02. All Powerful, Unstoppable Jesus
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “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 for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
On the evening of October 30, 1938, panic gripped thousands of people across the United States as news reports began trickling in that Martians had begun a systematic invasion of the earth. Reports included the institution of martial law, speculation about Martian technology, the radio station itself suffering damage and casualties, and eventually reports of a devastating invasion of New York City.
Listeners who resisted scooping up their children and fleeing with food and rifles were eventually greeted with an announcer informing them that they were listening to a CBS dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The audience had heard science-fiction being performed not news being reported.
Listeners misunderstood the genre… and suffered because of it.
Revelation is written as a particular genre, and our first strong taste of Revelation comes shortly after the book’s opening. We taste the style as John describes exactly why he is writing this document in the first place.
Here is a man1 who finds himself imprisoned to an island called Patmos off the coast of modern day Turkey, separated from those he loves, likely to die in exile. And in his isolation and suffering, John finds himself (v10) met by Jesus in some kind of vision.
This is no Jesus meek and mild…this is Jesus wild and ferocious.
Verses 9-20 just “sound like” Revelation with its vivid descriptions of colors—white and gold—and weird phrases like “the keys of Death and Hades” and the number seven popping up all over.
And at the center of it all—literally in the middle of it—stands a mysterious, dangerous figure. John calls him “one like a son of man.” That title (“Son of Man”) was one of Jesus’s favorite titles for himself as we walked around Galilee. It’s the name of a mysterious figure in the scroll of Daniel who vanquishes monsters, rides the clouds, and rules the cosmos.2
(Why do we so infrequently talk about Jesus calling himself this? I mean, what an epic title to give yourself…)
John already alluded to this mysterious figure by saying that Jesus is coming with the clouds,3 but now John describes the experience of beholding this figure.
This figure stands in the middle of seven lamps on seven golden stands (v12)—and no, you didn’t miss anything. There are simply seven lamps on seven stands. We have no idea if they’re close together or far apart, what the lamps look like, what kind of stands they’re on, if they’re burning brightly, if it’s still fairly dark, whether this is inside or outside.
The scene is simply seven lamps on seven stands.
And then in the middle of everything—between the stands, among the lamps—we find a frightening figure (v13).
A robed figure with a golden sash and wooly white hair
and blazing balls of fire in his eye sockets (v14)
and feet like Iron Man’s boots (v15)
and an immense voice like the roar of Niagara Falls.
This is a guy you don’t want to meet in dark alley. Or—even better—this is a guy you want with you if you get jumped in a dark alley.
“Nice switchblade… but before I give you my wallet I’d like you to meet my friend Fire Eyes. That’s right. Back up. He’s got other tricks too—do the thing with your mouth… That’s right! You better run! That is a sword coming out of his mouth (v16).”
A silly scenario to be sure, but I think that’s what John is trying to convey in a barrage of metaphors and images. That’s because Revelation is written in the style of a particular kind of mostly-Jewish genre called “first-century apocalyptic.” We have lots of other examples of this genre,4 and they all utilize story, symbolism, and metaphor.
CBS radio listeners suffered when they misunderstood the genre of The War of The Worlds, and we suffer too when we fail to recognize that Revelation is written in a genre. Just as we know what to expect when we watch a science-fiction blockbuster or detective noir film or horror movie, John’s churches knew what to expect when they heard an apocalypse read.
John is not giving us a literal physical description of Jesus here in the way that someone would describe a suspect to a police sketch artist.
Q – “Could you please describe the face that you saw?”
A – “Well, his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
That’s not what John is aiming at. Not even close.
I’m confident on this because John himself shows his cards in verse 20 and tells us he’s talking in symbols.
He tells us:
“Those seven lampstands are not (of course) literal lampstands.
Those seven lampstands are the seven churches I’m writing to.”
And then he tell us:
“Those seven stars in his hand are not literal stars.
Those seven stars are angels—spiritual personalities of the churches.5”
John gives a few up-front explanations for his images to make sure that anyone new to apocalyptic literature knows what he’s not talking about literal lampstands or literal intergalactic spheres of plasma.
So in his description of Jesus, John is writing in a particular genre that everyone is familiar with. He employs metaphor, pictures, and symbols to describe the Jesus he encountered as terrifying and powerful and unlike anyone he’s ever encountered.
Revelation uses a lot of symbolism.
That’s part of the genre.
And that’s such a relief… because as cool as Iron Man’s boots look on Tony Stark, they sound strange on Jesus.
In fact, the knowledge that Revelation uses symbols is such a relief that we’re tempted to start following John’s example. It’s tempting to start trying to explain and decode and de-mystify every image in the book.
We could start right here with John’s description of Jesus, since he’s already given us a jumpstart with the “meaning” of the lampstands and the stars.
A table like this sure makes us feel like we’re making progress on understanding Revelation, doesn’t it?
We can look at his golden sash and see something of ritzy royalty and priestliness. We can analyze his snow white hair and recognize white as a symbol of victory, purity, and wisdom that bears a striking resemblance to the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7.9. We can find searching penetration in eyes like fire, stable strength of Iron Man feet, power of a voice like a waterfall, piercing effectiveness of his word, glorious splendor in a solar face.
Is that really all Revelation is? Decoding ciphers?
Because now that we’ve got verses 12-16 neatly dissected and labeled and de-mystified, we’re could just move on the rest of Revelation. A few tables, some cultural background, a little bit of historical information, and we’ll probably have Revelation mastered in a week.
Even when we keep Jesus as the center of Revelation and avoid the folly of trying to decode the future, we still fall into the trap of thinking we’ll understand Revelation when we un-symbolize all of its symbols. We’re tempted to think that “really getting” Revelation means dissecting and decoding its details.
And (to be sure!) since God always meets people where they are—in their cultures and particular moment in time—there are some places where cultural background, historical context, and a bit of dissecting really illuminates this ancient, stylized letter.
But we face two giant problems if we don’t challenge our assumptions that “really getting” or “really understanding” this (or any) Scripture depends on our ability to dissect and decode.
The first problem is how super overwhelming the book becomes.
There are hundreds of details in Revelation and thousands of opinions about those details. Who’s got the time to do all that research and dissect all those details? And what do you do with the details that nobody really knows what they mean?
If Revelation “works” by dissecting and decoding all of its details, then there are some parts of the book that are never going to work. There are some details that we can never nail down.
But let’s pretend that we could for a moment.
If we could somehow nail down every detail, we would still run into a second problem. A deeper problem. A bigger problem than the first.
In fact, we’d be even more susceptible to it.
Dissecting Revelation like a frog in a biology lab actually works against what Revelation seems designed to do. Revelation seems designed to humble us, to make the world mysterious, to fill us with wonder. It’s hard to be humble unless we allow this mysterious book to dissect and crucify and (eventually) resurrect us.
If we delude ourselves into thinking that we can finally nail down everything in Revelation, we eventually become prideful.
“I’ve finally figured it all out—God, the world, the future, everything.”
“Look how spiritual and dedicated and clever I am.”
“Why can’t others crack this code too?”
Once we’ve managed to purge all mystery from Revelation, all wonder from the universe, and all surprises from God, we bloat into boastful brains with everything figured out. And that’s basically the opposite of what Revelation is trying to do in us.
No part of Revelation means to drive us to bull-headed predictions or overreaching analysis or ever-changing flowcharts. All of Revelation means to drive us to our knees.
We should remind ourselves early and often that Revelation is meant to be absorbed, not merely analyzed. When we slip into the obsessive over-analysis of always dissecting and decoding, we slipping further and further away from the point of the book.
This is especially true for Scripture and the book of Revelation, but on some level it’s true for almost any work of art. Consider music for a moment. For most people, music can captivate us, transport us, and even change us in a way few things can.
But does music “work” because you’ve analyzed it? Does your favorite song captivate you because you’ve nailed down music theory? Does the musical score of your favorite movie transport you because you’ve dissected its mechanics?
We all have different tastes in music (it’s impossible to know whether you like country, classical, or hip-hop) but there’s one bit of music we can all agree moves us—the Mission Impossible Theme Song. You’re humming it already.
Imagine you were to ask someone to explain why the music is awesome. And now imagine if they handed you this table as an objective, verifiable, technical answer to your question.
On some level they may be right.
All of those things are technically true about the music. And yet if you think that table gives anything like an adequate answer to the question, I question your good sense.
Dissecting the details of the music might be helpful for some purposes, but it’s not the purpose of the music. The music isn’t meant to be analyzed… it’s meant to be absorbed. It’s meant to sweep us up and help Tom Cruise do the impossible. That’s why it’s awesome.
Most of us probably aren’t in danger of missing the point of a spy theme song. But when it comes to the Bible’s last book, we’re almost all in danger of missing the point.
Revelation is not primarily meant to be dissected or decoded. It’s meant to be experienced. It’s meant to cause us to see God revealed as Jesus. It’s meant to humble us, make the world mysterious, and fill us with wonder.
We begin to “understand” Revelation
as we’re driven to our knees in worship.
That’s what happens to John.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but John is the very first person to experience the strangeness and grandeur of Revelation. And when he does—when he sees Jesus—John falls at his feet as though dead (v17).
Because John has a vision of Jesus of Nazareth with unlimited power.
If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie Aladdin, there’s a moment at the end when Jafar (the bad guy) becomes gigantic and all-powerful. Jafar becomes this human being with unlimited, unstoppable power. I was sweating it as a kid in the theater. That picture of a human being who is all-powerful is something like what John sees. His Spirit-inspired vision reveals Jesus as gigantic and all-powerful.
And even though this is Jesus—not Jafar—and even though this is the perfect human being and not some creepy Grand Vizier—it’s still scary.
Even though this is Jesus of Nazareth we’re talking about—who feeds the hungry and heals the sick and raises the dead, who comforts the afflicted and forgives sins and dines with sinners, I mean, have you read the gospels—?!
Even though this is still Jesus of Nazareth, when we see in cosmic grandeur as all-powerful and unstoppable, it’s terrifying. When you look on him, it makes you tremble. As we saw last chapter, his presence makes you wail.
John begins “to understand” something that runs deeper than theories about theology or fan-fiction about the future. He began to recognize the person and power of God, the nature of the universe, and his place within it.
John falls at his feet as though dead. That’s the reaction of anyone who really begins to see God. That’s the reaction Revelation aims to provoke. But the words that Jesus speaks—to John, to all of us—are words we hardly dare believe:
“Do not be afraid.” (v17)
That’s what the book of Revelation is about.
That’s how the book of Revelation works.
Revelation aims to overwhelm our senses—our seeing and smelling and hearing, our everything—with the aim that we’ll realize again how small we are and how strong God is, how strong Jesus is.
The Divine Voice tells us not to be afraid.6
If our deepest parts don’t tremble, falling down dead to be resurrected, we’re not understanding Revelation. It doesn’t matter how many details we can dissect or decode.
What happens when we finally begin to see? When we begin to realize that Jesus is right in the middle of everything? When we begin to admit our smallness and weakness? When we begin to glimpse that Jesus is strong and full of love? What happens… is our lives change.
Recognizing Jesus as all-powerful and unstoppable doesn’t always seem practically helpful. It’s not a bit of practical advice that we painlessly apply to our lives in five minutes. But this often impractical reality—that the Crucified One is the Conquering One—happens to be the center of the gospel. Learning to believe this news is the only thing to actually change our lives because it imparts a new life. We falling down dead and hear the whisper of resurrection: “Be alive. You will live, my child. Do not be afraid.”
This vision has already transformed John’s entire outlook by the time he’s putting quill to parchment . The Roman government had exiled him, imprisoned him on the prison island of Patmos (v9). He’s lonely. He’s quarantined away from those he loved. He’s separated from the churches and communities he loved.
Distant, desperate, stranded, alone.
Whatever our bad day or bad month or bad year, John was likely experiencing something worse. But after this vision—after recognizing his smallness and Jesus’s strongness—his entire outlook on life has changed.
John realizes that he’s not in this situation because of the word of Rome. There would be plenty to fear if the powers of chaos, violence, and death were that strong… but they’re not. Rome doesn’t rule the world.
John recognizes that ultimately his situation falls under the providential direction of the word of God (v9), not the word of Rome. The word of God and the testimony of Jesus rule the world.
So even though things are hard right now—even though life hurts right now, even though we’re drowning in tribulation, turmoil, and suffering,7 even though life requires patient endurance right now—God is at work.
God is actually at work. Right now. In this loneliness, in this pain, in this struggle. The word of death cannot out-speak the word of God.
God’s kingdom rests between suffering and patient endurance (v9). What an odd place for “the kingdom” to be. And yet that good news saturates the words of the Apocalypse.
Despite all appearances, despite our doubts and desperation, despite the pain of prison and Patmos… Jesus and his kingdom are in the middle of everything and stronger than anything.
If we allow the Spirit to open eyes to this revelation, our lives and outlooks will change… just like John’s.
The only one to fear is Jesus, and Jesus says, “Fear not.”
“Don’t fear… just follow. I’ve already experienced everything you fear. I’ve already died but I’m alive forever (v17). Just keep following… there’s nothing to fear. I will show you life. I will make you alive. Follow, my love.”
That’s what Jesus said to John.
That’s what Jesus says to all of us.
All-powerful, unstoppable Jesus, may you teach me how to absorb the Scriptures even as I learn to analyze them, may you reveal your living presence to me to the point of making me afraid, and may I hear your gentle whisper of love that banishes all fear and draws me into your good future. Amen.
- I see very little difference whether John is the actual Apostle John or some other early church leader named John whom scholars simply call “John the Seer.”
- Daniel 7.13-14f. The “beasts” (empires) rising from “the sea” (primordial chaos) are found in v2-8.
- Rev 1.7
- Examples of apocalyptic literature within the Bible include Daniel 7-12, Zech 12-14, Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24, Luke 21). A few other ancient examples you can google include 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and The Apocalypse of Peter.
- The language of “angels” is an example of a detail no one can nail down. “Angel” literally just means “messenger” in Greek, but it’s typically used of a messenger from God. So these seven stars could be referring to “the messenger” leading each church (their overseer/pastor/etc) or it could be referencing a spiritual being that corresponds to an earthly reality. If that sounds wacky, Scripture makes veiled hints at these mysterious spiritual realities other places. “Angels” are assumed to correspond to groups of people (Dan 10.13) and to individuals (Matt 18.10, Acts 12.15). A gift of Scripture in general and Apocalyptic in particular is how they humble us. There are dimensions of reality to which we are completely oblivious.
- If it feels like I’m playing fast-and-loose by calling Jesus both “God” and “the perfect human being,” it’s because both apply in equal measure to the person of Jesus. The human being Jesus shares the throne of God (Rev 4.3, 5.6), functions as God throughout the book’s narrative, and by the end of the Revelation Jesus explicitly speaks God’s titles as his own (Rev 1.8, 22.13).
- The NIV’s “suffering” in verse 9 is the same word frequently glossed “tribulation” in other translations and even by the NIV in 7.14.