I’m not going to attempt a verse-by-verse exposition of the introduction or seven letters that begin the Revelation. The territory is familiar, and there are many helpful resources, including Tim Archer’s and Steve Ridgell’s Letters from the Lamb.
(Tim often comments here, and I have a copy of his book right here. I’m a fan.)
Gorman makes some keen observations regarding the introduction and the letters in general.
Regarding the introductory section of chapter 1, he observes and offers details for how similarly Jesus and God are described. Similar language is used of both here and throughout Revelation, clearly intending to show the God-ness of Jesus.
Moreover, Jesus is described both as the “son of man” and as similar to the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel’s prophecies, in a sense, identifying him as both human and God — filling both places in the prophecies.
The opening vision (1:9–20) draws on Daniel 7:9–14 to depict Christ as a powerful, priestly, and present (to the churches) figure. But by attributing to Jesus the features of both the human one (“one like a human being” or “son of man”; Rev 1:13; Dan 7:9) and the Ancient One (Rev 1:14; Dan 7:9) in Daniel 7, John tells us that Jesus partakes of God’s identity and reign. Thus both the prologue of Revelation (1:1–8) and its opening vision tell us that Jesus really is Lord.
Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 2103-2107). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Immediately, we should realize that Revelation is book more for poets than logicians. When we dissect it like a proof in geometry class, we destroy what’s there. It’s rather like trying to appreciate Van Gogh one pointillist pixel at a time. It’s how it all fits together that creates the picture and the beauty.
It’s not that we’re supposed to understand exactly how Jesus can be both the Ancient of Days and the son of man in Daniel’s prophecies. Rather, we are to celebrate this fact. Church councils are welcome to wrestle with the philosophical implications and search for language to reconcile the paradox. The Revelation wasn’t written to answer the metaphysical questions. It was written to declare the true nature of the Savior and to glory in it.
(Rev. 1:12-19 ESV) 12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. 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. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.
Now, like everyone else, I have Google Images, and I’ve seen artists try to portray a two-edged sword coming out of the mouth of Jesus — with all the other characteristics listed here. Nothing wrong with the effort, but it never quite works as a painting. Too literal. But if you linger over the words, savoring the images as they flow through your mind, you come to see Jesus in a different way. Not literal. Not a single picture, but a series of images that flow by, each revealing a different facet of who he is.
Take the time to check cross references. Or do word searches for phrases and see what the OT allusions add to the picture. John assumes that we’re already familiar with the imagery from Daniel, Isaiah, etc. — but we’re not.
Just a couple of thoughts to share. “One like a son of man” is from Dan 7 — which you should read. It pictures the Ancient of Days (God, but not just God the Father; it’s all of God); the one like a son of man (surely Jesus); and “the saints” or “holy ones” (Christians, the true Israel); and a kingdom. This language was highly influential in the words of Jesus found in the Gospels, as well as the Revelation. And there is yet another apparent contradiction, in that “dominion” is given both to the son of man and to the people of the Kingdom — but by now, I’ve surely covered that point often enough that the resolution of the paradox is obvious. We sit on the throne with Jesus — Eph 2:6.
Language such as “I am the first and the last,” referring to Jesus, obviously parallels the declaration where God says the same about himself at the end of the book (Rev 22:13), but also —
(Isa. 44:6 ESV) 6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
And we could spend gazillions of posts digging out the cool OT references and ponder the depths of their meaning — which would be time very well spent. But we’re trying to search out the big picture — the one that so often gets lost in the details.
The Seven Letters
When we read these seven messages, we are struck by two major problems that the churches are confronting: the reality of various kinds of persecution, and the strong temptation to accommodate, with accommodation perhaps being seen by some as the way to avoid or stop persecution. The seven messages tell us that there is a wide spectrum within the churches, from the highly accommodating to those who are persecuted—undoubtedly for not accommodating.
(Kindle Locations 2238-2240).
After briefly reviewing each letter, Gorman concludes as to the seven letters together,
While each church receives a message reflecting its own situation, there is one overarching issue: whether or not to compromise. Specifically, will these churches be faithful witnesses both to Jesus and like Jesus (and John!) by refraining from participation in the cultural norm of pagan religion, including the imperial cult, even if it entails serious consequences: social, economic, and political? Will they join the Nicolaitans, Balaamites, followers of Jezebel, and Laodiceans who are participating in various forms of compromise and accommodation, which John labels idolatry, or will they abstain—“come out” (18:4)—and be willing to suffer like John, like Antipas of Pergamum (2:13), and like Jesus himself?
These assemblies of believers are participating in a struggle, even in a war—the war of the Lamb. The Lamb is there with them, as their shepherd and example, calling them to renewed devotion. They will be victorious in this war, not by wielding swords, but by following Jesus in “uncivil” worship [that is, worship not tied to the civil government] and faithful witness. But some of them, at least, are at risk of losing the cosmic battle, and of course John wants them to win. They all need to be faithful witnesses, which may mean actual martyrdom for some.
(Kindle Locations 2321-2331).
Now, viewed this way, rather than microscopically, the letters present a serious challenge to today’s church. We may not need to worry about meat sacrificed to idols, but what about other contemporary forms of idolatry? Do we idolize our country? Our political party? Our candidate? Do we idolize the military might of the American people? Our soldiers? Would we sooner give our lives for our commander in chief than for our Savior? For an American war rather than the Lamb’s war against the beast of Babylon? Would you rather your child grow up to be soldier in the nation’s army or the Lord’s army?
Why let your child go to Syria as a soldier but not as a missionary? I mean, if the Revelation tells us anything, it’s that we’re part of a cosmic battle that may cost our lives.
When I was in the Fourth Grade, after she taught the Five Steps of Salvation I asked my Bible class teacher, “What next?” After baptism, are we done? Or is there another step to get to heaven? After all, we might live for a very long time afterwards. She was flummoxed. She said she’d get back with an answer the next week.
True to her word, she did. She said she’d talked to the preacher, and step 6 was found in Revelation:
(Rev. 2:10b KJV) … be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
She explained that this meant we should obey Jesus for the rest of our lives. Which is not wrong but also not complete.
Many years later, I read the NIV version —
(Rev. 2:10b NIV) Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Well, this was quite another thing!
The church is to continue faithful even though it may lead to death (cf. Rev 12:11; Heb 12:4)
Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 76. Compare the NET Bible translation and Robert W. Wall, UBCS commentary.
Well, martyrdom has rarely been preached in the last 200 years, and certainly not as part of the Plan of Salvation. We don’t see what we don’t expect. But if this verse (and many very similar ones) were more often preached, we might have a much more vigorous missionary effort — because I believe our biggest barrier to saving the world is not money but fear.
[This Don McLean tune keeps popping into my head. Maybe because I can’t help but see the images in Revelation as though painted by Van Gogh. He didn’t, but he should have — because he brilliantly created paintings that weren’t quite literal but also weren’t truly abstract. Like the Apocalypse.]