“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show unto his servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass: and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John” (Revelation 1:1 RVIC).
by André Couceiro
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The year is AD 96. A dear, elderly Christian, one of the “pillars” of the early Church, is in exile as a result of a fierce persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian:
“I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9).
Like Paul — who had already finished his earthly course — John, too, had “fought a good fight” and was henceforth waiting to receive the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, would give him and all the faithful Christians at “that day.”
But when would “that day” finally come? From John’s perspective, many of the signs given by our Lord Jesus had already been fulfilled in or before AD 70. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 21:6, Matthew 24:2), and the Jewish genocide at the hands of Rome (Luke 23:27-31) were all past events for John. He had also seen wars, rebellions, and the appearance of “false Christs.” “Why hasn’t Christ Jesus returned yet?” he may have asked in his heart. Other Christians might have thought the same.
Instead of sleeping, awaiting his resurrection, John was in prison. He was still free in Christ, but in shackles by men. But it was there, in John’s darkest hour, that he received the Church’s brightest glimpse into the future, in the form of a “vision”:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant
John” (Revelation 1:1).
In this verse, that Revelation of Jesus Christ is clearly stated to be a book of symbolisms, not literalism. The angel then passed it on in its “signified” state to John, who faithfully bore record for our benefit. Being able to properly interpret the symbols is the key to a correct interpretation of its message.
The fact that this remarkable Revelation of God to our Lord Jesus was not given to him while he was in the flesh, though he was a new creature with a deep spiritual understanding, shows that Jehovah dispenses His light or truth according to His plan, which contains times and seasons.
Now was the time for John and the churches to begin to be enlightened with that truth. How John must have felt blessed and reassured! In fact, he wrote, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Revelation 1:3).
Although early Christians still saw through a glass darkly, now John and all the churches had a new reference upon which to base their expectations. Like an open book, or rather scroll, they could reassess where they were in the stream of time, and learn about the events that would come to pass during the remainder of the Gospel Age. Revelation, in this sense, brings the unfolding of those truths, and even of history itself, so that we keep those things written therein.
In this article, you are invited to examine the first chapter of this wonderful and prophetic revelation that became a letter from John to the churches, and, therefore, from John to you!
The Seven Churches
As in any letter, it opens with greetings — “to the seven churches which are in Asia.” In this verse, “Asia” does not mean the continent of Asia, but a Roman province known in John’s day as Asia Minor. Today, the same area is in western Turkey.
Jesus gives the names of these churches, or congregations: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Revelation 1:4,11).
But why seven churches and why in that particular order? Sir William Ramsey, in his book, The Letters to the Seven Churches, interestingly suggested that the order of the churches in Revelation represented a circular postal circuit that a courier would follow. Additionally, these seven churches were the primary communication centers from which secondary messengers would be dispatched so that other churches in their respective districts could read the correspondence. When seen from the perspective of an efficient method of distribution, Revelation was meant for a larger audience than the original seven churches.
But a deeper spiritual lesson can be learned from the particular order. When we carefully study the events of the long period of the history of the Christian church, we find something remarkable.
Apparently, the Lord decided to divide the history of the Christian Church into seven periods, which are unique in their experiences, history, and doctrinal understandings. Therefore, each church in Revelation 1:11 also symbolically represents one of those distinct periods, and also each period would have a special messenger to the overall church. In the article “Seven Churches” we find more details about this beautiful unfolding of the truth throughout the Gospel Age.
The Vision of the Son of Man
As we continue to consider the first chapter of this heaven-sent letter, we find a wonderful description of our glorified Lord Jesus Christ:
“One like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters … and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength” (Revelation 1:13-16).
According to Brother Russell, “the garment down to the foot” describes a long, full flowing robe such as was worn by kings and priests (R1599:2). It is “down to the foot” because his feet, “like unto fine brass,” are symbolic of the feet members of the Church, whom the Lord would use in his service. Thus, the garment, being long, reaches down to the feet members of the Church who are being illuminated by the truth (R3569:5).
The feet are “as if they burned in a furnace” because of the refining process by fiery trials to each and all the members of the Body (1 Peter 4:12, R2827:1). His wearing of a “golden girdle” about the paps (breasts) is a display of dignity and sovereignty (R1599:4). His head and hairs, “white like wool and as snow,” is a beautiful indication of both age and purity and is symbolic of knowledge and experience, wisdom and splendor (R2826:5, HG62:1, R3569:5). His “eyes … as a flame of fire” symbolize that our Master is all-seeing and omniscient. Nothing escapes his attention, and that should produce a sanctifying effect in every one of us (Proverbs 15:3, R:3569:5). The “sharp two-edged sword” that went out of his mouth represents the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. It also symbolizes the mission of his truth and its final victory (R:1599:4). Finally, we notice that his voice is “as the sound of many waters.” This implies that our Lord, present with his Church, would speak to her and through her by many tongues and in many languages!
This description of his presence portrays not only great dignity and awesome majesty but also great power and authority, characteristics becoming of a judge, executor and king. John, on the other hand, was not used to seeing Jesus that way. In his days of the flesh, John knew Jesus very well. They were friends, perhaps cousins, who spent time together, traveled together and ate together. John is even called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 19:26, 21:7). Can we imagine how John must have felt when he saw, in this vision, a “different” Jesus — a glorified being? John tells us how he reacted:
“And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead.” A perfectly normal reaction, given the impressiveness of what John had seen! But then, Jesus “laid his right hand upon him, saying unto him: ‘Fear not’” (Revelation 1:17). How reassuring! We can imagine that the sweet memory of the Jesus he knew came
back to him.
Jesus continued: “I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [grave] and of death” (Revelation 1:17, 18). Not only did John not need to be afraid of the vision, but also, he need not be afraid of dying in that prison in Patmos, for
Jesus had conquered death and was “to hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death” (Psalm 102:20). Thus, John’s potential death in a prison would not be permanent and would actually mean a release from his mortal and sinful condition to an exalted, perfect condition in heaven, when the time would be right.
A Dear Letter to All True Christians
John saw this “one like unto the Son of man” was “in the midst of the seven candlesticks” [lampstands] and “had in his right hand seven stars” (Revelation 1:13,16).
Here we see two more occurrences of the number seven. And there are more “sevens” in Revelation: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven last plagues. These are the titles of articles in this issue, where we find an explanation about their meanings.
But what do the “seven candlesticks” and “seven stars” mean? Jesus explains, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20).
Now, we have the full picture: our glorified Lord is not far from us, but very close indeed, “in the midst” of the congregations! Additionally, he has “seven angels” or messengers, in his right hand, that is, under the Master’s guidance, protection and care (R3570:4). Those messengers, as we will see with greater detail in this issue, are usually believed to be seven special servants of God with a very special message to the Church in their time period.
How wonderful it is that through John, “your brother, and companion in tribulation” (Revelation 1:9), we have received such a wonderful letter from our dear Father, Jehovah, and our dear Lord, Jesus. This letter unfolds history before the eyes of our understanding. This letter lovingly points out our errors and our successes, and, above all, it reassuringly says: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer … be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).