Chapter 1 - Long Live the King - Revelation 1

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 13th January 2008.

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One of the most famous paintings by the American artist Frederick Edwin Church is a painting called “The Voyage of the Icebergs”. It’s a huge work measuring 64 x 112 inches and weighing nearly five hundred pounds unframed. And yet when Church painted it in 1863, it would have seemed bizarre to him and the watching world, that such a painting could be lost. But lost it was, in fact for many years. Well years later, in 1979, a keen art historian eventually tracked the painting down, and it turned up in a children’s home in Manchester called “Rose Hill”. It was discovered on the third floor of the large house, and was in a very poor state. Workmen had leaned their ladders against it. It was dirty and faded, and it had even been used as a dart board at one stage. In fact, one young boy had also added his own signature at the bottom next to the artist’s! But when the painting went for auction at Sotheby’s in New York, it fetched $2.5 million! For all the time that the painting had been wasting away upstairs in that dirty old house, no-one knew that this old long-ignored painting was actually a masterpiece worth millions of dollars.

            So often in life it is easy to overlook something very precious that is right under our noses. We perhaps find ourselves doing it with those we love, until something happens to them to bring us up short. We perhaps take for granted our health or financial security until an unforeseen problem arises. Well if it’s easy to do in our broader lives, then it’s easy to do in our spiritual lives too! It’s very easy to become spiritually complacent and to forget the awesome truths that are ours in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we get taken up with pressures on us at work or in the home. Perhaps we, or a family member, is going through a tough time health wise. Maybe simply the harsh reality of getting through the week means that we barely have enough time to think seriously about the things of God. And we lose sight of the amazing person that Jesus is. But when we do that with Jesus then we are treading on very thin ice. So we forget how wonderful it is to be saved and loved by God. We become not so keen to get rid of sin in our lives and strive to be like God because we don’t see the point. We stop praying and we stop making sacrifices for the gospel. All because we have lost sight of the person of Jesus or we have grown weary and complacent. So it becomes very easy to overlook the precious gift that he is.

And that I suggest is one of the reasons why Revelation is so important for us today. No other book in the New Testament shows us the glory and majesty of Jesus is such glorious clarity. No other book in the New Testament shows us more clearly the reality of life in this world with its rampant evil, but with God clearly in charge. No other book in the New Testament shows us so clearly that we are heading for a fantastic future if we continue in Christ. That’s why studying the book of Revelation is such a great privilege and so important.

But it has to be said that studying Revelation, at first sight at least, appears fraught with problems. For a start the book seems to be full of strange imagery. There are beasts and dragons and a lion which looks like a Lamb, and fiery lakes and men with fire coming from their mouths. The style is very different to what we are used to in the rest of the New Testament. And at first sight the meaning of what John is saying appears beyond us. So many steer well clear from the book of Revelation. But sadly also the book of Revelation has become the happy hunting ground for all sorts of people wanting to justify their weird and wonderful ideas about the end of the world. Many semi Christian sects or cults take their ideas from Revelation, and so it has become associated with fringe elements in Christianity. We naturally don’t want anything to do with those ideas and so we throw out the baby with the bathwater- we ignore the book of Revelation. But I want to suggest to you that to ignore the book of Revelation is to miss out on a very special part of God’s word and to ignore many key truths for our time. Because whether we like it or not, Revelation is part of the Bible. God has preserved this wonderful book for our learning and our encouragement. It’s here for you and me. And my prayer for us over the next few weeks as we study this book is that our faith may be strengthened and our love for the Lord increased as we see God bringing about his plans for the universe and his people.

But before we launch in to chapter 1, I want to ask two important questions which will help us get our bearings on this letter and help us understand what type of book we are dealing with. So first let’s ask why John is writing. Well very simply John is writing because he has a message from God to give to the church. See what John says in verses 1-2: “The revelation of 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, who testifies to everything he saw- that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” So John says that he has received a revelation from Jesus Christ. This is a message from God to John. And he says it’s a revelation. That is, it’s something that God is making known to John that was previously hidden. Something is being revealed. And that revelation, that message of God, John is to give to seven churches. Notice what John says in verse 4: “ John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia.” So at it’s most basic, Revelation is a long letter. Yes John may use symbolism and imagery, which we’ll understand as we go through the book, but Revelation is simply a long letter to seven churches. And these churches were in what we now know as Turkey. And they were basically suffering from three problems. One problem was persecution, or at the least the threat of more serious persecution. John himself was in exile on the island of Patmos, because of his preaching about Jesus. And some of these churches were already suffering at the hands of the Jews or the Romans. And others were about to go through a period of severe trials. These were suffering churches. But there was also the problem of false teaching. These churches were infected with dangerous teaching which was sub Christian. The gospel was under threat. So John needed to warn them to be on their guard. And then thirdly, some of these churches were seriously compromised. They were more of the world than in the world. They were shaped more by the culture around them than by the word of God. So John is passing on this message from God to urge them to stand firm in persecution, to stand against false teaching and to stand up for Christ in the world, even if it meant going against the flow. And if these churches obeyed what John wrote, then see what they receive in verse 3: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” There is great blessing in reading and obeying the message of this book. So we ignore it to our loss and obey it for our blessing!

But the second question we need to ask is what is John writing about? Well that’s a subject that creates much of the controversy surrounding the book. But actually John himself gives us the answer in verse 19: “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” The risen Lord Jesus Christ tells John to write down what John sees. Much of the book will be visions that John sees. It’s in highly symbolic language. Revelation is what is known as apocalyptic literature. It was a particular type of literature which explained spiritual truths in picture language, which is a hint that we are not meant to take the symbolism literally. Many of the mistakes of understanding this book come when we fail to appreciate the type of literature it is. It’s picture language, and is written in a particular way to help us understand spiritual reality. And much of John’s symbolism comes from the OT, and the rest comes from the teaching of Jesus, or the particular historical situation John is in. And when we grasp that, then we will find ourselves much better able to see what John is saying.

But what is it is that John is writing about? Well he says in verse 19 that he is told to write about what is now and what will take place later. In other words it’s about the present and the future, and we’ll also see that it’s about the past. So Revelation is not a book just about the future. It’s not a book which outlines the precise historical events just before Jesus returns. It’s not a timetable of events in code. Yes, there are future elements, and John calls his book a prophecy in verse 3, but it’s not all about the future. We’ll actually see that as we go through the letter, Revelation is largely about now. It’s about what is happening now in the world, in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus. So this book is very relevant to you and me. It’s written for our encouragement. Because the problems facing those seven churches in ancient Turkey are the same problems facing you and me today. And if we understand it and obey it, then there is great blessing!

So this is a letter then to struggling churches about standing firm in the last times, that is the time between Jesus’ first and second coming. It’s about how to keep going as a Christian. And as we go through the letter, we’ll discover that there are three key lessons, three themes that keep coming up again and again which really get to the heart of the message of Revelation. And those three lessons are explained briefly in chapter 1. So for the rest of our time this evening, let’s look at the rest of chapter 1 as we see these three key lessons explained by John. And those are:

1) Trust in God’s Plan

2) Rejoice in God’s Victory

3) Believe in God’s Promise  


1) Trust in God’s Plan

So first of all we must trust in God’s plan. Or to put it another way, the first theme of Revelation is the sovereignty of God. So see how John describes God in verses 4-5: “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” And then notice verse 8: “"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."” This is the God who was and is and is to come. This God is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. This God stands over all time and cannot be defeated or outfoxed. He is totally in control. He knows everything that will happen and that has happened. And his plans, which he has put into effect through his Son Jesus, will be achieved.

            Now just take a moment to think about that. Consider what a revelation that is. Consider how that would have been a wonderful tonic for a struggling church in Smyrna or Ephesus. With the whole might of the Roman Empire against them, they seemed so pathetic. Hopeless and helpless. It seems as if these young churches will be crushed out of existence. Think of how you would have felt as a young Christian in those cities. Just you and a few friends soldiering on in Ephesus with the seemingly Almighty Roman Emperor to contend with. You’re done for aren’t you? Give up being a Christian it’s hopeless. Surely that’s what they were tempted to think. But they were not hopeless and helpless because the God of the universe, the Lord Almighty as he is often called in Revelation is in charge and on their side. God’s plans for his people and for the universe cannot be defeated. God is not taken by surprise by anything, even if we are. He is almighty and he is sovereign. Totally in control over both good and even evil forces.

And we Christians need to hear that. We need to see reality for what it is. We need to see behind the curtain so to speak to witness who is really in charge. Isn’t that what we need to hear and see when we go through tough times. Maybe some of us are worried about our futures. Perhaps health issues, financial insecurity, a loved one, a worry about a relationship. Can I ask you who are trusting? Is this the God you know and trust? Because the God who stands over history is in control and he is totally trustworthy. And that is a great comfort when you are going through the mill. So yes, we read our papers and watch our TVs and listen to our radios and we hear of chaos in the world. It seems as if the devil has won. Churches in decline, governments oppressing Christians round the world, gospel freedom being squeezed by our government, Biblical morality booted out by the back door. Has the evil one won? No he hasn’t. God is in control, and whilst it seems bad, yet we should not be taken by surprise. Because God isn’t. And he will work all things for good so that his plans are fulfilled, and his purposes achieved. And all injustice will one day be punished.

Sometimes it takes hindsight to see how God is clearly in control. For example, the story is told of the Bible translator Jesus B Philips and his wife. They were ministering in south London during the war and they lived through some of the toughest bombing by German planes. Every night during the air-raids, they would walk through three gardens, and go and join their friends in their shelter. One evening they decided to go the front way to this couple’s shelter, instead of walking through the gardens, because they wanted to post a letter and the post-box was just down the street. But as they walked the few yards to the post box, they heard the whistling whine of a bomb and they hurled themselves to the ground. The next second the bomb exploded with a deafening bang and a huge shudder. They got up, dusted themselves down and walked on to their friend’s house. It was only then that they discovered there was a crater twenty feet across and seven feet deep in precisely the place that they would have walked had they taken the route through the back gardens. The decision to go the front way for a letter seemed so trivial. But it saved their lives. And when you believe in a God who holds history in his hands, then you can see how he will not loose his grip on your life. He will work all things for his good purposes. It won’t always be pleasant. On another day that couple could have been killed, but God would still have used their deaths for his good purposes. But we can have absolute confidence that God is in control. He is on his throne, and nothing can thwart his plans. And that’s a lesson we’ll see again and again. Trust in God’s plan.

2) Rejoice in God’s Victory

But there’s a second lesson to learn and that is to rejoice in God’s victory. Or to put it another way, the second truth that runs throughout the book is the victory of Jesus. And really the victory of Jesus stems from God’s sovereign plans. God’s plan is to bring all things under Jesus Christ. That is God’s utterly unshakeable and unbreakable plan. And we discover in chapter 1 that this victory of Jesus is seen both in the past, the present and the future. First notice Jesus’ past rescue. Now if I was to ask you what battle Revelation is all about, what would you say? Well many people would probably say that Revelation is all about the battle of Armageddon. When we think of Revelation that is one of the things that perhaps comes to mind. For some there is the hope of a future literal battle when the forces of evil will be lined up against the forces of good. But actually that is a misunderstanding of book of Revelation. Armageddon is mentioned in Revelation, but it’s only in one verse briefly in passing in chapter 16, and it’s a battle that is over before it starts. We’ll see what that means when we get to chapter 16. But there is a battle that is mentioned again and again in the letter. And it’s a battle that has happened. The real battle that John keeps referring back to is the victory of Jesus achieved on the cross. So have a look at verses 5-6: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 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.” We have been freed from our sins by his blood. The victory is achieved. We were slaves to sin, justly facing the wrath of God. The devil had us where he wanted us because he could rightly accuse us all day long of sin. But because Jesus Christ died in our place on the cross, taking the penalty we deserved, so now we are free from sin. The battle has been won. Satan is a defeated enemy. He cannot accuse us anymore because we’ve been forgiven. Satan’s power over us through sin and death is destroyed. And again and again those truths are rammed home in the book of Revelation. So listen to 5 v 5, and there we discover that the Lamb, Jesus, has triumphed. Or 11 v 15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and Christ.” Or 7 v 10: “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb who sits on the throne.” The victory has been achieved. The battle is won. All that is left is the mopping up operation. So there is nothing new in one sense in Revelation. Revelation is about the gospel and the victory of Jesus achieved through his death and resurrection. Revelation is a gospel book. It’s about the glorious truth that we are conquerors through Jesus Christ.

            Now of course, we will see that Satan still has the ability to persecute the church and give trouble to believers, but he’s firmly on a leash and God will only allow him to do what God will allow him to do. Satan is a broken force. He’s a defeated enemy through the cross and one day he will be totally destroyed. It’s a bit like the difference between D Day and V E Day. D Day in June 1944 saw the massive Allied advance into Europe and you could say that that was the beginning of the end. The Germans were a broken force and it was only a matter of time before the end came. But there was still much fighting and sacrifice to be had before VE Day, 8th May 1945, when the victory was finally realised. The cross and resurrection is, if you like, the spiritual D Day. The devil is defeated. The war is effectively over. And yet there is still a war going on. Revelation will show us that the Satanic war against God’s power continues. But it’s hopeless. Satan and his forces are defeated and they know it. And one day we have the guarantee that Jesus will return on his Victory Day to bring this world to an end and consign the devil to his death. And it’s his past rescue, his glorious victory on the cross that guarantees his future victory.

            But what about in the present? Is Jesus really in charge today? Well that brings us onto his present rule, his victory seen in the present, which is precisely what the vision in verses 12-18 is all about. There we see the risen Lord Jesus in all his splendour and power reigning supreme. And notice how John describes Jesus in verses 12-16. The way he describes him is staggering. So in verse 13 he looks like a “son of man”. It’s a reference to Daniel’s great vision in Daniel 7 where he sees God himself. And Daniel’s language about God is being used here to speak of Jesus. So he wears the clothes of a priest and a king in verse 13. In verse 14 his eyes are like blazing fire. In other words his sight penetrates where others cannot see. In verse 15, his feet are like bronze, displaying his glory. And in verse 16, a sword comes out of his mouth, signifying the power of his word. And his face shines like the sun. And notice too back in verse 15 that his voice is like rushing waters. His voice carries great authority.

It reminds me of the time when Debbie and I visited Niagara Falls in America, and at one point you can go behind the falls and stand watching the water crash over the side. And the noise is deafening. And you can feel the power and pressure on your chest of all this water. It’s an awesome and frightening experience. And John’s vision shows us that Jesus is an awesome figure. This Jesus is not the meek and mild 1st century carpenter that we often think of him, the one with the long dressing gown and the perm. This Jesus is the awesome God of the whole universe. He could crush his enemies in one stoke of his sword. And time and again in Revelation we are given the picture of the throne of God and reminded that there is one King. And that is King Jesus. So just glance down to verses 17-18 and see what Jesus says about himself in those verses. “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Jesus has defeated death and is the Lord over history and our lives. So we must never doubt that the world is running out of control. Jesus is in charge and he will bring everything to its conclusion. And notice too that it is this Jesus who in verse 13 walks among the lampstands. In Revelation the lampstand is a symbol for the church. So this Jesus is with his church. He is with his people. And will never ever leave them or forsake him. We have the King of kings and Lord of lords on our side. We’re on the winning team. And we should take great encouragement that the Jesus we worship is the King on the throne.

            And then notice a third aspect of Jesus’ victory. His future coming. The return of Christ is not something that is spelled out in detail in Revelation which might be surprising but it is there, especially in chapters 1 and chapter 22. So in verse 7 we read: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.” Jesus is coming back, and we need to be ready. All the promises will be fulfilled. He has the victory! And it’s seen in his past rescue, his present rule and his future come. So rejoice in God’s victory.  


3) Believe in God’s Promise  

But there’s one final lesson which we need to see briefly before we finish, and that is believe in God’s promise. Or to put it another way, we see the security of God’s people. And having looked at God’s sovereign plan and Jesus’ amazing victory it should be no surprise to us to believe that God will keep his promise to his people! And what is wonderful is that God does not just save his people. He actually gives them a job to do. See how John puts it in verses 5-6: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 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.” John tells us that we are actually kings and priests. We have role in ruling in God’s kingdom and we are his priests. We have access to God personally. And when we become Christians, then those things can never be taken away from us. That is why in several places in Revelation we will find that whilst there is seeming chaos in the world as God’s judgement falls yet God’s people are absolutely safe and secure. They cannot be harmed spiritually speaking. They are set apart by God and nothing can touch them. Yes we will suffer and be persecuted, yes will be get sick and die. But we are safe in God’s arms, as his children, kings and priests. And his promise is that we will be kept to the end.

            I wonder if you are a Christian here tonight, trusting in the victory of Jesus on the cross, whether you believe God’s promise. That whatever happens in this world, you are safe. You are his. That you are loved and will be kept. Because that certainty, which springs from confidence in God’s sovereignty and a delight in Jesus’ past victory, will keep us going whatever we face in this world, even in the face of death. You might know the story of a pastor called John Brown, who was visiting one of his parishioners as she lay dying on her bed. John Brown wanted to be certain that she was sure of her confidence in Christ. So he asked her: “Janet, what would you say if after all he has done for you, God should let you drop into hell?” Janet replied: “If he does, then he’ll lose more than I will.” It’s actually a statement of profound confidence in God. Because what Janet was saying was that if God should let Janet go after dying for her and watching over her life, if after all that he should cast her into hell, then he would lose far more than she- he would lose the honour of his name, because he’d promised to bring her through death and into his kingdom. He would break his promises. But she knew in fact that there was no way God would ever dishonour his name by breaking his promise to a believer. And that was her confidence on her death bed.

            You see Revelation is an intensely practical book. It’s a book for today. And it’s a gospel book. And as we go through, then week by week we will be deeply challenged and greatly encouraged. And above all we’ll find ourselves coming back to these three lessons- the need to trust God’s plan, because he is sovereign. The need to rejoice in God’s victory because the battle is won in Christ. And the need to believe in God’s promise, because his people are secure, whatever happens.   


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