Did John ‘see’ Jesus?

w14-1-70135Revelation has been hugely influential on the history of Christian art. If you are in the habit of visiting church buildings that have stained glass, you won’t have to travel far to find images drawn from the book. But what is striking in the images of Jesus, based on Revelation 1, is that Jesus is portrayed as though John had a vision of the Jesus as he appeared during his earthly ministry, but with a few minor adjustments. I am not convinced that that is the kind of portrayal that we have in Revelation 1. Here is a sample from my forthcoming commentary (for the Tyndale series) on the vision of Jesus.

We encounter here the first ‘other-worldly’ vision of the Apocalypse, with the dense, rich and multi-layered symbolism that characterizes the visions of the body of the book.

At first reading (or hearing), this is a breathless account in which the images tumble out on top of one another in a kaleidoscope of colour and sensation which threaten to overwhelm us just as they overwhelmed John. The introduction to the vision in vv 12 and 13 is a single sentence, as is the central description in verses 14 to 16—the catalogue of characteristics are piled one on top of another with hardly a pause. But like John, we should not be afraid as we approach this text. On second reading, we can see that it is very carefully built together, drawing on imagery from the Old Testament, particularly from Exodus and the visions of Daniel 7 and 10, as well as incorporating elements from pagan deities.

In one sense, John is describing a vision of that which cannot be seen; it is not possible to look on the ‘sun shining in full strength’, as it is more than human sight can bear. But he does share a vision which is refracted through the lens of Old Testament theology, particularly the uniqueness of the God of Israel which Jesus now shares, and pagan worship which should now be directed to Jesus alone.

12. John turns to see the voice, which is literally impossible; the phrase continues John’s interplay between the senses, and introduces a dynamic he returns to at key moments—the relationship what he sees and what he hears. The seven golden lampstands are often depicted in art as separate from one another (probably to enable the figure of Christ to be in their midst) but, in the light of the language about the ‘seven spirits/seven-fold Spirit’ and the importance of Zech 4.2, it is possible that he is referring to a seven-branched menorah similar to the one in front of the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 25.31–40). This would connect John’s understanding with Pauline language of the Christian community as God’s temple (1 Cor 3.16), explain further why John is writing to only seven congregations, and suggest an essential interdependence between them. The symmetry of the menorah would correspond both to the literary symmetry of the messages to the seven congregations, and connect with the seven lamps (spirits) before the throne (Rev 4.5). Gold is consistently the colour and material of spiritual power and majesty, and in particular the heavenly realms. But Revelation’s distinction between the heavenly and the earthly is less about different places, and more about different aspects of reality, allegiance, and way of living.

13. John’s description of the risen Jesus combines elements from the Old Testament depictions of Israel, God, angels and the high priest with imagery from pagan cults. John uses the term someone/thing like 21 times in total, emphasizing the symbolic significance of his descriptions. Here, and in 14.14, the one like a son of man draws on the imagery of Daniel 7.13. The term is originally an idiom for ‘human’, possibly emphasizing human fragility (as in Ezekiel 2.1 and throughout the book), but in Daniel it comes to symbolize the nation of Israel personified, oppressed by the powers, awaiting God’s deliverance and vindication, and exalted to the presence of God himself. It is Jesus’ favourite term of self-designation in the gospels, and the language of ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ depends on Dan 7 and refers to Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God (see on v 7 above).

The robe reaching down to his feet recalls the attire of Aaron and the other priests (the word is the one used in the Greek OT of Ex 28.4 and Zech 3.4) and in art is assumed to be of white linen like that of the high priest (Lev 16.4) which is also worn by angelic figures. He has a belt of gold not round his waist (like the angel in Dan 10.5) nor round his chest (like the angels in Rev 15.6) but around his mastoi, translated ‘breasts’ in Luke 11.27 and 23.29 and rendered as ‘paps’ in the AV. We find similar imagery (which seems equally odd to modern ears) in Is 60.16 ‘You will suck the milk of nations and suck the breasts of kings’ and 1 Peter 2.2 talks of the ‘spiritual milk’ we find in Jesus. Goddesses in the ancient world were often depicted as having a belt around breasts; throughout Revelation Jesus is consistently depicted as taking the place of other spiritual powers and being the true source of the benefits they claim to offer.

14–15. The next three verses form one sentence describing seven aspects of this figure (head/hair, eyes, feet, voice, right hand, mouth and face) each connected with ‘and’. The description of his head and hair as white as snow and wool echoes the description of the Ancient of Days in Dan 7.9; in a culture which valued the wisdom of old age (see Prov 16.31 and 20.29) and the enduring power of ancient beliefs, this evokes veneration and respect. The appearance of his eyes, feet, voice and face echo parts of the description of the angel in Daniel 10.5–6. His eyes of flames of fire suggest divine power of vision and understanding, a common motif in pagan depictions of deities. The word chalkolibanon is otherwise completely unknown, but related to the term chalkos meaning bronze and so usually translated by the same term; it parallels the ‘arms and legs’ of the angel in Dan 10.6, and so suggests a contrast with the vulnerable ‘feet of iron and clay’ of the statue seen earlier in Dan 2.33. The voice that was like a trumpet is now described as like the sound of rushing waters, using the language of Ezek 1.24 for the voice of God.

16. The idea of holding the seven stars has no Old Testament precedent, but borrows imagery from pagan astrology where the star and the planets (‘wandering stars’) determined the fortunes of humanity. The two-edged sword that comes from his mouth is an image of the words that he speaks, borrowing from Is 49.2, and with a parallel in Heb 4.12. Such a sword can (we might say) cut both ways; as we will see in the messages that follow, Christ’s words bring both comfort and salvation as well as warning and judgement. That his face was shining like the sun looks back to Moses on Sinai, whose face shone from being in the presence of God, and forwards to the New Jerusalem which does not need the sun because ‘the glory of God and the lamb’ provide its light (Rev 21.23).

17–18. John’s reaction and Christ’s response remind us of similar reactions of Isaiah (Is 6.5), Ezekiel (Ezek 1.28) and particularly Daniel (Dan 10.7–10) to their encounters with God. It is Christ’s right hand, that holds the stars, which reaches out to John, and assures him in terms that identify Jesus with God. The first and the last comes from Is 44.6 where it denotes the uniqueness of God; it parallels the earlier ‘Alpha and Omega’ and the two phrases converge in 21.6 and 22.13 as description of God and Jesus. The language of living…for ever and the contrast with death also borrows Old Testament terms describing God’s uniqueness, here from Deut 32.39–40, expressed with reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection. ‘Christ once raised from the dead dies no more; death has no more dominion over him’ (Romans 6.9). This is re-expressed as Jesus having the keys to death and Hades, language stolen from the magical cult of Hekate, the goddess of death and the underworld.

19. The reiteration of the command to write (which first caught John’s attention in v 11) has sometimes been taken as an interpretative key to the book, referring to past, present and future. But it is more convincing to understanding the second and third as explanatory of what John sees—both how things are now and how they will be in the future of God’s kingdom come to earth. The mystery is perhaps better translated as ‘secret’, since it is now disclosed and passed on. The angels of the churches are unlikely to be human messengers, despite their role in receiving the messages that follow, since angels are so prominent in Revelation and are consistently heavenly. Neither should they be taken as standing for the ‘spirit’ of the churches in terms of their character. The most likely background is that of Daniel, where angels represent the earthly reality of nations and peoples in the heavenly realms (Dan 10.12, 12.1) so Jesus holding the star/angel signifies his hold on the church communities themselves.

As we read through Revelation, we will find there are features of the text which could not be evident from a cursory reading or hearing, but only become evident with careful study. This includes the way that John draws on a wide range of ideas from the Old Testament and from the surrounding culture (as well as careful structuring of what he writes) and integrates the different elements together.

In much Christian art drawing on this opening chapter, the figure of Christ is depicted as a more-or-less human being with some minor modifications, typically the sword coming from his mouth and stars held in his right hand. But despite being of ‘one like a son of man’, what we have here is not a literal description of a vision of human person, but a composite symbolic picture, telling us key theological truths about the person of Jesus.

Part of this picture is of Jesus as High Priest, the one who mediates for us before God (compare Hebrews 4.14), and this idea is reinforced by the absence of anyone resembling a priest in the visions of worship in chapters 4 and 5. Secondly, much of his appearance makes him resemble the Ancient of Days, God himself on his throne; he is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1.15) and the ‘exact representation of his being’ (Heb 1.3). Thirdly, he resembles an angel, a messenger from God, the one who communicates to us through his life, words and actions the revelation of God that we need to hear. Fourthly, he displaces all counterfeits that we might find in other religions; it is he, and no other, who nourishes us and holds the keys to the most vital questions of life and death. While human empires rise and fall, his kingdom is everlasting for he is trustworthy and true. It is his words which cut through to the truth, confirming what is right and refuting what is false. The light of his countenance offers us the light of life.

This multi-sensory and overwhelming picture is at one level incomprehensible but is given to communicate the reality of Jesus. He is at the same time unapproachable—how can we look on the sun or come close to bronze as it glows in the furnace without being consumed ourselves?—and yet he comes close to John to reassure him and is present amongst his people as he walks in the midst of the lampstands.

There is surely nowhere else in the New Testament such a comprehensive and exalted depiction of Jesus as one with the Father.

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5 thoughts on “Did John ‘see’ Jesus?”

  1. Ian,
    Sorry if this is slightly off topic but do you know any references that connect the imagery of Revelation with contemporary pagan motifs and symbols at the time the book was written?

  2. This looks as though it will be an interesting and helpful commentary. One comment on the impossibility of seeing the voice: there is a condition called synesthesia where people experience one sense as another – so they ‘see’ sounds as colours, or smell colours. Not saying that’s what was happening here, but it’s not completely impossible.

    • Thanks, Mandy. Yes, I am very aware of synaethesia because of my work on metaphor. In some ways the two are opposed to one another–you can only understand a metaphor if you first see the differences between two things and the literal impossibility of them being identified. It is this difference/impossibility which gives rise to what Ricoeur calls the ‘semantic impertinence’ of the metaphor.

  3. Hi Ian

    I have been reading this section of your commentary today while looking at a Rev 1.

    I found it very helpful. A couple of areas I may demur. I’m not so sure the lampstand is a menorah. In the imagery Jesus walks in the midst of them. Further, I don’t think a menorah captures the independence of each church, but ecclesiology comes into play here.

    I’m not entirely convinced that the robes are priestly. To be sure Christ is high Priest to his people. Here however he functions more as a judge. There is little evidence of grace in the description of Christ. Here it seems judgement is beginning at the house of God. Later of course he will judge the nations.

    Lastly, I read today that the swords in Rev 1 and in Hebs 4 are different. The first appears to have been a long sword to kill (all that was false in the churches). In Hebs four it is apparently a short sword. Iii not sure whether drawing your attention to things like that is helpful (assuming it’s correct) or not.


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