Lampstands and the Mission of the Church

In addition to John’s emphasis on saints following Christ’s lead in bearing testimony and serving as witness, John connects the church with an Old Testament image that emphasizes her missional nature. In Revelation 1:12, John turns to find the voice speaking to him and sees Jesus standing among seven golden lampstands. Jesus identifies the seven lampstands for John and the reader – they are the seven churches to which John will address his letter.

The Old Testament background is found first in Exodus 25 and the command to Moses to craft a seven-branched lampstand with seven lamps on it for use in the tabernacle. The more significant background for the lampstand imagery comes from Zechariah 4, a passage John draws upon several other places in his Revelation. Beale contends that the lampstand constructed by Moses for use in the tabernacle/temple becomes for Zechariah a symbol for the whole temple, and consequently for the whole of Israel. The lampstand makes a fitting synecdoche for the temple and, by extension, for Israel, for the temple and Israel shared the common mission to bear light in the world. Wright explains, “This whole David-temple-Zion nexus of theological traditions is at one level highly centralized and particular. After all, this is the place and the sanctuary, where YHWH is to be sought because this is where he has caused his name to dwell. Yet in other respects the temple tradition has a remarkable openness to the rest of the nations and an incipient universality that surfaces in a number of texts.”

The openness of which Wright speaks about is evident, for example, at Solomon’s dedication of the temple. Here we see the anticipation that God’s fame will spread to the nations and they will be draw as inquirers to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple. Solomon petitions God to answer the foreigners prayers so that “all the people of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel” (I Kgs. 8:41-43).

Later, Isaiah reflects on the (eschatological) temple as a house of prayer for the nations: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56: 6-8)

John’s use of the lampstand imagery for the church is an indication that the church, the New Israel, is to carry on the mission of the true and faithful Israel – being a light to the nations. Ladd offers additional insight, A seven branched candelabrum played in important role in Zechariah’s vision, apparently to represent Israel (Zech. 4:2). In John’s vision the lampstands represented the church, which had now become the light of the world. However, John saw seven separate lampstands, representing the different churches. In the New Testament times the church was not, like the nation Israel, outwardly a single people. In the New Testament view each local church is to be viewed as the church universal in all its fullness. That the unity of the church is not found in organization but in its relationship to Christ is pictured in verse 16, where Christ held seven stars in his right hand. The seven stars were the heavenly counterparts of the seven churches, while the seven lamps were the actual churches. It was their function to give light to the world.

That Jesus was seen walking among the lampstands is an echo of Jesus’ promise to the church that accompanies her commission: Matthew 28:18–20, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” While the church can never forget her missional calling, neither can she forget that she is accompanied in it by Jesus.