2. The Things Past (Rev 1:9-20)
Revelation can obviously be outlined or divided in a number of ways, but most commentators see 1:19 as a divinely-given outline. Walvoord writes:
The advantage of this outline is that it deals in a natural way with the material rather than seizing on incidentals as some expositors have done or avoiding any outline at all, as it true of other expositors. It is not too much to claim that this outline is the only one which allows the book to speak for itself without artificial manipulation …25
The point is that this God-given outline supports and demonstrates the futuristic approach of the book. Revelation 1:19 becomes a key to how we should interpret the book. Verse nineteen gives a three-part division: Following the prologue or introduction, we have what John calls “the things which you have seen,” i.e., the things past. This is followed by “the things which are,” the things present, and then “the things which will take place after these things,” the things future. Based on this breakdown, Revelation falls into the following three divisions:
(1) The things past are the things which John had seen from verse 9-19 including verse 20 which is an explanation of part of this vision, the vision of the glorified Christ (1:9-20).
(2) The things present are “the things which are.” This deals with the messages to the seven churches and the state of the church or the church age (2:1-3:22).
(3) The things future refer to “the things which shall take place after these things.” This takes us the reader into the future or things to come, and deals with the things that will occur after the church: the tribulation, the millennium, and the eternal state (4:1-22:21).
If one follows the plain, literal or normal principle of interpretation he concludes that most of the book is yet in the future. No judgments in history have ever equaled those described in chapters 6, 8, 9, and 16. The resurrections and judgment described in chapter 20 have not yet occurred. There has been no visible return of Christ as portrayed in chapter 19.26
Circumstances of the Vision
9 I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see, 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.”
In verses 9-11 John provides us with those facts which are pertinent to the nature of the book and how John came to write it.
The Receiver of the Vision (9a)
“I John, your brother and fellow partaker in the …” John, of course, was well known among the churches of Asia Minor. He refers to himself as simply John in 1:1 and 1:4, but twice he says, “I John” (1:9; 22:8) which seems to add emphasis for the purpose of authenticating his witness.
In his epistles John described himself as an elder (2 John 1; 3 John 1), but here he simply calls himself “a brother and fellow partaker …”
“Brother” is the Greek adelfos, a word often used as a technical term for believers in Christ because we are all born again into God’s family. It stresses the close relationship we all have regardless of our position or gifts in the church or in society. We are still brothers under the authority and care of the Father and our older Brother, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Fellow partaker” is the Greek sunkoinwnos, “to share jointly, to have in common with others.” It reminds us of the doctrine of koinwnia or fellowship and how we, as believers in Christ, share many things in common—a common hope, common blessings, common sufferings, and common responsibilities.
“In Jesus” is the uniting factor and the basis of our brotherhood or fellowship (1 Cor. 1:9). It calls to mind our union or position in Christ or the co-identification that we share together in Him. Note, three things are mentioned that he had in common with the seven churches.
First, John speaks of himself as “a fellow partaker in tribulation.” “Tribulation” is the Greek qlipsis from qlibw, “to crush, press hard.” Qlipsis means “trouble, affliction, distress.” The Greek has the article with the word “tribulation,” but it goes with all three nouns linking them together as three related things that often come simultaneously to believers in Christ. Literally, “the affliction, kingdom, and endurance in Jesus.” It does not refer to “the tribulation” to come as though it had already begun. Specifically, “tribulation” in this verse refers to the persecutions and distress that John was facing on the isle of Patmos and that much of the church was experiencing for their faith in Jesus Christ because of the persecutions of the Roman emperor, Domitian.
Second, John then spoke of a “kingdom”: Though we may experience tribulation, we also share in a kingdom that enables us to become overcomers in affliction. This refers to Christ’s kingdom and rule. There are three aspects of this in which all believers in Christ share:
(1) There is the present mystery form, the kingdom of God within you which includes God’s sovereign provision, control, and deliverance: Compare Col. 1:12-13 with the mystery parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 which describes the present mystery form between Christ’s first and second comings.
(2) The predicted millennial reign on earth in which all believers will take part with varying degrees of responsibility and rewards depending on their faithfulness to walk with the Lord (cf. Rom. 8:17; 1 Cor. 3:12f; Rev. 2:26; 3:12, 21; 20:4).
(3) The eternal form of the kingdom, the eternal state (Rev. 22:1-22:5).
However, not only do we share in tribulation, but as sharers in Christ’s kingdom and rule, we can also share in the endurance that comes to us in Christ. So …
Third, John referred to “perseverance” as further common thing we share in Jesus. This is %upomonh from %upo, “under” and monh, “to abide.” It means endurance, the ability to abide under pressure regardless of the intensity or length of time. This is a joint ability that all believers have in Christ if they will walk in faith and keep their eyes on the Savior (cf. Col. 1:9; Heb. 12:1-2). This is especially true when we fix our gaze on the future glory and the blessings to come (cf. the close of each message to the seven churches).
The Place of the Vision (9b)
John was on an island called “Patmos.” Patmos was a small, bleak, and rocky island about ten miles long and six miles wide. It was a place where prisoners and undesirables were banished and forced to work in the mines. According to early church fathers like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius, John was sent here and forced to work in the mines though way up in years. This points to the source of his affliction and endurance as a partaker of Christ’s rule and reign in his life.
“Because of the Word of God” points us to the cause or reason for John’s banishment as an undesirable—his unswerving faithfulness to proclaim the Word and share Jesus Christ with men. Please note, though men could circumscribe his human activities, they could not bind the Spirit of God nor the testimony of Jesus Christ nor the power of the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:9).
Moses wrote the Pentateuch in the wilderness. David wrote many psalms while being pursued by Saul. Isaiah lived in difficult days and died a martyr’s death. Ezekiel wrote in exile. Jeremiah’s life was one of trial and persecution. Peter wrote his two letters shortly before martyrdom. Thus in the will of God the final written revelation was given to John while suffering for Christ and the gospel.27
The Spiritual Circumstances (10-11)
“And I was in the Spirit.” The tense, the verb used, and the fact of this statement pointing us to the reason for the visions of this book all suggests this refers to something unusual instead of the normal experience of the Spirit controlled walk.
Explanation: First, such visions as depicted in this book are never stated to be one of the products or promises of the Spirit filled walk (Gal. 5:22f). Rather, it refers to a state where God could supernaturally reveal the special contents of this book. Second, the verb here can be classified as an ingressive aorist describing an entrance into a condition. The verb is ginomai, “to come to be, become.” Literally, “I came to be in the Spirit.” It refers to an entrance into an unusual state. “Such was the experience of Ezekiel (Ezek. 2:2; 3:12, 14; etc.), Peter (Acts 10:10-11; 11:5), and Paul (Acts 22:17-18).”28
The Time of the Vision
“On the Lord’s day” is taken by interpreters in two different ways: (a) the Lord’s day as the first day of the week or Sunday, or (b) as a reference to the Day of the Lord, the Tribulation.
Explanation: “Lord” is the Greek kuriakos, an adjective meaning “belonging to the Lord, lordian, imperial.” And though the Day of the Lord in other places is always written differently (%hmera kuriou), due to the unique emphasis of this book, a number of writers as Walvoord, Ryrie, and Pentecost and others believe this word does not refer to Sunday, but rather to the Day of the Lord of the Old Testament, an extended period of time when God will deal in judgment and sovereign rule over the earth.29
John, through this spiritual state, was projected into the Day of the Lord, that imperial day and time when the Lord would return in His kingly glory and take the reins of earthly government via the events and conditions of chapters 4-22. Support for this is as follows:
(1) Unless this is the exception, the expression, “the Lord’s day,” as a reference to Sunday is nowhere else used in the Bible. This word, kuriakos is used only here and in 1 Cor. 11:20 where it is used of the Lord’s supper, but not a day. Outside the New Testament it meant “imperial.”
(2) The day that the early church regularly met, the day of Christ’s resurrection, was consistently called “the first day of the week,” and never “the Lord’s day” (cf. Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1,19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).
(3) Further, Walvoord adds, “it is questionable in any case whether the amazing revelation given in the entire book could have been conveyed to John in one twenty-four-hour day, and it is more probable that it consisted of a series of revelations.”30
(4) “And I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet” calls attention to the awesome nature of what John was about to see, a vision of the glorified Christ. Trumpets are used in the Bible to announce important occasions and to assemble God’s people for some kind of preparation. The important occasion here is the vision of Christ which is preparatory to all that follows.
The Command to Record the Vision
“Write in a book what you see” is one of twelve times John was told to write in the book what he saw. This indicates John was to write after seeing each vision. In 10:4, John was told not to write, but seal up what was spoken.
“And send it to the seven churches” shows us again that God’s intends for the church to have and know the contents of the book of Revelation. The entire book along with the individual messages were to be written for and sent to the seven churches.
Content of the Vision
12 And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13 and in the middle of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His breast with a golden girdle. 14 And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire; 15 and His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 And in His right hand He held seven stars; and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
The Position of the Lord (12-13a)
Having turned to see the voice, a figure for the one who was speaking to John, he was then given and recorded the vision of the seven golden lampstands and the glorified Christ seen in the very center of the vision. The Position of the Lord in the middle of the seven golden lampstands (1:12-13a), is of course, the most striking feature of this vision. It draws our attention not only to His glorious appearance, but to the central place He has and deserves in the life of the church.
The meaning of the seven golden lampstands with Christ in the center:
The vision is for the seven churches of Asia Minor (vs. 20) who represent the church at large throughout the ages. Its truth is for our comfort, encouragement, challenge, and instruction.
In the Old Testament, the lampstands of the tabernacle and the temple consisted of a seven-branched lampstand, a single stand with one center lamp and three on each side. Here, however, we have seven separate lampstands arranged in a circle with Christ standing in the center.
The lampstands are made of gold, a symbol of the deity of Christ who gives beauty to the church when it exhibits His character. He is the reason for our value. In ourselves, we are only clay vessels.
The lampstands are filled with olive oil, a symbol of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and they are responsible to give out light, their principle function, in the power of the indwelling Spirit.
But the key note is the circle of lamps with Christ in the center pointing emphatically to the centrality and priority of Christ. He is the center, the hub, and the heart of the church at large and of each individual local church. Note that the Lord has a direct relationship with each church. He is in our midst to minister to us, to search us, and to enable us and we are in the world to give off light to point men to Christ.
The Description of the Lord (13b-16)
The description which follows symbolically represents the attributes and traits of Christ which demonstrate His relationship to the events of the book of Revelation and His qualifications to carry out and accomplish all that will follow. But before the description of His glory or deity begins, note how He is defined: as “one like a son of man.” This title points to his true humanity and Messianic character. Though portrayed in all the glory of His deity in the similes that follow, He is still the Son of Man, one made like His brethren that He might be a faithful high priest and reclaim what Adam lost in the fall (cf. Heb. 2:9f). Note also, as the Son of Man, He is seen “clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His breast with a golden girdle.”
This vision is introductory to chapters 2 and 3, the letters to the churches, and the events that follow dealing with the judgments of the Tribulation. This portrays Him in His role as the Son of Man who is also a priest and judge. His role as priest and judge is a somber and significant note as He stands in the midst of the seven churches because it calls our attention to just exactly who He is.
(1) His head and hair (14a)— “were white like wool, like snow.” This corresponds and is designed to remind us of the vision in Daniel of “the Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:9). This represents (a) His eternal wisdom, the wisdom of age as the one whose “goings forth are from old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2), and (b) His complete purity or holiness symbolized in the white wool and snow.
(2) His eyes (14b)— “were like a flame of fire.” This speaks of His penetrating vision, searching righteousness, and judgment into the affairs of the church and mankind as a whole. Perhaps there is in this a connection with the Bema, the judgment seat of Christ for believers, and the Great White Throne Judgment (GWTJ) for unbelievers. The fire which will try men’s works at the Bema and prove the condition of their heart at the GWTJ will be the penetrating and holy gaze of Christ (1 Cor. 3:12f; 2 Cor. 5:10,11; Rev. 20:11-12 and Rom. 3:23; 4:2).
(3) His feet (15a)— “were like burnished bronze.” Literally, the Greek says, “his feet like fine brass (or refined bronze) as when it has been burned (refined—the perfect tense of completed action) in the furnace or oven.” “The idea may be ‘glowing’ and it would indicate that the metal is not only the finest and brightest, but it is aglow as if still in the crucible.”31
In Scripture both brass and fire stand for divine judgment as seen in the Old Testament types of the brazen altar and other items of brass used in connection with sacrifice for sin (Ex. 38:30).32
Christ is able to stand in the midst of the church as priest and judge and will be able to execute the world wide judgments that follow on the basis of the divine judgments He Himself endured through His life and sufferings on earth as the Lamb of God without spot or blemish.
(4) His voice (15c)— “was like the sound of many waters.” His voice as John heard it was like a mighty waterfall. As the water of Niagara Falls is so loud that it silences all voices around, so this portrays Jesus Christ as the absolute voice of authority to which all human authority must bow.
(5) His right hand (16a)— “And in His right hand He held seven stars.” Verse 20 will explain the mystery of the seven stars in the right hand of the Savior. For now, it is enough to recognize that the right hand is a symbol of strength, power, and honor. The stars, the angels or messengers, are in a place of honor, but they are also under His authority, strength and protection.
(6) His sword (1:16b)— “and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” Sword is mentioned a total of nine times in Revelation. Here, it is the Greek r%omfaia, mentioned five times in Revelation. Another Greek word for sword, makaira, the short Roman two-edged sword, is mentioned four times.
The r%omfaia was the long and heavy broad sword of the Thracians and other barbarous nations who often marched as God’s instruments of judgment over one country after another. It symbolizes the irresistible authority and devastating force of our Lord’s judgment (cf. 19:15). Hebrews 4:12 speaks of the Word of God as “quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword.” In Hebrews 4:12, however, the Greek word is macaira which speaks of the penetrating power of God’s Word to uncover our inner lives and to get to the root of our needs.
However, it is this same word which, proceeding out of His mouth, will be the basis of Christ’s judgment of men (cf. John 12:48). So, this may also be in view since this sword comes out of the mouth of Christ. It is thus, an instrument of judgment, of war, of death and destruction.
(7) His countenance or face (16c)— “and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.” This is undoubtedly a reference or symbol of the brilliance of the divine glory of Christ portraying His holiness and deity. It was this that blinded Paul on the Damascus road and which here caused John to fall at Christ’s feet as a dead man (vs. 17). Here is the Sun shining in the midst of the church. He and He alone is our source of light and righteousness. Paul describes us as heavenly luminaries in Philippians 2:15. The Greek word there is fwsthr which can refer to the sun, but also to the moon or planets that get their light from their sun. He is to us what our sun is to the moon. He is our light, our holiness, and our means of becoming light to the world. Do we take His holiness for granted or do we fall prostrate before Him in humble submission and adoration? This naturally brings us to our next point:
Consequences of the Vision
17 And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. 19 Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
The Word of Comfort (17-18)
On several occasions when men have had a glimpse of the glory of God, they rightly fell on their face in humble submission and reverence or responded in some way that showed the effect on man the creature when faced with the awesomeness of the Creator’s glory. But when they did this, God spoke or touched them or both (cf. Dan. 10:8-10, 15-16; Matt. 17:6-7). And so here, the Lord Jesus placed His right hand upon John and spoke words of comfort.
Why did the Lord do this? Because the sovereignty and holiness of God that becomes terror and judgment to the unbelieving world becomes a source of comfort and protection to the believer in Christ because He stands cleansed and purified in the merit and love of Christ (Isa. 6:1-8).
The basis for having no fear— “I am the first and the last.” This is similar to 1:8 and both of these statements are applied to Christ later in the book (21:6; 22:13; 2:8). But we need to ask why does the Lord describe Himself as the first and the last? A couple of Old Testament passages point us to the meaning and significance of this.
Isa. 41:4, 48:12-13 “Who has performed and accomplished it, Calling forth the generations from the beginning? ‘I, the Lord, am the first, and with the last. I am He.’”… 12 “Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, I am also the last. 13 Surely My hand founded the earth, And My right hand spread out the heavens; When I call to them, they stand together.”
By the context we can see that this description stands for God’s independent, self-existence, and self-sufficiency as the transcendent and sovereign God of the universe. He stands outside and independent of all creation. This same designation is used in Revelation 2:8 to comfort a church in affliction because it stands for Christ’s deity and sovereignty over all our affairs. Christ, our Savior and Lord, is God, the origin and goal, the self-existent one who sees the beginning from the end, in whom all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge abide, and who is in total control.
“And the living One; and I became dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” In these words we see His assurance of eternal life and resurrection. He is the one who, as the eternal God, became man and died, but who conquered death by His death for sin and by His resurrection.
“And I have the keys of death and of Hades.” As the one who conquered death, He has the keys of death and Hades. “Keys” means authority and power. In Scripture a key is a sign of authority and power. While going through seminary in Dallas, Texas, I worked in the Dallas Juvenile Detention Home and carried a large key that was attached to my belt with a chain that was used to unlock and lock juvenile inmates. It was a sign of authority. So, the Lord Jesus has control over both death and hades. What does this mean?
(1) This means He is the Lord over physical death which terminates life in this world. By His death for sin and His resurrection, Christ has wrenched from Satan’s hands any authority the devil had over death (cf. Heb. 2:14-15). This means “no man can die apart from divine permission even though afflicted by Satan and in trial or trouble”33 (cf. Ps. 68:19-20).
(2) He is the sovereign over hell or life after death. “Hell” (KJV) and “Hades” (NASB) is the Greek %ades. The Greek word %ades, commonly translated “hell,” refers to the intermediate state and is to be distinguished from the lake of fire or Gehenna, which refers to the eternal state. To avoid confusion it is better to transliterate the word %ades (as does the NASB) and to use the word “hell” as referring to the eternal state only.34
As the one who has the keys over death and hades, Christ is sovereign over death in this life and over the life to come.
Please refer to the Glossary in Appendix 7 for definitions of hell and related terms.
The Word of Command (19-20)
Now the apostle is commanded to write the things which he had seen and would see in the visions to follow. As pointed out previously, this gives us God’s outline for the book and shows us we should have a futuristic approach to the great majority of the book of Revelation.
Verse 20 explains the mystery of the seven golden lampstands and seven stars. In Scripture, “mystery” refers to what was before unknown but is then revealed by revelation from God. It is not something mysterious, but previously unknown. The lampstands are the churches portraying their function and purpose in the world and the stars are the angels or messengers of the seven churches.
But, how do we take the word “angels”? “Angels” is the Greek angelos which means “messenger.” In scripture, it is used of both men (Luke 7:27; 9:52; Jam. 2:25) and angelic beings. So, is this a reference to angelic beings who function somewhat like guardian angels? Or do we take this as a reference to human messengers who either carry the message of these letters or who are leaders of the seven churches? Much more will be said on this in the next chapter, but Walvoord has a good summary:
It is possible that these messengers had come actually to the Isle of Patmos, but it is more probable that they refer to the leaders in these churches to whom the messages primarily are addressed. The spiritual significance is that these angels are messengers who are responsible for the spiritual welfare of these seven churches and are in the right hand of the Son of Man, indicating possession, protection, and sovereign control. As the churches were to emit light as a lampstand, the leaders of the churches were to project light as stars.35
31 Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, edited by Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1980, p. 814 quoting Henry Barclay Swete in The Apocalypse of St. John, Macmillan, London, 1907.