Rev. 1:9-17; Ex 20; Daniel 7:9-14; 10:16, 19, Ezek 43:2.
John, in the first eight verses of the Apocalype, has introduced us thoroughly to the Author and Subject of his vision—the LORD God, as seen in Jesus the Christ, from Whom all beginnings come, and to Whom all of creation hastens, as our goal. Now John goes on to give us a glimpse of the vision as it first came to him: we are introduced first to the heard, then the seen Word, or Voice of God. Here are verses nine through seventeen:
I, John, your brother and communicant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
Then I turned to see the Voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 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. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. 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. When I saw him, I fell at His feet as though dead. But He laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not.”
From the get-go, we are embraced by his words. John, whether the apostle, the elder, or some other perceptive prophet of the first century, calls himself our brother. He says that he is a communicant with us, emphasizing by his word choice both our sharing together and our sharing in something bigger than ourselves. The English translations “participant” and “sharer” just don’t cut it! We may be surprised, too, by the mysteries that are vouchsafed to us, along with him—tribulation and patient endurance, as well as “the kingdom” or “rule” or “kingship.” How can tribulation and patience be a gift in which we want to share? Certainly, the kingship or kingdom is the prerogative of Jesus himself, to share with us as He likes. But so, too, is “tribulation” and “patient endurance,” seen most perfectly in the Lord of Glory, the One who bore our sorrows and carried our griefs, far beyond anything that we have had to endure. One might expect that John would see the suffering as something he owned, since he is himself in exile because of his faithfulness to Jesus in a hostile world.
Our brother John’s testimony is a long, drawn-out martyrdom, as the Greek word martyria, suggests. He does not even claim this suffering as his own by right, though, since he knows Jesus as the perfect Man of Sorrows. No doubt it is due to his sharing in both the dignity and the suffering of Christ that he able to be “in the Spirit” on the Day of the Lord, that is, on Sunday.
Everything that John knows to be valuable belongs to the LORD—this revelation he is giving, our ability to endure, our tribulation, our status as co-rulers with Christ, our life “in the Spirit,” and our entrance into His third-day resurrection. And now, we will see how Christ, the One who superintends all things, helps us to understand the meaning and goal of His words in the past. Our brother co-communicant will show to us the Lord!
And he will do so by telling us something full of Old Testament echoes.
First, John hears “the voice of the trumpet.” We are whisked in our imaginations back to Sinai, where God appeared to Moses above, with the people below the mountain, speaking in the voice of a trumpet the solemn words of the covenant. In our worship at this moment, we are preparing to prepare: we have begun using the Triodion, in view of Lent to come. It was the same in the book of Exodus for the people of God, prior to their reception of the Commandments. God prepared them before time for what would happen, putting a boundary around the bottom of the mountain, and warning them not to approach until the signal that He would give: “No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live. When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” (18:12-13). Yet again, as the story continues, we hear, “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.” (19:16). Then God does meet with Moses, the Law is given, and we hear these words yet again, summarizing the response of the people: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off…” (20:18). They are prepared for the grandeur of God’s word, and they take it to heart. The Trumpet is the sign both that God is speaking, and that they should be in awe. And so they give reverence, though they will forget all too soon what they have seen, and sin along with Aaron and the golden calf.
Perhaps we see ourselves in contrast to them. After all, we are “co-communicants” in Christ. This is true; but it also remains true that Christ’s word is awe-inspiring. The book of Hebrews also takes us to this very passage in Exodus, in order to remind us that even for Christians, “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). John will certainly show us the wonder of Christ’s atonement for us, and understands how we are in a privileged position beyond that of the Hebrew people, because of the incarnation and God’s drawing-close to us. We ARE co-communicants. But His voice still commands worship. The trumpet sounds.
And it sounds for all of us. John lists seven churches, and we are told that his instructions are to record the words of God in a book for them. But of course, seven in the biblical tradition is the number of completion. Jesus’ words are for those seven historical congregations in Asia Minor, but also for the whole of his people. The number seven is as old as creation itself!
He turns to SEE the Voice. Now isn’t that odd? He doesn’t turn to see the one who is speaking, but the Voice itself. For, after all, God the Son is the Word of God, the divine Mouthpiece, the One who reveals in words that we can understand, God’s will, God’s actions, God’s character. He is the Voice, and because of the Incarnation, that Voice can be seen as well as heard! What is it that John sees when he turns?
First He sees the context, the place from which the Voice speaks. There He is, walking amidst the seven candlestands. Here, too, there are echoes to the OT, first to the Lampstand in the Holiest Place of the Temple (throughout Leviticus), but also to the seven-branched lampstand of Zechariah’s vision (chapter four), by which God assured the people that He was still with them. Here, there are seven actual lampstands, emphasizing the communion of the Church that is both diverse and unified. One ancient father (Oecumenius), says, “He did not call them “lamps” but “lampstands,” for a lampstand itself does not possess the capacity to shine, but it bears that which is capable of illumination.” Yes, they are capable of illumination, but also might lose their borrowed light if they do not depend fully on Him. What follows makes it clear that Jesus not only walks amidst them, but is the very source of their light. He appears as golden, full of light, like flames of fire, and shining like the sun. The visual effect given in this vision is astonishing, and if we consider other pictures in the OT, we shall see why.
John’s vision actually combines various prophetic glimpses of God and His messengers. A reading of Daniel shows us that John sees Jesus with the characteristics of the Ancient of Days himself, seated upon the throne—the white hair like snow and wool, the fiery flames (7:9-10). But he is also described as the mysterious figure in chapter 10 of Daniel, dressed like a priest in linen with a golden sash, with bronze feet and an awesome voice (10:4-7). Then there is the description of God’s voice “like many waters” in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 43:2)! The One whom John sees is both the God whom we worship, and the priestly One who comes to mediate for us—represented by several figures in the OT, they share an identity in the incarnate, risen, and ascended Jesus.
This One, says Irenaeus, is set forth by John in terms of “the priestly office, as in the case of the long garment reaching to the feet” (Against Heresies 4.20.1).1. He speaks, teaches, mediates, and intercedes for those among whom He walks in a familiar way. At the same time, He is the object of John’s (and OUR) reverence and worship. John falls at his feet, just as Daniel fell at the feet of that mysterious figure so long ago (10:9) And so must we. “Before Thy throne, we bow down in worship, Master!” Reverence is not Old Testament stuff—it is built into the very nature of the meeting of humans with God.
John falls as though dead before the One who is the Judge of all. And yet John is raised up, and told not to fear. For this great One is here not to undo us, nor to Lord it over us, but to release us from tyranny—even the tyranny of our own sinfulness. He comes for the “rising and falling of many,” as Symeon said so long ago. He is the “one like a Son of Man,” the very fulfillment of Daniel’s vision. This is that very figure who comes after the oppressive four regimes Daniel saw, that One who comes on the clouds to the Ancient of Days, that One who shares in God’s very nature, and who is given “dominion, glory, and a kingdom… that shall not pass away” (Dan 7:14). Amazingly, His aim is to SHARE that glory and rule with us, as Daniel says: “But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever’ (7:18). His glorious title, the Son of Man, is also the sign of his humility, for He comes to be among us, and to give us what is His, which He shares with the Father.
And so He lifts our brother John up. And so He will lift us up, so that with John we can see and hear the heavenly Voice, know His presence walking in our midst, shine with the glory of His light, and enjoy worshipping Him together forever. John lifts the veil ever so slightly so that we can be overwhelmed by this Light, and warm to the sound of the trumpet. May we continue to hear and see Him during this pre-Lenten and Lenten season!