Text: Revelation 1: 9-20
Preaching from Revelation is a tough draw. Guys like me who are more practical theologians than speculative ones, tend to steer away from it all together. It stands wholly apart from the other sixty-five books of the Bible. Revelation has been called a “playground for eccentrics,” dismissed as too abstract to call for a serious investment of time, treated like a dispensational jigsaw puzzle where people spend their whole live trying to put pieces together and considered a book written in a secret code to which we have lost the key.
For me, Revelation is just what it claims to be; a vision of Christ, God revealed to a man named John. Many historians think the John who wrote Revelation was probably not the Apostle who wrote the Gospel. First of all, the Greek in Revelation is vivid and colorful but the grammar is terrible. The vocabulary in the Gospel of John is much more pedestrian and the grammar is much better. In addition, John does not mention his own name in the Gospel but in Revelation the name John occurs regularly. However the themes are not dissimilar and the Revelation manuscript could have been dictated in John’s old age to a Jewish ghost writer who struggled with correct Greek. Regardless, the hand that wrote the Revelation was certainly a Jew from Palestine to whom Greek was not a first language. Translator William Barclay said that though the manuscript is written in Greek, the author is thinking Hebrew. That being said, Revelation was written a really long time ago and since we can’t be certain as to who wrote it, the Apostle John is as good a guess as any and better than most so I am going with it.
We do know that Revelation was written about 90 AD in one of most intense times of persecution Christianity has ever known. Emperor worship had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and it was far less about church than it was about state. If a person in the Empire was willing to take a pinch of incense to the local magistrate each year, toss it in a fire and declare, “Caesar is Lord” they were free to worship anyone or anything else they wanted. But if a person was unwilling to publicly declare, “Caesar is Lord” it was seen as sedition. Christians flatly refused to declare Caesar as Lord for they had but one Lord in Jesus Christ. To add fuel to the fire was the fifteen year reign of Emperor Domitian. Domitian’s strengths were in economics, public works and military defense but the guy was full of himself to the point of running over. He is the kind of guy who would go to a single’s bar and pick up himself. This arrogance made him a tyrant, an enemy of the Senate and he eventually assassinated by his own court officials. There was nothing this cruel Emperor hated more than Christians and Jews. He believed himself to be a god and required that he be publicly addressed, “Lord and God.” To the powerless but burgeoning people comprising the church of Asia, a head on collision with the Emperor was the last thing they wanted…but a collision it was. Persecution was rampant and simply declaring “Jesus is Lord” brought imprisonment, exile or death. It was a tough time to be a Christian in the Roman Empire in the latter parts of the first century. You can’t begin to understand Revelation until you understand the pressure cooker in which the churches of Revelation found themselves.
Revelation was written to encourage Christians in how to live a holy life in the midst of a church culture filled with persecution, animosities, false teaching, unclarified orthodoxy and temptations. In these ancient letters, John points to what these seven churches are doing that is pleasing to Christ and what they are doing that drives yet another nail into his hands and feet. Pastor and commentator Ray Steadman penned, “The book of Revelation is not just a musty piece of parchment from a bygone age, nor is it merely a collection of mysterious, symbolic images for some future age. The book of Revelation is vibrant, alive and profoundly applicable to the times in which you and I live.” Dr. Earl Palmer wrote, “This remarkable book is both hard to understand fully and impossible to forget.” Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to find ourselves and our church in these seven letters, build on the good in our lives, repent of the bad and discover a clear process for moving from where we are to where we were created to be!
9 I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God Around 90 AD Patmos was a scarcely populated island containing a stone quarry and some mining operations. That was really it. The island is just off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea and covers an area amounting to thirteen square miles. It appears that John was banished there by the Romans for his insistence on preaching Christ. The late first century Romans would often exile people for occultism or astrology and they roughly threw early Christianity in the same category. Political prisoners were also exiled and after giving up civil rights and possessions, exiles were forced to hard labor in the quarries. John was not a Roman citizen and was not nearly as problematic as Paul had been but for whatever reasons, they didn’t want to kill John. Perhaps because he was the most famous Christian in the world and the only living disciple left. His message would have been what is contained in our Gospel of John which is an evangelistic telling of the Gospel story using Greek images and metaphors rather than the Jewish ones found in the other Gospels. John’s Gospel was an evangelistic weapon and Domitian wanted it out of play, so he needed to take the now ancient John out of play. Killing him makes him a martyr and the Romans remember that killing Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exactly put matters to rest. But they didn’t want John spreading his message either, so they sent him to Patmos to preach to the rocks, the psychics, the revolutionaries, the witches and the sea. Not only that but John was older than six kinds of dirt, how long could he possibly live in a concentration camp?
10 It was the Lord’s Day and I was worshipping. Suddenly I heard a voice as loud as a trumpet blast John was not looking to receive the most complex and vivid vision in the New Testament; he was just spending some time with the Jesus who had called him from the Galilee fishing boats when he was a young man and changed the trajectory of his life. Then, “Suddenly.” Suddenly is a powerful word. Some people spend their whole lives chasing the ever illusive “suddenly moment and once people do, they often spend their whole lives trying to have another such moment again,” but in the Bible it tends most often to come when folks are not looking. To the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem the angel chorus appeared, “suddenly.” In these “suddenly” moments we get a view from a higher place and receive new insights for living. Things that have confused us become clear. Things that eluded us become within our grasp and things that perplexed us become understandable. Things blurry become sharp, things indiscernible become audible and things we used to see in pieces now are seen in the whole. This revelation occurred during the very worst stretch of John’s life. He was a very old man, exiled, stripped of possessions and forced into hard labor in a rock quarry. God often speaks to us in the worst of times. It may be that those of you traveling the worst stretches of highway right now are in the best position to “suddenly” experience God during this series.
11 The voice said, “Write down what you see and send it to the seven churches.” In the Bible, the number seven represents completeness or perfection. There were seven days in creation, seven days in the week, the land was allowed to rest every seven years, the day of rest and worship was the seventh, the best quality silver was refined seven times and seven deacons were selected by the early church in Acts. Seven is used over seven hundred times in the Bible and fifty-four times in the book of Revelation alone. Seven is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual). It derives much of its meaning from being tied directly to God’s creation of all things. I would also point out that the number seven in softball can also refer to aging players in the twilight of their career.
There were obviously more than seven churches in Asia but might these seven letter represent the sum of what God had to say to all of the churches and what God would have to say to us today? Might we also infer that these seven church represent seven categories into which all churches fall and if that is true, then do people fall into the same categories for what is a church but an assemblage of people? My point is this, there is more going on than what is going on with these seven letters.
12 When I turned to see who was speaking, I saw seven gold lamp stands and standing in the middle of them was Jesus. John is going to know Jesus! Most think he was the youngest of the Twelve Disciples. The seven churches themselves are represented by golden lamp stands and what could be a better metaphor? Jesus said to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world-like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night…Don’t hide your light under a basket but put it on a stand and let it shine for all to see.” Gold is mentioned 385 times in the Bible and then, as now, was hard currency and the most precious metal in the economic system. Gold would have been imported to Israel and the Bible uses no less than thirteen different words all translated gold. The baby Jesus is brought gold at his birth by the Magi. Gold symbolized purity, great value, wealth and was used in both idol (golden calf) worship and in the worship of God in the Tabernacle and in Solomon’s Temple. In Revelation, gold is often used as a spiritual metaphor, so the big idea is this: The seven churches are not only “lights” to the world but they are priceless treasures in the economy of God. The church is a big deal!
13-16 He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash. His head and hair were white like snow and his eyes like flames of fire. His feet were bright as bronze and his voice thundered like ocean waves. He held seven stars in his right hand, a sword came from his mouth and his face was as bright as the sun. The description of Christ here is terrifying if we take it literally and terrifying if we take it symbolically. I see no reason why it should not be taken as both. We don’t have time to pick this all apart but there are clear Old Testament images here, especially from Daniel 10: 5-14; and a Jewish audience would have found the descriptive language most familiar. Not only that, but such language establishes a clear link from those times to these times to times to come in a message from Yahweh, the God who was and is and is to come. Revelation is like a guitar string inserted into creation and wound around the post of eternity; anywhere you pluck the string along the continuum, vibrations go in both directions.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Don’t be afraid!” It becomes clear that God is downloading more information than John has the bandwidth to assimilate and his hard drive crashes on the spot. “He Gone.” Despite the overwhelming presence of the Christ; the Jesus of Nazareth John personally knew personally is not wholly removed. He reaches to John, touches him, speaks to him and comforts him.
18 I died and I am alive for evermore and I hold the keys to death and the grave Jesus is making a powerful proclamation here; death does not get the last word. In the resurrection, Jesus conquered the grave and in doing so conquered death.
20 The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the lamp stands are the seven churches In his book “Seven Deadly Spirits” T. Scott Daniels reminds us that there are three primary ways theologians and historians have interpreted the “angels of the seven churches.” The first centers upon the fact that the Greek “angelos” simply means a messenger that can be either human or divine. Some think the angels are simply the pastors of the churches to whom the letters were entrusted. In that sense, I would be the angel God has sent to lead and guide you. Others think angels are literally heavenly guardians assigned to churches. They would argue that Christ Church has an angel on assignment watching over it. I fall in the third camp that interprets the angel of the church as the collective spirit of the church. Daniels states, “The angel is a kind of corporate personality created and formed by the members of the churches and the surrounding culture but now operating in such a way that it in turn shapes, reinforces and holds the collective life of that congregation in its grasp.” I believe that churches, like people have distinct personalities that have become intrinsic to the congregation and it is to this collective persona that the risen Christ speaks. Some churches are evangelistic, some are enthusiastic, some are contemplative, some are thinking, some are feeling, some are atavistic and some are reserved. Since seven is the number of completeness, we must surmise that the seven churches, represented by seven lamp stands, sum up the whole of the Body of Christ. Within the ethos of these seven churches we are going to find ourselves and our church.
As I close this opening message I want to deliver one final thought. Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a special blessing for those who engage it. Chapter one, verse three reads, “God blesses everyone who reads this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to it and obey what it says. For the time is near when these things will happen.” Next week we begin our journey with the letter to the church at Ephesus. Some of you will see yourselves personified in these letters to these seven ancient churches and you too will be made complete!
The Seven Churches
- Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) – the church that had forsaken its first love (2:4). Did you used to love Jesus more than you do today?
- Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) – the persecuted church (2:10). Has your life been hard?
- Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) – the church in need of repentance (2:16). Has sin crept into your life?
- Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) – the church that had a false prophetess (2:20). Have you bought into a Gospel other than the Gospel of Christ?
- Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) – the church that had fallen asleep (3:2). Have you lost your passion for ministry?
- Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) – the church that had endured patiently (3:10). Have you been faithful to God’s call?
- Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) – the church that was lukewarm (to God) (3:16). Is your faith tepid?