The First and the Last
On our whirlwind tour, we come to the end of Chapter 1. Here, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Great God and Savior, sets the stage for the rest of the prophecy.
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks [lampstands]. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches. Rev 1:18-20 (KJV)
I purposely chose the King James Version here as I will be addressing a popular teaching among classic dispensationalists based on its wording. Before that, Let's just pause and fall at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have not quoted the entire first chapter, but the Lord Jesus clearly lays out his deity. He is the God of scripture. As Revelation parallels Genesis in many ways, we are reminded that the creator God, the God who is the friend of Abraham, the God who created, destroyed, and created again is here in the Revelation, the culmination of ages.
We saw in our study "Christ Above All" that the Lord Jesus is the great "aleph-tav" of Genesis 1:1. he is the "Alpha and Omega" of Rev 1:8. He is the mighty Creator God (despite what the creeds state). He is "the first and the last," the one who declares things to come (Prophecy). This is how he addresses John from the start. We look back on this distinguishing characteristic of the God of the Christian Bible: prophecy and its accuracy.
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it,
let him declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
The Mysteries of Scripture
In our opening passage, we have the word "mystery." There are a number of "mysteries" in scripture. The word is used in the Parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13. It is used of Christ himself. We hear of the Mystery of Godliness and the Mystery of Iniquity. We shall see Mystery Babylon and the Mystery of the woman here in the Revelation. And, of course, we have the current age which my readers will recognize as the Dispensation of the Mystery (Eph 3).
God has used visions, figurative language, and imagery at times, for his purposes. In the parables of Matthew, the Lord expressly tells us his use of parables is to hide the truth. When we examine the prophets, those prophesying directly to Judah or Israel as kingdoms are more direct than the prophets of the captivity and after. Daniel. Ezekiel, Zechariah (filled heavily with visions and imagery) are written to Israel in captivity and in post-exile Palestine.
The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. -2 Chron 36:15-16
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the mysteries/secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand." -Matt 13:10-13 (NIV)
It seems as though God, who had cursed the line of Jeconiah (Jer 22:30), tired of Israel's rejections of his prophets and began to speak in imagery. This is how the Lord dealt with unbelief in Israel in Matthew 12. He left the house, and began to speak in parables as a judgment.
John prophesies in this way in the Revelation. His prophecy is very much like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah and those books are essential in understanding John's vision. Remember, as with the parables, hidden meanings are meant to be a judgment on unbelief, but the faithful and diligent can understand the truth. When the days come in which this prophecy is being fulfilled, the faithful (the "OVERCOMERS") will understand as the rebellious will not.
The mysteries of scripture aren't some sort of mystical truth requiring a wizard to discern. The better word is "secrets" (as used in the NIV quoted above). In the case of the current age of the "one new man," it was a secret "hid in God" until he chose to reveal it through Paul.
To me [Paul], though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the [dispensation] of the mystery hidden from the beginning of the ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. -Eph 3:8-10
The current age was not known. It was not puzzling, until revealed. It was a truth God withheld. Now, after is was revealed, for those who do not seek to examine differences or to find God's specific message to them, it may remain that way, but it is not "mysterious."
Mystery of the Stars and Lampstands
Here in Revelation 1, in the final verse, we have a Mystery which the Lord reveals to us.
The mystery of the seven stars which 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 which you saw are the seven churches.
We will encounter lamps and stars in this book. We will have to carefully examine each usage. As we come to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3, we know they connected to seven angels or messengers. We also want to note the use of "seven" as it is prominent in this book. Not only the word itself, but when we count certain words, we find sevens. We will try to note these as we progress.
Stars refer to a number of things in scripture. It can refer to actual lights in the sky. It may refer to Israel and the children of Abraham in general. Joseph saw the stars in his vision as meaning the patriarchs of the twelve tribes. And, as we have seen, stars may refer to angelic beings.
The Lord leaves us no doubt here in Revelation 1.
The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.
The seven "churches" are Jewish in nature as we will see. I want to revisit a comment I made earlier in regard to the King James Version concerning our passage. Classic Dispensationalism (which correctly makes a distinction between Israel and the Body of Christ, but mistakenly places the creation of the Body at Acts 2) has put forth the idea that the Revelation gives us a history of the Christian Church. They lean heavily upon this verse, as translated in the KJV:
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter... (v.19)
It is taught that "the things which are" refers to the last two thousand years. Each of the seven churches is supposedly a revealing of the history of the Body of Christ. I won't lay out that entire teaching here, rather, I'll show a proper translation of the verse. Regardless, it is a tremendous jump to take this prophecy and try to inject a mostly Gentile Body into it.
‘Write therefore what things thou sawest, and what they are, even what things are about to happen hereafter’. (v.19)
But even if we stick with the idea of "the things which are," it is quite a stretch to insert the Body of Christ into the book. We have covered Israel as the focus of the Revelation previously. The verse immediately following gives us the pattern.
The mystery of the seven stars which 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 which you saw are the seven churches. (v.20)
John had already seen the vision of the stars and the lampstands. He is told what they represent (what they are), and hereafter we know what we are dealing with.
As we progress through the book, we will come across a tremendous amount of imagery. We will need to look back at the keys revealed in other prophecies and in the book itself. Chapter 2 starts our trip through the seven churches. We will see the Jewish nature of these churches and we will see how they connect to the end of the Revelation. If we pull them out of this context and try to make them fit the last two thousand years, the connection is lost as is a better understanding of the vision.
Surely we can find application in the warnings and commendations, but as with all scripture, we must rightly understand the central meaning and the direct audience. The history of Israel is given "for our learning " (Rom 15:4), but we are not Israel and we follow not her commands and we claim not her promises or hope.