When we talk about how Jesus looked, for most of us we immediately think about his physical appearance as a human, and there are some interesting things to reflect on here. When we think about the significance of Jesus—who he is for us, who he is in relation to our understanding of God, and what he has done—we most often, encouraged by the language of Paul, reach for theological terms that can, for many, seem rather abstract.
One of the striking dynamics of the Book of the Revelation is that it is a relentlessly visual text. Even though much of what John records is in fact things he hears rather than things he sees (by my counting from the English text, at least 42% of the book is ‘audition’ rather then vision) even in the auditory material the language is powerfully metaphorical and visual. For example, the messages to the seven assemblies are a record of what John hears the risen Christ say to his followers in each of the seven cities in turn, yet includes some notable ‘images’, including Jesus standing at the door of someone’s life, and knocking, waiting to come in (Rev 3.20).
(The technical term for this kind of writing, which was well known in the first century, is ekphrasis. The aim is usually to describe a work of art in such a way as to evoke the emotional response in the reader that they would feel were they actually viewing the work of art for themselves. This appears to be very similar to what John is doing in his vision/audition report, whether or not we think he literally ‘saw’ or ‘heard’ the material he describes—and it reminds us that Revelation evokes strong emotions in the reader or hearer.)
When we look at the quite short and condensed visual description in Rev 1.12–16, these are the things that we find:
|Text in Rev 1||Source||Significance in source||Archetypal significance|
|one like a son of man||Dan 7.13||the personified people of God, rescued from oppression and exalted to God||the frailty of a human figure|
|robe reached down to his feet||Ex 28.4, Zech 3.4||the clothing of a high priest||stateliness and stature|
|golden sash…||Dan 10.5 (compare Rev 15.6)||dress of an angel||wealth and power|
|…around his breasts||Images of female goddesses, including Artemis and Hekate||fertility, provision and nourishment||(compare Is 60.16 and 1 Peter 2.2)|
|hair white as wool and as snow||Dan 7.9||The Ancient of Days on his throne||age, seniority, wisdom, respect|
|eyes like blazing fire||Dan 10.6|
|feature of the angel||power of vision and understanding|
|feet of fiery bronze||Dan 10.6||feature of the angel (compare Rev 10.1)||immovability (contrast with the feet of clay in Dan 2.33)|
|voice like many waters||Ezek 1.24, Dan 10.6||voice similar to the angel, but actually the voice of God||powerful and authoritative proclamation|
|holds seven stars in his right hand||pagan astrology||governing destiny and fortune||cosmic power|
|two-edged sword from his mouth||Isa 49.2||the word of God given to his prophetic servant||powerful speech|
|face like the brightest sun||Ex 34.29 (compare Dan 10.6)||Moses’ (the angel’s) face after being in the presence of God and talking face to face||overwhelming power and majesty, beyond human perception|
There are several things immediately to notice about this description.
First, it is very dense and highly compressed. Every term is laden with theological freight and bears some careful reflection. So, even though John expected his prophetic biblical visionary letter to be read by a lector to the gathered people (Rev 1.3), he appears also to have expected it to be read and studied carefully—hence the warning about not altering a single word in Rev 22.18–19.
Secondly, even without understanding any of the background, the ordinary reader cannot help but being impressed with this splendid depiction. Although each idea expressed has a particular significance either in the context of the canon of scripture, or first century culture, or both, they all also draw on things of archetypal significance. So we can gain a sense of this overwhelming vision, and John is perhaps telling us his response (of falling down in awe, Rev 1.17) in the expectation that we might feel something similar.
Thirdly, the picture is a complex composite, and the different elements might speak particularly to people in different contexts who need to be reminded of different aspects of who Jesus is. We are offered a worked example of this, as it were, in the introductions to each of the seven messages that follow in chapters 2 and 3, where the exalted Jesus usually introduces himself by drawing on one or two aspects John’s description of him in these verses. We need to understand all that is said about Jesus—but in different times and different contexts, certain truths might be more relevant and therefore need to be more prominent in our thinking than others.
Fourthly, this complex composite picture tells us four major things about Jesus, according to the use John makes of his various sources (of ideas—not written source documents) in composing his vision report.
- Jesus is the presence of God himself (white hair, eyes like fire, voice as rushing waters). The shared identity between God and Jesus is confirmed in Jesus’ initial speech to John, where he calls himself the ‘first and last’ (Rev 1.17), corresponding to God’s earlier claim to be the ‘alpha and the O[mega]’ in Rev 1.8, and as the ‘living one’ which corresponds to the description of God first as ‘the one who is’ in Rev 1.4, emphasising that he is living and active.
- Jesus is the messenger of God (linen robe, golden sash, bronze feet, voice). Not only does Jesus look like the angel who comes to Daniel in Dan 10.5–6, but this depiction also makes him look like the angels with the seven bowls of God’s final judgement in Rev 15.6, though with some important differences. That Jesus here is not actually an angel, and should be treated differently, is made clear in John’s reaction. He falls down before him and, though Jesus places his right hand on him, he does not rebuke him for his awe and reverence expressed by this action. In complete contrast, John is tempted to react in the same way to the speaking angel in Rev 19.10, and the angel who showed him the New Jerusalem in Rev 22.8, and he is sharply rebuked in almost identical words.
- Jesus is the high priest (robe) amongst the priestly people of God (1.6). Jesus is the one mediating between God and his people, and this helps us understand why there are no priests before God in the visions of heavenly worship (as we might expect, since heaven appears to replicate the earthly temple). The other half of the explanation is that, throughout Revelation, the original vision of the Old Testament, that all the people of God would exercise a priestly ministry, is restored. (A distinct Levitical priesthood was only introduced after the failure of the people to remain faithful to God in the episode with the Golden Calf in Exodus 32). In the final vision of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is a perfect cube, so represents the Holy of Holies; it covers the whole known world, and God’s people do priestly duty (‘serve God’) there and have the name of God on their forehead just as the High Priest did (Rev 22.3–4)
- Jesus takes the place of pagan deities. Like the pagan goddesses Artemis and Hekate, Jesus has breasts which nourish and provide for his people; like Hekate he ‘holds the keys to Death and Hades’ (Rev 1.18); also like Hekate he is ‘coming quickly’ (mentioned four times in the text); and like many deities he is said to be ‘holding the stars’ in his right hand.
It is also worth noticing that, from the very beginning, just as Jesus is both distinct from but identified with God, so the same is done with the Spirit. John is ‘in the Spirit’ when he hears he voice of Jesus, and the what the voice of Jesus speaks comprises ‘what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies’ (at the end of each message). Here we have the narrative and visionary basis for an understanding of God as Trinity.
One basic objection to this image described by John is whether someone who knew Jesus as a human being could offer such a strange and theological description. But it is worth noting that the theological content is close to things we read elsewhere in the NT. For example,Paul folds Jesus into the identity of God in incorporating him into the Shema in 1 Cor 8.4–6, as well as describing him as the ‘Passover, sacrificed for us’ in 1 Cor 5.7. Besides, the description of Jesus at the Transfiguration has some close correspondences with this picture in Rev 1.
And it is worth remembering that the poetic descriptions that lovers make of each other often strays into quite radical poetic metaphors. Just read the Song of Songs—and if you are unconvinced of the radical nature of the imagery, do an internet search for ‘literal woman of the Song of Songs’! What you will find shows how difficult it is to actual draw a picture of Jesus as described by John here. His main concern is that we understand this text as a theological more than a visual description.
How might it reshape your own vision of who Jesus is for you?
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?