Among the Lampstands
Psalm 73 describes the psalmist’s bewilderment as he observed the boastful pride of the ungodly. They lived in abundance and ease, in contrast to the suffering of the righteous. This injustice greatly troubled the psalmist (Ps. 73:2–16), who, in his perplexity, went to the sanctuary (Ps. 73:16, 17). There, in the presence of God, he was given a deeper understanding of the matter.
Centuries later, an aged apostle found himself on a rocky prison island because of his faithful witness. In his distress, he got the news that the churches under his care were suffering. Yet, at that critical moment, he was given a vision of the resurrected Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. Here, as with the psalmist, the Lord revealed to John some mysteries of this life and the struggles it brings. This sanctuary scene provided him with the assurance of Christ’s presence and care—an assurance that John was to pass on to these churches and to the succeeding generations of Christians throughout the centuries until the end of this world’s history.
This week, in addition to introducing Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, we will begin looking at the first of His seven special messages to His church, addressed collectively to the seven churches in Asia, but which also have meaning for us today. Next week, we will look at His messages to the other six churches.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 12.
Patmos is a barren, rocky island in the Aegean Sea; it is ten miles long and six miles across its widest part. The Romans used it, together with other surrounding islands, as a penal colony for banished political offenders. Early Christian authors living relatively close to the time of the writing of the book of Revelation state unanimously that Roman authorities had banished John to Patmos because of his faithfulness to the gospel. On Patmos, the aged apostle surely endured all the hardships of Roman imprisonment. He probably was treated as a criminal, chained in fetters, given insufficient food, and forced to perform hard labor under the lash of the whip of merciless Roman guards.
“Patmos, a barren, rocky island in the Aegean Sea, had been chosen by the Roman government as a place of banishment for criminals; but to the servant of God this gloomy abode became the gate of heaven. Here, shut away from the busy scenes of life, and from the active labors of former years, he had the companionship of God and Christ and the heavenly angels, and from them he received instruction for the church for all future time.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 570, 571.
The followers of Christ should never forget that whenever they find themselves in circumstances similar to those of John, they are not left alone. The same Jesus who came to John with the words of hope and encouragement in the midst of his hardship on Patmos still is present with His people to sustain and support them in their difficult situations.
“It was on the Sabbath that the Lord of glory appeared to the exiled apostle. The Sabbath was as sacredly observed by John on Patmos as when he was preaching to the people in the towns and cities of Judea. He claimed as his own the precious promises that had been given regarding that day.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 581.
Revelation 1:10 clearly suggests that the apostle John received the vision on the seventh-day Sabbath. Although looking with anticipation toward future events, even to the second coming of Christ (compare with Rev. 1:7), which is called “the day of the Lord” (Isa. 13:6–13; 2 Pet. 3:10), John was talking about the time at which he, himself, had the vision of these future events, and that was on the Sabbath—the “Lord’s day.”
No question that amid his sufferings this vision-filled Sabbath must have become to him a foretaste of a life free from suffering, which he and the faithful of all ages will experience after the Second Coming. Indeed, in Jewish thinking the Sabbath is deemed as a foretaste of the olam haba, “the world to come.”
“The Sabbath, which God had instituted in Eden, was . . . precious to John on the lonely isle. . . .
“What a Sabbath was that to the lonely exile, always precious in the sight of Christ, but now more than ever exalted! Never had he learned so much of Jesus. Never had he heard such exalted truth.”—Ellen G. White Comments, The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 955.
John sees Jesus dressed as High Priest, walking among the lampstands. The picture of Jesus walking among the lampstands points to God’s promise to ancient Israel that He would walk among them as their God (Lev. 26:12). In Revelation, the lampstands represent the seven churches in Asia to which Revelation was originally sent (Rev. 1:20), and (as we will see on Wednesday) the lampstands also symbolize God’s church throughout history. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ watchcare continues to be over His church on earth. He will be continually with His people until He brings them to their eternal home.
Moreover, the picture of Jesus as High Priest among the lampstands is drawn from the ritual practice in the Jerusalem temple. The daily task of an appointed priest was to keep the lamps in the Holy Place burning brightly. He would trim and refill the lamps that were waning, replace the wicks on the lamps that had gone out, refill them with fresh oil, and then relight them. In such a way, the priest became acquainted personally with the situation of each individual lamp. In the same way, Jesus is acquainted with the needs and circumstances of His people and intercedes for them personally.
Jesus identified Himself with the titles of God as “the first and . . . the last” (see Isa. 44:6, Isa. 48:12). The Greek word for “last” is eschatos, from which the word eschatology (the study of end-time events) comes. The meaning of this word shows that the focus of eschatology is on Jesus Christ, who has the last word on final events. He is the One “ ‘who lives’ ” and possesses “ ‘the keys of Hades and of Death’ ” (Rev. 1:18, NKJV). By His death and resurrection, Jesus has been given the authority to open the gates of death (Job 17:16, Ps. 9:13). All who trust in Him will rise from the grave to everlasting life (1 Cor. 15:21–23). Jesus’ faithful followers don’t need to fear, because even the dead are under His watchcare. And if that is so with the dead, how much more is it so with the living? (See 1 Thess. 4:16, 17.)
The messages that Jesus directed John to send to the seven churches are recorded in Revelation 2 and 3. Their meanings apply on three levels:
Historical application. Those messages originally were sent to seven churches located in prosperous cities of first-century Asia. The Christians there faced serious challenges. Several cities set up emperor worship in their temples as a token of their loyalty to Rome. Emperor worship became compulsory. Citizens also were expected to participate in public events and pagan religious ceremonies. Because many Christians refused to participate in these practices, they faced trials and, at times, even martyrdom. Commissioned by Christ, John wrote the seven messages to help believers deal with these challenges.
Prophetic application. Revelation is a prophetic book, but only seven churches were chosen to receive its messages. This fact points to the prophetic character of the messages, as well. The spiritual conditions in the seven churches coincide with the spiritual conditions of God’s church in different historical periods. The seven messages are intended to provide, from Heaven’s perspective, a panoramic survey of the spiritual state of Christianity from the first century to the end of the world.
Universal application. Just as the entire book of Revelation was sent as one letter that was to be read in every church (Rev. 1:11, Rev. 22:16), so the seven messages also contain lessons that can apply to Christians in every age. In such a way, the messages represent different types of Christians in different places and times. For instance, while the general characteristic of Christianity today is Laodicean, some Christians may identify with the characteristics of some of the other churches. The good news is that whatever our spiritual condition, God “meets fallen human beings where they are.”—Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 22.
Ephesus was the capital and the largest city in the Roman province of Asia, located on the major trade routes. As the chief seaport of Asia, it was a very important commercial and religious center. The city was filled with such public buildings as temples, theaters, gymnasiums, bathhouses, and brothels. It also was known for the practice of magic and was notorious for immorality and superstition. Yet, the most influential Christian church in the province was in Ephesus.
In their early days, the Ephesian believers were known for their faithfulness and love (Eph. 1:15). Although they experienced pressure both from outside and inside the church, the Christians in Ephesus remained firm and faithful. They were hardworking and obedient to the truth; indeed, they could not tolerate false apostles in their midst. However, their love for Christ and their fellow members began to wane. Although the church stood firm and faithful, without Christ’s love even their own lamp was in danger of going out.
Prophetically, the situation in the church in Ephesus corresponds to the general situation and spiritual condition of the church from a.d. 31–100. The apostolic church was characterized by love and faithfulness to the gospel. But by the end of the first century, the church began losing the fire of its first love, thus departing from the simplicity and purity of the gospel.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Patmos,” pp. 568–577, in The Acts of the Apostles.
“The persecution of John became a means of grace. Patmos was made resplendent with the glory of a risen Saviour. John had seen Christ in human form, with the marks of the nails, which will ever be his glory, in his hands and his feet. Now he was permitted again to behold his risen Lord, clothed with as much glory as a human being could behold, and live.
“The appearance of Christ to John should be to all, believers and unbelievers, an evidence that we have a risen Christ. It should give living power to the church. At times dark clouds surround God’s people. It seems as if oppression and persecution would extinguish them. But at such times the most instructive lessons are given. Christ often enters prisons, and reveals himself to his chosen ones. He is in the fire with them at the stake. As in the darkest night the stars shine the brightest, so the most brilliant beams of God’s glory are revealed in the deepest gloom. The darker the sky, the more clear and impressive are the beams of the Sun of Righteousness, the risen Saviour.”—Ellen G. White, The Youth’s Instructor, April 5, 1900.