Now if you have a copy of the holy Scriptures to hand, would you take it please and turn with me to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation chapter 1, which you will find on page 1028 in our church Bibles. Starting tonight, and God willing for the next three months, we will begin the study of the book of Revelation together, planning to take a break over the summer and then come back to it in the fall. Revelation is probably the most neglected New Testament book, I suspect for at least two reasons. First, it is frankly complex and mysterious, isn’t it, full of strange metaphors, bizarre beasts; symbolic numbers laden with rich allusions to the Old Testament and to its imagery. And quite often as a result to the casual reader in 2016, let’s be honest, it can be very difficult to understand. We give it a try, don’t we? We don’t get too far. We scratch our heads in perplexity and quickly default to reading Mark’s gospel again instead. That’s one reason Revelation is neglected. Another has to do with the strange fascination it seems to hold for some who can only be described as prophecy nuts. You know the type, don’t you, always drawing tribulation timelines, finding the identity of the anti-Christ in political candidates or Arabian terrorists, and stocking up on canned goods for the day of Armageddon. There are those credulous souls out there who are afflicted by paranoia and given to conspiracy theories, and some approaches to interpreting the book of Revelation makes it a roadmap to the future in a way that seems to baptize that species of end-times delusion. And in my experience at least, most of us have an instinct that that cannot possibly be the right approach to the book. But as often as not, these are the only folks that we know who claim to understand the book of Revelation at all, and so we simply avoid the book altogether, perhaps for fear that it will make us as nutty as they are!
And so it seems we swing between two extremes; either we find the book so perplexing and difficult that we never read it, or we find those who think they understand the book so perplexing and difficult that we don’t want to be like them and so we never read it. But either way, Revelation has been under-read and misused and misunderstood and fatally misinterpreted, especially in contemporary American evangelicalism for many years now. And I believe that the widespread phobia, frankly, toward Revelation in the church today is a tragic mistake and the church of Jesus Christ is the poorer for it! Written toward the end of the first century by the apostle John, as we’ll see, it’s a book for the whole church in every age, beginning with the generation living at the time of its composition. It is not a volume of future history giving us encrypted messages about international politics and global war. It is not a coded communicate from the heavenly command and control center allowing only those who know the code to understand world events as they are reported each night on CNN. It is, rather, a series of pictures, graphic images, designed to convey in glorious Technicolor and in three dimensions the wonderful fact that Jesus Christ is Lord in the church and in the world.
One reason, you know, that John Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress is so enduringly popular, perennially effective in communicating the truths of the Christian Gospel is the way that it communicates those truths in picture form. And that is precisely what Revelation does for us! It is the Word of Christ to a suffering, persecuted church explaining that “though tears may last for a night, joy comes in the morning.” That though Satanic-power may seem to prevail in the systems and structures of human society, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is seated as victor on His throne already, and His cause shall triumph gloriously. It is a trumpet blast, to use one of the important images from the book itself, summoning Christians to stand firm in the evil day and having done all, to stand. It reminds us, as the closing exhortations to each of the seven churches puts it in chapters 2 and 3, that we can and we must overcome, persevere, and conquer through Him who loved us. This is a book the message of which we need to hear and see in our minds’ eyes more urgently than ever before as we face, as a church, cultural marginalization and social exclusion and economic sanction and, in many places of the world today, outright physical persecution for the Gospel’s sake. It lifts our eyes to the heavenly throne room so that we can, with the apostle John in Revelation chapter 4 verse 2, “behold a throne” and the one seated on it, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, for the comfort and the encouragement of all our hearts.
And tonight, we’re going to be considering together the first eleven verses of the opening chapter of Revelation which really functions as John’s own introduction to the book teaching us about its purpose and its intended function, what it aims to do in our Christian lives. Before we read it together, however, let me ask you to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let us pray!
Lord Jesus, we look to You as You reign and rule now. Would You send us the Holy Spirit? John, in the chapter before us, was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and wrote what he saw and heard, what we now read. Would You send us that same Spirit this Lord’s day evening, that as we read and hear that we might see You in Your beauty, in Your sufficiency, in Your power and grace and love, and learn anew by the Spirit’s enabling to trust in You alone. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.
Revelation chapter 1 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
Well why in the world should you spend your precious Sunday nights examining this obscure volume of ancient near-eastern apocalyptic literature? What an odd thing to do! Well there are four themes in the first eleven verses of chapter 1 that help us, I think, answer that question. Would you look at the passage we’ve read together with me? According to verses 1 to 3, Revelation is first of all a word of blessing. Then in 4 and 5, a word of grace. Then 6 to 8, a word of praise. And 9 to 11, a word of encouragement. Those are four themes in the opening chapter that help us get at the fourfold purpose of the book as a whole. A word of blessing, of grace, of praise, and of encouragement. Whatever your approach to Revelation might be, whatever details about God’s unfolding program for human history you might glean or think you can glean from its pages, if these four things are not happening in your heart as you read, you have missed the point! If these four gifts are not taking root in your soul as you read this book, you’ve been reading it wrong. Blessing, grace, praise, and encouragement.
- A Word of Blessing
Look at verses 1 to 3 with me first of all, then, Revelation is a word of blessing. We’re told two things here; First of all, the burden of the message of Revelation and then the blessing that message conveys, the nature of the book and its effect in our lives. And their link together is cause and effect! Notice what we’re told first about the nature and the burden of the message of the book of Revelation. It is, verse 1, “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Here’s the glory of the book as it is the glory of the whole Bible. It’s not about history! It’s not about the future, although it has things to say about both. It’s not about me! It’s not about the church, neither is it about the world, though it teaches us a great deal about all of these. It’s not about heaven or about hell, although we will find teaching about both subjects in the book. The book of Revelation is supremely about Jesus Christ. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ! The word means “unveiling.” It is the display of Jesus. That’s where John wants to rivet your attention as you read this book. He wants you to see Christ in new ways and with greater clarity, so this is a book about Jesus.
And then John says it’s also a book, notice, about “the things that must soon take place.” Now that’s an important expression! It reappears in one form or another in several places in the book of Revelation and it comes, as does so much else in the book from the prophecy of Daniel, this time Daniel chapter 2 verse 28, which says there is a God in heaven and He has revealed to Nebuchadnezzar “what must take place in the latter days.” Only here in Revelation, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave to show what must take place quickly, or “what must soon take place.” The phrase “the latter days” from Daniel, is replaced in Revelation with “soon” or “quickly.” And seeing that connection to Daniel is important because it clues us in to John’s basic outlook as he writes the book. For John, you see, the latter days of Daniel have already swung into motion as he writes. The key has turned in the ignition; the engine of God’s final triumph is already taking over. The last days began with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and they will not conclude until His final return.
And the book of Revelation deals with life between those two poles – the empty tomb and the final return. It is about what must take place “in the latter days,” the days in which we now live. And so of course they take place, as John puts it, “quickly, soon,” or as he puts it in verse 3, “the time is near.” The realities that are the burden of the book of Revelation have been soon expected, close at hand, for the whole church in every generation since the tomb was found empty that first Easter Sunday. We don’t need to convince ourselves, in other words, that the final cataclysm with which the world will end is just around the corner in order for Revelation to speak with immediacy and relevance to our situation and circumstances today. It wasn’t written for the church way down the line in concluding years of human history alone. It was written for the church of the last days. That is to say, it was written for the church of every generation since the resurrection. It was written for you and for me.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ
And do also notice in verse 2 that the book is the careful eye witness record of John to “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” that came to him in these visions. You see that there in verse 2? That’s what we have in Revelation, not the inventions of John’s fevered imagination! This is not the first century equivalent of Louis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland. No, this is Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. The authority of God attends this book. The voice of Jesus Christ is heard in this book. So however hard it may be to grasp, however obscure you may find it, given its burden to show us Jesus whom our souls so badly need, and given its relevance for life in these last days in which we presently live and given the fact that it is God Himself and the voice of Christ addressing us in it, do you think we can safely neglect it? Dare we leave its pages closed and its images unexplored, not without serious damage to our spiritual welfare.
Revelation Promises a Blessing to its Readers
But what happens when we do begin to read? Given its nature and its burden, is it really any surprise to find that its effect is sheer, unalloyed blessing. Verse 3, “Blessed is the one who reads, blessed are those who hear and keep what is written.” Give yourself to this book and you will see Jesus! You will hear God! You will find yourself equipped and garrisoned against the enemy in a dark day. Blessing! That’s what’s on offer here. And of course what John says here about Revelation in particular could equally be said for the whole Bible in general, couldn’t it? Read and hear and keep the words of the book – why? Blessing! Brothers and sisters, let’s be honest! Isn’t it the case that our souls are so poor, so starved of nourishment, the eyes of our faith see so little, our spiritual courage fails us so often, largely because of our neglect of the book. Read, hear, keep the words, and blessing is the promise of Almighty God. So Revelation is a word of blessing.
- A Word Of Grace
Secondly, it’s a word of grace. Look at verses 4 and 5. The book is composed, isn’t it, verse 4, as a letter “to seven churches in Asia.” And so it naturally follows the normal conventions of ancient letter writing so familiar to us from the other letters of the New Testament. You see that in the text? It is a letter that begins with a customary word of greeting, verse 5, “Grace to you and peace.” But as you may well know, the New Testament uses those words of customary greeting and transforms them into something more. They become words of benediction, words of Gospel promise. I might conclude an email to you with something like, “Every blessing, David Strain.” And because it’s David Strain’s name that follows the wished for blessing, you hear it, immediately you recognize it for what it is. It’s a nice thing to say! It reflects my desires for your general welfare. But you know, that’s all it really is! I have no power to effect in your life the blessing that I wish for you. But when we hear these words, “Grace to you and peace from the one who was and is and is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before the throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth,” when we hear that grace and peace is offered and promised by the triune God, well then we know we’re dealing with something altogether different than a customary and causal greeting. When the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – speaks grace and peace to us, He always, always is in a position to fully deliver what He promises.
And the description of the trinity that John gives us there underscores that point wonderfully. Would you look at it with me? God the Father, notice, is the one “who was and is and is to come.” He is the unchanging, immutable God, sure and steadfast and utterly reliable! So when He makes a promise, it is a promise guaranteed by His very nature. “The seven spirits that are before the throne” is a description of the Holy Spirit. Numbers in Revelation, as you may know, are extremely important and the number seven is probably most important of all. It plays a virtually architectonic role in structuring the whole book. There are seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath, and so on. It’s the number of divine perfection and so the seven spirits are perhaps better the sevenfold spirit, a way to express divine perfection. And as the book unfolds in sequences of sevens that the Holy Spirit is described as the sevenfold spirit is a way to say that the unfolding drama of God’s purpose for the glory of the name of Jesus Christ will play out under the activity and work of the mighty Spirit of God. And so He’s pictured here, before the throne, poised and ready to do the will of the one who is seated and reigns there.
Jesus Christ the Faithful Witness
And Jesus Christ, God the Son, notice, is described as “the faithful witness.” As you may know, the churches of Asia to which Revelation was written were enduring sharp and piercing persecution for their faith, hard-pressed and suffering, many of them. There is a real cost to following Jesus they were learning. But there is grace and peace for us in Jesus Christ who is Himself the faithful witness, faithful even unto death, and became the glorious victor over it, the firstborn of the dead. And He is, therefore, also ruler of the kings on earth. When the culture opposes the church as it did in John’s day and as it does with increasing venom and force in our day, it is easy to lose heart, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Easy to get discouraged, easy to believe that the present gloom is only going to grow darker and we begin to wonder if we can ever hope to stand firm in our witness against such disdain and general rejection. But John calls us to remember that Jesus was Himself the supremely faithful witness amidst suffering far greater than our own and not even the grave could hold Him. He rose, and now “God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” And that’s how we can know that there’s grace and peace for us amidst strife and suffering and pain and sorrow and loss, in the face of the disdain of an unbelieving world. Jesus who suffered and triumphed has become the infallible repository of every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places for suffering believers. So Revelation is a word of blessing, it’s a word of grace.
- Revelation is a Word of Praise.
Thirdly, verses 5 to 8, Revelation is a word of praise. Look at verses 5 to 8; notice first of all in verse 7, that John looks forward to the day when Jesus will return. Verse 7, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” Jesus is coming back! Newsflash: Jesus is coming back! Now notice this carefully – He’s coming back one time. There will be no secret rapture of the church; the Bible knows nothing of that. “Every eye will see him,” even those who persecuted and oppose him. He will settle accounts, He will judge the world in righteousness, which means, by the way, time is short. So if you do not know Jesus Christ, remember, He will come as a thief in the night when you’re not looking for Him. He will come all unexpected. No one knows the day or the hour. Will you be ready when He does? Will you be ready?
Now remember, John began thinking about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and His reign in the first part of verse 5, and now here in verse 7, he thinks about Christ’s return to judge the world. And in between those two poles, these two statements about Jesus, in the second half of verse 5 and in verse 6, John bursts into song. Do you see that in verses 5 and 6? “To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory forever and ever. Amen.” It’s a doxology – a word of praise for King Jesus. And look at what he says when he sings! He connects the dots, doesn’t he, from Jesus’ work in the first part of verse 5 – He is the faithful witness, risen from the dead, reigning over the world – he connects the dots from His work with our lives, in the second half of verse 5. He loved us, freed us from our sin, made us a kingdom and priests to give God glory. It’s a marvelous comprehensive picture! The work of Christ at the cross, the benefits He won there by His blood, forgiveness of sin, a new role as the servants of God in the world, and one day Jesus will come back to tie up all the loose ends and execute justice in the world.
And as John takes all of that in, from the cradle and the cross to the empty tomb and the heavenly throne and lives changed by the Gospel and Christ splitting the skies to come and judge the living and the dead, as John takes it all in, what does he do? Well, he begins to sing. Can you blame him? “To him who loved us, to him be glory forever!” One of the features of Revelation is that it is full of song – songs of angels and elders and of the church triumphant, songs of lament and songs of praise, songs in heaven and songs on earth. It’s full of song. Revelation wants to lift our eyes to the throne room in the midst of the worst of our trials so that with John here, with the saints in glory, with the angels around the throne, our mouths might likewise fill with doxology as we see Jesus and be reminded of all He has done for us and we find ourselves saying, “To him who loved us and freed us from our sin by his blood, to him be glory forever.”
My Redeemer Reigns
That was exactly the experience of the first believers, the first Christians, wasn’t it, in the midst of their own suffering? You remember in Acts chapter 16 Paul and Silas are thrown in jail. It’s midnight! What are they doing? Singing hymns of praise; adoring God in the midst of their suffering. I wonder what the other prisoners – Luke tells us they were listening – I wonder what they must have thought? “What on earth do you have to sing about in the midst of your sorrow? What in the world could you possibly have to sing about?” It defies the world’s logic. Perhaps, “Nothing in my circumstances,” might come a believer’s answer. Loved ones are hurting. There’s sickness or loss or grief or pain. There’s opposition or conflict. I may have no earthly advantages and little to commend me to the great and the powerful, but I can see what the world can’t see. “Behold, a throne, and one seated on it.” I can see Jesus reigning and coming in glory. I can see the end of the story. I know how it ends; it’s not in doubt, whatever my present circumstances may suggest. My Redeemer reigns! To Him be all the glory! Brothers and sisters, fill your vision with large views of the person and work of Christ. Linger on His obedience, His sufferings, His cross, His empty tomb, His heavenly session at the Father’s right hand. Think about Him ever living to make intercession, praying for you in glory. Think about His reign over all things working them together for your good. Anticipate His glorious appearing and hasten the day by your prayers and your service and your witness and your work on His behalf, fix your eyes on Jesus and through tears, amidst pain, you will begin to sing. Not because of your circumstances, but despite them, “To him who loved me, and by His own blood has set me free from my sin, made me a child and a servant of the great God. May all the glory be His forever!”
- Revelation is a Word of Encouragement
Revelation is a word of blessing, a word of grace, a word of praise, and finally and very briefly, it’s a word, verses 9 to 11, of encouragement. It’s a word of encouragement. These are, I think, a little moment of marvelously pastoral care and tenderness in the book of Revelation, don’t you agree, as John adds a little biographical aside, speaking about his own commission to write. He’s in exile on the island of Patmos. He was in the Spirit; the Spirit inspires and enables him to hear, understand and write, on the Lord’s Day as he is commissioned to write what he saw and heard and he sent it to the churches. But why is he in exile? Verse 9, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Understand what he’s saying. He’s saying, “I am enduring the same type of suffering many of you to whom I write now are experiencing. I am one of you.” He’s one of us. Revelation was not written from a clinical distance, aloof from the realities, the challenges, the struggles, the daily grind of our normal existence. It was written by “John, your brother and partner in tribulation.”
But he’s also our brother, he says, “in the kingdom and endurance that are in Christ.” And that is the key. It’s all in Jesus! John models for us – do you see what Revelation will do in us if we let it? The grace to keep going is what John himself has found, the grace of endurance in Jesus. It’s a grace he wants us to discover along with him. He’s saying, “I’m the proof. I’m the great evidence that the blessing and the grace on offer here is real and sure and true and satisfying and solid. It works in the realities of the worst kind of suffering that life might throw your way. I’m the proof.” He’s the example of transforming grace amidst trials. So let the voice of an exile, a man suffering in prison on Patmos, encourage you to take God at His word in the trials of your own circumstances. And as you begin to read the book of Revelation with me, you too will find in Jesus Christ great blessing, abundant grace and peace, and unceasing fuel for praise. May the Lord bless His Word to us. Let’s pray!
Lord our God, we bow and praise You. We praise You that Jesus is on His throne. How we need to fix our eyes on that great truth, particularly in these difficult days. The Lord God Almighty reigns and we have been made a kingdom and priests to serve Him. We give You all the glory and we ask for Your continued blessing as we sit under Your Word and serve You in this world, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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