The first vision presents the image of one “like the Son of Man” who was walking among the seven churches of Asia – Revelation 1:9-20.
The opening vision centers on Jesus and his care for the “churches of Asia.” At least one congregation faced imminent persecution. John did not begin his record by holding up his apostolic credentials; instead, he identified himself with the plight of the seven churches: He was a “fellow-participant” with them in the “tribulation and the kingdom and the endurance.”
The first vision begins in chapter 1 and continues to the end of chapter 3. It consists of the vision of the Risen Christ walking among “seven golden lampstands,” which represent the “seven churches,” and the seven messages from Jesus to the “angels” of the Asian congregations.
PATMOS: The vision begins with the identification of John in exile on the isle of Patmos:
- (Revelation 1:9) – “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
The island had a large enough population to support a gymnasium, Acropolis, and shrines to Artemis and Apollo. Its isolation made it an excellent location to banish political undesirables.
John was there “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” The preposition dia, rendered “on account of,” indicates either that he went to Patmos to proclaim the gospel, or that he was banished there because of his preaching activity. The second alternative is the more probable one.
John was a “fellow participant” in the “tribulation.” This self-identification aligned John with the plight of the “seven churches.” “Fellow participant” or sugkoinōnos denotes joint participation – (Strong’s – #G4791). It is related to the Greek term commonly translated “fellowship” in the New Testament – (1 Corinthians 9:23, Romans 11:17, Philippians 1:7).
The single Greek article in the clause, or “the,” modifies all three nouns, tribulation, kingdom, and endurance. The three are grammatically linked; each is part of a single whole. To be “in Jesus” is to experience tribulation, kingdom, and endurance.
Already, the church at Smyrna had experienced “tribulation.” Later, John saw the “innumerable multitude coming out of the great tribulation.” In Revelation, “tribulation” is not something God inflicts on the ungodly, but instead, what faithful Christians endure for their testimony. And the churches were participating in the “kingdom.” The reign of Jesus is a present reality, and believers participate in his reign as his “kingdom of priests” – (Revelation 1:6, 2:7, 5:10, 7:9-14, 20:4-6).
To be “in Jesus” means “endurance.” Jesus declared to the church at Philadelphia: “Because you kept the word of my endurance, I will keep you from the hour of test.” Later, the assault against believers by the “beast from the sea” is labeled the “endurance and the faith of the saints” – (Revelation 2:2-3, 2:19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12).
“I CAME TO BE IN SPIRIT IN THE LORD’S DAY”. The next clause is balanced with the preceding one, “I came to be on the isle called Patmos.” The repetition of the preposition “in”marks a spatial contrast. Now, John finds himself “in spirit” while on the small island.
- (Revelation 1:10-11) – “I came to be in spirit on the lordly day, and I heard behind me a great voice, like a trumpet, saying: What you see, write in a scroll and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”
“I came to be in spirit in the Lord’s day.” The verb ginomai means “to become, to come to be,” signifying a change in condition or state. The tense is a past action seen in its entirety; “I came to be” depicts a singular event at a specific point in time when John found himself “in spirit.”
“In the spirit” refers to out of the ordinary visionary experiences. Revelation uses the same term twice, and the similar “carried in the spirit,” also twice, at key literary junctures – (Revelation 1:10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10).
Twice in the book, John “came to be in spirit”; once on Patmos, and once before the “throne.” And twice he was “carried in spirit”; once to the “wilderness” to see “Babylon,” and once to the “great and high mountain” to see “New Jerusalem” – (Revelation 1:8-10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10).
Roman magistrates may have placed John on Patmos, but “in the spirit,” Jesus placed him “in the day of the Lord” to see things from a vastly different perspective. Whatever the “lordly day” refers to is part of the “in spirit” experience. There is no evidence that the church ever designated Sunday the “Lord’s Day” in the first century, a tradition not attested before the late second century. Elsewhere, the “day of the Lord” refers to the coming day of judgment on the wicked and vindication of the righteous – (Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, 2:31, Amos 5:18, Obadiah 15, Zephaniah 1:7, Malachi 4:5, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:2).
Thus, John was projected into “the day of the Lord.” Revelation does not use the term “day of the Lord” again; however, note the similar clauses:
- “The great day of their wrath has come” – (Revelation 6:17).
- “The great day of God, the Almighty” – (Revelation 16:14).
- “In one day, her plagues will come” – (Revelation 18:8).
The great voice “like a trumpet” alludes to the day when Mount Sinai was covered by a thick cloud from which all Israel heard “a loud trumpet’s voice” – (Exodus 19:16-18).
John was commanded to record all that he saw in a “scroll,” and then to send it to the “seven churches in Asia.” The order in which the cities are listed is the sequence by which a traveler from Patmos would visit each one after first making landfall in Ephesus. And “write what you see in a scroll.” This clause alludes to Habakkuk 2:2:
- “Yahweh answered me and said, ‘Write the vision, make it plain on tablets that one may read it swiftly.”
The same passage was echoed in the prologue, “the one who reads” the things written in the prophecy, which originally was Yahweh’s response to the prophet’s complaint: How could a just God allow Babylon to attack Judah?
ONE LIKE A SON OF MAN. Next, John saw a figure he compared to a “son of man.” He was walking among “seven golden lampstands” while holding “seven stars.” The image further develops the themes of suffering, kingdom, and priesthood. The “son of man” represents Jesus, now exalted and possessing all authority. And the voice “like a trumpet” was his voice.
- (Revelation 1:12-16) – “And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned, I saw seven golden lampstands; and among the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and gird about at the breasts with a golden girdle. And his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like burnished brass, as if it had been refined in a furnace; and his voice as the voice of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth proceeded a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shining in his strength.”
Language from the Book of Zechariah is present in the paragraph. John saw “seven golden lampstands,” which refers to the type of stands that held ancient oil lamps. Likewise, the prophet Zechariah saw a “lampstand all of gold,” however, he saw a single lamp with seven branches corresponding to the seven-branched lampin the Tabernacle. Thus, here, the seven lampstands indicated a sanctuary setting. The figure of the “one like a son of man” is from Daniel and its vision of the “fourth beast”- (Exodus 25:31-40, Daniel 7:13-14).
He saw the “son of man” walking among the “lampstands” and maintaining them, just as the priests in the Tabernacle tended the seven-branched lamp, trimming its wicks and replenishing its oil.
The figure was arrayed in a full-length robe adorned with a golden belt, all of which points to his priestly office. The description of his glorious appearance borrows heavily from the tenth chapter of the Book of Daniel – (Leviticus 8:1-13, Daniel 10:5-6).
In Daniel, the man “clothed in linen” revealed what would befall the people of Judah in later days. Here, Revelation alludes to that passage because of its focus on what will happen to the “churches” in the “season” that was now upon them.
The “sword” wielded by the “son of man” was not held in either hand; instead, it flashed from his mouth. This symbol occurs later in Revelation to represent the authoritative word of Jesus – (Isaiah 11:4,Isaiah 49:2,Revelation 2:12, 2:16, 19:15-21).
THE INTERPRETATION. John reacted to the appearance of the “one like a son of man” by prostrating himself at his feet, “as though dead,” which is another parallel to the vision from Daniel (“Daniel fell into a deep sleep upon his face with his face to the earth”).
- (Revelation 1:17-20) – “And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as one dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying, Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the Living one; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Write, therefore, the things which you saw, and the things which are, and the things which shall come to pass afterward; the mystery of the seven stars in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven lampstands are seven churches.”
The clause, “I am the first and the last,” alludes to three passages from the Book of Isaiah – (Isaiah 41:4, 44:5-6,48:9-15). “First and last” parallels the earlier claim of God, “I am Alpha and Omega.” Here, Jesus lays claim to this high privilege because of his obedient death – (Revelation 3:21-22).
“I am the living one, and I became dead.” The statement anchors the visions of Revelation in his past death and resurrection.
“I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” That is, he has full authority over death. Hades was the abode of the dead and corresponded to the Hebrew concept of Sheol. In his resurrection, Jesus triumphed over death.
“Write what things you saw, what they are, and what will come to pass after them.” What John “saw” refers to the visions recorded in the book. What they “are” refers to the provided interpretations of those visions. “Are” translates the Greek verb eimi, here, in the plural number and present tense. This understanding is demonstrated in the next verse, where John saw “seven lampstands,” which symbolized the “seven churches” (“they are [eisin] seven churches.” Likewise, the “seven stars are [eisin] seven angels.”
This same verbal formula is used elsewhere to provide interpretations of visions. For example, the seven “lamps of fire” ARE (eisin) the “seven Spirits of God”; the “seven horns” and “seven eyes” ARE (eisin) the “seven Spirits of God,” and the “two witnesses” ARE (eisin) “two lampstands” – (Revelation 4:5, 5:6-8, 11:4).
“The mystery of the seven stars and the seven lampstands.” The “mystery” is that the “seven stars” and “lampstands” symbolize seven “angels” and seven “churches.” Thus, Revelation interprets its visions symbolically.
The Greek term rendered “angel” may refer to human or angelic “messengers.” It is not clear which is meant. But the blessing pronounced previously on “he who reads and they who hear” may provide a clue. Did John send one messenger to read the book in each of the seven churches, or were seven men dispatched to each city with a copy for each of the seven congregations?
The opening vision will now continue with seven letters sent to the “seven churches” with messages for each from the Risen Christ.