Revelation 1:9-20 — An Imperial Christophany

The Christophany–the appearance of Jesus to John–sets the tone for the letters to the churches (Revelation 2 & 3) and provides the ground for patient endurance through the dramatic conflict that the Apocalypse will unfold in the second and third visions (Revelation 4-16 and Revelation 17-21). It is, therefore, important to pay close attention to how Christ comes to his churches as the first vision opens.

This introduction to the letters to the seven churches easily falls into three sections:  (1) Prophetic Commission (1:9-11); (2) Christophany Described (1:12-16); and (3) Divine Speech (1:17-20).

1.  John is commissioned to write what he sees “in a book” (or on a scroll) and send it to the seven churches.

John has shared  in the suffering of the Christians in Asia Minor. The language of “tribulation” and “patient endurance” reflects the shared experience of cultural hostility. John is on Patmos because he was willing to bear witness to the word of God and Jesus. There is no need to speculate about the horrors of Patmos (or mines, etc.). Rather, John probably suffered from the common practice of exiling or deporting anti-government prophets and astrologers (see Oster, Seven Congregations, 66). John’s insistence on allegiance to the kingdom of God, his warnings about assimilation, and his prophetic denouncement of idolatrous Roman imperialism (all seen in the Apocalypse itself) probably landed him in exile (deportation or banishment). Partners in the kingdom of God will share in its tribulations and will need to persevere in faith. John identifies with his audience.

On a particular “Lord’s day,” John was “in the Spirit.” Since the “Lord’s day” has a specific referent–his audience would know what that is, it appears that it is the common day of worship among Christians. Second century Christians identified this as Sunday (cf. Didache 14.1; Ignatius, Magnesians 9.1; Gospel of Peter 12.50; Barnabas 15.9). Calling it the “Lord’s day” probably contrasts with other days associated with the Emperor or cultic rituals. John fell into a trance on the day of the Lord’s resurrection which is quite appropriate for what he will see.

Given John’s description of his work as a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3), “in the Spirit” refers to a prophetic vision or experience. The model is Ezekiel who received a prophetic visions while he was “in the Spirit” (Ezekiel 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 8:3; 11:1; 37:1).

But John hears something before he sees anything. A loud voice sounded like a trumpet behind him. The imagery is important here since trumpets were both Jewish and Greco-Roman symbols for the entrance of the divine.  Trumpets are associated with theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Isaiah 18:3; Joel 2:1; Zechariah 9:14; Exodus 19:16; 20:18) and in Greco-Roman literature the voices of the gods are compared with the sounding of trumpets (see Aune, Revelation). This language, then, announces a theophany (in this case a Christophany).Seven Churches of Asia

What John hears is a commission to write a book. John the prophet (“in the Spirit”) is commissioned to write a prophecy (1:3) based on what he sees. The book, however, has a specific audience, that is, the seven churches of Asia. The message of this prophecy is specifically tied to the experience and life of the churches in Asia (the “seven” probably represents the whole church in Asia). Several of these cities were part of the Koinon (Fellowhsip or League) of cities in Asia that were particularly dedicated to “the local practices of the imperial cult, emperor veneration, and patriotic enthusiasm, ” specifically Laodicea, Pergamum (with imperial temple), Ephesus (with imperial temple), Smyrna (with imperial temple), and Sardis (Oster, Seven Congregations, 71-2). The cultural pressure to participate in the guilds, the processions, the oaths of allegiance, and the sacrifices would have been enormous within this Koinon. The prophecy of this book is designed for and geared toward the situation of these seven churches in Asia.

2.  John describes the first thing he “sees” and it is an appearance of the risen Christ among his churches.

It is important to appreciate the dramatic nature of the Christophany. The description of the risen Christ is both connected to the authority with which he addresses the churches and his appearance as a divine figure. Jesus is the Lord who addresses his congregations in contrast to the Emperor; the church must listen to their Lord rather than to Caesar.

Concerning the first point, parts of the description of Jesus appear in the introduction to each letter to the seven churches as we will see in future posts. But the second point is more significant in terms of the overall impact upon the original audience.

The risen Christ appears in symbols that are heavily grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures and Greco-Roman cultural forms. The Hebrew symbols are drawn from various visionary and theophanic texts, that is, where God appears to the prophets (cf. Zechariah 4:2, 12; Daniel 7:9, 13; 10:5-6; Isaiah 11:4; 49:2). The Hebrew contexts identify what John sees as a heavenly (even divine) figure who bears great authority (speaks with a “great voice”). The Greco-Roman connections, from depictions of Caesar’s own brilliant radiance emanating from his crown (or the Sun-god Helios) and the deity of the Emperor represented by “seven stars” on coinage, depict a reigning god whose authority is unquestioned (Oster, Seven Congregations, pp. 77-80). Consequently, what John sees radiates divine authority and presence that contrasts with that of Caesar and the Greco-Roman gods.

The risen Christ is the “Son of Man.” This is not an allusion to his humanity, but to his glory. The Son of Man is an eschatological title; it belongs to the one who will bring judgment to the earth and set things right. This is the one who comes on the clouds with the power to subdue the enemies of God. The Christophany is a judgment scene. Christ has come to judge the churches and then the empire. st_john_beholding_the_seven_candelabra

This picture of Jesus, represented on the left by Albrecht Durer (d. 1528), is no cuddly friend or a shepherd who carries a lamb on his shoulders. On the contrary, this is an imperial figure–the Messianic Lord Jesus–who comes to address the congregations of Asia.

3.  John is reassured and recommissioned by the living Christ.

The Christophany was terrifying. Like other prophets who encountered the divine, John–perhaps involuntarily–fell down as if he had fainted (cf. Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 8:17; 10:9-11). In this instance the glory of the risen Christ was not intended to comfort the churches but to confront them. The vision and John’s response, like Isaiah’s before him (Isaiah 6), prepares us to hear the prophetic oracles (the letters to the seven churches) that will follow. They are, in large measure, judgment oracles that call for repentance, non-conformity, and a counter-cultural commitment to the kingdom of God.

The theological announcement is astounding. There is no reason to fear because the risen Christ is the “first and the last, and the living one.” The first claim associates him with Yahweh, the one who was, is and is to come (cf. Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; Revelation 22:13). The second is theological elaboration of what it means to be “firstborn from the dead”–the foundation of new creation itself.  He is the one who lives! GATE-HELL

The resurrection of Jesus is the ground of eternal life. The resurrection inaugurated a new creation where death no longer reigns but Christ reigns. He has the keys–the power to open the doors (gates)–of Hades (the realm of the dead) and Death itself. The “gates of Hades” had a well-known portal (called Plutonium) in what is now southwestern Turkey (see also this re-creation).  On sarcophagi and other depictions, the “Gates of Hades” are locked and closed.  Whoever enters never returns. But the risen Christ announces that he has returned and he has the keys to unlock Hades.

The powers of Hades and Death symbolize the cosmic forces arrayed against the kingdom of God. But they have no ultimate power anymore. The risen Christ has authority over the principalities and powers that presently engulf the earth.

On the authority of the risen Christ, John will write his prophetic message. He will confront the churches and the empire, and he will announce the judgment that is to come against both.

As if to reinforce both the authority of the message and the specificity of the audience, Jesus identifies the seven stars and the seven lampstands. The risen Christ walks among his churches; he is present among them (the seven lampstands). And he holds “the angels of the seven churches” in his hand. The seven stars are some times identified with church leaders (bishops?), or the messengers that brought the letters to the churches, or (most probably) the angelic representatives of the churches before the throne of God. Whatever the case may be, the emotive impact is that the risen Christ has a vested interest in these congregations. They are his and he has come to deal with them.

The function of this Christophany is similar to function of the theophany in Psalm 50. There Yahweh shows up among the assembled people of Israel, but Yahweh does not come to comfort but to judge. Yahweh calls Israel to faithfulness. That is the point of the Christophany.

The opening vision of Revelation is not the slaughtered Lamb who redeems but the Imperial (Lordship) presence that holds the church accountable.

2 Responses to “Revelation 1:9-20 — An Imperial Christophany”

  1.   Verner Ulrich Says:

    Good brother – thanks for your very encouraging section. I see the whole Bible to be under a Grace Covenant structure – so the things we are “taken to task over” = a LOYALTY problem . . . and it can show up in a couple ways . . .problems with the IDENTITY; and NOT allowing God to be our PROTECTION; and simply not coming to Him. The Christophany then is some failure to allow God’s/Christ’s “Eternal Covenant” Hebrews 13 to be in full display. This helps – and I’m trying to write a book on it right now . . .thanks again for your work . . .in the Representative’s name . . .Verner

  2.   jesusandthebible Says:

    Another possibility for the identity of the seven stars is that they may be former leaders/founders of the churches–now dead, yet living with “the living one,” who has the keys of death and Hades. The apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel mentions a future resurrection where the wise who turn many to righteousness will (rise and) shine like the stars forever (Dan. 12:2-3). Here in Rev. 1, Jesus is the firstborn of the dead, who has the keys that can open the door for faithful witnesses that die after him to join him in heaven, and shine like the stars. In Mt. 22:30 Jesus tells Sadducees who don’t believe in resurrection that those who are raised will be like the angels in heaven. In Rev. 22:16 Jesus refers to himself as the bright, morning star. So the seven stars could be others whose “souls” have risen to heaven, especially those like Paul who helped plant some of the churches. Like Christ, these stars would have a vested interest in these churches; and like Christ they could be part of the “first love” and “first works” now abandoned by churches like Ephesus (Rev. 2:4-5).

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