Over the next several weeks, I’d like to write about the Apostle John’s letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. Each week, we will look at the message given to a specific church with the desire to get an understanding of Jesus’ view of the conditions of today’s local church. We will start by taking a look at the vision that produced these messages to the seven churches.
The book of Revelation is a prophetic book. Like a lot of prophetic writings, Revelation contains a lot of simile and figurative language to describe what is being seen by the Apostle John. Imagine that you are a first century man trying to describe what you are seeing, not only in heaven, but in centuries far beyond your own! It is a difficult task. John had to compare what he was seeing to things that he knew in an attempt to describe them. We see this imagery used in the part of the vision that produced the letters to the churches.
Let’s start this teaching with where John received the vision.
The Apostle John was on an island named Patmos when Revelation was revealed to him. Patmos is a small Greek island off the coast of Asia Minor. It was a part of a group of islands to which Roman political prisoners were exiled. The Bible tells us that John was exiled there because of the Word of God and his witness of Jesus Christ. He was sent to Patmos during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Domitian had some history with the Jews. His father, Titus led the Roman legions in the war against Israel that saw the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Domitian saw himself as an enlightened Augustus destined to lead Rome back to its glory days. He declared himself perpetual censor, which meant he exercised control over private and public morals. It was during his reign, that a terrible persecution was unleashed against Christians. Christian tradition states that John was dropped in a vat of boiling oil before he was exiled to Patmos. This is what John received on Patmos:
John states that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day and he heard a loud voice like a trumpet behind him instructing him to write in a book what he was about to see and to send it to seven churches:
Ephesus – Smyrna – Pergamum – Thyatira – Sardis – Philadelphia – Laodicea
These were actual cities with active churches during the time of John. There are some who believe that these churches themselves are “representative” of different periods of church history. I often wonder if we try to complicate scriptural interpretation when there is no need for it, but whether these letters are to the literal churches or representations is not my focus. My focus is the message sent to the churches.
When John turned to see who was speaking to him, he saw seven golden lamp stands. The golden lamp stand has a rich biblical history. God instructed Moses to make a golden lamp stand with seven lights to light the Tabernacle of Meeting. Hebrews 8:4-5 tells us that the earthly tabernacle was a type and shadow of that in heaven. In Revelation 4:5, John saw the heavenly throne room. Before the throne sat the heavenly lamp stand which was the sevenfold Spirit of God. Zechariah, an earlier prophet described a similar vision this way:
Then the angel who talked with me returned and woke me up, like someone awakened from sleep. He asked me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a solid gold lamp stand with a bowl at the top and seven lamps on it, with seven channels to the lamps. Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” I asked the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” He answered, “Do you not know what these are?” “No, my lord,” I replied. So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. Zechariah 4:1-6
It is most likely that that seven lamp stands that John saw were exactly like those described above. Verse 20 of Revelation 1 tells us what the lamp stand represents: the church.
Many numbers, colors, and some materials and objects are used over and over in the Bible. Through this repetitive use, we have come to understand that they are representative. The number seven was used in the Bible to represent perfection. Gold is used to represent deity, worth, and purity. The church of Jesus Christ has two sides. It has the divine side and a human side. The human side of the church is growing in sanctification, but the divine side of the church is perfect. We find our perfection as a people in Him. The gold of the lamp stand represents the churches authority, worth, and purity. A lamp stand is used to represent the church because we are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14) and because the Holy Spirit is the agent of ministry dwelling among us (refer to Zechariah 4:1-6).
Walking among the lamp stands was someone John described as “like a son of man”. The term “son of man” literally means that it was a man that John saw. We know Jesus used this term to describe Himself. But, the rest of the description of this man reveals that He is no ordinary man.
The man among the lamp stands speaks to John identifying Himself as Jesus Christ through a series of phrases:
First and last, the living One, I was dead and I am alive, I have the keys to death and Hades. His appearance is amazing: gold sash around his robe representing royalty; hair white as wool representing wisdom and Ancient of Days; eyes like a flame of fire representing passion; feet like burnished bronze representing beauty of mission; and His voice was like the sound of a thousand waterfalls. In His hand, He held seven stars; out of His mouth came a two-edged sword; and His face – like the sun shining on the brightest day.
Jesus walks among the churches. Jesus walks in your church. As for the seven stars in His right hand:
The right hand is the hand of favor and blessing. The word “stars” is the Greek word “angelos”. Most often, this word is used to describe supernatural messengers such as angels, but it can refer to human messengers as well (see Matt. 11:10). In this case, I believe it means the human messengers of the churches, maybe the teaching elder. Why? For two reasons:
When addressing the messengers of the churches, Jesus says, “I know your….” In other words, Jesus was specifically including the messengers in the description of the condition of the church. Another reason I believe this is: how could John write letters to angels? Who would deliver the messages? How would he address them?
Jesus, who walks among us has a message for us! Beginning next time, we will find out what it is!