It may seem like a strange place to begin: the end of the beginning. But the pattern of Revelation is one of continually circling back to the beginning, proceeding to the end, and repeating the process again from a different perspective. At the center of it all is the comforting and confident message that Jesus reigns. His reign is exhibited in the justifying and forgiving Word of the Gospel which is preached to you, washing you in your baptism, and given for you in the Lord’s Supper. More on this later.
We’ll begin in Chapter 1, verse 20, with the words of Jesus, then we’ll work from verse 1 moving forward. John writes, quoting Jesus,
“As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
If we read Revelation literally, that is woodenly, or that every word means exactly what it looks like it is referring to, we’re going to run into some trouble right from the start. Take for example Revelation 1:20. Stars and Lampstands cannot both mean real stars and lampstands and also mean literal angels and churches. Either they are stars and lampstands, or they are angels and churches.
Immediately near the beginning, in verse 20, John gives us the information we need to approach Revelation in a way that will open it to our understanding, rather than conceal and confuse its meaning.
Without saying so blatantly, John is dropping this little clue in here for the reader so that they are made aware that something different is afoot here. They are not intended to read Revelation the way they would read Genesis or the Gospel of John, though these books, along with the rest of Scripture, will come into play and help enlighten the meaning of the text for us as we proceed.
Here, in verse 20, we are informed that there are going to be things within this book that are not referencing what it may at first glance appear they are. That is to say, when verse 20 uses the words stars and lampstands, we shouldn’t go looking for stars and lampstands as the literal referents of these words. Instead, they are pointing to something else entirely, as is much of what is contained in Revelation.
In this specific case, John, or rather Jesus through His servant John, is showing us both the “code” and the “key:” Stars equal angels (or lit. messengers of the churches); Lampstands equal churches. That is clear enough. However, every time you see stars and lampstands in Revelation, it does not necessarily mean they are references to messengers and churches; context matters and also determines meaning.
This twentieth verse is clear, plain, and simple enough, but it’s not always going to be this easy going forward. John isn’t always going to be holding our hand and spelling everything out so clearly. That would defeat the purpose of the literary genre which John uses in writing Revelation. More on this later.
The reason John does not spell everything out is that he assumes something about his readers: that they are well versed and trained in the rest of the Scriptures. Historically speaking, this is why Revelation shows up at the end of our Bible, rather than somewhere else. We’re intended to read it last if we are going to have any hope of interpreting it. Sadly, this is probably one of the most over-read books of the Bible while the others which can actually give us any hope of understanding it are neglected, or at least not even considered in the study of Revelation.
All this being said, we do have the “key” to unlock the meaning of the rest of the “code” of Revelation. It’s called the Bible. The Bible, primarily the Old Testament, is heavily played off from throughout Revelation.
Simply put, if you’re not trained in, or at least deeply familiar with, the rest of the Bible and its overarching themes, you’re going to read Revelation and come away very confused at best, or at worst, with some very wrong ideas.
That being said, if you read Revelation through an Old Testament lens, enlightened by the testimony of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead for your justification, you’re going to begin your journey on solid footing. Because in a nutshell, this is what Revelation is all about. Everything else is just window dressing added to prominently magnify and put on full display the majestic power and glory of the crucified and risen One.
If you get nothing else from reading Revelation, you should get this:
- It’s not saying anything that hasn’t already been written elsewhere in Scripture.
- It's summarizing the whole counsel of the Word of God
- It's take on the whole counsel of the Word of God is that it's all about Jesus Christ and what is accomplished by His life, death and resurrection freely gifted to you.
- It's about the end of the beginning of the reign of Jesus for you.
Until next time, the grace and peace of Christ be with you.