The Exalted Christ

Jesus makes a world-altering proclamation: “The Father is Greater than All” followed with “I and the Father are One!”

This sent the religious leaders spiraling out of control, and would later send John into the Heavenly Throne Room (in Revelation 1) to get a passing glimpse at the Unveiled Jesus; to see who He REALLY is as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus in his glorified state is beyond belief and beyond true description. He is beautiful, powerful and magnificent above all, which knocks us to our knees in worship, breaks the chains of sin and death, and sets us free to live out our new identity as His Bride.

As you flip open the Book of Revelation it is easy to quickly get glassy-eyed and confused. Ironically “Revelation” simply means “unveiling,” but it seems like the last thing this book does is make things more clear. Before you give up on interpreting the seals, dragons, bowls and all of that, look at how the book begins. Chapter 2 & 3 are Seven letters to the Seven Churches in modern day Turkey. Jesus, through the hand of John, sends letters along the ancient postal route with words of conviction and encouragement. But before pointing out sins and inviting us into faithful endurance, John gets completely enraptured in the absolute glory of the Risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit ushers John to the curtain, pulls it back just a little, and there He is. The King of King himself. The last time John saw Jesus He was about 33 years old and ascending into heaven. Now look at him. He is completely unhindered by the flesh and ruling with absolute power.

Let’s look at a few of the descriptions. But before we do we need to adjust our brain and expectations. What John describes is not meant to be taken lightly or literally. John has just seen something so infinitely glorious that it is beyond human words. He is trying to use his native tongue to describe something unutterable. And so he uses artistic and imaginative language. This does NOT mean that it’s untrue. It means that John is trying to convey a holy truth in words that we can (at least a little) understand. The question we have to bring to the text is “What is Jesus actually trying to reveal about himself?”

So let’s jump in.

Revelation 1
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

“Long robe and with a golden sash” – We beautifully begin with the Kingly Christ who was and is and is to come. We have a ruler that is not crossing his fingers, hoping that things turn out for the best. We have a King that is a Provider and Protector.

“Hairs of his head were white…” – now we can start to scatch our heads. Why does Jesus all of a sudden look old (or like he just spent the summer on the California beach). Until you put yourself in John’s Jewish shoes. When he saw Jesus’ white hair a Messianic passage would have quickly come to mind:

Daniel 7:9
“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.

Pay attention to what is happening. Jesus is confirming that he is the Messiah, the Christ, that the world had been anticipating for thousands of years.

“His eyes were like flames of fire” – Do your best to not let your mind go literal. Jesus is not Superman shooting lasers out of his eyes. It’s actually much bigger and better. All throughout scripture God’s eyes permeate creation. Nothing is unseen and nothing is unknown.

“His feet were like burnished bronze” – This seems pretty odd, until we remember another passage out of Daniel 2 where King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a huge statue of a mighty king. Except that he had feet of clay which would shatter and bring down the whole man and whole kingdom. But Jesus doesn’t have feet of clay (clay being merely flesh) but feet of strong bronze. Unshatterable and stable.

“His voice was like the roar of many waters….from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” – Remember back to Genesis 1. God’s voice holds holds inexpressible power. Power to create something of nothing. By his words alone he brings kingdoms up and tears them down. And then Jesus came as the Word made Flesh. We also see (in Hebrews 4:12) that God’s two-edged Word brings Truth and Justice to a wicked world.

“His face was like the sun shining in full strength” – Add all of the other “body parts” and they come to this: The Face of God. This is his “Shekinah Glory” — the very majesty of God. It was God’s face that Moses couldn’t see and live. It was God’s face that Aaron referred to in his beautiful blessing:

Numbers 6:24-26
24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

And there is so much more. Revelation has a lot more to say about Jesus and shockingly amazing he is. And when John saw him, he fell down in fear and awe. But Jesus lifted him back up and told him that there was no reason to be afraid. Though in his flesh John was so filthy that he’d be consumed by Jesus’ purity, Jesus himself paid for that filth and imputed his righteousness into John, and all believers. So now we can be in utter reverence AND yet stay standing as His priests and ambassadors.

Now that we’ve gone through a few of these description let me confess….I may be wrong on some (or all) of them. These are glorious descriptions of the Ultimate Superlative. We can do our best to understand, but our minds this side of heaven will be limited. And you know what? That’s just fine. Even if we ruminate on the hair, eyes, mouth and face of Jesus and don’t quite get the “right answer” — guess what…we actually accomplished what I believe John wanted us to. Our hearts, minds and souls meditated on the Lord of Lords. That’s what it is all about. Before we get into what we should and shouldn’t do; before we get into issues of theology, sexual ethic, justice and how a church should run, we must fall to our knees in AWE and WONDER of Jesus himself. Those other things are important (even commanded), but only as they flow out of Jesus himself and our worship of him.

The Excellent Shepherd

In the Summer of 2010 I took a few dozen high schoolers plus a handful of adults to NYC to work with a summer program for kids. While there we took one day to go be tourists in The City. We split up into groups (each with their own pair of leaders), and I was the Chinatown leader. So the kids that wanted to roam the streets of Chinatown, eat great food and buy cheap knockoff sunglasses came with me. Seemed like a good idea at the time, until we got down there. Let me assure you, it is an amazing and terrifying adventure to shepherd a handful of teenagers up and down strange and busy city streets. In order to keep reasonably safe we had a rule that if one person wanted to go into a store, we all went into the store. Nobody could go off by themselves. We had a leader in front (me) plus another leader in the back to wrangle the stragglers. Everything went fine at first. Kids buying street food (which we were warned to not do, but we did anyway), and giant gaudy watches that would end up breaking within the week. Then it happened. As we were walking past a small dingy side street one of our high school girls heard the siren’s call: “Gucci purses. $20!” She looked down the alley and saw a guy about 50 feet away, waving her over to see his selection. It was just too much for this young lady to handle. She broke from the group and started walking into the abyss. When she was about 1/2 way down one of our giant high school guys (that would end up playing college football) noticed that she had broken away and started to run after her. The purse-peddler saw this giant young man running, so he took off. Catastrophe Averted.

Why did she go down that alley? What voices to you hear (maybe not literally) that call you into something that is too good to be true; offering hope while producing death.

John 10
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

We aren’t much of a shepherding community anymore, but we can still (partly) understand what Jesus was talking about when he made these agricultural parallels. In John 10 Jesus self-describes with TWO of his seven “I AM” statements. These statements are meant to reveal one of his powerful unique characteristics, but also to describe how He (and he alone) is able to heal one of our powerful and unique needs. In this chapter we get “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the door” — But in reality, we aren’t getting two identities but two sides of the same one.

But to get there we need to first understand sheep. It’s not that they are super dumb like us pastors have made them out to be. It’s just that they are really limited. They are very valuable, but also very vulnerable. They need to be led, fed and protected. Constantly. They have pretty bad eyesight and need a leader to keep them from the dangers that surround them: predators, thief and the environment. But, probably even worse, they are prone to blindly follow whoever is in front of them. If the sheep in front of them is walking down a fatal path, he’ll most likely just keep following without looking up, stepping right into whatever danger lies ahead in true leming-style.

Which means that these sheep really need a Shepherd to Provide and Protect. A Shepherd who knows the terrain, the dangers and the places for food. But also have the grit to fight off wolves, lions and thieves. Purge from your mind the pictures of the introvert and goofy sheep-keeper and picture instead Rooster Cogburn from True Grit. Rugged and Determined.

So when Jesus claims the identity of the Good Shepherd, he is taking on a multi-faceted and strong role (minus the debaucherous traits of Rooster). He is standing atop the three great leaders of Israel: Abraham, Moses and David, who were all Shepherds. But Jesus is THE Shepherd who leads His People through the Sea and through the Wilderness and into THE Promised Land as he protects and provides not just here and now but forevermore. He protects us from the horrendous predators and thieves that seek to steal, kill and destroy. He even took on the brunt of these murderers, throwing himself in front of their arrows on the cross in order to keep us save and lead us Home. And this is where the other I AM comes in: The Door. 

The Door is actually one of the essential and glorious roles of The Shepherd. In Jesus’ time they didn’t usually use a “corral” like we think of from the western movies. When they were out in the hills they would stack up rocks in a circle, making a make-shift fence. He would then stand in the entrance as “the door” keeping the sheep in and danger out. But him doing this the sheep (turn the corner in your mind to yourself) could actually breath freely without the anxiety of being carried off by a thief. They can actually rest and have peace because the Shepherd is on his watch. And OUR SHEPHERD never sleeps. When evil tries to come in or climb the walls, he is there with his staff in hand.

Go back to NYC with me for a second. We are so susceptible to dangers, many of which actually come from within us, our own vulnerability. We are prone to wander after the shiny objects and $20 Guccis. While Jesus as Shepherd and Door is perfectly providing and protecting, our calling is to listen and follow. We need to stick together as a flock rather than run off on our own. We need to hone our ears so that we can actually recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit, which takes practice and repetition. To be in The Word (which we know is his voice) so that when the Spirit speaks into our hearts we can ask “does this sound like Jesus?”

At the end of the day, what we can take away from these two I AMs is that we are loved, valued, protected, provided for and led. Jesus himself has come to give us “Abundant Life” — not steal our joy and give us oppressive rules but give us green pastures and secure fences, with him standing guard. So we are able to breath, have peace, and be assured that our Shepherd is at his watch.