Study Notes: Revelation 1:17-20

Tomorrow I will be teaching the beginning of chapter two of Revelation, but as I went to examine my previous notes, I realized that I never posted them up online! So, here they are, I hope that they are helpful for those studying along with us.

1:17a When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. 

Perhaps this sounds odd to you. Why would a man, a righteous man like John with his mental faculties completely intact, find cause to fall at the feet of this person?

If you are a student of the Bible, you might recall that for a man to fall on their face, or have a significant reaction at the appearance of God is actually quite a normal occurrence in sacred Scripture. Why is this? Well, I’m just an amateur student of the Bible, but I think it has to do with the unveiling of the physical outward glory of God. I say this because that glory was not revealed 24/7 in Jesus until the Mount of Transfiguration, otherwise people would be lying prostrate and trembling with hearts full of repentance before Him wherever He walked, and we know this was not the case.

Furthermore, later in Revelation, John bows before a glorious angel who tells him not to do that. That angel was wrapped in the glory of the Lord, and around his presence shown forth a glory that caused John to immediately bow. Think of the reflective glory of Moses – who was only a human being – whose face (as we discussed last time) would radiate with the glory of God, causing him to have to wear a veil.

I think this glory is revealed to man at the times of God’s own choosing according to His own purposes. For instance, think how Jacob wrestles with the angel who did not appear so glorious, and Abraham hosted three heavenly guests who may or may not have been glorious in appearance. In fact, sometimes in the presence of a wonderous thing, the Lord has to instruct His servants to bow and to take off their sandals (think Moses before the burning bush, and Joshua before the Commander of the Lord’s army in Joshua 5).

But when the Lord does reveal His glory, the effect seems to be nothing short of overwhelming.

And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves. [8] So I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me. My radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I retained no strength. [9] Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground. (Daniel 10:7-9)

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. [5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:4-5)

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. [2] And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. [3] And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. [4] And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” [5] He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” [6] When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. [7] But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” [8] And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. (Matthew 17:1-8)

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. [4] And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” [5] And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. (Acts 9:3-5)

These are just a few instances where God’s terrifying glory was revealed and the reaction from those witnessing it ranged from awe, to silence, to terror, to slumber.

Why do I spend so much time talking about this? Because these are truths about God that we do not naturally carry about with us. They shocked these men because they were truths about God that they didn’t naturally carry around with them!

The point is that our minds are often – and necessarily – crowded with the thoughts of the day. But it is good to take a moment at a verse like this (and there will be many more like it in Revelation) and let the truth of who God is soak into your minds. Realize the wisdom in having a holy reverence for what you cannot see with your eyes. How does this description of God affect your approach to Him when you pray? When you talk?

1:17b -18 But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, [18] and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

Fear Not

The way this sentence begins bears a striking resemblance to the way in which Jesus would address sinners during His earthly ministry. “Fear not” was a mantra that pervaded His speech, and it epitomized His message.

R.C. Sproul remarks on this in the following way:

The prohibition uttered more frequently than any other by our Lord is the command, “Fear not …” He said this so often to His disciples and others He encountered that it almost came to sound like a greeting. Where most people greet others by saying “Hi” or “Hello,” the first words of Jesus very often were “Fear not.”

Why? Perhaps Jesus’ predilection for those words grew out of His acute sense of the thinly veiled fear that grips all who approach the living God. We fear His power, we fear His wrath, and most of all we fear His ultimate rejection.[i]

Here are a few examples of this from the gospels:

While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” [50] But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” (Luke 8:49-50)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. [30] But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. [31] Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31) 

John saw enough, and would see more even still, that would be reason to give him great fear. And the tribulation that we face on earth often strikes fear into our heart, yet here in Jesus laying His hand on John saying “fear not.”

Now, the basis for, and the right of Jesus to say this is that He is the “first and the last” and the “living one.” In other words one might paraphrase it this way: Because I am eternal and all powerful and the Lord of all the earth and its history, you have no reason for fear because I will take care of you – I have the power necessary, and it my good purpose for you to do just that.

I Have Conquered Death

George Ladd remarks that in Jewish thought/literature, the idea of holding the “keys” connotes power.[ii] Someone who holds the keys to something has power over that thing – they have control of the situation. 

So it is with Jesus – that He has control over death and over Hell as well. Here Jesus is proclaiming that He is Lord over death.

Interestingly, Jesus predicted that He would conquer death even as a relatively young man. The claim must have sounded odd and out of place, and we know that His disciples at the time baulked at the idea that their Rabbi was going to die.

Here’s what Jesus had said though:

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” [19] Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [20] The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” [21] But he was speaking about the temple of his body. [22] When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18-22)

Not only did Jesus claim that He would be raised Himself, but that He would also raise those who believed in Him:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” [23] Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [25] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [27] She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:21-27)

Who else do you know who has this kind of power? Many wish they did, and others live like they don’t care about death one way or another.

Interestingly, the idea of cheating death and the importance of these final matters has even seeped into pop cultural mythology. For example, one of the great precipitors in the fall of Anakin Skywalker was the notion that he could keep his wife from dying. He was lured into believing he could learn to do this from Darth Sideous – aka Emperor Palpatine.

It was this lust for the power to undue affects of death’s hold that drove Anakin toward a total quest for power at all costs – a path that led him ultimately toward embracing an identity of evil – embodied in the persona we know as ‘Darth Vader.’

Ultimately, his quest failed. He couldn’t stop death anymore than he could stop time from marching forward.

Physical death is part of the human experience. No human can escape death’s clutches. The question is, when your body expires, will you live forever with Christ in heaven, or will you live forever in Hell, enduring torment in the absence of the Lord of peace.

1:19-20 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. [20] 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.

John is told to write what he sees down – reminiscent of other OT prophets who God instructed to do the same (as we mentioned earlier).

Then Jesus begins to solve some of the mystery of what John had already seen. He says that the seven stars in His right hand are the angels of the seven churches. Then He says that the seven lampstands are the seven churches. We’ve already discussed the latter, so let me address the former.

The mystery is still a little unclear (at least to us!) about who these angels are. Are they the pastors of each church? Are they a sort of guardian angel for each church? Problems abound no matter what road you go down. I’d assumed that these represented the pastors of each church until recently when I learned that linguistically this just isn’t very natural or normal – even in prophetic literature, pastors are never referred to as “angels.” Although I think that the stars being the leaders of the churches is perhaps a more tenable option to the stars referring to actual real angels. It’s only a half step away from what is likely the case, which I’ll get to in a moment.

If the stars refer to actual angels, then why is Jesus addressing the messengers of each church and not the church itself? If they are guardian angels and not just messengers, then the same question still stands. Why address angels whose affairs are not addressed in the content of the letters themselves? Hendriksen rightly remarks in his footnotes[iii] about how awkward it would be for the letters to go to spiritual beings who then deliver them somehow to the bishops of these churches. That’s not likely to have happened.

A third possibility perhaps might be the best one. Beale reminds us that the lampstands are taken from Zechariah 4 (as we studied earlier), and that there’s a good possibility that the starts are alluded to in Daniel 12:3:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. [3] And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:2-3)

Furthermore, it seems that in Jewish writings the lampstands and starts are equated as the same subject: the people of God. Therefore, as Beale remarks, “their combination in Revelation 1:20 is natural and may suggest that the ‘stars,’ even if angelic, represent the church’s heavenly existence and the ‘lampstands’ its earthly existence.”[iv]

George Ladd thinks along similar lines, “It is best to understand this as a rather unusual symbol to represent the heavenly or supernatural character of the church.”[v]

Beale’s summary of what we see here is that, “If this background is in mind here in Revelation, then the imagery of the seven lampstands adjacent to Christ and the seven stars evokes the idea that the churches have a position in the heavenly or spiritual temple in the midst of which Christ is ruling and present.”[vi]

This certainly makes sense when we think on and affirm the fact that Christ will certainly build and rule over His kingdom. For His last words on earth were:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. [19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

These images are meant to evoke within us both comfort and the realization that because Christ was victorious over the grave, and because we are “in” Christ, we too will be victorious over death and hell. For as Paul says:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)

FOOTNOTES

[i] R.C. Sproul, ‘Fear Not’, Article from Ligonier.com, Ligonier Ministries, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/fear-not/

[ii] Ladd, Pg. 34.

[iii] Hendriksen, Pg. 58.

[iv] Beale, Longer Commentary, Pg. 211.

[v] Ladd, Pg. 35.

[vi] Beale, Longer Commentary, Pg. 211.

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