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12 And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
And here we finally begin the visual imagery. The candlesticks are lampstands and are part of the furnishings of the temple (see Exodus 25:31-37), so we can conclude that he is in a temple or temple-like setting. The entire point of a temple is to create a ritual enactment of entering the presence of God.
This verse also has some interesting associations with Zechariah 4: in that chapter, Zechariah sees seven golden candlesticks (actually one with seven branches; see verse 2) and has no clue what it represents (hey–at least you aren’t alone . . .) but the angel explains to him (verses 9-10) that it is in some sense a symbol for God’s omniscience. So when John turns to see the voice and instead of seeing a person sees seven golden candlesticks, he is seeing a symbol for God’s omniscience, which is another way of saying that the voice belongs to an omniscient being. There will be a little more about the candlesticks at the end of this chapter (see verse 20 below). The change from one lamp in Zechariah to seven here implies that Israel’s role now belongs to the entire earth.
13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
The language here (Son of man) is straight out of Daniel 7:13. As is frequently the case with Revelation, the allusion calls the audience’s attention to a nearby verse in the source that has a very pointed political message; in this case, Daniel 7:14 is a strong statement of Christ’s dominion that would have been a politically dangerous statement for a Christian to make.
The clothing is that of the high priest (see Exodus 39:29); Christ is the great high priest here. The clothing is also evocative of the person in the vision that Daniel has in Daniel 10:5, where the message is “Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days: for yet the vision is for many days.” So this adds to our understanding of what is about to happen in Revelation.
Because v20 will identify the candlesticks as the churches, the image here is of Christ standing “in the midst” (modern English: “in the middle of”) the churches. As one scholar said, “part of Christ’s priestly role is to tend to the lampstands.” This would have been a comforting image.
14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
A clearer way to translate would be “his head, that is, his hairs. . .”
The image here is from Daniel 7:9 and 10:6, further associating John’s visionary experience with Daniel’s. Remember that the audience would have been surrounded by statues of Roman gods, but it is highly unlikely at this point that many (any?) could have afforded depictions of Jesus Christ. This visual image would have helped these young Christians to understand the reality and power of their Savior, while at the same time reminding them that Jesus came in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament.
15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
The “brass” is bronze. “Many” could be translated as “rushing.” The final phrase of this verse comes from Ezekiel 43:2, where, in Ezekiel’s vision, the “God of Israel[‘s]” voice is described in the same way. At the risk of sounding like a broken record throughout these posts, the point is to situate Jesus Christ in his Old Testament context.
16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
In verse 20, the seven stars will be identified as the seven churches. So here, Jesus is holding the churches in his hand (which is to say: controlling and protecting them).
This is a good teaching moment for those clinging to a literal reading. Do you really envision Jesus as a sword swallower (or, technically, spitter-upper)? No? Then why take the other parts of Revelation literally? The sword is a symbol for power. So here, what is coming out of Jesus’ mouth is a symbol of power. Another way of saying that is that Jesus’ words are powerful. It may also draw on Isaiah 11:4, where the one prophesied will “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth” and/or Isaiah 49:2 (“And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword.”)
“Countenance” means “face.”
17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
Another teaching moment for literalists, who will need to explain what happened to the stars that were in His right hand in the previous verse (oops). Of course, laying the right hand is a symbol of power–here, of transmitting power.
Note again the emphasis on the first and last. The idea that God (and therefore Jesus) are in control of everything is a huge theme in Revelation and I think the ‘first and last’ language contributes to that theme. It also picks up the language from Isaiah 41:4 and therefore strengthens the connections between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament.
18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
“He that liveth” may have been a title: “The Living One.”
A better translation would be “the keys possessed by death and possessed by hell.” Jesus has the keys and he’ll let you out if you follow Him.
19 Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
Again with the seeing–note the emphasis on the visual. We also get a clue here that the content of Revelation will be “things which are” and “things which shall be.” I think most readers focus exclusively on the second, but Revelation also describes things that were current to John’s first audience. Some scholars see this verse as the interpretive key to the entire book of Revelation.
20 The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.
You’ll notice that the first sentence doesn’t have a main verb (oops). We should probably end that sentence with the words “is this” followed be a colon. (Which means: the mystery is that the seven stars are the angels and the candlesticks are the churches.)
Given the close ties that this section has to Daniel, it is possible to see in this verse a subtle allusion to Daniel 2:47, which speaks of God revealing mysteries. Since here is it Christ who explains/reveals the mysteries, one can draw the conclusion that this text is implying that Christ was Daniel’s God.
As mentioned above, the seven candlesticks are an image from Zechariah 4, where, as the angel explains, they symbolize God’s omniscience. Here, the imagery is also tied to the seven churches. In other words, God’s power should be within and manifested through the churches. It is a simple but powerful idea: we are God’s eyes, ears, and hands in the world.
Summary thoughts: this text has many parallels to the calling scenes of other visionary prophets (see, e.g., Isaiah 6). It is deeply rooted in the imagery of the Old Testament with virtually every phrase having an OT counterpart. This background is crucial for understanding what is happening here. The main themes are that Christ is omnipotent, divine, real, and was the God of the Old Testament and that he protects and cares for the churches and calls John to write of his vision.
Next up: the seven letters. (One of my favorite parts!)