A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 1:9-20
Do you remember cassette tapes?
If you were born after 1985, you probably never actually owned one, but you definitely saw your dad’s Journey, The Police, and Tony Robbins tapes in the glove box of his Chevy Lumina, right?
The thing I loved most about cassettes by far was the making of mix tapes. Making a great mix tape—particularly if you were making it for someone else (The girl from the roller rink maybe?)—was a very subtle art form that required a lot of attention to pacing and flow. Someone once said, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t want to [burn out], so then you got to cool it off a notch.”
That sage advice reminds me a lot of the pacing and flow of the first chapter of Revelation. As we saw in my last post, John opens with one of the most forceful and powerful assertions of God’s power and sovereignty in all of Scripture (see 1:4-8). He kicks it off with a killer, to grab attention. And then… he takes it up a notch.
John hears a voice—as loud and clear as a trumpet (v. 10). And as he turns toward the voice he doesn’t hear, but sees something staggering:
“…Someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”
What would be your reaction if you saw such a thing?
Now, “son of man” isn’t a term referring merely to Jesus’s human nature. “Son of Man” was Jesus’s preferred way to refer to himself and it was a title that was drawn directly from Daniel 7, in which Daniel sees “…one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of very language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
We don’t know how, but somehow John knew that the being he saw in his vision was this unspeakably powerful “Son of Man” of Daniel’s vision, coming to bring his judgment and rule on the earth. His attire (drawing on imagery from Daniel 7:9) makes it clear that he is completely and perfectly holy. His blazing eyes symbolize the fact that he is an all-seeing, all-knowing judge. His voice reminds us that when we hear him speak, we are hearing the voice of the one and only God of Israel (cf. Ezek. 43:2), and the sword coming out of his mouth emphasizes the power and judgment his voice will bring. His face shining like the sun reminds us that no one can look upon Almighty God unaided without blinding their own eyes.
God has taken the vision up a notch. And John response is right:
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17).
N.T. Wright says, “For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving intimacy. John would agree with the second of these, but he would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside. To see Jesus as he is would drive us not to snuggle up to him, but to fall at his feet as though we were dead.” (Revelation for Everyone, 7)
We should love Jesus. He loves us. We should feel we can approach him. He has died for that. But we should never make him small. We should never think of him as our “pal.” We should never think of him in ways that domesticate him or bring him onto our level, as though he is not the ruler of all the universe, of which we are an infinitesimally small part.
But listen. After God takes the intensity of this revelation up a notch, he knows he needs to bring it down a notch. The weary and worried believers that are being addressed are already terrified because of their persecutors. Should they also be terrified of their savior? Of course not. And so John sees this staggeringly powerful God place his right hand on him and say, “Don’t be afraid” (v. 17).
Again, imagine the effect this must have had on the battered, broken, scared and doubting believers. Is there anything they would have needed to hear more? “Don’t be afraid.” I imagine God meant more than just, “Don’t be afraid of what you’re seeing at this moment.” He meant it more deeply—more comprehensively: “Don’t be afraid of what you’re experiencing. Don’t be afraid of what’s happening around you.”
Why? Why not fear? Why should we not be afraid?!…
Because, “I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
We need a God that big. For all of the terrifying, unsettling, depressing and defeating things we see in the world and in our lives, we need a God who would absolutely terrify us… if he did not kneel down to us, meet our eyes, place his hand on our shoulder and say, “Don’t be afraid. I’m bigger than all of this. And I am with you. I am for you.” A Jesus who is your “buddy” or “pal” will not be big enough and strong enough to rescue you when life falls apart. Don’t think of him that way. “Fun” as that may be, it makes him smaller than what you’re going to need. A Jesus who has long hair, a well-trimmed beard, and wears Birkenstocks (as in all of the most historically inaccurate church basement portraits) will not be powerful enough to take on your worst enemies. He will not be able to conquer death and sadness. He will not be able to raise the dead and flood the earth with justice.
So let us never make him small. Let us envision Jesus, like John, as more powerful and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. Even as we remember that he died for us, and says to us even now, “Don’t be afraid.”