The Seven Stars; Rev. 1:16
As we look at these descriptions of the Lord Jesus Christ in the first chapter we must realize that they are going to be reviewed again in the second and third chapters. The second and third chapters of Revelation comprise the seven individual letters to the seven churches, but each one begins with a salutation and a source of the epistle. Each one attributes various characteristics of the Lord Jesus Christ as displayed in this section, except for the letter to Laodicea. So this forms the backdrop for understanding those seven letters to the seven churches. For example, we will see that in 2:1 the epistle was written to "the angel of the church in Ephesus write; These things said he who holds the seven stars in his right hand…." That comes from 1:16. This shows that there is a unity between all of these chapters. So the foundation is understanding the role of Jesus as he walks and moves in the midst of the churches. This is a picture of Jesus' involvement as a priest-judge in the life of the church throughout the church age. The letters to the seven churches, then, outline various problems. He praises them for positive things, He critiques them for certain negative things, certain failures, and that flows out of His present ministry as the priest-judge. All of this shows that there is a very tight unity in this section. It shows that it had to have been written by one individual and it shows a high quality of literature. It is written well, everything ties together perfectly. But further, all of these titles not only give us an understand of Jesus as the priest-judge, they form the backdrop for understanding Revelation 2 & 3, but they also demonstrate that in this description it is teaching that Jesus Christ is fully God. This section shows that the writers of Scripture believed Jesus Christ is fully God, it wasn't something that was trumped up two or three hundred years later.
We are told in this section that His head and His hair were white like wool. This borrows its imagery from the Ancient of Days, who was God the Father, in Daniel 7:9. So there is a clear claim to depicting Jesus as full deity in this passage. His voice is said to be as the sound of many waters. Again, this is a reference to a similar phrase in Ezekiel 43:3 where the sound of that voice like many waters is attributed to God. In Isaiah 44:6; 48:12 we have the phrase, the first and the last. Again, what is attributed to God in the Old Testament is now being assigned to Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is the "living one," present active participle, and this, too, is borrowed from the Old Testament where it is applied to God in passages such as Joshua 3:10; Psalm 42:2; Hosea 1:10. Then Jesus said, "I have the keys of death and of Hades," and in Judaism the rabbis believed that there were three keys which belonged to God. A key was something that was used to open a door, and therefore it indicates control and ultimate power. The rabbis said that only God has the keys to birth, rain, and raising the dead. So when Jesus makes this claim He is saying He has the power over life and death, He has the power over Hades. Hades is not hell, Hades is the place that the dead went. It was the Old testament concept that indicated the holding place for Old Testament saints when they died. They didn't go directly to heaven, they went to Hades. The reason that they went to Hades was because Jesus Christ had not yet died on the cross. Hades actually had several compartments. One was known as Paradise or Abraham's bosom. Another was known as torments and was where unbelievers went. Then another part is Tartarus where the angels who sinned in Genesis 6 were confined. But those Old Testament believers went to Abraham's bosom or Paradise when they died and when Jesus Christ died on the cross He went down to Hades to announce to those who are lost that their condemnation was certain. Then He went to demons in Tartarus because His death on the cross also secured their condemnation. Then He went to Paradise and there transferred it to heaven so that the Old Testament saints could now enter into heaven because the payment for sin, the redemption of Christ, had actually been paid. In the Old Testament they were saved provisionally based on the promise of future salvation. So what we see throughout this section is a clear understanding and identification of Jesus Christ with God.
If you do away with the deity of Christ you do away with Christianity. That is why there is such an assault today; that is why it is such an important issue; that is why the devil seeks to destroy the doctrine of the deity of Christ. So we must take a stand here and we must understand this particular doctrine. The Bible clearly depicts Jesus Christ as fully God. From His birth He is said to be Emanuel, a term that means God with us.
Revelation 1:16, "And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shines in its strength."
This is the last part of the description of this vision of Jesus Christ. In His right hand He is holding seven stars. The right hand indicates the source of power and authority. Having these in His right hand indicates control, it indicates His place of authority over the seven starts. The seven stars in turn have been interpreted in a variety of ways. Often one from a liberal background tries to identify this in a cultural sense. Fr example, in 83 AD Domitian had a gold coin minted which pictured one of his sons that he had lost. On the back of this coin there was a picture of this dead child sitting on the globe of heaven playing with the stars. The legend on the coin read, "Divas Caesar Domitiani," i.e. Divine Caesar, son of the Emperor Domitian. The seven stars indicated seven planets, a symbol of heavenly dominion over the world. The symbolism of these seven planets originated on the island of Crete with the mythical god Zeus was born. On Cretan coins Zeus was depicted as playing with a heavenly globe, indicating his rule over the earth. However, that is not the background to this imagery because the Bible tells us what this imagery means, we are not left to just guess. Verse 20 explains what this means: "The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which you saw are the seven churches." So the Bible interprets itself.
The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. What does that mean? This is a very difficult phrase to interpret. There are basically three positions that have been developed over time in understanding the phrase "angels of the seven churches." The first is that this phrase "angel" refers to a heavenly being, not to a human being or human messenger. The strength of this is that, first of all, the term AGGELOS [a)ggeloj] is used 67 times in the book of Revelation. Every other time that that word is used in Revelation it refers to heavenly beings. There it is argued that based on consistency this should be understood as an angel.
Second, they are identified as stars. Stars = angels. This is an important observation in the text. Stars are used in the Old Testament and the New Testament to describe the literal light-bearing bodies out there in the universe. That is the literal use, the predominant meaning: the physical luminaries in the heavens. Flowing from that the term star is used to signify the number of the descendants of Abraham. That is how we find it used most of the time in the Old Testament. From that comparison there is a third use. It is used two times in the Bible to symbolize or represent the twelve tribes of Israel: Genesis 37:9; Revelation 12:1. The term "stars of heaven" was used to refer to angels, heavenly beings, in three Old Testament passages and four New Testament passages: Job 38:7; Isaiah 14:13; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 1:16, 20; 2:1; 12:4. So in terms of metaphorical or figurative use the term "stars" refers to either the twelve tribes of Israel (clearly defined by context in only two passages) or angels. There is no other metaphorical use. Stars never refer to human beings, human messengers, to prophets, to pastors. Thus it is clear that stars are a symbol for heavenly beings, not human messengers.
The third approach to try to resolve this is that the stars are the pastors of these local congregations. The question is: Why is it that Jesus Christ would address these epistles to the angels? Why would He send these epistles to an angel when the body of the epistle itself is a critique of a ministry in the local church of human beings? The solution being worked on is a parallel in this book. Notice Revelation 1:1, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show to his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John." How did Jesus Christ communicate it? By sending His angel to His servant John. So Jesus Christ dispatches a heavenly being, an angel, that is going to be partially responsible for communicating this revelation to John. What happens? When we get into the description of what takes place John says, "And I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the midst of the seven lampstands one like the Son of man." He didn't say he saw an angel. He saw the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. And the Son of Man gave him directions. So we see a dynamic going on here where we see an angel involved, and the Lord Jesus Christ is involved, but there is no further discussion of how this angel is operating in the process. Same thing is true in the Old Testament. Galatians 3 tells us that the Mosaic law was mediated by angels, but if we go back to Exodus there is no mention of an angel anywhere. What is going on here? What is going on has to do with the angelic conflict and the fact that angels are witnessing and observing what is going on in human history and attesting to the integrity of God. That is what we suggest is going on here, that these angels are being given the critique sheet for the local church that they are assigned to. There is an angel in heaven that has the responsibility in terms of validating the integrity of God as it is being worked out in human history. So the letter actually has a two-fold destination. One has to do with the heavenly witness—and remember, there is this heavenly witness of angels in the Old Testament in the giving of the law—and there is the earthly congregation. They are both getting a copy, as it were. So we are dealing with two different dimensions but it ties in the role of the angelic conflict where we have angels who are watching local congregations and, as part of the process of validating the witness or testimony or deposition given by that local congregation. That seems to be the only solution that fits the evidence of a lexicon.
The bottom line is that these critique sheets are being given to each congregation for their self-evaluation, because the Word of God serves as a sharp two-edged sword. It's purpose is for the believer to go through self-judgment by evaluating his mental attitude, his thinking, his lifestyle on the basis of the Word of God. The warning in this passage sis that if we don't sit under the sharp two-edged sword of Hebrews 4:12 and do it yourself then there is the threat of divine discipline.
That brings us to the next phrase: "and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword." The mouth is the source of the mandates of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is where He has communicated to us what His mandates are. When we hear the phrase "sharp two-edged sword" the phrase that usually comes to mind is the one in Hebrews 4:12. The word there for sword is MACHAIRA [maxaira]. This was a short two-edge sword that the Roman soldiers used for close-in combat. It was used both as a defensive weapon and an offensive weapon. The Word of God is defined through this metaphor. It cuts to the soul. It exposes what is going on in your life. We can either sit under the judgment of the Word of God in our life and respond to that as it critiques our thinking, our attitudes, our life, or we get the other sword, the RHOMPHAIA [r(omfaia]. This was the Thracian long broadsword used to hack and to kill. This is the sword that is used all through Revelation. For example, in Revelation 19:15 as the Lord is returning at the second coming He is using the RHOMPHAIA, which is used for discipline and judgment, to "strike the nations." It is the rebellious pagan nations that are coming under the judgment of God. In 1:7 it is the local church, believers, who come under divine discipline. So your choice is: Are you going to put yourself under self-judgment from the Word of God and deal with it yourself by application of doctrine, or are you going to put yourself through disobedience under the eventual harsh divine discipline from the Lord Jesus Christ? Revelation 19:21 is another mention of this sword. At that point again the context is still the second coming of Christ: "And the rest were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh." So we have this sword coming in two different judgments. One is a judgment that is related to the local church, seen in the letter to Pergamum. In 2:16 there is a warning: "Repent; or else I will come to you quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth." That would be divine discipline on a local church for compromising doctrine.
The Lord Jesus Christ takes doctrine seriously. We see an emphasis throughout those letters and the problem with those who don't take doctrine seriously and compromise doctrine. We live in an age today where people don't want to emphasize doctrine, they just want to emote. They just want to have unity, but the Bible talks about a unity of "the faith," that is a unity of doctrine, not a unity of emotion, a unity at the expense of doctrine, and not a unity based on experience. It is a unity based upon the truth of God's Word. So the picture we see in Revelation 1:16 is that the Lord Jesus Christ is a judge. He is going to come and judge the local church.
Then thirdly, "and his countenance was as the sun shines in its strength." In other words, there is a brilliance to His appearance. This reminds us of His Shekinah glory that was seen in the Old Testament when the Jews would follow a pillar of fire at night, and they would see Moses come out from the tent of meeting and his face would glow with a brilliant glow because he had been in the presence of God and he had to veil his face. This phrase also comes from the Old Testament: Judges 5:31, "…but let them that love him be as the sun when he goes forth in his might." Once again, we see that to understand Revelation we have to understand the Old Testament. John is not just making these things up, they all go back into Old Testament references that say something about Jesus Christ.
The summary of this verse
1) The appearance we see here is of Christ as judge. He comes as a priest-judge to judge the local church through divine discipline if they do not practice self-judgment from the glory of our Lord's humanity. In our Lord's humanity he was impeccable and was qualified to go to the cross on our behalf. Because of His judgment on our behalf he is not qualified to be our judge, and God the Father delegates that judgment to Jesus Christ.
2) In terms of His appearance as a judge Revelation emphasizes His role in chapter 19 coming as a judge of all mankind. He will come and judge unbelievers.
3) The whiteness, the brilliance of His appearance emphasizes His integrity, His perfect righteousness, that His impeccability resulted from His use in His humanity of eight of the problem-solving devices. (He had no need to use confession of sin or occupation with Christ) He used these in order to solve the problems in life and to set the precedent for the Christian life. Because He consistently used those problem-solving devices he was always in fellowship and sinless.
4) This is a resurrection appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to John, the last resurrection appearance in the Bible. There were 17 post-resurrection appearances.