p. 95.

[38] James Kallas, Revelation: God and Satan in the Apocalypse (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1973), pp. 58f.

[39] Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened, p. 153.

[40] Ibid., p. 154.

[41] Ibid., p. 156.

[42] An interesting aspect of the conceptual background of all this is the reference in the apocryphal book of Tobit to “the seven holy angels, who present the prayers of the saints, and who go in and out before the glory of the Holy One” (12:15; cf. 1 Enoch 20:1-7).

[43] The most comprehensive study of the prophetic order and its relationship to the angelic Council is in Kline, Images of the Spirit, pp. 57-96. See also George Vandervelde, “The Gift of Prophecy and the Prophetic Church” (Toronto: Institute for Christian Studies, 1984).

[44] Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, [1886] 1970), vol. VII, p. 345.

[45] According to Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1, the eldership was arranged hierarchically, with “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” This was the Biblical basis for the hierarchical organization of the early church, the bishop of the city corresponding to the “ruler over thousands” (see James B. Jordan, “Biblical Church Government, Part 3: Councilar Hierarchy-Elders and Bishops,” Presbyterian Heritage, No.9  [January 1986], P.O. Box 131300, Tyler, TX 75713). A central headquarters (a “vatican”) may therefore be useful for Church government, although it is not necessary (there is a distinction between what may be good for the well-being [bene esse] or the fullness of being [plene esse] of the Church, and what is necessary for the being [esse] of the Church). The best available historical study of the rise of the episcopate is J. B. Lightfoot, The Christian Ministry, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, ed. (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow Co., 1983).