John and His Vision of the Risen Jesus—Revelation 1:9-20

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 6

By Reta Halteman Finger

Bust of Domitian
Bust of Roman Emperor Domitian. Antique head, body added in the 18th century. Musée du Louvre (Ma 1264), Paris. Formerly in the Albani Collection in Rome. Photo by sailko, via Wikimedia.

Who was the John who wrote about his visions on the island of Patmos, the first of which he describes in Revelation 1:9-20? Was he, as centuries of tradition have declared, the disciple of Jesus who was later called an apostle—as well as author of the Fourth Gospel? Both traditions are highly unlikely. The John who wrote Revelation never says or implies that he was a disciple of the earthly Jesus. Even if John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel (which I strongly doubt and have discussed elsewhere), the writing style and the Greek grammar are very different from Revelation. John was a very common name at that time, at least among Jews. More likely, this John was native to Asia Minor and a well-known pastor among the seven churches to whom he writes. He thus needs no identifying title. He is their “brother” (1:9) sharing in their present persecution. John is exiled on Patmos probably because of his allegiance to Jesus rather than to the Roman emperor.  (Exile to an island off the coast of Asia Minor was not an uncommon punishment for those the government considered troublemakers.)

When did John write Revelation?

These visions emerge from a period when the Jesus Movement was perceived as some kind of threat to the Roman Empire. Although Nero (54-68 CE) tortured and executed Christians for supposedly burning the city of Rome, that had nothing to do with worship, which is the theme of John’s visions. Generally, Rome did not care how many religions their subjects observed, so long as they honored the emperor and brought offerings to the temples of Roman deities. Jews, however, had been granted immunity even from this.

At first, Christians had been considered a sect within Judaism, but by late first century it was clear that they were becoming a separate religion, which included many non-Jews as well. Things got worse during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE). As he grew increasingly arrogant later in his reign, Domitian tried to compel his subjects to worship him as “our lord and god.”  Now believers had a dangerous choice to make. To whom would they give allegiance?

In the centuries before Christians built basilicas, they met for worship and instruction in homes—small groups of perhaps 20-30 believers. Reading between the lines, we can assume more than one house church in each of the cities to whom the letters in Revelation 2–3 were addressed. Already in Paul’s day some 40 years earlier, Rome had at least five house churches (Romans 16:1-16), and Corinth probably as many (1 Corinthians 1:10-16). 

Who is “Lord and God”?

Before his exile to Patmos, Brother John possibly functioned as an itinerant pastor and preacher who knew the strengths and weaknesses of these various house churches, and who encouraged them to hold on and resist Domitian’s orders. Now he is separated from them, bereft of face-to-face communication, perhaps forever.

At this moment, John reports being “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10)—the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead. He knows Christians in the seven cities are quietly gathering at the same time to worship the risen Jesus. While in this trance, or “altered state of consciousness,” John hears “a loud voice like a trumpet” telling him to write down what he sees and send this message to the seven churches of Asia Minor (1:10-11). 

As John turns to see who is speaking, a figure appears, surrounded by seven golden lampstands (1:12). It is now clear, if it wasn’t before, that John is deeply immersed in his Hebrew scriptures, and thus is most likely Jewish. He describes the figure by using language directly from the second-century BCE book of Daniel (7:13; 10:5-6; 7:9), as well as from the apocalyptic material in Ezekiel (1:24; 43:2) and the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras (6:17.) The figure is, according to Daniel, the Son of Man—a Hebraic term for “human being.” John falls at his feet as though dead, but he is raised up by this “Human One,” who turns out to be Jesus:  “I am… the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever” (Rev. 1:17-18).

It means what it means

In the last lesson, I noted that “Revelation does not mean what it says; it means what it means.” Thus a literal picture of John’s vision of Jesus will be neither inspiring nor accurate:  an old man with white woolly hair and a big sword hanging out of his mouth! Instead, each aspect of the figure symbolizes something important about him. The biblical scholar Bruce Metzger unlocks these symbols for us in his book, Breaking the Code.* For example:

  • The lampstands are the churches (1:20). Jesus is “in the midst of the lampstands” (1:13), supporting them in their time of trial and suffering.
  • The seven stars in Jesus’s right hand are the “angels” of the seven churches (1:20).
  • The robe and golden sash identify Jesus as King (1:13).
  • Hair like white wool does not mean Jesus is old, but that he resembles God as the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9 (1:14).
  • Eyes like fire (1:14) look into our innermost selves.
  • “Feet like burnished bronze” (1:15) represent strength and stability.
  • The sword from his mouth symbolizes judgment (1:16).
  • Jesus’s face is like “the sun shining with full force”—what Metzger calls “a magnificent climax to an exalted vision!” (p. 27).

The next lesson will begin looking at the letters Jesus dictated to John for each of his seven churches in Asia Minor.

Questions for discussion or reflection

  1. How many symbols from Revelation 1 did you interpret?
  2. What is symbolic about the number of churches?
  3. Why does John interpret some symbols, but not others?
  4. It is easy to see that worship of the Roman emperor was idolatry. What current examples of idols keep us from full allegiance to Jesus? Is patriotism ever idolatrous?

 

*Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

 

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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