If you have not already done so, I encourage you to read the Prologue to this study, as it provides the framework for understanding the rest of it. Remember that Revelation consists of seven visions which state the same theme of Jesus as Lord.
First Vision: Lampstands (Revelation 1:9 through Chapter 3)
This first vision of Jesus in the celestial realm is very important. There are many who would infer some sort of esoteric information hidden within Jesus’ messages to the seven specific churches, such as timelines, eras, and predictions of events throughout history (see the Historicist View of Revelation), and perhaps there is something to all of that—I know I am unqualified to uncover any such timeline hidden throughout history. Fortunately, such is not the primary purpose of the vision, as it would not tell us much about Jesus himself nor would it have any urgent meaning for the original recipients.
Therefore, it is best to start at face value when interpreting this vision.
Jesus is described in dynamic detail:
a) stands in the midst of seven lampstands (which are said to represent the seven churches who would each receive a copy of the book), symbolizing that Jesus is the center of the Church itself;
b) holding seven stars which are the angels of the seven churches, signifying that He is in direct command of the spiritual state of affairs and well-being of those churches—an authority He is prepared to exercise;
c) a physical description of His appearance which sets Him above any earthly ethnicity, descent, or culture, signifying that He has reclaimed His Deity and is no longer just a humble rabbi who walked the shores of Galilee.
An interesting exercise is to visualize the description of Jesus in your mind as you read every word spoken to the seven churches—He dispenses personalized exhortations, encouragement, and rebukes, demonstrating His insider knowledge. Visualization is key to understanding a vision.
The take-away is that Jesus is similarly active and invested in every church body worldwide. By this vivid description, Jesus places Himself front and center in the minds of the readers and listeners of this book. In a world that lacked television and other forms of mass media, it’s likely that this mental picture would hold in their mind’s eye clear to the end of the reading. It should similarly color every impression of ours which follows.
Why did He choose those specific seven churches? There could be any number of reasons, many of which probably have merit. However, the primary purpose is that the types of things Jesus addresses, both good and bad, are represented in pictorial form in later visions.
In other words, the real-life trials, successes, and failures of these real-life, first-century churches serve as the foundation and decryption key of the subsequent visions—Jesus’ warnings and praises give context to the otherwise confusing symbolism to follow in later chapters, e.g., the “iron rod” in the letter to Thyatira appearing again later in the vision of the woman and the dragon in chapter 12.
It is in this way that the entire book of Revelation applies primarily to the original recipients and yet to everyone else to follow.
Second Vision: Heavenly Throne (Revelation 4 & 5)
As the Vision of the Lampstands is concluded, John sees a doorway open into Heaven. The doorway is the key to properly understanding this vision. John was already “in the Spirit,” so the reader is to understand that the heavenly door signifies something other than a mere doorway. He is crossing the threshold into a larger picture. On the other side of the door, John enters an entirely new scene: the throne in Heaven surrounded by all other powers and authorities bowing in worship and giving their praise; the King of Heaven holds in His right hand a scroll that is sealed seven times; evidently so sacred that Heaven is silent for a considerable length of time because nobody was found worthy to open it.
Suddenly, the lamps or torches around the throne (which John is told signifies the seven-fold Spirit of God, the Spirit in whom John is having this experience) are replaced by a Lamb with seven crowns and seven eyes. The number seven has appeared quite often so far—the lampstands, the stars—because it’s a number associated with God, particularly with His actions and covenants. The possession of seven crowns refers to absolute authority and the seven eyes refer to omniscient wisdom—these attributes are immediate identifiers of divine status. In other words, only God is worthy to open the break the seals and open the scroll. The freshly slain Lamb takes the scroll from Him-on-the-Throne, an act which causes all of Heaven to shift their worship and adoration from Him-on-the-Throne to include the Lamb.
In the previous vision, Jesus was displayed as the center of the Church on earth. In this vision, Jesus is shown to possess all power (seven crowns) and wisdom (seven eyes) as the manifest will of God. Jesus is proclaimed worthy because the mystery which God had hidden in the scroll can only be revealed through Him. He who is worshiped as the head of the Church on earth is also worshiped in Heaven.
This vision follows the previous one because the claims of divinity that Jesus made on earth—both in the flesh in Judea and in the Vision of the Lampstands—are proven true in great measure. It was this event in Heaven that qualified Jesus to speak to John and the seven churches as He did.