The Explanation (1:17-20)

Like Daniel, John fell at the angel's feet as though dead (v. 17; compare Dan 10:8-9). The same right hand that held the seven stars (v. 16) touched him as if bringing him back to life (compare Dan 10:10). At once the angelic figure identifies itself, confirming the impression that John is facing a representative of "the Lord God" who had spoken in 1:8 ("I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty"). Echoing the words in verse 8, the angels says, Do not be afraid [compare Dan 10:12]. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One (v. 17).

These words do not quite prepare us, however, for what follows: I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (v. 18). It is as if "the Almighty" and he who was "pierced" (1:7) and "freed us from our sins in his blood" (1:5) have merged into one. The mighty angel turns out to be Jesus himself—Jesus raised from the dead and clothed in divine splendor—but John cannot know this and we do not know it, until he so identifies himself. John had fallen to the ground as though dead (v. 17), but here was one who had actually been dead and had come back to life again (v. 18; compare "firstborn from the dead" in 1:5), and who consequently held the keys of death and Hades, the power to give life or take it away.

The self-identification, though not by name, is unmistakable. John has not only "seen" the voice (compare v. 12), but found it to be the voice of Jesus. There is no explicit acknowledgment of this on his part—no moment of recognition like Mary Magdalene's "Rabboni" (Jn 20:16) or Thomas's "My Lord and my God" (Jn 20:28)—yet the reader now knows, and John knows, that Jesus is indeed the Speaker. The angelic figure of verses 12-16 is only one of his many disguises in the book of Revelation. The whole section from verse 17 to the end of chapter 3 is one long, uninterrupted speech of Jesus, the risen Lord. Jesus takes over from John as the narrator—the "I"—from this point on until John's voice breaks in again at 4:1. Throughout chapters 2-3 John is out of the picture, listening and (presumably) writing.

Jesus repeats in verse 19 the command, "Write on a scroll what you see" (v. 11). He elaborates the command into a threefold expression understood by many translations as a reference to present and future (as NIV, Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later). More likely, Jesus is telling John to write not only the visions he will see but whatever explanations may accompany them so as to shed light on the future: "Write, therefore, the things you have seen, and what they are, and [consequently] the things that are going to take place after this" (italics mine; see Introduction; also Michaels 1991:604-8; 1992:98; Stuart 1845:2.54). As if to illustrate this, Jesus immediately provides just such an explanation of two details in John's first vision: the seven stars in his right hand and the seven golden lampstands that first caught John's eye when he turned around. The mystery (that is, the explanation; compare 17:7) is that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches (v. 20). The explanatory "are" of these identifications echoes the phrase "what they are" in the preceding verse. John's responsibility is to record not only his visions but something of their meaning as well. This he has done, both here and throughout the book (see, for example, 4:5; 5:6, 8; 7:14; 14:4-5; 16:14;17:9-18; Michaels 1991:608-20; also 1992:99-104).

A problem most of us have with the book of Revelation today is that the explanations provided within the text are often as difficult to understand as the images they are supposed to explain. For example, it is not much help to know that the seven stars in Jesus' right hand are the "angels" of the seven churches unless we know what role angels have in relation to churches. The word angel means messenger, and some (for example, Tenney 1957:55) have theorized that these "angels" were actually human messengers of God, either the minister or the pastor of each church—assuming churches had a single leader by this time—or a prophet, or perhaps the public reader of John's letter to the assembled congregation (see 1:3).

Everywhere else in the book of Revelation, angels are supernatural messengers, and there is no reason to make an exception here. When angels in this book are identified, it is always either in relation to whomever they serve (for example, God's angel, or Christ's, in 1:1; 3:5; 22:6, 16; "Michael and his angels" in 12:7; "the dragon and his angels" in 12:7, 9), or in relation to the realm over which they rule (for example, "the angel of the Abyss" in 9:11 or the angel "who had charge of the fire" in 14:18 or "the angel in charge of the waters" in 16:5). "Angels of the seven churches" belong to the latter group. They rule or preside over the churches just as an angel presides over the sources of fresh water or over fire or over the realm of death and destruction (compare the four angels in control of the winds "who had been given power to harm the land and the sea" in 7:2). Like these angels over various spheres of existence, the angels of the seven churches are not easily characterized as either good or evil. They share in the moral ambiguity of the congregations over which they preside, as well as in the praise and the blame that those congregations deserve (see Beckwith 1922:445).

Today, because of our love for abstraction, we find John's distinction between the angels and their respective congregations—between the stars and the lampstands—rather confusing. Many of us would be more comfortable speaking of the ethos, the atmosphere or even the spirit (in a rather secular sense) of a congregation or a community than of its "angel." Yet to John they are, quite literally, angels whom God holds responsible for the life and well-being of the congregations. Paul had referred to speaking "in the tongues . . . of angels" (1 Cor 13:1) and had urged proper conduct in worship at Corinth "because of the angels" (1 Cor 11:10). They seem to have had their greatest importance in Paul's Asian congregations (Colossae and Laodicea), and Paul is careful to point out the danger of esteeming them too highly or putting them at the center of Christian worship or religious experience (see Col 2:18). Perhaps because of such tendencies in Asia, they are not pictured here in Revelation as dwelling "in the heavenly world" (Boring 1989:86) or as the churches' "spiritual counterparts" in heaven (Caird 1966:25). They are as much a part of this world as the churches for which they are responsible. "I know where you live," says Jesus to the angel of Pergamum, "where Satan has his throne" (2:13).

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