SERMON - REV BRIAN MOODIE
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EXPLORING REVELATION - Week 7 The Seven Lampstands and Seven Letters
Over the past few weeks I have been giving some broad brush-stroke explorations of the book of Revelation, looking both at the difficulties of the book as well as some of the gifts that it may have for us.
Over the next four weeks, I would like to take a closer look at various passages and themes. As we do so, I would also like to adopt the approach of interpreting the book through the eyes of love. The essence of Jesus teaching was the message of Love, to Love God and to Love neighbour as oneself. And the essence of his description of God in a number of places is a love that shines on good and bad alike, and a love that waits for its lost children to come home. And so it should not be an unreasonable approach to read and interpret even some of the more dark and difficult passages of revelation through the primary lens of love.
Today we look at the opening Act of the Drama: The Seven Lampstands which also contains the Seven letters to the Seven Churches.
The section begins with John’s vision of Christ exalted a king of the world, and who he describes in the following way:
Firstly, he hears a voice, then he sees seven golden lampstands with someone like a son of man standing in the midst of them, dressed in a long robe reaching down to his feet with a golden sash around his waste and chest. His hair was as white as snow, his eyes like blazing fire, his feet like bronze glowing in a fire, his voice like the sound of rushing waters. In his hand were seven stars. Coming from his mouth, a sharp double edged sword and his face like the sun shining in all it’s brilliance. And then the heavenly figure says I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and now look I am alive forever. And I hold the keys to death and hades
What is most interesting about this description is that in the space of four verses (12-18), John the writer makes reference to at least 20 passages from the Old Testament, drawn from Zechariah; Ezekiel, Isaiah; Judges, Deuteronomy & Daniel.
The image of the golden lampstands comes from Zechariah. The image of someone like a son of man comes from Daniel. The long white robe has echoes from Isaiah’s vision of God in Isaiah 6 where the train of his robe filled the temple. The golden sash, white hair and blazing eyes are all references again from Daniel. Feet like burning bronze are references from Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 10. Voice like rushing waters can be referenced to Ezekiel and Daniel. The reference to the sharp double edged sword can be found in Isaiah. His face shining like the sun in all its brilliance comes from the books of Judges and Daniel. The phrase: The First and Last is a reference from Isaiah. The Living one who is now alive forever and ever comes from Deuteronomy as well as Daniel.
John has in effect created a picture of the Risen Christ using a collage of at least 20 Old Testament passages, with their images and symbols. One has to admit that clothed in all this glorious imagery and symbolism it is very difficult to discern the humanity of the historical Jesus beneath all of this Old Testament symbolism. Perhaps this again is why Martin Luther the great reformer said he battled to discern Christ in the pages of Revelation.
Probably the most dominant image that John is drawing from in the description of Christ is Daniel’s description of what he calls the son of man. In Aramaic, the language in which Daniel was written it would be something like ‘Ben Adam’ meaning ‘son of adam’, which could also be translated as ‘the human one’, in contrast to Daniel’s description of the empires of the world symbolised as beasts.
His feet like glowing bronze comes from Daniel’s description of the Son of Man which stands in contrast to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar which was part of one of Daniel’s dream (Dan 2). The statue represents the kingdoms or empires that oppressed the people of Israel. And yet the statue has feet of clay. In other words, the kingdoms of this world make look impressive, but they are built on fragile foundations that can easily begin to crumble. In contrast, the feet of the Son of Man are feet of glowing bronze. They stand firm and strong.
Daniel’s vision of the Human One, or one like a human or one like a son of man, is the dominant image behind John’s description of Jesus in Revelation chapter 1. As I have suggested previously, this heavenly being in Daniel, who is like a human one, the Son of Man, is meant to represent the very best of our humanity as made in the image of God. Our humanity is made for nobility, dignity and glory as made in God’s image, but it has become distorted and beast-like in the kingdoms and empires of this world.
In response to this image of Christ, John falls to his feet as though he is dead and Christ places a hand on his shoulder, a reference again to Daniel (8:18) as he hears the words:
“Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and now look I am alive forever. And I hold the keys to death and hades.”
John is encouraged to put his trust in Christ, because the eternal nature of God is in him, ‘the first and last, the living one’. This image of Jesus is meant to transport the listener beyond time and beyond history into the realm of the infinite, the deathless, the eternal, that which is unaffected by the chances and changes of this fleeting world. It is a reminder that when we are going through a difficult time, there is a deeper spiritual reality than what we see and experience on the surface of life, this realm of birth and death. Are we consumed and overwhelmed by the waves of life on the surface, or are we in touch with a deeper reality that remains unaffected by the turmoil on the surface?
What then unfolds after the description of Jesus in the imagery of Daniel’s Son of Man, are seven brief letters written to each of the seven churches in which Christ addresses the problems facing each church.
Some were apathetic due to wealth and affluence. Others were morally compromised. They were eating ritual meals, and some of the other faiths of which they had been part would have required ritual sexual acts to be performed in temples. Others in these seven churches remained faithful to Christ and were suffering harassment and even violent persecution. As Tim Mackie says: Jesus warns that things are going to get worse. A time of tribulation is coming that will force them to make a choice between compromise with the Roman culture in which they were living, or faithfulness to the way of Christ, his way of goodness and love. In the language of John, will they conquer, will they overcome? The temptation as we have seen was either to deny Jesus in order to avoid harassment and persecution or simply to join the spirit of the Roman age. The message of Christ is to call them to faithfulness in order that they might overcome and be victorious.
Interestingly, at the beginning of each message to each of the churches, John starts with one line of the description of Christ that he has just given. And at the end of each message, John includes is a promise of a reward related to the vision of a New Creation in the last chapter of Revelation for all those who do remain faithful and who do overcome or conquer. It is not that they are going to conquer their enemies, the Roman Empire, but rather it is a description of their inner life and their character that has been transformed by faith and trust in Christ and his presence within them. This is an inner, spiritual reality of becoming people in whom the presence and the noble character of Christ reigns supreme despite whatever outward circumstances they are going through. The reward is that that they will experience God’s New Creation, a New Heaven and New Earth, which is what the final vision of Revelation is all about.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul suggests that the new Heaven and the New Earth are not simply realities of the future, but that even in this world we can become a part of God’s new or renewed creation. “If anyone is joined to Christ there is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.” This speaks of a transformation of the inner life of a person, a transformation of one’s motivations, a transformation of the way one sees the world, a little bit like the apostle Paul, who after his conversion, it was as though scales had fallen from his eyes. Our vision is marred and distorted by the filters, assumptions and stories we tell ourselves, but when we begin to see with the eyes of Christ, our eyes become clear to see with undistorted vision.
And this takes us back to that reference to the symbol of the lampstands. In a generic sense it is a reminder that Churches are meant to be places of light. Light helps people to see more clearly. Light is also often used as a metaphor for wisdom. Churches are meant to be places that shine God’s love and light to the world, and places where we can learn more deeply the way of wisdom.
It may raise the question: In what way are we being a light for others?
But the reference to the Lampstands is also a specific reference to the book of Zechariah (chp. 4) where the prophet has a vision and sees a lampstand. He asks what it means and he is told that the lampstand signifies the eyes of God on the earth. In the context of Revelation it suggests that not only are the seven churches meant to be shining the light of God in a dark world, but it also suggests that the Churches and Christians in general are meant to be the eyes of God in this world. What might that mean? Is it possible that to be the eyes of God in the world means that we are meant to see the world through the eyes of God? Is it possible that it describes our calling to see as God sees, with the eyes of Love. And are the blazing eyes of Christ, not the eyes of judgement, but rather eyes blazing with God’s love for the world?