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The First Vision

THE FIRST VISION: CHRIST JUDGES THE CHURCH


Christ appears to John
(Rev. 1)

The Revelation opens by establishing what an archaeologist or dealer in antique materials would call its provenance: where it comes from; how you know it's for real.

In the first three verses, the following is established: It is about Jesus Christ. It comes from God. God gave it to the author by means of his angel. It carries a blessing. The time is near.

Verses 4-8 are the standard opening of a formal letter in those times. Most NT letters have a similar opening. It would include the sender, the addressee(s), and a blessing. John explains that he was "in the Spirit" -- praying, communing with God -- on the Lord's Day. The "Lord's Day" was Sunday, as distinct from the Sabbath (Saturday). Christians were in the process of transferring their attitudes toward the Sabbath to the Lord's Day. The first Jewish believers observed both, but as the Church left its Jewish roots behind, Sunday worship was becoming the standard.


The Image of Christ

John is in exile on Patmos. It is Sunday, the "Lord's Day." He is "in the spirit," meaning he is in deep prayer, open to whatever God may reveal to him. It is in this state that the First Vision begins, with a voice like a trumpet, telling him to write what he is about to hear and send it to the Seven Churches of Asia Province.

The voice like a trumpet recalls the scene on Mt. Sinai, where God established his covenant with the Israelites. That scene was later reviewed in Hebrews (xx:xx) and compared to the covenant God has established through Christ. The trumpet referred to would be a shofar, a ram's horn, such as would be used to signal the beginning of Jewish holy occasions. Asia Province is the Roman province just across the water from Patmos in what is now Turkey.

John turns around to see the one who is speaking to him. Despite the strangeness of the description and the overwhelming nature of the encounter, it is clear to us (as it was to John) that we are seeing the Risen Christ. (See Figure 1.)

Indeed, John saw him once before in a manner very similar to this. When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to witness his transfiguration (Luke xxx:xxx) they saw him shining brightly in just this manner. This is the shekinah (Glory of God) being revealed as coming from him. It is important to realize that John and his companions did not see Jesus being "turned into" something else; rather, they saw revealed what had always been there, hidden beneath the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth.

As mentioned, above, in a vision, the appearance of something is also its meaning. Every feature of this image helps us to understand who this is and what his mission is.

Seven golden lampstands. Stand for the seven churches of Asia Province in particular, but generally also for the whole Church of all ages and nations. Seven is the number of achieved perfection/completion/ fulness; therefore, seven churches = the whole Church, of which Christ is the Lord.

Son of man. A typical expression in the Bible for a human-like figure. Often used ambiguously so that it is not clear whether an angel or a human is being observed. Also used as a title of the Messiah, referring not only to his true humanity, but also to his power to represent humanity before God. The "Son of Man" is not only the Perfect Man, the Heir of Humanity, but also the Man who speaks for us, the Man who dies for the sins of all Men everywhere. John could thus be referring to his human shape or his human nature -- or both.

Robe, golden sash. The sashes referred to on this figure and on the angels we sometimes meet in Revelation are probably like the ephods of the OT. An ephod was a garment worn by a priest and looked like a cross between a cummerbund and an apron. The High Priest's ephod had twelve precious stones on it, standing for the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The general impression here is that of a person dressed in priestly vestments.

White head, hair; blazing eyes; face shining like the sun. This shining effect indicates divinity showing through, as in the Transfiguration.

Bronze-like feet. Bronze (and brass, a similar copper-based alloy) were prominently used in ancient times. The temple furnishings and instruments were of bronze and/or brass. There might be an echo of that here. But also, unlike bronze that has weathered and oxidized and turned dark, molten or new-forged bronze would glow with an orange-brown color. Perhaps we have here a reference to human flesh glowing with divinity -- not overwhelming like the shining face, but evidence of his dual nature all the same.

Voice like rushing waters. This is religious code for speaking with the voice of God.

Right hand with seven stars. Stand for the angels of the seven churches. "Angels" here would be the heavenly guardians assigned by God to safeguard the Church; however, they could also refer to the essential character of each church. They are in his Right hand because that is the hand of power. He is a king-like figure, who sends his powerful underlings to look after his people.

Sword coming from mouth. The word for "sword" (rhomphaia) in this passage refers to a Thracian weapon in particular, but the word had become widely used to mean any sort of sword. We are told here that is was a sharp, two-edged sword, and in xxxx, Paul describes the word of God in much the same manner. That image brings to mind a Roman shortsword, a powerful, very fast stabbing weapon. Contrast this with the single-edged Greek sword, a slashing weapon that was slower and less deadly in combat. The idea is that here is one who speaks Truth in such a way that one is pierced and overcome before one can mount resistance.

John falls in a swoon. The figure touches him with his right hand and tells him not to be afraid. He also makes the astounding claim that he is the First and the Last (which makes him the same as God). He is the Living One, who once was dead, and now cannot die again.

Keys of death and Hades. Concepts of life after death developed slowly in Judaism. In Hebrew, Sheol was the concept that most closely mirrored the Greco-Roman concept of Hades, the "Underworld." Hades was not a place where souls were supposed to go to live an afterlife, but a place where the psychic remnants of human beings -- shades -- lived on in a meaningless echo of life. Hell was usually rendered Gehenna, from the Hinnom valley outside Jerusalem where trash was burned (and where human sacrifices of children in a ceremony known as molech had reputedly taken place).

"Death" in this passage probably refers to actual physical death. Death is the loss of life. Hades is the loss of the ability to do anything that matters with one's existence. Christ's keys open the prison/madhouse of Hades, but also the way to life beyond this life.


Preliminary Interpretation

PROXIMATE INTERPRETATION

Both the Gospel of John and Revelation offer a very "high" Christology: The historical Jesus, the man whom John once knew, is now the glorified Christ; to see him is to see God.

One reason, perhaps, for scholars to argue for a very late date for these books is to separate them from the actual community of the apostles who had known Jesus of Nazareth. For it is a commonplace among many scholars that Jesus himself was only a shrewd and holy Rabbi who never claimed to be the Son of God; nor could his immediate followers -- all pious Jews -- have contemplated worshiping him as God. Thus, all NT references to the divinity of Christ are late compositions or interpolations which were foisted upon the form of Judaism which Jesus could be thought to have founded.

The letters of Paul, of course, offer as high a Christology as one could imagine -- and the earliest of them are all earlier than the Gospels. So rather than the "simple Jesus" being made over into a divine figure by later teachers, the more logical sequence is that the Gospel writers put down those things that were of most importance to remember: that the divine Savior was also a good man. But his divinity seems to have been a mark of Christian belief from the first.


PROPHETIC INTERPRETATION

The risen Christ has come to give a warning before the Judgment. Be very sure that Judgment is coming.
Judgment is a common theme throughout the Bible. The return of Christ is a common theme throughout the NT.

The first Christians lived under the expectation of the imminent return of Christ and the coming of the New Age. Toward the end of the first generation, they began to question just when he would return. Paul even had to remind them (xxxx) that it was foolish to quit their jobs and wait for the event; nobody knew how long it would take.

That it would take many centuries (and the time is not yet!) would have been discouraging to them. Certainly, it is something discouraging to us, when evil seems to be winning. In addition, there have been many interpreters who have declared a date for the Lord's return, only to be disappointed and made to appear foolish.

Nevertheless, it is an integral part of our faith that the Lord will return. As we say in The Apostles' Creed, "I believe . . . he will come again and judge the living and the dead." This vision cannot but encourage us to continue to live in hope for that day.


PERENNIAL INTERPRETATION

This figure is so rich with symbolism that it has fueled centuries of worship language with which we have adored Christ. It affirms that Christ is central in our worship.


Many churches and Christians of today are more comfortable with a down-to-earth, very human Jesus. We see him as a friend and example of how to serve God. But such a Jesus is very far removed from this shining figure, before whom John falls as if dead. It would be well to remind ourselves, as D.L. Moody [?] pointed out, that if an earthly ruler -- such as a King or a President -- entered the room, we would all rise out of respect. But if Jesus Christ entered the room, we would all fall at his feet -- out of love or fear, it makes no difference.

It is good to remind ourselves that we are called "Christian" because we worship God through Christ, which includes worshiping Christ as God. The Man Jesus is also Lord and God. His is the sacrifice that cleanses us from sin, his is the resurrection that gives us hope, his is the only promise we can cling to when we breathe our last. A church which is shy about lifting up Christ is, well, not very "Christ-ian," is it?


PERSONAL INTERPRETATION

We conclude this preliminary interpretation by putting ourselves in John's place. We imagine our own encounter with Jesus Christ -- not in prayer only, but presented to our own eyes. Take a good look at this person, then ask yourself: Is Christ your God? If not, then who or what is?

Whatever the style or worship language of one's church, one's own relationship with Christ is another thing. It is all well and good to envisage one's relationship with Christ as friend to friend. He did, indeed, call us his friends. That said, we must still, as the writer of Hebrews put it (xxx), remember who it is we have to deal with. A prayer life or devotional style which treats Jesus in too familiar a fashion risks devaluing him.

At the same time, if Christ is not filling the supreme place in your life, something else surely is, and it must of necessity be less worthy than him. Being honest with oneself can be difficult -- not to mention, painful -- but it is important that we identify those things which rival Christ for our allegiance, then offer them up to him in repentance and love.
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