BREAKFAST WITH THE BIBLE: CHELMSFORD CATHEDRAL
12 JANUARY 2020 – PAUL BEASLEY-MURRAY
For all the cartoon-like visions John employs, the message of the Book of Revelation is relatively simple: ‘Listen – Jesus, not Caesar is Lord. Caesar may be on the throne, but his tin-pot throne is overshadowed by a greater throne. The difficulties you are experiencing are but temporary. However much the forces of evil may rage, if you hold firm, you will be secure. For Jesus will have the victory.’
Crucial to the message of the Book of Revelation is the vision of the Risen Christ who holds his church in his hand. So let us focus in on Rev 1.9-20.
I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
When was on the island of Patmos (1.9), one of the Sporades islands off the west coast of Asia Minor. Some 30 miles in circumference, it is relatively small. Some have speculated that he may have been forced to work in the salt mines there. The real punishment, however, was separation from his family and friends, who lived in Ephesus, some 50 miles away. Fortunately, as the past tense (was) indicates, the exile proved temporary. According to the early church historian Eusebius, following the death of the Roman emperor
The cause of John’s banishment was his preaching the word of God and his testimony (marturia!) of Jesus (1.9). Amazingly, his preaching far from sending people to sleep appears to have stirred up trouble. So he was taken into’ protective custody’!
In this period of exile John says that he shared “in Jesus the persecution [ or GNB/NIV/REB ‘suffering’] and the kingdom and patient endurance” (1.9). Or in the words of the GNB: “I am your partner in patiently enduring the suffering that comes to those who belong to his Kingdom”. The Greek word John uses for suffering (thlipsis) is derived from a verb meaning ‘to press’ or ‘to squash’, which was often used metaphorically to describe a variety of mental and emotional ordeals and can be translated as ‘agony’, ‘distress’, ‘tribulation’, ‘oppression’, or ‘suffering’. John and his fellow Christians were well and truly ‘going through the mill’ – it was pressurized beyond.
Notice that for John this experience of sharing in ‘suffering’ and in ‘the kingdom’ were twin dimensions of present Christian existence. Contrary to some modern ‘prosperity’ teaching, membership of Christ’s Kingdom does not shield us from suffering – rather, for John and his readers membership of the kingdom was the cause of their suffering. To be in Jesus is to take up our cross and follow the Crucified (see Mark 8.34).
It was “on the Lord’s Day” (1.10), when John had his vision. The expression the Lord’s Day is only found here in the New Testament and is closely related to the expression “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor 11.20). In both phrases an adjective is used (kuriakos) which means ‘belonging to the Lord (kurios)’. The Lord is Jesus, the risen Lord. Every Sunday is a celebration of the victory of Jesus over the powers of sin and death.
John was having his ‘Quiet Time’, when he found himself “in the Spirit” (1.10: see 4.2; 17.3; 21.10). The Spirit ‘took control’ (GNB) of him and enabled him to see into heaven itself.
The vision-like nature of this experience is emphasised by the use of the word “like”
(1.10). This particle occurs fifty-six times in Revelation. John was dealing with heavenly realities for which earthly speech was totally inadequate.
“Write down what you see, and send the book to the churches in these seven cities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicia.
Notice two things:
- Each letter ends “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”. Although each letter addresses a specific situation in a particular church, it contains a message which the other churches are meant to overhear and learn from
- There are seven letters for seven churches. In the Book of Revelation the number seven symbolizes completeness. These letters are meant for the church as a whole – indeed they are meant for us too.
Drawing upon imagery from the Book of Daniel, John describes the Risen Lord Jesus in all his glory. For us, it seems a weird description. For instance, he appears to be like an old man, He has “head and hair… white as white wool, white as snow” (1.14). However, we need to realise that John’s concern is to make a close association of Jesus with God himself, who in Dan 7 is depicted as the judge of the nations. In the words of Dan 7.13, 14: to one like the son of man 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”
Notice two things:
- First, the Risen Lord is described as standing “in the midst of the [seven] golden lampstands (1.12, 13). These seven golden lampstands symbolise the seven churches (1.20) This imagery goes back to Zech 4.1-14, but whereas there the people of God are represented by a single seven-branched lampstand, here each of the seven churches are represented by a lampstand of their own. The change in symbolism is due to the fact that in the New Testament each local church is representative of the universal church as a whole. However, important as is this understanding of the local church, the key point John wishes to make is that the risen Lord is among his people (see Matt 18.20). The risen Lord may share the throne of God, but this does not mean to say he is an absentee Lord, who will only return at the end of time. He is already with his people.
- The Risen Lord writes John holds, “In his right hand ….. seven stars” (1.16). These stars represent “the angels” of the seven churches (1.20). The angels are not the leaders of the churches, as some have suggested, but rather the churches themselves. John is saying that the Lord who has the whole world in his hands, has also the churches in his hands – he his holds, he cares for them
Not suprisingly at the sight of this exalted figure, John was overwhelmed and fell to the ground “as though dead“. John is only revived by the touch of the Risen Lord, a detail which may well be symbolic of the difference which the Risen Christ can make to us all.
At this point the vision reaches its climax. In words intended not just for John but also for his readers, the Risen Lord says “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, and the living one; I was dead, and see I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1.17,18).
Notice two things
- The first ground for confidence is that the Risen Lord is “the first and the last” (1.17: see 2.8; 22.13). This phrase is reminiscent of the description of God as “the Alpha and the Omega” (1.8; 21.6). It is also reminiscent of a Jewish expression which spoke of keeping the law from ‘aleph to tau’ (the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet) and meant keeping the law in its entirety – the first commandment and the last commandment and everything in-between. The implication is that Jesus is the beginning of history and the end of history and of all the time that lies between. He is Lord or time and history.
- The second ground for confidence is contained in the final affirmation: “And I have the keys of death and Hades” (1.18). “Hades” is the Greek word for “underworld” (Hebrew, Sheol) and does not refer to ‘Hell’, but to the place of the dead. Jesus has “the keys“. In the words of GNB, Jesus has ‘authority over death and the world of the dead’ . He is able to lead his followers out from death into life. For those facing the prospect of martyrdom (2.13), it must have been a great comfort to know that death was not the end.
- Jesus is Lord of the world! From first to last John’s Revelation is dominated by this idea of divine sovereignty. He is saying to those who lived under the shadow of Caesar’s throne and found that shadow was made darker by the shadow of Satan’s throne: ‘Do not be afraid – There is a greater throne above! Jesus is Lord!’. John’s contemporaries clearly needed to hear that message. What relevance does this message have for us today? How does it apply to Brexit, Donald Trump, climate change etc.
- Jesus is Lord of the church! John sees the risen Lord “among the lampstands“. The Lord who reigns on high is with his people. Here was a message of comfort for churches under pressure. But this same Lord also comes with “a sharp two-edged sword” (1.16) to judge not only the world, but also the church. Look at the letters to the seven churches and you will see that they all contain the comforting words “I know”, yet in most cases the Risen Christ goes on to say, “But have this against you”. What would the Risen Lord have to say to our church today?
- Jesus is Lord of our lives. The risen Lord “has the keys of death and Hades“. For Christians death no longer has the last word. To those who have made him their Lord, Jesus says: “Do not be afraid!” We too may share with him in that life which is “forever and ever” But do we believe this? be afraid!” We too may share with him in that life which is “forever and ever” But do we believe this? On more than one occasion when I have suggested to church groups that we spend a term reflecting on dying, there was a strange reluctance. Why?