Note: This article is part of a series.
12 Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band… 20 “The mystery of the seven stars which 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 which you saw are the seven churches.” (Revelation 1:12-13, 20, NKJ)
The book of Revelation gives us several beautiful, and often overlooked, pictures of the church. The reason these pictures are often missed has to do with interpretive approaches to Revelation that project the book’s symbolism onto the future rather than anchoring it in the Old Testament, where it originates. Another common interpretive fallacy is to view the book as all or mostly dealing with the future and ignoring the fact that it speaks about the church and to the church in all ages. In this series of articles, we are looking at a number of these pictures with the hope that we will grasp some profound truths about the church. Since the images of Revelation come from God, we need to remind ourselves that this is how He sees the church. Our view from earth is often quite different. It is good to get our perspective re-oriented!
The first picture of the church we get in Revelation is that of the church as a lampstand (Revelation 1:12-13). In John’s initial vision, he hears a heavenly voice, then turns to see “One like the Son of Man.” John, using the imagery of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe the glorified Savior, sees Jesus “in the midst of the seven lampstands.” Not every passage in Revelation so helpfully self-interprets, but this one does. In verse 20 of the text, we are told that the “seven lampstands… are the seven churches.” So the image of the glorified Messiah walking in the midst of the lampstands is a picture of Jesus moving among His churches. What can we learn from the picture?
Golden lampstands are something the recipients of John’s letter would have readily identified. This is part of the sacred furniture of the tabernacle and the temple. The tabernacle had one lampstand (Exodus 25:31f) and the temple had ten of them (1 Kings 7:49). The “menorah,” as it was called in Hebrew, was to be made of solid gold, have six branches, and hold seven oil lamps. Most significantly, it was to be perpetually lit (Leviticus 24:2). The people of Israel lived in tents as they came out of Egypt. The tabernacle was set-up as a glorious dwelling place for God in the midst of His people. In Exodus 25:8, God said, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (NKJ). The tabernacle was therefore designed to be analogous to a Jewish home. There was a table with bread on it, various utensils, and a light (among other things).
The perpetually burning light meant that there was always a glow coming from within the tent of meeting. In essence, the message was that the lights were on and the Occupant was home at all times. It was meant to comfort the people and to remind them that the God of the universe had made His home with them. It was also meant to point them ahead to the day when God would send His Son into the world as the light of the world (John 8:12) and the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11). God dwelt with His people symbolically through the tabernacle and temple but then dwelt with them in the flesh in the person of His Son. God dwells with His people today through the abiding power of the Holy Spirit (John 14:18). When the Spirit was poured out on the first disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:3), it was pictured as fire. Fire is a symbol of the abiding presence of the Spirit of God with His people (Exodus 13:21).
With this background we can begin to understand the message of Revelation 1. The churches are lampstands because they are the dwelling places of the Spirit of God on the earth. They are the keepers of the light of God's truth and salvation in a lost world. Jesus, the Lord of the church, walks in the midst of her. The individual congregations are repositories of the light of God’s presence. Revelation 1:20 says that the seven lampstands are the seven churches. The book of Revelation uses a lot of numbers. The numbers are part of the symbolism. Seven is the number of perfection or completion in the Bible. The seven churches addressed in chapters 2-3 of the book are real churches but are meant to represent the totality of the church on the earth. The seven golden lampstands similarly represent the seven churches addressed in the letter but also the totality of the church in the world. So here we have a glorious picture of how God views the church as it exists on the earth until Christ returns.
The world is not impressed by the church. There are times when we are not impressed by the church. The church can look weak and ineffective and completely without relevance in the world. And yet, God says the church is like sacred, golden lampstands carrying the perpetual fire of God’s presence with His people through His Spirit. We need to be reminded of this reality. Where do people encounter the presence of God on the earth? Where do people find the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in our world? It is in the people of God. But the emphasis here is not on individual Christians spread out in isolation; the emphasis is on the congregation of God’s people. The seven lampstands are the seven churches. The word used for “church” is “ekklesia,” the assembly of God’s people.
There are several implications of this truth. One is that we need to act like we are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. In other words, as congregations we need to pursue holiness in all of life. Another implication is that we need to learn to see the visible church as God does and to respect and honor the corporate body appropriately. A third implication is that we need to value the corporate worship of the church as the meeting place of God. A fourth implication is that we must insist that the church faithfully proclaim the light of gospel truth. Finally, we should affirm the truth that every Christian should be attached to a local congregation and serving God as part of a local body of believers.
Revelation also contains an important warning. In Revelation 2:5, the Lord says to the church of Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place-- unless you repent.” This is not a threat to remove individual believers from the family of God; it is a warning to a congregation. A congregation may lose the privilege of being a carrier of the eternal fire of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, this has happened to many, many churches in our land. Jesus promises that His church generally will never be overcome on the earth but He never promises individual congregations that they will last forever. When a church stops loving Jesus, harbors sin in its midst, or stops teaching the truth of God’s word, it is in danger of losing its status as a keeper of the eternal flame of God’s presence.
Let us embrace the breathtaking privilege of being part of churches, which are the receptacles of God’s Spirit, designed to display His divine light to the world. Let us thank God for the congregations of which we are a part. Let us pray that we would be ever more faithful at holding up His perpetual light for all to see.