Revelation, writes Paul Spilsbury, “wants us to take its world to be even more real than the one we commonly refer to as ‘the real world.’ In fact, Revelation is out to undermine our confidence in the evidence of our own eyes.”
And the Roman Emperor was the biggest, baddest figure in the world of that time. His rule was very, very real. He held the lives of his people in his hands. If is it right to date Revelation during the latter part of Domitian’s reign, we know this Emperor wanted himself called and worshiped as “Lord and God.” Asia Minor was replete was temples and centers for Emperor worship. The Emperor and the Empire were inescapable realites. Richard Baukham writes:
In such a context the strongest possible counter-images to imperial propaganda were required. Thus the vivid and to us bizarre and lurid imagery that pervades the vision. They may not readily communicate to us 21st century readers but to its first century hearers they had immediate and revolutionary impact. Careful study can unpack some of the imagery for us, enough for us to get a clear idea of what these visions are designed to do. John gathers images or resonances from far and wide in his world to bring to bear his message with as much impact as he can.
Toward this end, John’s vision is punctuated with images of Jesus. Images that function like the Transfiguration narratives in the gospels. They unveil or reveal the truth about Jesus and his status in the cosmos to counter the imperial vision of the Emperor as world rule and perhaps even divine. 1:15-20 is the first of these seven “Transfigurations” in Revelation. Others are in 5:6-7; 12:1-6; 14:1; 14:14; 19:16; and 22:12-17. The number seven, as elsewhere in Revelation, is symbolic carrying the sense of completeness or fullness. These seven visions form a complete or full picture of Christ.
This first “Transfiguration” where the veil is retracted and we can “see” Jesus Christ as he really is must be read with the Emperor, the President, or whoever represents the most powerful person or
force around, as its foil.
John hears a voice commanding him to write down this vision. Turning, he spies the one who spoke to him. The palatte from which he works includes images from Exodus, Ezekiel, and Daniel, Roman ideology, astrology, and Hellenistic folk religion. He imaginatively melds all these sources into a new creation which captures in some measure the greatness and glory of Christ.
John “sees” Jesus as a royal high priest, identified with the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7, standing among his people (seven candlesticks) in judgment and purification, holding the course of nature and history in his hands. His “weapon” of judgment and purification is the “sharp two-edged sword” proceeding from his mouth (2:12,16; 19:15) the Word of God, the gospel. The proclamation of this Word is way this Jesus exercises his power.
John falls prostrate, seemingly struck dead by the august majesty of this presence. Christ, however, places his powerful right hand on John bidding him not to fear but to be about the work he has been called to do. This metaphorical “resurrection” of John and the work he is given Christ grounds on his own resurrection from the dead (v.17-18). In the resurrection God validates and vindicates Jesus’ way as his own way of being human. Ultimately, this is what it means to be God as well, as the rest of John’s vision shows. Victor over death he now rules over death and the place of death, Hades (v.18). No wonder Paul can say if Christ is not raised we are most to be pitied among people (1 Corinthians 15:19)!
Ultimately, the resurrection and Jesus’ life of undeviating loyalty and obedience to his Father that lead to it, are the chief marks by which we identify true God, genuine humanity, and the good/god life.