Tag Archives: George Elton Ladd

What Are the Three Different Views on the Millennium in Revelation 20?

The interpretation of the thousand years (Millennium) described in Revelation 20 has caused much debate in the church. Biblical scholar George Elton Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, walks us through the three most popular views on the Millennium.

Postmillennialism means that the return of Christ would not occur until the Kingdom of God had been established by the church in human history. In this view, chapter 19 does not describe the coming of Christ but is a very symbolic way of describing the triumph of Christian principles in human affairs and the triumph of Christ through his church. After this ‘golden age,’ Christ will return to raise the dead, judge the world, and inaugurate the new eternal order.

Amillennialism is the term used to describe the view of those who do not look for a millennial reign of Christ either before or after his second coming. This way of interpreting Rev. 20 involves the principle of recapitulation, viz., that the structure of Revelation does not relate consecutive events but frequently covers the same ground from different perspectives.

Interpreters of this viewpoint often identify the binding of Satan and his incarceration in the abyss with the victory over Satan accomplished by our Lord in his earthly ministry. It is clear that the gospels do represent Jesus as having bound Satan (Matt. 12:29) and toppled him from his place of power (Luke 10:18); and this victory over Satan is reflected in the Revelation (see note on 12:9); it is an open question as to whether the binding of Satan in Rev. 20 is the same as that in Matt. 12 or is an eschatological event.

Amillennialists usually understand the ‘first resurrection’ in one of two different ways. Some see here the resurrection unto eternal life, which is an altogether spiritual reality that occurs for each believer when he becomes a Christian (John 5:25; Eph. 2:5–6). The reign of Christ with his saints is either the reign of Christ manifested in history through his church, or the spiritual reign of believers with Christ ‘in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 2:6). The thousand-year period is no literal piece of history; it is a symbolic number coextensive with the history of the church on earth between the resurrection of Christ and his return.

A different amillennial interpretation understands the resurrection and reign of the saints with Christ to represent the destiny of the martyrs. Though they were slain, the martyrs did not really die. In fact, they lived and reigned with Christ in heaven. The ‘millennium’ is the church age when martyred saints reign with Christ in heaven, awaiting the resurrection.

Premillennialism is the view that Rev. 20 is altogether eschatological. The coming of Christ will be followed by a binding of Satan and the resurrection of the saints who will join him in a temporal kingdom when he reigns over the earth. This millennial kingdom will end with a final rebellion and the last judgment.

A variant form of premillennialism is Dispensationalism, which sees the millennial kingdom primarily in terms of God’s theocratic promises to Israel. The entire book of Revelation is interpreted in terms of these dispensational presuppositions and is concerned with the fate of restored Israel in the last days and not with the church. In many circles the only form of premillennialism known is Dispensationalism.

Commentary on Revelation 20 (The Millennium)

Now that the beast and the false prophet have been defeated, John sees another vision which starts in chapter 20. John sees an angel bind up Satan with chains and seal him in a pit. For one thousand years (the Millennium), Satan will not be able to deceive humankind any longer. Ominously, though, Satan will be released at the end of the Millennium one last time. Bible scholars differ over whether the one thousand years should be taken literally, but it seems clear that regardless of the actual length of time, the one thousand years describes a fixed amount of time determined by God.

John then describes an earthly kingdom which will be ruled by Christ and his saints. In particular, those saints who were martyred by the beast because of their allegiance to Christ will reign with him during the Millennium. How will Christ’s deceased saints rule with him? They are resurrected! God will give all believers throughout human history resurrected bodies to live, rule, and serve as priests with Christ in the Millennium. Those who are resurrected will never die again; they will live forever with Christ.

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, notes that verses 4-6 in chapter 20 emphasize the vindication of the saints:

“The second part (20:4–6) stresses another major theme of the book, the vindication of the saints. In Matt. 19:28 Jesus promised the disciples they would sit on ‘twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes.’ In 1 Cor. 6:2 Paul says the saints ‘will judge the world.’ Then in Rev. 2:26 the saints will have ‘authority over the nations,’ and in 3:21 they ‘will sit with [Christ] on his throne.’ This prepares for 6:9–11, where the martyred saints are promised that at the proper time they would be vindicated. That vindication took place in stages, from the storm theophany of 6:12–17 to the outpouring of wrath in 8:3–5 to the destruction of Babylon the Great in chapters 17–19. But it is finalized in 20:4–6, where the saints sit on thrones and judge the nations for the thousand-year period.

Also populating the earth during the Millennium are those who were aligned with the beast before his demise and their descendants. They will live in their natural bodies under the rule of Christ and his resurrected saints during the Millennium. Remember that only the Antichrist’s armies were killed in the battle of Armageddon.

After the Millennium ends, Satan will be released from prison one last time, and he will deceive the people of the earth (not the resurrected saints). A leader called Gog, from a land called Magog, will gather a massive army and march on the city of Jerusalem, the city where Jesus lives and rules. Before they can enter the city, God rains down fire on them, and they are all killed. God then throws Satan into the lake of fire with the beast and false prophet where they “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, notes the parallels between Ezekiel 36-39 and argues that Revelation 20 is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Gog and Magog are biblical names for the nations who are rebellious against God and hostile to his people. In Ezek. 38:1, Gog is the prince of the land of Magog and comes from the north in the latter days to do battle with God’s people. In Revelation, both words represent the hostile nations.

While the New Testament has little to say about a temporal messianic kingdom, Ezekiel’s prophecy has the same basic structure as Rev. 20. Chapters 36–37 picture the salvation of Israel, restored to their land and blessed with the messianic salvation (see 36:24–29). The goal of the prophetic expectation, ‘you shall be my people, and I will be your God’ (Ezek. 36:28) is now realized. David, God’s servant, will rule over his people, and God will dwell in their midst (37:25, 28). However, the blessing of the messianic kingdom is not the end. The kingdom is disturbed by an eschatological war led by Gog from Magog (chapters 38–39); and only after the divine victory do we have a picture of the eternal new order, which in Ezekiel is described in terms of a rebuilt temple in the new Jerusalem (chapters 40–48). This structure of a temporal messianic kingdom followed by the eternal kingdom in the new age is the same as that in Revelation.

Why will there be a temporal, earthly kingdom under Christ’s rule? Why allow Satan to deceive the world again? Ladd answers:

In the present instance, even after Christ himself has reigned over men during the millennium, when the deceiver is set free from his prison, he finds the hearts of men still responsive to his seductions. This makes it plain that the ultimate root of sin is not poverty or inadequate social conditions or an unfortunate environment; it is the rebelliousness of the human heart. The millennium and the subsequent rebellion of men will prove that men cannot blame their sinfulness on their environment or unfortunate circumstances; in the final judgment, the decrees of God will be shown to be just and righteous.

Osborne adds:

For a thousand years, those among the nations who worshiped the beast will be under Jesus’ sovereign control and ruled by the saints. They will not experience Satan or be deceived in any way by him. All they will experience is the benign rule of Jesus himself. Yet after fourteen lifetimes of enforced good (according to the text, i.e., the story form), as soon as Satan is released, they allow themselves to be ‘deceived’ all over again and follow him. The purpose is to prove the power of total depravity and demonstrate once and for all the necessity of eternal punishment. The millennium is the judicial evidence that will convict the earth-dwellers and prove that their eternal sin demands eternal punishment. In other words, 20:3c and 20:7–10 are the divine ‘must’ of a just God.

John has told us the fate of the beast, the false prophet, and Satan himself. But what will happen to the people who, throughout human history, rejected God while they were alive, but are now deceased?

John’s vision moves to a great white throne upon which God sits (compare the following verses to Daniel 7: 9, 10, 22). The entire physical universe ceases to exist. All the unrighteous dead are resurrected and join the already resurrected believers. Both the saints and the wicked stand before God where He reviews the books which contain their deeds.

John then mentions another book, the book of life. This book lists all the saved people of God. The only way for a person to be saved is through the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Every person whose name is not found in the book of life is sent to the lake of fire. Death itself is also thrown into the lake of fire, meaning that no saved person will ever die again.

Mark Wilson, in Hebrews to Revelation: Volume Four (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), connects these verses to the book of Daniel:

Daniel prophesied that ‘everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered’ (Dan. 12:1). The deliverance promised to the righteous dead is everlasting life (12:2). The victors in Sardis are promised that their names would not be erased from the book of life (Rev. 3:5). The primary act disqualifying the earth dwellers from inclusion in the book of life is worshiping the beast rather than the Lamb (cf. 13:8; 17:8). The consequence of omission from the book of life is being thrown into the lake of fire. An angel has earlier warned those who worship the beast that eternal torment with burning sulfur would be their fate (14:10–11). That moment has finally arrived. . . .

The dead, who are excluded from the first resurrection, are the multitudes spoken of by Daniel who will awaken to shame and eternal contempt (Dan. 12:2). Upon hearing the voice of the Son of Man, those practicing evil will come out of their graves to be condemned to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28–29). The second death is the punishment Jesus warned about: ‘Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 10:28). Death and Hades are the last to be thrown into the lake of fire. He who holds the keys of death and Hades has finally turned the lock (cf. Rev. 1:18). This picture accords with Paul’s statement, ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).

Commentary on Revelation 19 (Battle of Armageddon)

The preceding chapters of Revelation describe the great suffering that the children of God would suffer due to the evil actions of Satan, the antichrist (the beast), and the false prophet. The beast represents anti-Christian political power, and the false prophet represents anti-Christian religion. Some writers have referred to these three as the false trinity.

The Old Testament writers promised that God would defeat evil in a final battle (see Isa. 13:4; 31:4; Ezek. 38–39; Joel 3; Zech. 14:3). The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to be the one appointed by God to subjugate evil (see Matt. 13:41–42; 25:41; Rom. 2:5; 2 Thess. 1:7; 2:8). When Jesus returns to the earth at his Second Coming, his first act will be to conquer those who oppose God and His people. These events are described in Revelation 19, starting in verse 11.

In verses 11-13, John sees heaven open up and a rider on a white horse coming forth. It is clear from John’s description that the rider is none other than Jesus Christ! His mission is to judge and make war against the enemies of God. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, explains the OT background of John’s description of Jesus:

The most vivid prophetic picture is that of an unnamed conqueror who strides forth in crimsoned garments for vindication, who had trodden the wine press of God’s wrath and stained his garments with his enemies’ blood, who trod the hostile peoples in his wrath and established the day of vengeance (Isa. 63:1–6). John sees Christ coming as a conquering warrior in bloodstained garments, destroying all hostile and opposing powers with his mighty sword.

The armies of heaven, dressed in white robes and also riding white horses, follow Jesus (white is the symbol of victory). This army is most likely a combination of angels and deceased believers. Since their robes are not stained with blood, the implication is that they will only watch the battle and not participate.

John sees a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth, symbolizing his judgment and execution of justice. Ladd explains the sword imagery:

The only weapon involved in the warfare is the word of Christ. This language looks back to Isa. 11:4: ‘And he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.’ Here is a symbolic representation of victory by the power of a word which is impossible to be literally envisaged. The idea goes back to creation. God created the worlds by his word. He spoke and it was done. This creation was mediated through the living word, Christ (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2). The judgment on the old order will also be mediated through the word of Christ. Just how John visualized this victory is impossible to say. It is, however, certain that he expected actual objective events to occur which would transform the structure of human society, purging out the evil.

Jesus will make the wrath of God known to the persecutors of His children. Even though the beast (antichrist) has set himself up as a world leader and has convinced other political leaders to follow him, the reader understands that there is only one real power in the universe, Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Upon Jesus’ return, the whole world will finally understand who is in charge.

Earlier in chapter 19, John wrote about the marriage supper of the Lamb, where the redeemed in Christ will celebrate their victory in Jesus, the Lamb of God. Verses 17-21 describe a second supper, but in this supper, those arrayed against God will be the meal, and the birds of the air will be the ones eating the meal. This image, though grotesque, is a metaphor for God’s total victory over evil, and it is firmly rooted in the OT. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

There will be two great messianic banquets at the eschaton: the feast with the Lamb for the saints and the feast on the sinners for the carrion birds. The saints will partake of the great banquet, and the sinners will be the great banquet! This image is drawn from Ezek. 39:17–20, where the judgment against Gog is punctuated by an invitation to the birds and wild animals to ‘come together’ for ‘the great sacrifice on the mountains of Israel,’ where they will ‘eat the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of the princes of the earth.’ The difference is that in Ezekiel the call to the scavengers comes after the defeat and burial of Gog, while here it comes before those events. This gives the scene great rhetorical power.

John sees the armies of the beast and his allies ready to battle the rider on the white horse. These verses are a continuation of the narrative from Revelation 16:13-16, where the false trinity prepares for the battle of Armageddon.

Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty. ‘Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.’ Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

John’s vision, however, only records the aftermath and not the battle itself. First, the beast and his false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire where they suffer eternally. Second, the kings and armies aligned with the beast are all killed by the sword from Jesus’ mouth. Just like that, the battle is over. Osborne traces the possible source of the phrase “lake of fire,” which only occurs here in the NT:

Bertrand (1999) says the origin of the ‘lake of fire’ comes from a combination of two images, with the ‘fire’ stemming from traditions regarding the destruction of Sodom by fire and sulfur (Gen. 19:24 = Luke 17:29–30; 1 Enoch 21.7–10; 67.4–13; 90.25) and the ‘lake’ stemming from Hellenistic mythical portrayals of hell. The basic connection with ‘Gehenna,’ of course, is certain. ‘Sheol’ (OT) or ‘Hades’ (NT) refers to the grave, while ‘Gehenna’ refers to eternal fiery punishment. The name Gehenna derived originally from the Valley of Hinnom on the south slope of Jerusalem, which became notorious during the evil reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, when their own children were burned as sacrifices to the god Molech (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). It was condemned and became a symbol for future punishment (Isa. 66:24; Jer. 7:30–33). Thus, ‘Gehenna’ symbolized the place of final punishment, located in the depths of the earth (Sib. Or. 4.184–86) and associated with eternal torment (Sib. Or. 2.292–310). In Jesus’ day it was the city dump, and the fires never went out due to the burning garbage. In Jesus’ teaching, Gehenna was also the symbol for eternal fiery punishment (Mark 9:43, 45, 47 par.; Matt. 10:28 par.; 18:9; 23:15; cf. 25:46). Thus, the idea of final fiery punishment has a rich history behind it (see Lunde, DJG 310–11).

Many people have pointed out that God’s destruction of the armies of mankind arrayed against Him seem inconsistent with His compassion. Osborne deals with this accusation:

How can a compassionate God do such a thing? Yet such a question forgets that Yahweh is at one and the same time a God of love and a holy God of justice. To ask the question is to ignore the devastating consequences of sin. We must remember the number of times in the book God has offered them forgiveness if they were to repent, yet they again and again refused God’s offer (9:20–21; 14:6–7; 16:8, 10–11) and preferred to worship the very demons who hated them (9:1–21). They preferred the delusion to the truth. It is a holy God who must eradicate sin in order to inaugurate the perfect reality for which he had created humankind in the first place.

Commentary on Revelation 1 (John’s First Vision)

The traditional view of the book of Revelation is that it was written by John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, brother of James, and writer of the fourth Gospel and three letters in the New Testament. The book is most commonly dated around AD 95, although a significant minority of scholars date the book to AD 69.

The immediate context for the author and initial hearers of the book, according to A. Boyd Luter Jr. in The Apologetics Study Bible, was “a group of churches (1: 11; chaps. 2– 3) experiencing selective persecution (2: 9-10,13) in the midst of doctrinal and practical problems (2: 6,13-15,20-23), set against the backdrop of unseen but powerful spiritual warfare (2: 10; 9: 1,11; 12: 3-4,9-10; 20: 2).”

Regarding literary genre, Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes:

Revelation mixes elements of Old Testament prophecy with a heavy dose of the apocalyptic genre, a style of writing that grew out of elements of Old Testament prophecy. Although nearly all its images have parallels in the biblical prophets, the images most relevant to late-first-century readers, which were prominent in popular Jewish revelations about the end time, are stressed most heavily. Chapters 2–3 are ‘oracular letters,’ a kind of letter occurring especially in the Old Testament (e.g., Jer 29:1–23, 29–32) but also attested on some Greek pottery fragments.

Steve Gregg, in Revelation: Four Views, adds:

Unlike most other books of the New Testament, Revelation does not contain even one direct quotation from the Old Testament. However, there are hundreds of allusions to familiar images and phrases from the Old Testament, and from the New Testament as well (especially the other writings of John). It has been calculated that concepts and imagery are drawn from Isaiah (79 times), Daniel (53 times), Ezekiel (48 times), Psalms (43 times), Exodus (27 times), Jeremiah (22 times), Zechariah (15 times), Amos (9 times), and Joel (8 times). The principal historical matrices from which the images frequently are taken are: a) the Exodus, b) the Babylonian exile, and c) the life of Jesus.

The last few chapters of Revelation describe the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ to reign over a new heaven and new earth. Thus, John starts with the hardships and sins predominating the first-century churches and extends these topics all the way out to the ultimate end of the age alluded to so often in the rest of the Bible. Keener writes:

Revelation provides an eternal perspective, by emphasizing such themes as the antagonism of the world in rebellion against God toward a church obedient to God’s will; the unity of the church’s worship with heaven’s worship; that victory depends on Christ’s finished work, not on human circumstances; that Christians must be ready to face death for Christ’s honor; that representatives of every people will ultimately stand before his throne; that the imminent hope of his return is worth more than all this world’s goods; and so forth. From the beginning, the Old Testament covenant and promise had implied a hope for the future of God’s people. When Israel was confronted with the question of individuals’ future, the Old Testament doctrines of justice and hope led them to views like the resurrection (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2). The future hope is further developed and embroidered with the imagery of Revelation.

The first three verses in Revelation form a prologue which some scholars believe was written by John’s followers after he died since it is in the third person. However, it also possible John wrote the prologue himself.

In verses 1-2, the author tells us that the words captured in the book were given by God the Father to Jesus, who gave the words to an angel, who gave the words to John, who finally gave the words to the people of God. The words of this book come in an unbroken chain from the sovereign Creator of the universe.

Also, the things recorded herein “must soon take place” (verse 1) and the “time is near” (verse 3). Those who argue that Revelation should be dated in AD 69 claim that many, if not all, of the prophecies in the book were fulfilled when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Titus in AD 70. Thus, the events predicted in Revelation did indeed happen very soon after the book was written and delivered to the churches.

Those who date the book around AD 95 interpret “must soon take place” and the “time is near” differently. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, is representative of this view:

We pointed out in the introduction that the Old Testament prophets blended the near and the distant perspectives so as to form a single canvas. Biblical prophecy is not primarily three-dimensional but two; it has height and breadth but is little concerned about depth, i.e., the chronology of future events. There is in biblical prophecy a tension between the immediate and the distant future; the distant is viewed through the transparency of the immediate. It is true that the early church lived in expectancy of the return of the Lord, and it is the nature of biblical prophecy to make it possible for every generation to live in expectancy of the end. To relax and say ‘where is the promise of his coming?’ is to become a scoffer of divine truth. The ‘biblical’ attitude is ‘take heed, watch, for you do not know when the time will come’ (Mark 13:33).

Finally, in verse 3 the author blesses the person who will stand in front of the seven churches and read aloud the book. Less than 50% of people could read in the first century, so it was customary practice to read aloud to a congregation the entire contents of a letter or book. The author also blesses the person who listens to the words in Revelation and obeys them.

In verses 4-8 we have the greeting from John. He is addressing seven specific churches in Asia (although the contents were meant to be shared by all churches) and he extends grace and peace from the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. The Father is “him who is and who was and who is to come,” the Holy Spirit is referenced as “the seven spirits who are before his throne,” and the Son is “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

Ladd expands on the reference to the Holy Spirit:

From the seven spirits means from the Holy Spirit in his sevenfold fullness (cf. 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Some have seen here a reference to angelic beings; but since the preceding phrase refers to God the Father and the following phrase to God the Son, it is certain that John included a reference to God the Holy Spirit, thus including all persons of the Godhead. In other places the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit in his plurality of functions (cf. Heb. 2:4; 1 Cor. 12:11; 14:32; Rev. 22:6). The source of the idea appears to be Zech. 4, where the prophet described a candlestick with seven lamps which are the eyes of the Lord ranging over the whole earth. The meaning of the vision was, ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 4:8).

Verses 5-7 then give a prolonged word of praise and worship to Jesus Christ specifically. John lists the following attributes of Jesus: 1) He loves us, 2) He freed us from sin by dying on the cross, 3) He is one day coming in judgment over the entire world.

Verse 8 reiterates the divine source and authority of John’s words. Ladd explains:

Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and therefore include all that is contained between them. God is the absolute beginning and the end, and therefore Lord of all that happens in human history. He is at the same time the eternal one, the transcendent one, who is unaffected by the conflicts of history, the one who is and who was and who is to come. As the one who is to come, he will yet visit men to bring history to its divinely decreed consummation. The Almighty can be better translated ‘the All-Ruler.’

Verses 9-20 contain the first vision John receives. John tells his readers that he was on the island of Patmos because of his teaching about Jesus. John was most likely banished to Patmos for about a year. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

Most likely John was temporarily banished there for proclaiming the gospel (see below). Ancient writers (e.g., Tacitus, Pliny) tell us that Patmos, a volcanic and rocky island, was one of three among the Sporades chain in the Aegean Sea. It was about ten miles long and six wide and was located thirty-seven miles southwest of Miletus, a harbor city near Ephesus. Therefore it is likely that Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.18–20) was correct when he said John was banished there (according to him, in the fourteenth year [a.d. 95] of Domitian’s reign). Life there was not too harsh, as indicated by its decent-size population and two gymnasia as well as a temple of Artemis. Thus John would have lived a fairly normal life as an exile on that island. He was likely there only a short time and was allowed to go to Ephesus in a general amnesty for exiles by the emperor Nerva in a.d. 96 after Domitian died (see Aune 1997: 77; Carroll, ABD 5:178–79).

One Sunday, as John is worshiping, he hears a loud voice behind him: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

There were more than seven churches in Asia, so why these seven? Osborne explains:

The order of the cities is significant, for they form the circular route of a letter carrier beginning at Ephesus and moving first north to Smyrna and to Pergamum, then turning southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east to Philadelphia, and finally southeast to Laodicea. Also, we must ask why these particular cities are chosen. Troas and Colosse were critical NT centers, and Magnesia and Tralles were more important cities than Philadelphia or Thyatira. The best solution is still probably that of William Ramsay, as argued further by Hemer (1986: 14–15). These seven cities formed a natural center of communication for the rest of the province, since they were in order of sequence on an inner circular route through the territory. There is good reason to suppose that since Pauline times they had become ‘organizational and distributive centers’ from which messages would disseminate to the other churches of the province. DeSilva (1990: 193) also points out that these particular cities were chosen partly for their relationship to the imperial cult. All but Thyatira had temples dedicated to the emperors, and all but Philadelphia and Laodicea had imperial priests and altars. I would add one other point. They also represented the problems of the other churches in the area (note how each letter includes ‘Hear what the Spirit says to the churches’). As we will see, each town had its own particular set of problems but also served as examples for the other churches.

John turns around to see who is speaking and he sees seven lampstands which he later learns represent the seven churches. Note the connection between the seven lampstands and the seven candles of the lampstand (the menorah) in the tabernacle constructed in Exodus 25. These seven lampstands depict the churches as shining lights for God in the midst of the world.

Verses 13-16 then describe a “son of man” who is standing amid the lampstands (churches). This son of man, of course, refers to Jesus. John now uses several images to communicate important characteristics of Jesus, as he sees him in the vision. These images closely resemble the divine messenger sent to Daniel in Daniel 10:5-6, but they also reflect other biblical passage (noted below):

  1. The long robe and golden sash around his chest likely point to his high rank (only nobility would wear a sash around their chests instead of waist) and possibly priesthood. (Ex 28:4; Dan 10:5)
  2. His white hair is emblematic of age, honor, and wisdom. (Dan 7:9; Mark 9:3)
  3. His eyes of fire convey his piercing and all-knowing vision. (Dan 10:6)
  4. His burnished bronze feet emphasize his glory and strength, and his ability to render divine judgment. (Ezek 1:7; Dan 10:6)
  5. His voice of roaring waters signifies power and strength. (Ezek 1:24)
  6. The seven stars in his right hand indicate his complete control over the seven angels of the seven churches. (Ps 110:1; Matt 26:64)
  7. The sword coming out of his mouth symbolizes his words and then acts of judgment. (Is 11:4; Luke 2:35)
  8. His radiant face sums up the other images and reminds us of Jesus’ divine glory. (Matt 17:2; Ps 84:11; Is 60:19)

John’s reaction to seeing the glorified Jesus is natural: He falls at “his feet as though dead.” In verses 17-18, Jesus lays his hand on John and tells him not to fear. Jesus is the “first and the last,” just as the Father is the “Alpha and Omega.” Jesus reminds John that he died, but was resurrected, and will continue living forever. Jesus now holds the keys to the land of the dead. He can open the gate and allow the dead to return to life, and this is exactly what he will one day do.

Jesus then instructs John to write down everything he has seen and will see in the visions he is receiving. Everything must be recorded. Finally, in verse 20 Jesus explains that the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches.

There is much disagreement over what the seven angels represent. George Ladd weighs the different views:

The expression, the angels of the seven churches, represented by the seven stars in the hand of Christ, is difficult, especially since each of the seven letters was addressed to the angel of each respective church. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that the angel stood for the bishop of the church. This would be a good solution for the problem except for the fact that it violates the New Testament usage. Aggelos was not used of Christian leaders, and in the seven letters, neither angels nor bishops were rebuked. Another meaning of aggelos is ‘messenger,’ and the ‘angels’ are taken to be the seven messengers who carried the letters to the seven churches of Asia. If this is so, it is difficult to see why the letters were addressed to the messengers rather than to the churches themselves. The proper meaning of the word is angel, and the natural idea is that churches on earth have angels in heaven who represent them. However, the feature of angels symbolizing or representing men is lacking in all apocalyptic literature. Some have felt that the angels are guardian angels of the churches. It is best to understand this as a rather unusual symbol to represent the heavenly or supernatural character of the church.