Revelation 1:12-20

Each church is represented by a lampstand in the presence of God. But what is the biblical picture of a church? The word in English has both a secular and a religious meaning. In secular terms, it means those who adhere to a group which holds a different view of doctrine or discipline from another. (For example, in politics, "a broad church" describes those holding the middle ground but overlapping to the left or the right). However, in its religious sense it has two meanings:

  1. A building used for religious meetings and
  2. A group of Christian believers.

Confining ourselves to the second of these, the word can refer to every Christian in the world as a group or, alternatively, to any smaller group of Christians. This is accurate, so far as it goes, but some religious groups, whose beliefs diverge quite significantly from orthodox Christian faith, have also used this word "church" to describe themselves. Examples include the "Mormon Church" and the "Church of Scientology". However, if we wish to be precise about the biblical meaning of the word "church", we must go back to the root of the word in the language in which the word was first used in this context. Here we find that the word is "ek-klesia", a Greek word that means, "those who are called out" or "the called-out ones". At that time, it referred exclusively to Christian believers.

To be part of a church in its true sense, the following four things must have occurred in a person's life.

  1. There has to have been a recognition of personal sinfulness, which separates the individual from God, who is holy.
  2. Recognition of sin has to be followed by acknowledgement of it to God. This is also known as confession, meaning that the person concerned agrees with the diagnosis.
  3. This has to be followed by repentance from sin. (Repentance means turning around and going away from the sin.)
  4. The final step is for the person to have asked Jesus Christ to take control of his or her life, recognising that the individual cannot stop sinning without help.

If we describe ourselves as Christians or are even members of a church, but have not taken these four steps ourselves, then we are, strictly speaking, living a lie. The fact that we may have been baptised as an infant or brought up in a Christian home and now attend a church regularly does not - of itself - make us a "Christian". We may even believe that the teaching of Jesus is a good way to live and try to live that way in our own lives, but none of that makes us a "Christian" or qualifies us to be in the "kingdom of heaven" as a member of His church. The Bible teaches that only those believers who gather together for worship in a particular locality can be considered as the church of Jesus Christ in that area.

Exodus 28:2-8

For believers, Jesus is our "High Priest". He has the authority to walk amongst the lampstands of the churches. (Hebrews 4:14-16) He has the right and authority to speak to us, but He does so in love and gentleness, guiding us and helping us as we live out our Christian lives on the earth, as ambassadors of God and as His representatives here. We have access directly to God because of all that Jesus accomplished by dying for us. It was His death that opened the way for us to enter God's presence. In turn, we can also now act as mediators between God and those who do not yet know Him, representing God to them.

It is none other than Jesus who walks among the lampstands, watching over His church zealously and jealously. He approves or disapproves of a church’s actions. If He disapproves, He will let us know, gently, lovingly, but firmly calling for our repentance. However, this appears to be a more "remote" Jesus, compared with the previous closeness of the relationship that John had enjoyed when he had put his head on the Master’s chest (John 13:33) or when he had stood with others in front of the cross and watched the naked Jesus being crucified. John now recognises that there is a mystery about this situation.

We all have times when we think that we know Jesus really intimately and then something happens that highlights to us that we hardly know Him at all. There is an eternal depth to Him that we will constantly be drawn to investigate because we want to get to know Him better. All His emotions now seem rigidly restrained, as is necessary for the triumphant judge of the whole world. He cannot be moved by pity or passion and must be impartial.

A symbolic description

Jesus’ hair is described as being "white like wool" as He walks amongst the lampstands. This represents Godly wisdom and a wonderful purity, where sin holds no attraction for Him now. (John 14:30) His eyes are "like blazing fire", which speaks to us of the all-seeing, all-knowing God. He knows what we will do before we do it. He was the One present as we were created in our mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13-16) He authorised our every part and breathed the Spirit of God into us at our new birth. He is the One who loves us and watches over us as a father watches over his son. He protects us and cares for us, providing the ideal environment in which we can grow to be mighty women of God. He knows everything about our lives (like the Samaritan woman in John 4:29) and our thoughts. (Matthew 12:25) He can see the whole world at one glance and nothing is hidden from His sight. Think about that: no more pseudo Christianity behind closed doors!

Everything about Jesus is vibrant; even His feet glow as though bronze in a furnace. He appears to John, radiating authority as the executive creator of the universe and the One who sustains it, walking alongside the most important part of His creation (His church and bride), ensuring Her perfection amidst extreme circumstances. The sound of His voice is "like rushing waters": speaking continuously to guide and encourage, softly, never harshly. And what He says is intended to be heard by us as well! We can see here also a reminder of what God said to the serpent in the Garden of Eden about Jesus crushing the snake's head. (Genesis 3:15)

In His right hand, Jesus holds seven stars. These represent the seven messengers (or angels), sent to the churches under the direction of the Holy Spirit. In this style of literature, the number seven represented completeness, perfection and godliness. Indeed, wherever it appears in the Bible with reference to God, the number seven speaks of the same thing.

John then writes "coming out of His mouth was a sharp double-edged sword". The word used here ("rhomphaia") refers to a weapon that originated in the Roman province of "Thrace" in the south-east corner of what is now Europe. It was slightly longer than the Roman "gladius" and usually had a straight or slightly curving blade, being designed primarily for defensive use in close combat. Here it represents the word of God, which the apostle, Paul, (in his letter to the church at Ephesus) refers to as the "sword of the Spirit". It is part of the armour that is given to all believers and the only offensive weapon available to believers. Paul also saw it as representing the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-18)

Finally, Jesus’ face is said to be "like the sun shining in all its brilliance". Before Jesus came, no human was able to look upon God's holiness and live. Human frailty simply could not bear the holiness of God and death would have been the result. Moses was one with whom God was pleased and whom He knew by name, but when Moses asked to see God’s glory, His response was this: "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim My Name - JAHWEH - in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." (Exodus 33:19-20) Later, God appeared to the prophet, Isaiah, who was a priest serving in the temple. Isaiah's reaction was to say: "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." (Isaiah 6:1-7)

Our inability to stand as sinful human beings before the presence of the holy God was never part of God’s plan. In both of the above examples, God intervened to protect His servants. Now, under the new covenant, God has permitted us direct access to Him, because He has taken away our sin and nailed it to the cross of Jesus.

Paid on the nail

At the time Jesus was alive, a person could be convicted of a crime and sent to prison or imprisoned, awaiting execution for more violent crimes. A list of the crimes committed was written on parchment and nailed to the outside of the cell. Crimes could be paid for by restitution of value damaged or stolen (or some other, agreed figure), or by someone taking the place of the convicted person. It was extremely rare for people to be set free in any of these ways but, when they were, the parchment would be rolled up and a nail driven through it. Across the face of the parchment would be written, "Paid in full", at which point the person would be released.

The apostle, Paul, uses this as a picture of what Jesus has done for us in dying on the Roman cross. (Colossians 2:13-15) When John sees the vision of Jesus, he falls at His feet in respect and awe. Would we behave any differently in the presence of the living God? But Jesus puts His right hand on John – the right hand of authority - and says to him: "Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the Living One. I was dead and, behold, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18)

Jesus was dead. Without His substitutionary death (where He paid the price for us), our sins would not have been forgiven. We would still be imprisoned by our sinful nature and there would be no hope for us. But Jesus’ resurrection meant more than just Him going to heaven; it meant that the keys of death and hell were ripped away from Satan and returned to Jesus. We are now free to follow Jesus and to be released from our prison of sin. The door of the cell is open, but it is up to us to choose whether we want to walk away from it!

A message for us all

What John was instructed to write had implications, not only for the time when John was alive, but also for the future, right up until the end of the "Church Age" – now and beyond. We need to recognise this and be prepared for what the future holds. God does not want us to be ignorant but to be prepared, so that we can also be involved in the drama that is playing out until Jesus returns. This instruction to John parallels one given in the Old Testament to Habakkuk, who had asked God a singularly pointed question. (Habakkuk 1:12-17) Habakkuk didn't just ask his questions as a way of "getting it out of his system". He expected God to give him an answer! “What's God going to say to my questions? I'm braced for the worst. I'll climb to the lookout tower and scan the horizon. I'll wait to see what God says... how he'll answer my complaint." (Habakkuk 2:1)

God did indeed answer his complaint. "Write this. Write what you see. Write it out in big, block letters so that it can be read on the run. This vision-message is a witness, pointing to what's coming. It aches for the coming — it can hardly wait! And it doesn't lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It's on its way. It will come right on time.” (Habakkuk 2:1-3 The Message version)

Let's keep our focus on this amazing picture of Jesus as the triumphant King, who is walking so confidently through our churches today, holding the keys of death and hell, knowing the amazing future for which He has paid in full. The next two chapters are written to the seven churches individually, but the remaining nineteen chapters refer to the time in which we are living right now and away into the future. Let’s be excited about what we will discover!

Where do we, as members of God's church, stand before God? Are we listening for His comment as we ask Jesus to show us personally? We are His church!

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