Revelation’s first chapter is a salutation from John and from Jesus, and ends with a spectacular vision of Jesus as He is now, risen, ascended to heaven, glorified, Son of Humanity, King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Besides the emotional and spiritual impact of seeing the Lord during a quiet Sunday prayer, John’s vision held deep symbolic meaning.
Son of Humanity
And I turned around to see the voice which spoke with me, and turning around I saw seven golden lampstands, and amid the lampstands One like the Son of Humanity, clothed in a foot-length garment, and gird about the chest with a golden sash: and His head and hair white, as white wool, as snow, and His eyes as flaming fire.
And his feet were like brilliant bronze, as in having been fired in a furnace,
And His voice as the sound of many waters.
And He had in His right hand seven stars, and out of His mouth a sharp, two-edged sword was coming,
And His face beams as the sun in its power.
And when I saw Him, I fell before His feet as if dead, and He placed His right hand upon me, saying, “Do not be afraid…”Revelation 1:12-17
The traditional way to translate the Greek phrase υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου | uion anthropō is “Son of Man.” This is because “Man” connoted “humankind” for a few centuries in the English language. Interestingly, in Middle English, the female version of “man” was “wimman” or “wifman,” our modern-day “woman.” The male version of “man” was “werman.” This left the word “man” as truly neutral, referring to male and female alike as humans.
However, at some point the prefix “wer” fell away, so that “man” came to mean both male humans and humans in general.
Today, being more sensitive to the implications of using the male version of human as standing in for all humans, more and more people are making the intentional effort to use more technically accurate language when translating. In this case, “anthropos” in Greek is the neutral term denoting humankind (like “anthropology,” the study of people). If a male term is desired, Greek uses “aner/andros.”
The Gospels and Daniel
A quick word study of the phrase “Son of Man (Humanity)” reveals how often Jesus was spoken of—and indeed spoke of Himself—in this way. But what does it mean? And where did this phrase come from? We do not have to look far, for it comes from the prophet Daniel’s visions.
Ancient of Days
As I watched,Daniel 7:9-10 (NRSV)
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne;
his clothing was white as snow
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
There is no question John was describing a similar vision to Daniel’s. But John was also reliving an experience he had had with Peter and James when they accompanied Jesus on a hike up Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi. There, the three disciples watched as Jesus was transfigured by the glory of God—Shekinah—emanating from within Him. While Jesus was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
Though presumably the prophet Daniel understood the Ancient of Days to by Almighty God, John associated that vision with the Lord Jesus.
One Like a Human Being
… I saw one like a human beingDaniel 7:13-14 (NRSV)
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
In Daniel’s vision there were two entities. And in fact, in John’s earlier salutation the trinity is referenced. But the first mystery to be unveiled in John’s Revelation is the divine identity of Jesus. He is God. YHWH, the One God, is Three Persons.
Clothed in White and Gold
… I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.
I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the people who were with me did not see the vision, though a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone to see this great vision. My strength left me, and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength. When I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground.
But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees … He said to me, “Do not fear…”Daniel 10:4-10, 12 (NRSV)
Not long after Daniel was given the vision of the Son of Humanity, he was visited by a heavenly messenger. Readers of the prophet Daniel’s book associate this messenger with an angel, possibly the archangel Gabriel, but more likely unnamed. The associations between Daniel’s description and John’s are strong, though they are also slightly dissimilar.
|Revelation 1:9, 13-16||Daniel 10:6|
|Clothing||Long robe||Short linen garment|
|Sash / Belt||Golden sash around his chest||Golden belt around his waist|
|Voice||Like a trumpet; sound of many waters||Like the roar of a multitude|
|Body||Feet like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace||Body like a beryl, arms and legs like burnished bronze|
|Face||Like the sun shining with full force||Like lightning|
|Eyes||Like a flame of fire||Like flaming torches|
What do we make of this?
Two passages come to mind. The first is the glory of the Cherubim and Seraphim, mighty heavenly beings who tended to inspire trembling terror in the human beings who beheld them. The second is the writer of Hebrews’ treatise on Jesus’s superiority over the angels.
If this was part of the revelation Jesus was giving to John, then his first-century audience would surely have recognized the greater authority of the figure standing before John over the messenger Daniel encountered.
Added Details in John’s Vision
- Voice like a trumpet, seems like a clear reference both to the description of God’s voice atop Mount Sinai, and the voice that will announce the return of Christ.
- Head and hair white as wool or snow, seem to be references to the Ancient of Days, and to the Transfiguration. According to the Proverbs, white hair connotes great age and wisdom and is due honor. Daniel’s messenger did not have these symbolic markers.
- Long robe, recalls God’s instruction for how the high priest was to be attired on the Day of Atonement, “He shall put on the holy linen tunic and shall have the linen undergarments next to his body, fasten the linen sash, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy vestments.”
- Sash round the chest, the only sash actually described in scripture was the embroidered sash of the high priest, which went under the ephod placed upon the high priest’s chest. Commentators have suggested Jesus’s golden sash denoted His kingship, or possibly His character. I suggest John was seeing Jesus’s heavenly high priesthood, as the writer of Hebrews also described (see Hebrews 4-9).
- Two-edged sword, inarguably represents the Word of God, both as in Jesus’s speech, and Jesus’s person.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.Ephesians 6:17 (NRSV)