I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ…
That St. John should have been favoured with this glorious vision is but in keeping with what was often granted to the prophets of the Lord - to Moses, at the burning bush; to Isaiah, in the temple; to Jeremiah, at his consecration to his prophetic office, and likewise to Ezekiel; and to the three chief apostles, SS. Peter, James, and John, at the Transfiguration; St. John, at Patmos; and St. Paul, at Damascus and when caught up to heaven. All these visions were designed the better to fit and qualify them to speak for Christ to his people, and they teach us that those who are successfully to speak for Christ must have exalted ideas concerning him. In some form or other they must see his glory, or they will have but little to say, and that little they will not say as they should. "I beseech thee show me thy glory" may well be the prayer of all those who are to speak in the Lord's name. Such was -
I. THE PURPOSE OF THIS VISION as regarded St. John himself. But it had a far more general one - to bless the Church of God. They were dark days for the Church, days of fierce persecution, whether by command of Nero, or Domitian, who followed him twenty-five years after, we cannot say. But in those days, whichever they were, Christianity had not become a religio licita, and, therefore, was not as other religions, under the protection of the laws. It was looked upon as a branch of Judaism, which of all religions was the most hateful to the paganism of the day. And Christianity, in the popular estimation, was the most hateful form of Judaism. It would be certain, therefore, that if the chief authorities at Rome set the example of persecuting the Christians, the pagans of the provinces would not be long in copying it. Hence we can well understand what a fiery trial was now afflicting the Church of Christ. They were suffering, and needed consolation; fearful and fainting, and needed courage; in some cases, sad and shameful heresies had sprung up, and they needed to be rooted out; and in others, so-called Christians were leading careless, impure, and ungodly lives, and they needed solemn warning of Christ's displeasure. Now, this vision, the letters that follow, and this entire book, were all designed to meet their great necessities. What need have the people of God ever known but what he has made provision to meet it, and has met it abundantly? And this, let us be well assured, he ever will do.
II. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE VISION. We are told:
1. Of the beholder. John. There may be doubt as to what John, and it does not much matter, for we know that we have here the Word of God, and that it was written by one of the most honoured servants of God. See how humble his tone. He does not "lord it over God's heritage," but speaks of himself as "your brother and companion in tribulation." He was so at that very hour. And "in the kingdom of Jesus Christ." For that he and they were to look forward with eager hope and confident expectation. And "in patience." This was the posture of the believer at such a time, the mind he needed to possess. We can bear tribulation if, as St. John was, we are cheered by the hope of the kingdom of our Lord, and are enabled to be patient unto the coming of the Lord.
2. Where he was. In Patmos; a dismal rock, lonely, barren, almost uninhabited save by the miserable exiles that were doomed to wear out their lives there. But there John had this glorious vision, and it teaches us that dreary places may become as heaven to us if we are given to see the glory of Christ.
3. When he saw this. "On the Lord's day." There can be little doubt but that "the first day of the week," the Christian Sunday, is meant, and what we are told of here as having taken place on this Sunday is but an early instance of what in substance and reality has taken place for many faithful worshippers in all parts of Christ's Church on every Sunday since. What wonder that the Sunday is precious to Christian hearts, and that all attempts to secularize it or in any ways lessen its sanctity are both resented and resisted by those who know what a priceless boon for heart, for home, for health, for heaven, the Lord's day is?
4. He tells us the frame of mind in which he was. "I was in the Spirit." His heart was much uplifted towards God; there had been a rush of holy feeling amounting to religious rapture and ecstasy, and then it was that this glorious vision burst upon him. Neither holy days nor holy places will avail us unless our hearts be in harmony with both day and place. But if they be, then the Lord often "brings all heaven before our eyes." What might not our Sundays be to us if our hearts, instead of being so earthbound, as they too often are, were in the mood for drawing near unto God?
5. Next he tells how his attention was called to the vision. "I heard a great voice as of a trumpet" (ver. 10). The trumpet was an especially sacred instrument. It was associated with the giving of the Law (Exodus 19:6), with the inauguration of festivals (Numbers 10:10), with the ascension of the Lord: "God is gone up with a noise, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet" (Psalm 47:5). And so shall it be at the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52). The voice he heard was, therefore, not alone loud, clear, startling, like a trumpet, but also admonitory of the sacredness and importance of what he was about to hear and see.
6. What the voice said. "I am Alpha," etc. (ver. 11). Many manuscripts omit this sublime statement, but it seems in keeping with the trumpet voice, and with what comes both before and after. The "great voice," simply commanding the apostle to write in a book what he saw, appears incongruous, but not with the august announcement, "I am Alpha," etc. The Church had believed this of "the Almighty" (ver. 8), but now it was to be thrilled with the assurance that this was true of their Lord. He, too, was Alpha, etc. (cf. for meaning, homily on ver. 11). Then, as Moses (Exodus 3:3), turning to see whence the voice came, he beheld -
III. THE VISION ITSELF. He saw:
1. The whole Church of Christ represented by the seven lamps of gold. Seven, the specially sacred number, the number of completeness. These seven are mentioned because their names were familiar to those to whom he was writing.
2. He beheld the Lord Jesus Christ. These verses tell:
(1) The form of his appearance. "I saw One like unto the Son of man." He of whom Ezekiel and Daniel had told in those prophecies of theirs, which this so often and so much resembles. But it was a vision of awe and terror to any mortal eye. Like so many Hebrew symbols, it is unrepresentable in art. The form is one which is almost inconceivable, and were any to seek, as some have done, to make a pictorial representation of it, the result would be grotesque, monstrous, and impossible. But the Hebrew mind cared nothing for art, only for spiritual truth; the external form was nothing, the inward truth everything. Art is careful to portray only the external, and it has attained to wondrous perfection in this respect; but the Hebrew desired to represent the inner nature - the mind, the heart, the soul. Hence it fastened upon whatsoever would best serve this purpose, and joined them together, utterly regardless of congruity, symmetry, or any other mere artistic law. Therefore we must look beneath the often strange symbols which we have in this vision would we know what it meant and said to the beholder. The golden-girdled garment told of royal majesty and authority; the hoary hair, of venerable age and profound wisdom; the eyes like fire flame, of searching intelligence and of fierce wrath; the feet like molten brass, of resistless strength, which should trample down and crush all that stood in its way; the voice like the sound of the sonorous sea waves, which are heard over all other tumults and noises whatsoever, subduing and stilling them, tell of that word of "all-commanding might" which once was heard hushing into silence the noise of many waters on the tempest-tossed lake of Galilee, and which, wherever heard, every tumult subsides and all at once obey. The seven stars grasped in the right hand told of power and purpose to defend them or dispose of them as he willed; the two-edged sword proceeding out of his mouth, of that awful soul-penetrating Word by which the secrets of all hearts should be made known, and by which all adversaries of the Lord should be slain; the countenance radiant like the sun, of the Divine majesty, so dazzling, so confounding, so intolerable, to all unhallowed and unpermitted gaze of man.
(2) And this awful form was seen surrounded by the seven lamps of gold, as the dwellings of the vassals of a chieftain are clustered round his castle and stronghold, which rises proudly in their midst as if proclaiming its lordship and its protection over them.
(3) And that this vision was designed to meet the manifold needs of those varied characters and conditions in the several Churches is evident from the fact that allusion to one or other part of it is made at the beginning of each of the letters which St. John was commanded to write and send; and that part is chosen which would most minister to the need of the Church to whom the letter was written. But it was as the invincible Champion of his Church that Christ came forth, and to persuade their fainting hearts of this he appeared in this wondrous form. And the vision is for all time, and every anxious heart should steadily look upon it, and strive to learn the comforting truths which it was designed to teach.
(4) But the effect of the vision was at first overpowering. "I fell at his feet as dead." Well might it have been so.
"O God of mercy, God of might,
How should weak sinners bear the sight,
If, as thy power is surely here,
Thine open glory should appear?" St. Peter cried out, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" though there was nothing in the appearance of Jesus to alarm and terrify. How much more when such a vision as this was seen, and such a voice was heard! "Fear was far more in the ascendant than holy joy. I will not say that John was unhappy, but certainly it was not delight which prostrated him at the Saviour's feet. And I gather from this that if we, in our present embodied state, were favoured with an unveiled vision of Christ, it would not make a heaven for us; we may think it would, but we know not what spirit we are of. Such new wine, if put into these old bottles, would cause them to burst." But
(5) we are told how the Lord restored his prostrate disciple. By his touch of sympathy: he laid his hand upon him. He was wont to do this for the many that he healed when here on earth. And there was the touch of power. It was his right hand. Then came the Lord's "Fear not;" and when we hear him say that to us, our fears, as -
"The cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And silently steal away." And this was not all. He gave him most comforting instruction. He told him who he was - the incarnate Jehovah; the Saviour "who became dead," not who merely died, but, as the word denotes, "voluntarily underwent death." Surely John knew him, and would not be afraid of him. But now he was alive forevermore - he, the same in heart and will, though not in form. And possessed of universal authority. He had the keys, the insignia of authority, over the unseen world. Therefore, should any of them be hurried thither by their persecutors' rage, he would be there, and Lord there, so they need not fear. But he had the keys of death also. Hence none could open its gates unless he pleased; and none could be put to death whom he chose to keep alive. He "openeth, and no man shutteth, and shutteth, and no man openeth." Entrance there was governed, not by the will of man, but by his will. And finally, he explains part of the vision, and directs it to be written and sent to the seven Churches. The stars, they are, such as St. John himself was, the angels, the chief pastors of the Churches; and see, Christ has hold of them, grasped in his right hand, and who shall be able to pluck them thence, or separate them from his love? What comfort this for the fearful but faithful heart of the minister of Christ! And see again, he is in the midst of the seven lamps which represent the seven Churches. He is there as their sure Defence. Christ is in the midst of his Churches chiefly to protect, but also to rule and to inspect, and if needs be to judge and to punish. Even now he is walking amid his Churches. Let us remember this, and consider "what manner of persons we ought to be in all holy conversation and godliness." The voice of this vision says to us all, "Be of good comfort, but watch and pray." - S.C.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.