Revelation is one of the most difficult biblical books to interpret. The subject matter and widespread symbolism can make it hard to determine what to take literally and what to take figuratively. But even though it’s a challenge, it can’t be ignored. The warning near the end of the book (22:18) makes it clear that God expects us to take it seriously.
1:12 The seven churches are represented by seven golden lampstands to signify the expression of divine life that should radiate through all churches. Indeed, churches are to illuminate their communities.
1:13-16 These verses present a picture of Jesus that contrasts with much of what we see in the four Gospels. He is no longer a baby in a manger with nowhere to lay his head. Instead, he is mighty and majestic as he will certainly be at his second coming as Judge and King of the earth. His eyes are like a fiery flame, his feet like fine bronze . . . and his voice is like the sound of cascading waters. There is a sword coming from his mouth, and his face is shining like the sun at full strength (1:14-15). This image assures us that when Christ returns, the rulership he has always possessed by virtue of his position as God’s Son will be realized in practice.
Notably, Jesus in his might and power is situated among the lampstands to signify his visible rulership of the church as Judge and King, even before his second coming to personally and directly rule the entire world (1:13; see 1:20). In other words, before he returns to rule the world, he wants to rule the church. The church, then, cannot view Jesus merely as a gentle figure with long hair and a loving gaze. Christians must view him as a ruler, for there is a judgment side of Jesus along with the blessing side we love to talk about. He is the might and strength at the center of the church.
1:17-18 When John saw Jesus as the church’s Judge and Ruler, he fell at his feet like a dead man, and the Lord had to raise him up with the admonition, Don’t be afraid (1:17). The keys Jesus spoke of represent access to death and Hades, and by extension, access to heaven (1:18).
1:19 This verse presents an outline of the book of Revelation. John was commanded to write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this. After writing the vision he had just seen (chapter 1), John was to share about the present state of the seven churches (chapters 2–3), and then the future tribulation and eternal state (chapters 4–22).
1:20 The chapter closes with an explanation of the vision’s symbolism. The seven stars (see 1:16) represent the seven angels of the seven churches. The Greek word translated “angel” in the CSB, angelos, means “messenger,” and that’s the intended sense here. The pastors who declare God’s Word, then, are God’s messengers to the churches. The seven lampstands represent the churches themselves, specifically the spiritual light they are to emit.