“Transverse Presence” – Revelation 1:14-20

by Roger McCay
21 February 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 1:14-20
Link to Audio Version

The story is told of Mrs. Monroe of Darlington, Maryland. She’s the mother of eight children. One afternoon, she came home from the grocery store, and as she walked into her home. Everything looked pretty much the same (though it was a bit quieter than usual). She looked into the middle of the living room and five of her darlings were sitting around in a circle, exceedingly quiet, doing something in the middle of the circle. She put down the sacks of groceries and walked over closely and saw that they were playing with five of the cutest skunks you can imagine. She was instantly terrified and yelled, “Run, children, run!” Each child grabbed a skunk and ran in five different directions. She was beside herself and screamed louder. It so scared the children that each one squeezed his and her skunk. And as we all know, skunks don’t like to be squeezed.[1]

Fear is a natural response to danger and things out of our control. It’s the cause of panic, anxiety, and people can, apparently, die from it. In such ways it’s an emotional response. It can also be a rational response, leading to wise actions in the face of danger, what we might call a healthy fear. It is in the face of fear, too, when the virtue of courage shines bright.

Fear is also a most sensible response when it comes how we understand the Lord in relation to ourselves. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “wisdom” (Prov. 1:7 & 9:10). For the redeemed, God’s covenant people purchased by his blood on the cross, fear of the Lord is not a fear of death, damnation, or suffering God’s wrath. It is, rather, the opposite. The fear of the Lord emanating from his beloved people is a response of respectful, worshipful, loving awe of the Almighty. Thus, it is from that point, in the fear of the Lord, that we journey into true knowing and the understanding of the deeper things. And, too, as God’s people, our fear of the Lord means we have a solid foundation for courage in the face of anything.

Jesus, the incarnate Lord, has a transverse presence—transversing heaven and earth. As God, he is omnipresent (also omniscient and omnipotent).[2] As Man, he has a physical body, and can manifest his presence anywhere at will. In the case of our passage today, the Lord’s coming to a particular place and time and to a particular man reveals aspects of his loving assurance, exalted reality, and shepherding concern.

So it was that, sometime in the mid-60s AD, John was on the prison island of Patmos, worshipping in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, Sunday, and Jesus appeared to him in his glory. John knew Jesus well. He was one of Jesus’ twelve specially called disciples, who spent the years of Jesus’ ministry with him. Within that group he was of the Peter, James, and John trio. He also knew Jesus as a best friend, and is known as the beloved disciple. John saw Jesus transfigured and meeting with Moses and Elijah, and he saw Jesus crucified, risen, then ascending. John was also the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother, Mary. Yet, we see that despite his very close relationship with Jesus, John was overwhelmed with a healthy fear of the most powerful being in existence paying him a visit, in the flesh—Creator to creature, Sovereign to subject, Redeemer to redeemed, eternal Word to apostle. John’s awe and natural response, in the sudden manifested presence of the risen, glorified Lord, led him to fall down on his face as though dead (Rev. 1:17).

Notice how Jesus responded to John’s falling on his face, in vv. 17-18.

But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

Jesus responds to John’s prostration with assurance, with both a touch and knowledge. The physical touch of the Lord tells us that John was not hallucinating, or simply experiencing a trancelike vision. The Lord was physically present with John. Considering the circumstances (with John on a prison island and his tribulation), this brings to mind the Lord Jesus’ physically appearing to Paul (when Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem), both as a comfort to Paul and to give Paul a message that would sustain him through the coming hard times (Acts 23:11).

In both these cases, notice there is a physical coming of the Lord. Jesus can pull back the veil, physically manifesting himself upon the earth at any time. He is not somehow constrained in heaven. He is not limited to the spiritual realms. There are comings, which foreshadow his final coming.

It has been suggested that Jesus’ touch with his right hand may have had the sense of a commissioning, as he gives John the task—to write. This may be so, as it makes sense in context.[3] Nonetheless, Jesus’ touch was also a gesture of assurance, comforting care given to a beloved that was patiently enduring tribulation. While holding the seven stars in his right hand (v. 16), with his right hand he still takes action to comfort the one. How could John fear, having been so touched with the sovereign hand of power?

John’s description also hearkens back to Daniel’s experience (who was in another form of exile), when the Lord’s angel appeared to him with revelation (Daniel 10 – our OT reading this morning).[4] But Rev. 1:10-20 was not a creature-to-creature interaction, like Daniel’s. It was a Holy, Creator God-man to sinful, creature mortal-man manifestation. Also, Jesus’ assurance to not fear was not based on a passed-along message that “God has seen your faithfulness and prayers” (like in Daniel 10:12). Jesus told John not to fear, grounding his assurance in the truth embodied in his own person and work. “Fear not” because … well, Jesus.

Jesus told John not to fear because “I am the first and the last, and the living one.” Jesus rolls out three names that are specific names for God right off the bat, as an expression of his deity. “I am” – ἐγώ εἰμι – which hearkens to the name for Yahweh nuanced from Ex. 3:14 given in Rev. 1:4. Then “the first and last,” hearkening to “the Alpha and Omega” name, in v. 8, and is a self-given name by Yahweh in Isa. 41:4, 44:6 and 48:12. There, like here, the emphasis is upon the Lord as creator of all, who is sovereign over history. He is the primary cause and definitive end. And as one has said, “He is the origin and goal of all history.”[5] Thus John is told not to fear because Jesus is God, who governs the procession of history, sovereign over its commencement until its very end.

The third name Jesus gives for himself, the Living One, rolls into Jesus’ emphasis of his triumph over death in v. 18. God is commonly referred to as “the Living One” in the Bible (such as in Josh: 3:10, Ps. 42:2; Hos. 1:10; Acts 14:15; and Rom. 9:26). And as Grant Osborne points out, “In the OT the title is in antithesis to the idols/pagan gods that have no life or power.”[6] Thus Jesus is the Living God who is the true God.

Jesus also told John not to fear because “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.” The Lord, here, refers to his crucifixion, “I died.” He died, yet he lives. He is the resurrected one. He is the first and the last, the living one, who died and is now alive forevermore. Jesus is emphasizing his eternality, as incarnate Lord, in very clear terms. [7] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 14).” He “died,” and is “alive forevermore.” Jesus is the eternal Lord over whom death has no hold.

Thus Jesus told John not to fear also because “I hold the keys of Death and Hades.” Jesus is Lord over death and the intermediate state. He has conquered death in his resurrection. And now, as the exalted, all-powerful Lord over all, he holds the power over death itself and where we go when we die. For the followers of the Lord this removes any need to fear death. Death has no hold over us. Like Paul wrote, Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection of his people, and a guarantee for his follower’s resurrection to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:20-22). Jesus is the one who gives eternal life (Rev. 22:14). As such, considering John and the churches’ tribulative circumstances, Jesus’ assuring words would have been an extreme comfort.

Craig Keener puts it this way:

Others like the emperor, employing the brute power of the state, could have persons executed even if they could not restore the dead. Yet because Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades, he—rather than the Roman emperor or believers’ other persecutors—controls who lives and dies. No hair of theirs will fall to the ground apart from his knowledge and will (Matt. 10:29–31), so those who trust his loving care do not need to fear. Death will not come to them by accident; when it comes, it comes only in the time our loving Lord permits it.[8]

Jesus is God. His assuring truths for John and the churches then are the assuring truths we possess now. And if you are one of his, what a blessed assurance you have in him! When we fear those things and people who might assail us and bring us pain, this is who tells us not to fear. It is not our works that brings assurance. It is the truth of Jesus Christ (his person and his work) in which our assurance is grounded. It is who Jesus is that brings assurance. In our daily trials, whatever they might be, let us always keep Jesus in mind. He keeps you in mind. He’s as close as a touch. Because the Lord transverses heaven and earth, let us be mindful of his loving assurance.

When John had turned around, after the voice like a trumpet first addresses him, he describes “the one like a son of man,” whom he sees. This was, of course, as we’ve been considering, Jesus, and last week we considered the allusions to Jesus’ offices of Prophet, Priest and King to which vv. 10-13 hearkens.

John describes Jesus in this way (Rev. 1:14-16):

14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

It’s important we understand that John is being extremely symbolic in his description, here.

He is highlighting necessary understandings of Jesus’ being, in relation to the Revelation that follows. Essentially, as Dennis Johnson points out, “The symbols seen by John in the vision reveal not what Jesus looks like but what he is like.”[9] Indeed, for each church, the various descriptions of the Lord that John has been touching upon in ch. 1 (including these) are used to describe the source of each letter, such as 2:18: “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” Each bit of description is symbolic but part of the whole picture, and as we consider this particular image of Christ that John describes, it is important that we do not “unweave the rainbow,”[10] like one man has said. Yet we do need to consider its aspects.

Once again, John draws heavily from the OT, particularly from Ezekiel and Daniel. I find it interesting that five of the seven symbols have to do with the Lord’s head. Perhaps this is due to Jesus’ being “the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). The revelation is for his church, and the message from the Lord, which John is told to write, is from the head of the church.

His hair was “white like white wool, like snow.” This is like the description of “the Ancient of Days,” God himself, from Daniel 7:9. The emphasis on white emphasizes purity, and, perhaps, it implies ideas like wisdom, calmness and the dignity of age. [11] In Daniel, the term is also used in the context of judgment (“the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened” – v. 10), emphasizing the major theme of judgment in Revelation. Further, his “eyes were like a flame of fire,” hearkening to the eyes of the angel in Daniel 10:6, indicating a vigorous intensity, and a clear vision that sees the deeper things beyond all obfuscation. Also, in the divine case this particularly hearkens to a sovereign insight into all of history and serves as “a metaphor of judgment.”[12]

His “voice was like the roar of many waters,” bringing to mind the powerful roar of the waterfall and rapids, like the tumult of an army, recalling the coming of God, God’s voice in Ezekiel 1:24 & 43:2. Then “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” This imagery, perhaps, also hearkens to the sword in the mouth of the servant, in Isa. 49:2. And the word for “sword” here is not referring to the Roman short sword (neither gladius or the μάχαιρα, the latter which is the term used in Heb. 4:12 and Eph. 6:17). Rather, it is a reference to the broad and large Thracian sword (ῥομφαία)[13] carried by the calvary, which was used like a scythe on the battlefield. It is an offensive weapon and is put in the mouth of Christ as the Word of Christ used in decisive action against those who would oppose his sovereign will, thus being a symbol of “the irresistible power of divine judgment.” [14]

The final description of Christ’s head is his face, which was “like the sun shining in full strength.” It is glorious, radiating, recalling the transfiguration of Matt. 17:2. This speaks to the glorious power of Christ’s countenance, a comforting countenance for his people, pushing back the darkness with his unrelenting light, and a terrifying countenance when turned upon his enemies.[15] As Gary Smalley puts it:

Through the darkness of spiritual opposition, the light shines in judgement and without being extinguished. But for those who believe, and enter the light, salvation through judgement becomes possible.[16]

John’s description of the Christ’s feet, in v. 15, is that they were “like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace.” Once again, John hearkens to the description of the angel in Daniel 10:6, and also that of the living creatures in Ezek. 1:7. This seems to be an indication of strength and stability in Jesus, along with his indomitable movement and stance among his lampstands, the churches. And, finally, we have Jesus holding the “seven stars” in his right hand. That it is his right hand indicates power, sovereignty, and rule. And, as the seven stars are “the angels of the seven churches” (v. 20), it also speaks to his protection, discipline, assurance, and care for his people (John 10:28).

My friends, this is a picture of Christ over which to ponder. It’s not like one of those horrible portraits we see of Jesus, that portray him as a weak-looking, white man with blue eyes. The picture that John paints with words is a picture of the one who is holy, glorious, eternal, sovereign, all-powerful, all knowing, all-wise, judge of all, who destroys his enemies and cares for his churches. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And this picture describes why! My friends, that’s our Lord Jesus. That’s the one who loves you, and keeps you, and cares for you. Take heart! Why? … Jesus! Because the Lord transverses heaven and earth, let us be mindful of his exalted reality.

And so we come to the point of Jesus’ visit. John has no reason to fear because Jesus has a mission for him—a mission to write, as a witness to what he sees. Verse 19:

19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.

Some see this passage as an outline, of sorts, to the book of Revelation, comparing it to Acts 1:8. And while the things John writes that are revealed to him include past, present, and future events (from the point and time of this vision, in mid-AD 60s), v. 19 is a statement about the general content within the whole of Revelation. So, to be clear, v. 19 is not an outline dividing up the book. The whole book contains the elements of past, present, and future throughout. We’ll look at that as we go along. But consider that Jesus is going to tell John, who’s exiled to an island, about the narrow and wide transverse perspective of history, the present reality of the time, and the future. Who can do that? Only God, “the first and the last” and “the living one.” Thus, by his exalted description and his transverse, incarnate presence, we’ve been prepared for the truth of what is to be revealed.

In v. 20, the recipients of the letter are once again described, this time with an explanation as to the symbology used for them:

20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

We covered the seven lampstands last week. So, let’s briefly consider the seven stars in Jesus’ right hand. Jesus calls them “the angels of the seven churches.” Some see these as literal angels, but their workarounds (as to why Jesus would tell John to write a letter to heavenly angels) seem a big stretch. That’s not what Jesus is saying here. The angels referred to (in this instance and then in the address to specific churches),  are people—a particular person in each church. That’s why in 2:1, it says, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write,” and so forth. John has already mentioned the blessing that would be upon the reader of the letters to the churches in v. 3. Who might this be? As the word for “angel” in the Greek also means “messenger,” context implies it is the messenger of the church. It’s the one who brings God’s Word. Who is that? It’s the pastor, the presbyter, the elder who teaches, the preacher who has a particular duty to faithfully bring God’s Word to God’s people, and who carries the responsibility for the flock with the other elders. In the Presbyterian church we are called Teaching Elders. And through the preacher, the Lord’s Word is brought forth to the church.

My friends, our omnipresent and omniscient Lord knows us individually and as his church. He is involved with us. He is in the details of our lives. He cares for us with an assuring love, communicating to us by his Word, the Bible. As the preacher of this church (Monroeville Presbyterian Church of the Presbyterian Church in America), I’m called by God and called, ordained, and installed by the church with the authority to bring that Word to you, as the Lord’s messenger. And so it has been for those who’ve come before, and those who may come after. And so, I preach to you God’s Word (2 Tim. 4:2). It’s a terrifying post, I must say (in the fear of the Lord), but I draw comfort from his Word.

The theology of preaching is deep, but consider this profound statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The preached Christ … is access to the historical Jesus. Therefore, the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.[17]

Let us heed God’s Word, as it is the Lord’s transverse communication to you and I. Through it he guides us, cares for us, and reveals himself to us. Because the Lord transverses heaven and earth, let us be mindful of his shepherding concern.

There is no realm or state of being that is outside our Lord’s sovereign power and control; he transverses it all. Rather than keeping at a distance, he comes near, and he has compassion for his people. Take heart in this truth. Jesus is with us! Because the Lord transverses heaven and earth, his church must be mindful of his presence.


[1] Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1998), 207-208.

[2] Cf. John M. Frame, “The Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence of God,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed 26 Mar 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/omnipotence-omniscience-omnipresence-god/; also “The Omnipresent Son of God,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed 26 Mar 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/the-omnipresent-son-of-god/.

[3] Cf. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 94.

[4] There are some distinct symbolic parallels that occur in John’s whole account with Daniel’s visions. There is the falling on his face (Daniel 10:9), the touch of reassurance (10:10), and the command to “fear not” along with assuring words as to why not to fear (10:12). Cf. Daniel 8 for a similar experience.

[5] Osborne, 95, quoting Bauckham (1993a: 27).

[6] Osborne, 95.

[7] Cf. Osborne, 95–96.

[8] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 98.

[9] Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 60.

[10] Osborne, 89, quoting Caird (1966: 25–26).

[11] Cf. Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 58.

[12] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 209, states: “His eyes as a flame of fire” is a metaphor of judgment [cf. 2:18–23]). Jesus’ constant presence with the churches means that he always knows their spiritual condition, which results either in blessing or judgment.” Also cf. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 59, who suggests the symbolism speaks to “the penetrating insight of the one who is sovereign, not only over the seven churches but over the entire course of history as well.”

[13] Interestingly, this term for sword (ῥομφαία) is also a variant for the term, μάχαιρα, that cropped up in the fifth century (D), in Luke 21:24, as part of Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction in the Olivet Discourse.

[14] Mounce, 60.

[15] This also recalls, to some extent, the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5:31.

[16] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 55.

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reconstructed notes from various students taken during his homiletics lectures, ed. Eberhard Bethge (Finkenwalde Seminary, 1935-1939), quoted in Clyde E. Fant, Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers, 1975), 126.