THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS ON IMAGES OF JESUS IN REVELATION 1:1-20
Submitted to Dr. Dana Harris in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6253 Interpreting Johannine Literature at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
The last book of the Bible is “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” written “to show God’s servants what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). It is not designed as a chronology of future events, but as a fleeting glimpse of the end of the story. In it, you can flip to the last page of the book of cosmic history and see that God wins. He keeps His promises. No matter what kind of fear or uncertainty or injustice faces us in the world today, no one who puts their hope in the Lord will be put to shame (Ps 25; 1 Pet 3:13-16). It is the testimony of Jesus, the Messiah (Rev 1:2), who told the Apostle John to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1:11). These seven churches represent the Church universal in all of history, particularly those who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. It is with these in mind that I write this brief reflection.
In His revelation in general and this prologue (Rev 1:1-20) in particular, Jesus paints a number of vivid word pictures of Himself, designed to give confidence and comfort to the hurting (and to unsettle and motivate the complacent). While space does not permit me to treat every image presented in this passage, I will touch on seven selected images to highlight their value in encouraging those who are afflicted and oppressed because of their faith in Jesus. And I think it’s very appropriate, as Christmas approaches, to take a long look at Jesus, the way He revealed Himself to us, rather than the way our cultural image of Him has evolved over the centuries.
1) Jesus, the Faithful Witness
First, Jesus is “the faithful Witness” (Rev 1:5a). Those suffering for the cause of Christ can be assured that Jesus sees their pain and intercedes for them before the Father (Rom 8:31-35; Heb 7:25). He will personally bear witness to their faith and suffering, and His testimony is faithful and true (c.f. Rev 19:11). When He proclaims that they belong to Him, it is the final, faithful and unassailable word. This should assure those struggling with pain or fear or uncertainty that God will ensure justice and reward those who are His. They may be obscure or feel alone, but God sees them, and will remember them. In the end, He will be proven faithful.
2) Jesus, the Firstborn from the Dead
Jesus is also “the firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:5b), alive forever, and “holding the keys of death and Hades” (1:18). What awaits those whom God has chosen is resurrection into a glorified life directly in the presence of the Lord. Of all the messages of Revelation, the most important is that God wins, and as a result, He will dwell with His people forever (Rev 21:3). The seemingly insurmountable barriers of sin and death to our true communion with God has been forever conquered, not by our blood (which would be just recompense for our evil ways), but by the blood of the spotless Lamb, who was slain on our behalf (c.f. Rev 5:6-10). No matter how bad things get in this world (and they are bad!), a glorious future awaits the children of God. As the firstborn from the dead — not just the first to be resurrected to this new life, but the rightful heir to all its glorious benefits —, we know that Jesus has the authority in Himself to grant us life (John 5:26). Because He lives, we too shall live, and someday soon, we will be like Him, seeing Him as He truly is (1 John 3:2). The persecuted Christian – in John’s time or ours – can embrace this blessed hope for the future.
3) Jesus, the Ruler of the kings of the earth
Next, Jesus is “the Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5c). Caesar may be king for a day, but Jesus is the eternal King. Empire may appear to have the power now, but in fact, even what little it has will soon be taken away from it (Matt 13:12). Christians who are hunted by the authorities of this world can look forward to the final judgment by ultimate Authority, who will set everything right. Jesus will reign in power, bringing justice, peace, stable government and firm-but-loving rule to the people of God. The images of the golden sash (Rev 1:13), white hair (1:14), and bronze feet (1:15) all speak to Jesus’ kingly power and authority. And certainly, His divine sovereignty is clearly demonstrated in statements like, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8) and “I am the First and the Last” (1:17). Jesus is the just, all-powerful King who will conquer and supplant the corrupt and abusive authorities of this world. This too should bring us great hope, and help the oppressed to persevere.
4) Jesus is Coming Back Soon
Fourth, Jesus is coming back for us. He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). Behold, “He is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7; c.f. Isa 19:1; Dan 7:13), and every eye will see Him. There will be no confusion or contest or subtlety when Jesus returns. None who belong to Him will remain in hiding or continue to suffer, for when He comes for us, He will make all things new (Rev 21:5), establish justice, and finally bring rest to the people of God (Heb 4:1-11).
5) Jesus Stands Among His People
Even now, fifthly, Jesus stands “among the lampstands, one like a Son of Man” (Rev 1:12). This depicts not only that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (Rev 21:16), prophesied by Daniel (7:13), but that He is present even now among His people. Christians persecuted in this world are not far away from Jesus, because Jesus stands in the midst of the Church in every time and place. We have far more than some vague hope to someday be reunited with Him. Rather, Jesus restates in this passage His promise that He is always with His people, even to the close of the age (Matt 28:20). To those who know Him, it is a matter of great comfort to know that Jesus is always present, always walking through dark valleys with us, and having already gone before us to face every horror there is to face in this world. He has conquered, and therefore, we too shall conquer. And in the meantime, He is with us.
6) Jesus, the Sovereign Head of the Church
Jesus is “the one with seven stars in his right hand” (Rev 1:16a). This is the sixth image. Not only does Jesus walk among the churches, but He holds them in His right hand. Holding the churches gives a sense of His greatness and power and protective care. He not only knows us, but has the power to nurture, support and protect us. Also, in the use of “the right hand,” we see again Jesus’ sovereign, kingly authority. He not only desires to ensure that all things will work together for our good (Rom 8:28), but He is strong enough to achieve His purpose (Ps 135:5-7; Isa 55:10-11). It should be a great comfort to know that Jesus is not only present, but powerful. Even when suffering, we can rely on His protective care, not from pain or unmet expectations or even physical death, but from the one thing that we should truly fear: separation from Him. And as long as He holds us, no one can snatch us out of His hands (John 10:28-30).
7) Jesus, the One Wielding the Sharp, Double-edged Sword
Finally, “a sharp double-edged sword comes from [Jesus’] mouth” (Rev 1:16b). The Lord is a warrior (Exod 15:3), who created the world by His word (Ps 33:9), and who will judge the world, destroy evil and recreate it with His word in the final hour (Rev 12:11; 20:11ff; 21:3-7). The word of God is often depicted as a sword (Heb 4:12-13; Eph 6:17), demonstrating that it is powerful and effective for achieving God’s purposes, which are to conquer evil and to reconcile everything He created to Himself, especially us. So, the one who feels molested by evil can rest in the knowledge that God’s word will conquer it (Col 2:15; Eph 6:10-20). The one who lacks wisdom can experience in God’s word a light to their feet and a lamp to their path (Ps 119:105; Jas 1:5). And the one who feels uncertain about the future can know from God’s word how the story ends: “To the one who conquers I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). This is particularly good news for the one living under the boot of earthly empire. Someday, God’s word declares, all the empires of the earth will become the footstool of the One who wields — He who is Himself — the Word of God (Heb 10:12-13; Ps 110:1; Rev 11:15).
One of God’s key purposes for the book of Revelation is to bring comfort and hope to the hurting and persecuted (while afflicting those have grown comfortable and complacent). This theme runs throughout the book, as we watch the drama of redemption unfold and the curtain fall on the final act of human history. But even in the letter’s prologue, we see at least seven comforting images of the Messiah, Jesus. He is the faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He is returning soon, in power, yet even now He walks among His churches, supporting and nurturing them. And with absolute power, by the word of His mouth, He is preparing to destroy every power and earthly authority that would raise itself against the Most High God.
Thus, the persecuted and suffering Christiana can experience in Revelation a profound and renewed sense of comfort, as can any Christian preparing his heart to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, who is in fact our Lord and King. And so we say with the Spirit and the bride, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! Come!” (Rev 22:17, 20).