Perhaps no book of the Bible is as controversial as the book of Revelation. For the past two thousand years believers have been amazed, astounded, and often rather confused by all the pictures and images presented in Revelation. Many people have no confidence in their understanding of Revelation; many others are quite convinced they have the key to understanding Revelation and often seek to understand the rest of the Bible through Revelation. We have all heard of strange theories and suggestions based upon what someone imagines Revelation as describing. It is easy to understand why many Christians are a bit fearful of Revelation and feel as if they will never have a good understanding of what it means.
All of this confusion, division, contention, and despair regarding Revelation is quite unfortunate; Revelation was written to encourage, strengthen, and reinforce the faith of Christians suffering persecution at the hands of powerful foes in the first century. Revelation, when understood properly in its context and within the greater story told throughout the Bible, can encourage and strengthen us in our faith in compelling and majestic ways.
Revelation 1:1-20 introduces us to Revelation and provides many insights as to how to go forward. Revelation comes from the Greek apokalupsis, which means a revealing or unveiling (cf. Revelation 1:1). The Revelation is not designed to conceal or hide; quite the contrary! Instead, the revelation is of God, given to Jesus Christ and presented to John by an angel to reveal and make known to His servants those things which are about to take place (Revelation 1:1-2). Revelation will present a picture of the end of all things and the ultimate judgment scene, but it begins and remains rooted in its own time at the end of the first century CE (ca. 93-96), and it is designed to make things clearer. Those who read it aloud and hear it are blessed if they will keep what they have heard (Revelation 1:3): Revelation is not just a picture of a series of events but expects those who hear it to do something about it and take their place within it.
From Revelation 1:4-9 we understand that the Revelation was given to John, most likely the Apostle who is also responsible for the Gospel and Letters of John, while he was exiled on the island of Patmos for his faith. The Revelation is written as a letter to the seven churches of Asia, which are seven specific local congregations in the Roman province of Asia which is in modern-day western Turkey (Revelation 1:4, 11). Yet the messages to those churches, as well as the rest of Revelation, are designed for the exhortation and encouragement of all Christians. The Revelation is provided through the work of all three members of the Godhead, the Father who was, is, and will be, the “sevenfold” Spirit, and Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:4-5). In Jesus believers were made a kingdom and a priesthood; this is spoken of in the past tense, indicating that Jesus’ Kingdom is here and now, and believers are to be His ministers before Him (cf. Colossians 1:13, 1 Peter 2:3-8). Jesus is described as the ruler of kings on earth (Revelation 1:5): throughout Revelation, even though we will encounter powerful persecutors empowered by the forces of darkness, we are given confidence that Jesus is still in control.
The vision begins in Revelation 1:10-20: John is in the Spirit on the Lord’s day and hears a voice behind him. He turns to see who speaks to him, and he is confronted with a majestic image of a powerful ruler, full of powerful details (Revelation 1:10-16). John is overtaken and falls at his feet as one dead; this ruler tells him to not be afraid, but to stand, for He is the Lord Jesus, the First and the Last, the Living One, who died but lives forevermore, and who has control over Death and Hades (Revelation 1:17-18). The imagery is quite powerful, and while we have no doubt that John is seeing such things in his vision, it points us to its reference in Daniel 7:9-14: the Ancient of Days (in Daniel, the Father) and the “one like a son of man” (in Daniel, the Messiah). Yet, in John’s vision, the characteristics of the Ancient of Days are seen in the “one like a son of man,” thereby indicating the unity between the Father and the Son and the authority vested in the Son.
So many times we think of Jesus as a gentle man, almost soft, unobtrusive, someone whom we would never fear. And yet here in Revelation 1:12-16 Jesus is described in powerful terms, an imposing figure, One who rightly deserves worship. If we were John, we would also have our faces plastered on the ground and be as one dead, quite afraid! Jesus is meek and gentle (cf. Matthew 11:29), but He is also Lord Almighty, and we should keep both attributes in mind as we remember Jesus and seek to serve Him.
Revelation 1:20 is an important “landmark” in Revelation. In it Jesus describes the meaning of the seven stars in His hand and the seven lampstands around Him: they represent the angels for the churches and the churches themselves, respectively. This shows us that Revelation is something which needs interpreting: John says what he sees, but he means what he means! Yes, he sees stars and lampstands, but he means angels and churches: the images in the vision have references, representing other things. It can be profitable for us to consider why certain images accurately reflect characteristics of what they represent: a lampstand is a vessel to contain light, and the church should be the vessel in which the truth and glory of Jesus should be placed (cf. Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Timothy 3:15). White represents purity and holiness; it thus makes sense that Jesus’ hair should be reckoned as white, along with the imagery of redemption and purity in Isaiah 1:18 (cf. Revelation 1:14).
Revelation, therefore, uses all sorts of images to describe conditions which the early Christians would face. Those images represent something else, and any profitable study of Revelation will seek to understand what exactly Jesus is communicating to His churches through them. They can be understood and we can be encouraged by them; they reinforce and illuminate the truths we find throughout the rest of the Bible. Let us praise and serve the Risen Lord Jesus, He who died but lives forevermore, and keep the things He has revealed to us!