The seven gold lampstands recall both the menorah—a single, seven-branched lampstand of pure gold with seven lamps that the priests kept burning every night in the Tent (Exod 25:31–40; 27:21)—and the ten gold lampstands in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:49).
In the midst of the lampstands there is one like a Son of Man. “The Son of Man” is the term by which Jesus often refers to himself in the Gospels. In Hebrew and Aramaic idiom, it simply means “human being,” in contrast to an angel or animal, and it has this sense in Ezekiel and the Psalms. But the exact phrase, “one like a son of man” occurs only once in the Old Testament (Dan 7:13–14; see Mark 14:61–62; Acts 7:56).
The person speaking to John is wearing an ankle-length robe. In the Septuagint, this word refers almost exclusively to the garment of the high priest. As a priest, Christ communicates divine revelation to human beings (1:1), stands before God in the heavenly temple (Heb 9:12; Rev 5:6), and has consecrated his people as priests (1:6; 5:10).
The gold sash around his chest indicates his great authority; the only other figures in Revelation to wear a gold sash are the seven angels close to God’s throne who are entrusted with the seven last plagues (15:6).
The hair of the one like a son of man is white as wool or as snow. In Dan 7:9 it is God himself, the “Ancient of Days,” whose hair is “white as wool” (LXX), symbolizing his eternity and infinite wisdom. Here the “one like a son of man” possesses this attribute.
His eyes are like a flame of fire and his feet like polished brass. These images resemble the description of the glorious angel who appears to Daniel (Dan 10:6; see also Ezek 1:7). The fiery eyes suggest penetrating vision, able to discern and judge (Sir 23:19; Rev 19:12).
His voice is powerful, like the sound of “many waters”. The “sound of many waters” is a fairly frequent biblical metaphor, used of the Lord’s voice (Ps 29:3), of a powerful sound in general (Ps 93:4), of the sound of Babylon in its greatness (Jer 51:55), of the wings of the four heavenly beings (Ezek 1:24), and of the glory of God returning to his temple (Ezek 43:2).
This metaphor is in several places paired with the metaphor of the sound of thunder (Pss 29:3; 93:4; Ezek 1:24; Rev 14:2; 19:6), reinforcing the sense of overwhelming power.
In his right hand he holds seven stars. A first-century reader might have thought of the stars as representing heavenly powers that influence earthly events. The Roman emperor was often pictured with symbols of the planets around him.
Enhancing the impression of awesome power is a sharp two-edged sword issuing from his mouth. Isaiah 11:4 says that the Messiah “shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, / and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked”—a text that St. Paul applies to Christ’s defeat of the man of lawlessness at the end of history (2 Thess 2:8).
Isaiah 49:2 says that the Lord made the mouth of his Servant a “sharp-edged sword.” This description of the risen Christ combines both images, and the sword in his mouth represents the all-powerful word of God by which God created the world and brings judgment (Wis 18:1; Rev 19:13).
Finally, completing the impression of heavenly glory, John tells us that his face shone like the sun at its brightest. Various Old Testament texts compare the splendor of God to the sun (Ps 84:12; Isa 60:19), and Christians will recall that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun” at his Transfiguration (Matt 17:2).
Vision accounts in the Bible often record reactions of falling prostrate before a heavenly being - at times in sheer terror and at times in reverent awe (Gen 17:3; Josh 5:14; Ezek 1:28; Dan 8:17; Luke 24:5; Acts 9:4). Sometimes the accounts mention a sudden loss of strength, even to the point of being “like a dead person” as here (Matt 28:4; Dan 10:8–9).
The heavenly being places his right hand on John, expressing favor and reassurance. He tells him not to be afraid, and discloses his identity with solemn words: “I am the first and the last”.
These are the words that God uses to identify himself three times in Isaiah, distinguishing himself from the lifeless pagan idols (Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12).
“The living one”. This Greek verb ζάω is used several times in Revelation to denote resurrection, “coming to life” (cf. 2:8; 13:14; 20:4, 5). The meaning of this phrase will be clarified few words later, when Jesus says: “I am alive [ζῶν] forever and ever,” in contrast to his death on the cross.
But “the living one” can also mean always, all time, as the constant character and essence of Christ - “the living one,” throughout all of history. This sense comes out in the common biblical expression, “the living God,” which occurs five times elsewhere in Revelation (4:9, 10; 7:2; 10:6; 15:7). “I am … the living one” seems to transfer that meaningful description from God the Father to Jesus Christ.
“And I died, but indeed I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades”
The threefold “I am” statement - “I am the first and the last and the living one” - is followed by this threefold description of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and resulting authority over death and the grave. Only here, we finally know that this “one like a son of man” is the exalted Jesus.
He “died” (phrased as “became dead”) in his sacrifice of himself for the redemption of the world (cf. 5:9, 11). But death could not hold “the living one.” Jesus rose up again after death and now continues to live. “Forever and ever,” - literally “to the ages of the ages,” a common way of expressing “for eternity, for evermore”.
The last part of this verse states that by his redeeming death and resurrection Jesus gained authority over humanity’s “last enemy,” death (1 Cor 15:20–28; Heb 2:14–15; cf. Rev 21:4). This is the good news. Jesus has wrested control from humankind’s perennial enemy - death. Jesus holds the keys.
“Hades,” the Greek word for the place of the dead that the Jews called “Sheol”. The Greco-Roman world knew itself to be powerless in the face of death, hoping only for some shadowy continuing existence in Hades. Although death and the netherworld will continue to exist until their final judgment at the end of history (20:14), their final defeat is confirmed by this magnificent declaration of the risen Lord.
The risen Lord tells John to write:
The fact that the seven churches are symbolized by seven gold lampstands is significant. A lampstand is an apt symbol for the church. Jesus called his disciples “the light of the world” and said that the proper place for a lamp is to be “set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14–15).
Furthermore, while the temple in Jerusalem still stood, the menorah, a seven-branched gold lampstand with seven lamps, provided light and symbolized the radiance of God’s presence (Exod 40:35–38).
Analogously, the seven churches, enlightened by Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, shine in the darkness of the world with divine light, bearing witness to the truth.
The change from one gold menorah with seven lights to seven lampstands in seven cities symbolizes the light of the one Church shining not only in the churches of Asia but in the whole world.
The location of the sacred lampstands of God’s temple in the world hints that he is in the process of making the whole of creation his temple (see 11:1–2), a goal finally achieved in the new Jerusalem (21:1–22:5).
Who are these “angels of the churches” is not clear. Some indicate that the angels of the seven churches refer to the bishops or to the guardian angels of the local churches. In either case, those in charge of the churches are entirely in the firm grasp of Jesus.