Who rules? - Revelation 1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about a student we’ll call Jim. Jim had a very interesting and rather unique way of dealing with stress and the occasional bouts of loneliness. In his pocket he carried a smooth, polished stone. He called it his ‘comfort stone’. When he began to feel things getting on top of him, he would reach into his pocket, extract his stone and gently stroke it. And believe it or not it worked! Of course, when the crisis was over, the stone was slipped back into his pocket until the next time it was needed.
Has it ever struck you how many people treat God like Jim treated his stone? When things aren’t going too well, when we feel that we are about to go under, we dip into our mental pocket taking out our ‘god’ to comfort us. Such a god is invariably smooth having no rough edges which might hurt or offend us, he is all comfort and never challenge. And so we stroke him with promises and platitudes on the understanding that he will return in kind. And once the moment of crisis is over, God is tucked away into the bottom draw of our mental furniture, never to see the light of day until we next feel our need of him.
But then we come across this strange book right at the end of the Bible called ‘Revelation’ and the God who rises from its pages is anything but small, smooth or shiny. He is magnificent in his divine majesty; fearsome in his judgements and glorious in his grace and love. This is not a God you can fit into your pocket for he can fit a universe into his.
I think it would be fair to say that Revelation is one of the most underrated and least read books in the Bible, which is a great pity for it is one of the most important, theologically and pastorally. It is a book which many approach with some trepidation because the pictures it contains are, quite frankly, bizarre and don’t seem to make that much sense. But just because on first reading some of the passages may not make much sense to us, doesn’t mean they didn’t make much sense to the original readers. You see, this kind of writing, which is called ‘apocalyptic’, was very well known in its time. Just imagine that my grandfather, who was a young soldier in the First World War, had been able to get into a time machine and fast forward to 21st century Britain and was to come across some strange kind of language on a portable phone called a ‘text.’ Texting has a language all of its own with signs and abbreviations much of which would not have made much sense to my Grandad, but which makes perfect sense to the texters of our age. Likewise, here is a way of speaking, or to be more precise a way of ‘seeing’, using a special code or ‘text’ of colours, numbers and symbols which folk at the time were able to pick up on as easily as a teenager today would pick up on a text message. And as we shall see, once we have mastered a few key ideas, this kind of literature is not all that difficult to read- especially since most of the code comes from the rest of the Bible.
So what is this book with its kaleidoscopic display of angels, dragons, garish colours and crashing sounds? In the first chapter we are told that it is in fact three things.
First, it is a ‘revelation’, verse 1, ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ’. This is the word from which we get our word ‘apocalypse’. It doesn’t mean the catastrophic end of the world, it literally means ‘pulling aside the veil’ in order to allow us to get a glimpse of something which otherwise would remain hidden. Here we are told that it is Jesus who pulls the curtain aside and Jesus himself is the content of what is being revealed. In other words it is all to do with Jesus.
Secondly, it is a ‘prophecy’, v 3, ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy.’ Now we tend to associate prophecy with predicting the future. While there may be some predicting going on, that is not the main purpose of prophecy. A better way of describing biblical prophecy would be ‘the proclamation of God’s plan.’ The thing about seeing prophecy solely as prediction can lead us astray into thinking that whatever is ‘going to be is going to be’- a kind of fatalism. Whereas in fact much of prophecy, including the prophecy of the Book of Revelation is conditional, that is, if folk continue down a certain path some things are going to happen as a result (which could be good or bad) but if they change course, what will happen will also change. Think of it like this: if I am on the corner of Clough Road and I see you stepping out into the road at the same moment a bus decides to turn and I shout ‘Watch out’- in some ways I am being a prophet. I am looking into the future (which may be minutes or seconds of what is going to happen as sure as eggs is eggs) and proclaim something to you in order for you to do something about it. If you heed my cry, you will step back and be saved, if not- well the result is as obvious as it is unpleasant. And much of what we find here is a call for people, especially Christians to change direction before it is too late. It is prophecy.
But thirdly, it is a ‘letter’, and like many other letters in the New Testament, there is a sender and recipient-v 4, ‘John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia.’ The correspondent is someone called ‘John’. We don’t know for sure who this John is. It might be the same person who wrote the Gospel (I tend to think it is), but it may not be, it could be some inspired prophet/elder in the early church. But although we don’t know who he is, the recipients most certainly did. And anyhow, what really matters is that we recognise the ultimate author of this letter- the risen and ascended Lord Jesus. Who was it addressed to? We are told: ‘the seven churches in the province of Asia’. These churches existed in part of the western area of what we know as Turkey, and the churches are specifically named in verse 11. But one of the striking things about this book is how that number ‘seven’ keeps cropping up time and time again. It is a symbolic number- indicating completeness or totality. So while seven historical churches were meant to read this book, there is more than a hint being made by the use of the number seven that all churches are meant to read this book- the complete number of Christ’s churches throughout the world and throughout time. This is a letter addressed as much to the church of St Johns today as it was to the church of Ephesus back then. And so we had better listen carefully to what the ‘Spirit is saying to the churches’ (present tense).
So let’s take a look at the first chapter to answer the big question: ‘Who rules?’ and see why it is so important that we get the answer.
First we are introduced to the source of the book: ‘The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.’
It is the revelation of Jesus Christ, not the confusion of Jesus Christ or the obscuring of Jesus Christ. Jesus pulls back the curtain which hides from our naked eyes an invisible but overwhelmingly reality which shapes the reality we can see. And it is to do with things which ‘must take place’. That ‘must’ is a very important word. This is not just a book of predictions about things which will happen, it is a book which unfolds the things which will inevitably happen because they are part and parcel of God’s eternal plan which comes together in Jesus Christ. It is a ‘divine must’ if you like. Those of you, who were around in the 80’s and watched the ‘A’ team, will remember there was the catch phrase of the leader Hannibal Smith, he would draw on his big cigar and say, ‘I just love it when a plan comes together’. You know what? So does God- especially when it is his plan concerning his Son and his people. That is a plan which is going to come together in the most amazing way and all the forces of hell won’t be able to stop it. That is what this book is revealing.
And because it is a revelation which comes from God and is about God, it is described as ‘the word of God and the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ In other words, this is not some dreamt up piece of literature and it certainly isn’t what the former Archbishop of Canterbury described as ‘paranoid fantasy and malice’. It is Christ’s own sworn testimony of the way things really are and what is going to happen as a result. That is what this book is and that is why it is so precious.
More than that, there is a promise attached to this letter which is contained in that little word, ‘blessed’ in v3. It means ‘being in an enviable position’. Now what I want you to do for a moment is in your minds eye to look at these little churches scattered around Asia Minor. There aren’t that many of them really, just a smattering of Christians here and there. Pretty well all of them are despised. Some of them, as we shall see over the next few weeks are in persecution country. I don’t think it is wholesale persecution just yet, because some of the churches seem to be exempt from it, but it is gathering pace. Some have lost their homes, some have lost their possessions, some have even lost their lives. Now, here’s the question: Do you envy them? Then turn your eyes to Rome. Think of its glory, think of its Emperor who rules this vast empire with an iron fist and huge ruthless armies, whose word is law and who is worshipped by his subjects as a god on pain of death. Do you think he is the one to envy? Or think of us today. When we meet like this, it makes us feel good. But we are very, very tiny in relation to this city and this country. We are not going to be considered that influential by anyone. Are we to be envied? Then think of the ‘movers and shakers’ who set public policy, who pass our laws, who shape our economy, who influence our future. Are they the enviable ones? Well, Jesus makes it very clear here who the enviable ones are, ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy’ (which is great because at the moment that is me), blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it because the time is near.’ Do that says Jesus, and you unlike the vast majority of your fellow human beings will know a joy and a certainty that is worth selling everything for. The world doesn’t know what is going to happen tomorrow let alone the next year or decade- but we do as far as the things that really matter are concerned- the fulfilment of God’s great plan of salvation through king Jesus and so we are to be envied.
And then we get a greeting from the Trinity no less. I like Christmas and opening cards and letters to see who they are from, but here we are being addressed by the great Triune God of the universe: ‘Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come (that is God the Father), and from the seven spirits before his throne, (the complete Spirit) 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.’(The Son) When you read who this letter is from you have just got to keep reading on haven’t you? You can’t drop this into the recycling bin. But sadly, many do. And John cannot mention Jesus Christ without bursting into praise, because that is what good theology does to you- real theology (knowledge of God) flows into doxology (praise of God): ‘To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Look, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him and all the peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be. Amen.’
And the introductory greeting finishes with a word from God which is not only the central truth of this letter, but the central truth of the Bible: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” God was in the beginning in all his sovereign power and he will be at the end in all his sovereign power. His glorious being envelopes the whole of human history- he and he alone is its alpha and omega, or as we might say, the A-Z and his rule holds sway over everything in between. He does not change- he is the one who was, and is and is to come. So dear Christian as you face hostility, as you have your livelihood wrecked and your heart broken do not think for a moment that God has forgotten you or is not with you- he hasn’t, and he is.
And God’s postman, John, knows what he is talking about because he is a fellow sufferer too, ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ He is on Patmos, a Roman penal colony, maybe working down its mines, but definitely there because he is a Christian. And that is when the unexpected happened, v10 ‘On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” A trumpet blast in the world of the 1st century, and in Scripture, is a massive sound designed to startle and shock- to make you jump out of your skin. I am sure John did. And if what he heard didn’t make him reach for the valium, then what he saw most certainly would have.
He sees someone ‘like a Son of man’ yet who is more than a man. And John begins by describing his clothing which symbolise the office he holds.The long robe reaching down to his feet is a mark of distinction and honour.So he is a King-we are in the presence of royalty.The golden sash around his chest is the mark of the high priest-this is the one whom we are told in v6 made us to be a kingdom of priests because, v5, he loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. So as soon as you have a vision of the Lord Jesus you immediately begin to understand his work on the cross.
But then the vision moves from the symbols of office to the person who occupies the offices of prophet, priest and King. And the one constant reoccurring feature is the blinding intensity of his radiant glory-v14 ‘head and hair,white like wool, white as snow;-shear moral purity; eyes like blazing fire-piercing into our hearts so nothing is hidden from him-burning away all pride and hypocricy.Feet like bronze glowing in a furnace-ready to trample down his enemies- v15. A face like the sun shining white hot at midday. And this is the Jesus who is amongst us this morning- moving amongst the lampstand of his church.
But then he speaks,v15b-16a. Like the breaking waves crashing on the shores of Patmos in a winter storm, so the voice of the Son of God roars throughout the universe. His word is like a two edged sword, tongue-like in its shape.This is the weapon by which he rules. It is the declaration of his will and his mind.It is the Word of God which accomplishes the work of God. So the proclamation of his truth, this message which John is about to pass on to the churches, is the word which overcomes and defeats Satan and all his retinue of evil.
Tell me, how do you respond to a vision and a message like this? This is how John responded-v17- ‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.’ Let me put it like this: if we have never known the experience of lying at Jesus feet we will never know the security of being in his hand.And it is that same right hand which holds the churches, that touches John and bids him to stand and not be afraid. Why shouldn’t Christians be afraid, especially when the world around them seems to be falling apart? Well, because as Jesus says, he is the first and the last. He rules. He is the one who is at the beginning of our spiritual journey and will be at the end of it.Our past, present and future are hedged in by his sovereign love and it will only be that kind of knowledge which will keep us keeping on no matter what comes our way: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.’
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