11. The First Vision

THE FIRST VISION

WHEN John turned, he beheld a vision of Israel's Mediator and Judge. The judgment of the Lord's day begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Before the Lord commences His strange work among the peoples and sheaths His sword in the nations, He speaks to Israel with the saber that proceeds out of His mouth and rebukes the people of the covenant.

This vision is not in heaven, as is usually assumed. It is true that the patterns of the tabernacle and temple furniture are in heaven, as we shall see in the later visions of this scroll. But if the seven "candlesticks" of this vision were the pattern for Moses when he had the lampstand of the tabernacle made, he was guilty of a very radical departure, for here there are seven single lampstands, while the tabernacle contained only one with seven branches. Moreover, before the next vision is given, John is told to ascend (4:1). We may conclude, then, that John, at this time had not ascended, and that this vision is located on earth.

This conclusion will help us to set right another misconception as to the character of Christ as He appears in the midst of the lampstands. On earth He cannot exercise the priestly office (Heb.8:4). Nothing in the vision, when carefully considered, suggests the priesthood. The lampstands are not to be confused with the one in the temple, His vestments do not correspond with those which were made for Aaron and his sons, which did not reach to the ground. Even the girdle is not of linen (Ex.39:29) but of gold.

Indeed there is much, very much, in this vision which stands in severe contrast to the priestly office. Priests are ordained for men in that which pertains to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin. They have compassion for the ignorant and those who are out of the way (Heb.5:1,2). Where are there any signs of compassion in this picture? Eyes like a flame of fire, a mouth from which issues a sharp two-edged saber do not speak of compassion but of judgment. A countenance like the sun is not comforting. And there is no provision for sacrifice. Sin is exposed and condemned; not expiated. No wonder John fell at His feet as dead! No wonder he needed to be reassured, "Fear not!" Truly, it was a fearful and dreadful sight, enough to cause dismay and death even to the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had reclined in His bosom with perfect confidence and trust. Priesthood is far removed from this vision.

There is a delightful reticence in the manner in which our Lord is referred to in this judgment scene. It is as though He would not be too closely associated with it. There is no doubt that it is the Son of Mankind Who walks among the lampstands. But both here and in Daniel 7:13 He is evasively termed "One like a son of mankind." His form was human, but how unlike that lowly frame and face, once marred and mangled, bruised and spat upon! How unlike He seems to the Son of Mankind Who came to seek and to save that which was lost!

The dreadful splendor of this vision is concentrated in the figure of the Judge. The light of the lamps and the shining of the stars could contribute no radiance in the presence of that countenance which glowed like the sun. As in the judgment of the dead, after the thousand years, the majesty of the throne will consist in its whiteness, so the appalling figure of the Judge is resplendently white. Not only are the head and hair of purest white, but the feet, also, are a dazzling luminous whiteness, like bronze when it is heated in a furnace.

All this is portentous of the fiery judgment of Yahweh's day. Were such a Judge as this presiding over the destinies of the church today the awful apostasy and pollution in which we are plunged would not be endured for a moment. The reign of grace would give place to the instant execution of judgment. Let us thank our God that such scenes as this are not for us! He never will look at us with flaming eyes! He never will speak to us with a sabered tongue!

The various particulars of this vision are all adapted to the work of judging in the midst of the ecclesias. The desertion of Ephesus is met by reminding them that He has the stars and lamps in His power and will remove them unless they repent. He is able to cope with the uncleanness and deception in Thyatira because His flaming eyes ferret out all evil and His glowing feet burn against their immorality. He will battle with the Nicolaitans in Pergamos with the saber of His mouth.

It is of the utmost consequence to grasp the character which Christ assumes in connection with each of His administrations. Everything here points to the office of Prophet. He appears as God's Spokesman to the people. The functions of the priest and the prophet are opposite in character. The priest brought the offerings of the people to God, but the prophet brought the word of God to the people. Moses is the type of the prophetic office which the Messiah of Israel was to fulfill. The Lord said to him, "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put My word in His mouth; and He shall speak unto them all that I shall command Him. And it shall come to pass that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him" (Deut.18:18,19).

It was in this character that He was presented to Israel in the Pentecostal era (Acts 3:22; 7:37). If this were apprehended no one would insist on transporting that stern judgment period into the present. That era was in close agreement with the seven epistles which follow this vision. Indeed, Peter shows clearly from Joel's prophecy that Pentecost was the precursor of the Apocalyptic judgments, for afterward were to follow the portents of His presence. At the close of the testimony to the city of Jerusalem, when Stephen was stoned, we find Him as the Son of Man, standing. In this vision He reappears, walking in the midst of the ecclesias.

We should never confound the glorious personality of our Lord with His appearance as seen in visions. On the mount of transformation, He was glorified, and even His garments became white and glistening. The same glory was revealed to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road, and it outshone the sun in its effulgence. It will be sufficient to illuminate the New Jerusalem.

Yet in vision, He sometimes lays aside this glory, as when He becomes a Lambkin in the next scene in this scroll. At all such times, His appearance is official and symbolic, rather than personal. The whiteness of His head and hair, the terror of His eyes, the fiery feet, the booming voice, the two-edged saber--—all these are assumed characteristics and dignities suited to the work in hand and the office of a judge. They are not His permanent personal glories. They indicate, as nothing else could do, the searching severity with which the ecclesias at the end time will be dealt with.

To further emphasize the character of the vision we are told of its effect on John. He fell at His feet as dead. How different it will be with us when we hear the trumpet and rise to life! Let us not allow this dread picture of the Judge to dim our desire to meet Him as our Saviour. There will be no need to say to us: "Fear not!" The glorious majesty will not be insufferable, for we will be transfigured ourselves and have a body like His glorious body. We will not fall. We will rise! No dread of Him will deliver us to death. His presence will be our life!

To comfort and strengthen John the Judge reminds him of those great truths which we should always bear in mind when we see Him executing judgment. Judgment is God's strange work. It is temporary and fleeting and intermediate. It is only part of the divine process. It has no permanent place in His purpose and is no part of the final result. Christ is the First and the Last. What He has inaugurated He will see completed. Moreover, He, too, has passed through the ordeal and is the Type and Pledge of the coming glory. He endured the judgment of death but is now beyond it. More than this, He has the keys and can deliver those whom judgment casts into the jaws of death and the unseen.

Being thus comforted and restored, John is once again charged to write. As this command is a key passage, and its mistranslation has been used as the foundation of a whole system of interpretation which applies the seven messages to the ecclesias to the present economy, we shall examine it with more than ordinary care.

THE THINGS THAT ARE

The expression "the things that are" (1:9) and the interpretation of the second and third chapters of the Unveiling founded upon it, may be a stumbling block in the way of some and serve to keep them from appreciating and enjoying the light which is shed upon the whole book by the identification of "the Lord's day" with "the day of the Lord."

But in order to understand this scroll, we too, must in spirit, accompany John and view all from his point of vantage, not the one we at present occupy. Is he transported to heaven, or to the wilderness? Then let us take our stand there too. Does he see a new heaven and a new earth? Then let us remember that the former things are passed away (21:4) and do not burden that blessed time with the failure of former ages. We should act as to time just as we should in regard to place. John saw these things and heard them.

And in this way, when we read of "the things that are" we are to view them, not from the present, but from the viewpoint which John then occupied, that is, the Lord's day.

This is sufficient to remove any difficulty which the phrase "the things that are" might present. But our purpose is not to remove objections simply but to open up His word.

As the usual version is entirely out of line with the context and quite contrary to the facts, we give the idiomatic rendering of the Concordant Version and the necessary data so that anyone can test the matter to his own satisfaction.

"I came to be, in spirit, in the Lord's day, and I hear behind me a voice, loud as a trumpet, saying: `What you are observing write in a scroll and send it to the seven ecclesias.' The apostle turns and looks and sees the vision of the Son of Man in magisterial majesty in the midst of the seven lampstands with the seven stars in His right hand. After this vision, he is told, `Write, then, what you perceived, and what they are, and what is about to occur after this: the secret of the seven stars which you perceived on My right hand, and of the seven golden lampstands. The seven stars are messengers of the seven ecclesias, and the seven lampstands are the seven ecclesias.'"

"Write, then." This tells us that the second charge which John received to write flows from the vision he had just seen. It is in consequence of having seen it that he is to take up his pen. The charge is divided into three separate items. He has already recorded what he had seen and we are about to be told what the things he had seen represent. This is done in the very next sentence where the stars and lampstands are explained. Then follow the seven letters detailing to each assembly the things which impend or what was in store for them in consequence of this vision.

The writer once held that the things which John had seen were past things, then followed "the things that are" present things, (as described in the second and third chapters) and then "the things that shall be after these things" (from chapter four onwards to the end of the scroll). This division was so convenient and plausible that he was loath to leave it even when it became clear that a close study of the passage could not be forced to support it. But when God speaks it is useless to cling to anything not absolutely in harmony with His word. A few of the reasons why this interpretation had to be abandoned may be helpful to others.

In the first place, we would naturally expect that the past, present, and future tenses —that John had seen, which are and shall be— would be found just so in the original. But in this, we will be disappointed. The "shall be" is in the present tense, that is, things even then impending. And, moreover, the things which we supposed were exclusively in the past, as distinct from "the things that are," were found continually present during this period. This is vital. The vision of the Son of Man did not pass away or become past in any sense. All through the seven letters, we are continually reminded that the vision which John had seen was an abiding and solemn reality. There is no such distinction as past and present possible here.

Were the point and purpose of the passage a contrast between present and past events, then we would expect the form of expression which the Spirit is accustomed to use in such cases. We would expect it to read "things present," (which, indeed is the gloss ordinarily suggested) as in Rom.8:38; 1 Cor.3:22, etc. This is the confessed understanding of the commentators, but, as the Spirit has avoided His own formula in this case, such a meaning cannot be forced out of it.

Were it the Spirit's intention to draw our attention to "the things that are" (i.e., exist) in contrast to the things that are not, then we would expect the same phrase as is used in 1 Cor.1:28, where we have such a distinction.

But we have, instead, a relative pronoun, a form whose special office is to connect the statement with what has previously been said. It links the "are" or "represents" with the previous vision, and cannot be divorced from it without a serious infringement of the laws that govern all language.

Considerations concerning Greek idiom will lead us to change "the things that are" to "what they are" or, "what they represent." The verb to be is sometimes rendered in our versions by other words, and an examination of such passages justifies the translators in so doing. The following are some examples:

The statement is not to the effect that the two women and their sons are purely imaginary or mythical personages, but that the actual happenings referred to possess an allegorical signification.

The words "are" and "is" are frequently employed in explaining symbols, and in such instances, they are equivalent to signify or represent, as will be seen from the following examples:

It will help us to take a number of similar examples from the scroll we are considering:

It is indisputable that in these places the real force of the words "are" is to represent or signify. Lamps are not spirits, mountains are not kings, and cities are not women, but in these visions lamps and mountains and women are emblems of spirits, and kings and cities. And that this is the true rendering is placed beyond any doubt because that is exactly what John proceeds to do. After he has described the vision he immediately goes on to say: "The seven stars are (or represent, exactly the same word rendered "are" above) messengers of the seven ecclesias, and the seven lampstands are (or represent) the seven ecclesias."

But what things impend? What is about to happen within the range of the vision John had seen? The word "then" connects the charge to write so vitally with the vision itself that we are not at liberty to allow our thoughts to stray beyond its boundaries. What connection is there between the judgments following the fourth chapter and the vision of the Son of Man in the midst of the lampstands? None at all. Those judgments are preceded by and based upon entirely different visions, in which the Lord is seen in totally different environments and relationships.

We must confine the things that impend to those things which were about to befall the assemblies. This is the burden of the seven letters. If Ephesus did not repent and do the first works there was danger of its being removed out of its place. Ten days of tribulation hung over the Smyrnan assembly, and so they are encouraged. The Lord Himself threatened to fight with Pergamos. He was about to come as a thief to Sardis. He cannot come thus to us (1 Thess.5:4). Philadelphia is assured of being kept out of the hour of temptation which was about to come upon all the world. The Laodiceans were to be spewed out of His mouth. Here we have John's record of "the things which impend after these things."

Another consideration leads to the same result. In the very same sentence, as an explanation of what had just been said, it is added: "The secret of the seven stars which you perceived on my right hand and the seven golden lampstands." Were this an added thought then the word "and" would have connected it with the previous words. But as it stands it is in apposition, that is, the same thought expressed in different words. The explanation of the stars and lampstands and His word, "to the seven ecclesias" is the secret here spoken of. Thus we find that John, in fulfilling the charge to write, explains first what the things he had seen represent and then details the events about to befall each separate assembly, and in no wise goes beyond the pale of the vision in doing so. He had previously been given a general charge to write what he should see before he had turned about to view the vision, but this second charge is in the very midst of the vision itself and its explanation. To say the least, this would be a strange place to introduce a general analysis of the whole range of the Unveiling and the faintest suspicion of such a thing is dispelled by its introductory connection "then," which shows that the charge is exclusively concerned with the vision, its meaning and its consequences.

Instead, therefore, of clashing with the previous statement that John was in the Lord's day, it is in closest harmony therewith.

At the present time, we are enjoying "the stewardship of God's grace" (Eph.3:2). But Peter tells us that the time has come that judgment must begin from the house of God (1 Peter 4: 17). This, however, can only refer to that "holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9) to whom the Hebrew letter was sent (Heb.3:6, omit "own": it is God's house). Peter also refers us to Noah and Lot as a sample of what the Lord was about to do (2 Peter 2:5-7). Our Lord tells us that the days of Noah and the days of Lot are pictures of what it will be in the days of the Son of Man (Luke 17:26,28). The vision of the Son of Man in the midst of the lampstands brings before us these very days. But they cannot, must not, be suffered to dim the glories of God's present dispensation of unmixed, undiluted, and matchless grace.

It remains only to add that the literary form of these epistles is an echo of the opening denunciatory address in Amos, in which Israel and Judah are presented as among the Seven Doomed Nations: particular addresses of doom are made to each of the seven peoples, these being bound together by recurrent (though varied in detail) formulae of doom. So in the Book of Revelation, the charges to the particular churches are independent; but these are enclosed between recurrent formulae at the opening and closing of each, the formulae varied in detail for each church. The opening formula describes the Divine Speaker, the close is made up of promises and a cry of emphasis. The symbolism of the formulae is largely, but not entirely, an anticipation of the coming Revelation.

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