His eyes were like balls of fire and he held stars in his hands. A sword came out of his mouth and his voice was like the sound of a waterfall.
The image Revelation 1 draws of Jesus is overwhelmingly fearsome. No wonder John fell prostrate, as if he was dead. Here is the full text, from Revelation 1:12-18,
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and when I turned, I saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever. I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.”
The Fierce Light of the Divine Fire
What is Jesus revealing to us through this appearance? While each image is steeped in meaning, three overall themes emerge.
The first is fire. In both the Old and New Testament, God’s divine being is symbolized by fire. God appeared through the form of fire to Moses on Mt. Sinai and Hebrews 12:29 declares that “our God is a consuming fire.” Fire is everywhere in the above description: the lampstands, the fiery flamed eyes, the feet looking as if they had been polished in a furnace, the seven stars, and the sun-bright face.
One of the most important things about the fire above is its illuminating effect. This attribute is emphasized over other possible aspects, such as its capacity to warm, consume, or endure. One commentator notes that this is most fitting for Jesus. As Richard Veras puts it, “The face of Jesus, which shines like the sun, is the face of the one who called himself the light of the world,” (Wisdom for Everyday Life from the Book of Revelation, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009, 3).
The Christ that appears in Revelation 1 is powerful, even fierce. One commentator, Stephen Doyle, O.F.M., notes that this would have encouraged Christians at the time:
“While it is not likely that any pastor is going to have such a composite portrait of Jesus made for his church, it is a verbal portrait that gave great hope to those who first heard God’s word in the Book of Revelation. For us is may be unsettling in its fierceness, but it was primarily meant for the communities threatened by the brutal Roman Emperor at its worst. … He who defeated death is able to be victorious over any enemy”— Apocalypse, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger, 2005, 18.
The Roman Empire is long dead, but we can still relate. Secularism, modern technology, and consumerism easily threaten to exercise dominion over our lives. Christ can triumph over these, much as he offered lasting salvation to the Christians under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
Jesus in His Divinity
Each of the individual images further develops Jesus’ divine identity
The ankle-length robe.
According to commentators, this points to Jesus’ priesthood. Hebrews 10 says that we are able to enter into the holy of holies—God’s presence—thanks to the sacrificial intercession of “our great priest.” Through Jesus’ sacrifice we are able to encounter Him as He appears here.
The gold sash.
Commentator Peter Williamson says this signifies Jesus’ “great authority” (Revelation: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015, 52). The angels who unleash the seven last plagues in Revelation 15:6 are wearing golden sashes, so the image also is linked to judgment.
The white hair.
This image identifies Jesus with the Ancient of Days, a name for God the Father in Daniel 7, where He has hair ‘like pure wool.’ This is significant since it confirms that Jesus and the Father are one God. It’s also notable that in Daniel 7:9-10, fire is so prominent: “His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat.”
The fiery eyes.
These “suggest penetrating vision, able to discern and judge,” according to Williamson (Revelation, 53). As Sirach 23:19 says, “the eyes of the Lord are 10,000 times brighter than the sun, that he sees everything we do, even when we try to hide it.”
Feet of bronze.
This goes back to the vision of the angel—likely a pre-incarnate Christ—in Daniel 10:6, “His body was like chrysolite, his face shone like lightning, his eyes were like fiery torches, his arms and feet looked like burnished bronze, and the sound of his voice was like the roar of a multitude.” According to the Dictionary of Bible Themes, bronze had a variety of purposes in ancient Israel. It had a reputation for strength and brilliance and was also used in the construction of the tabernacle where God dwelled amidst Israel before the construction of the temple. The imagery also indicates Christ’s unchanging nature as God, (according to the notes for the New American Bible, Revised Edition).
Voice like rushing water.
This also hails from the above passage in Daniel. The image suggests the weightiness of Christ’s voice in speaking to us. In the Old Testament, similar metaphors are employed to convey the greatness of God’s voice. For example,
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;— Psalm 29:3-5
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is power;
the voice of the LORD is splendor.
The voice of the LORD cracks the cedars;
the LORD splinters the cedars of Lebanon
[T]here was the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east!— Ezekiel 43:2; this source helped identify the connection.
His voice was like the roar of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory
The seven stars.
In the ancient world, seven stars were an emblem of the emperor’s “universal dominion” over the world (according to the notes for the New American Bible, Revised Edition). Jesus is the true king of the world, who can surely carry the Earth in His embrace if He can hold up the stars.
The two-edged sword
This is a clear reference of the word of God, alluding back to Ephesians 6:17. As strange as the image may seem, it is helpful to think of the words spoken by Jesus as sharp, penetrating, and durable as a sword.
Face like the sun.
Psalm 84:12 says, “For a sun and shield is the LORD God.” Likewise, Isaiah 60 says that the Lord will be the light of Zion, taking the place of the sun, which looks ahead to a similar scene in Revelation 21. The image thus reflects three great truths about Christ: 1. He is the light that, like the sun, allows us to see everything else. 2. He is glorious like the sun and 3. We only really need Him.
As one commentator cited above suggested, we aren’t likely to see any portraits of the Jesus of Revelation 1 on church walls. Its brilliance and complexity seems likely to frustrate any effort at accurate visual representation. And that’s just fine—this is an image of Jesus perhaps meant more for our mind’s eye than physical sight. It invites us deeper into contemplation, dazzling us with its brilliance and humbling us with its immensity.