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Christ at the Centre

Inspired encouragement - Revelation 1:1-20

1:1-3 God's Word to the Churches

The last book of the Bible is the "odd one out" among the New Testament books. Because it is different we may find it hard to tune in to John's way of writing.  With a little adjustment we can use a slightly different method of reading and listening and then it is both possible and thrilling to hear God speaking through the Revelation.  If we do not make this effort to listen in a different way we will be tempted to give up and seek out more familiar parts of the Bible.  But we will be the losers.

More than any other New Testament book, this one stakes a claim for our attention as verbally inspired.  John writes that it is not his own invention but a message of Christ given by the Father and communicated by His angel.  So he claims to be accurately passing on a divine message.

This does not mean that John is totally passive - his character and concerns do come through in this book.  Like all the scriptures Revelation is fully human and thoroughly divine - just like the Lord Jesus who is revealed in it.

As well as the specific claim that this book is divinely inspired, God begins with a special promise for those who hear it read. It is as if the Holy Spirit is giving us especial encouragement to pay attention since he knows that some parts seem hard and irrelevant to the casual reader.

God's blessing is on those who read and hear.  This is a clue to how we should read it. The Revelation is a book to read aloud.  Why not try this on your own or with one or two others?  It is superbly dramatic and hearing it read out will help you pick up the main picture which the Spirit is conveying rather than getting bogged down in picking over individual sentences or words.

In fact it seems the first use of this book  was for it to be read aloud to whole congregations.  This is probably not practical now since modern congregations might be too fidgety to pay attention!  Nevertheless, there is great benefit to be gained by reading it aloud and in a group.

So many ingenious schemes of interpretation are the result of individuals poring over the bones of the text searching for "keys" to unlock its mysteries? Revelation is a "broad brush" work painted in bold and vivid strokes and is definitely not designed as an intellectual puzzle.

This book was addressed to seven congregations for them to receive, understand and apply to themselves after one or two public readings. Any interpretation which rests on clever word detective work or obscure systems of symbolism should be suspected! When bible study feels like a search for needles in a haystack the important message is usually being missed - in fact the "haystack" probably is the message.

Yet this IS undoubtedly a book of signs and symbols and they teem on every page.  Any attempt to take it absolutely literally will result in silliness.  So where shall we find the right way to interpret the symbols and so receive their true meaning? The answer is fairly simple. Nearly every element of the Revelation is taken from the bible!

In particular, the prophetic and symbolic writings of the Old Testament provide most of the images.  John is using the "language" of the prophets and he stands in the tradition of Ezekiel, Zechariah and Isaiah.  He often re-uses an image or phrase from an Old Testament context or from the prophetic sayings of Jesus and creatively weaves it into the new fabric of this book.  Often, all we need to do is take a careful look at how the prophets used prophetic language and apply our understanding to help us to hear John clearly.

I am sorry to say that some people have become drunk on symbolism and have read all kinds of meanings into this book.  If we do not allow the whole Bible to control our interpretations then the unrestrained imagination is likely to fly off into an exotic game of "word association" which becomes an abuse of John's work and is an insult to God's inspiration.  The Revelation then becomes a launchpad for our own fantastic meditations.  Before we decide what this book "means for us" we must find what was meant to John and his readers.

Others have misunderstood John's masterpiece by excessive literalism; they think everything must really happen in the history of future years just as the book predicts. Symbols and metaphors have been misunderstood as "literal prophecies" and so the subtle and supple language of the Holy Spirit has been nailed to a wooden scheme of interpretation.

When John wrote that the sky would be torn away like a scroll being wound up he was using pictorial language and not describing an optical illusion or a "big bang" in reverse. Out of such ignorance and confusion such lurid books as "The late, great planet Earth" and a hundred other sensational books have appeared. Some of these should be filed under "horror fiction" rather than "theology" in the library.

In fact, no one can take the whole book literally. Everyone admits that some things are symbolic. Yet some people are so keen on their particular scheme that they have already decided what is to be taken literally!

In these studies I will do my best to:

firstly, let the whole passage shape any interpretation;

secondly, (where a biblical idea is being reapplied) let the previous prophetic use of the idea rule the interpretation;

thirdly, let the direct teaching of other scriptures decide between interpretations.

The purpose of the Revelation is in its first verse. The servants of God must know what is to come so that they are ready to serve Him as the future unfolds. Do we have a sense of history today?  We should have by the time we have studied this book.

The Revelation is not mainly a source of teachings. Instead, it gives a glimpse into the purpose and meaning of the churches struggles and so it encourages us to keep going.  It is the one wholly prophetic book of the New Testament and it stands in relation to us in a similar way to that in which the writings of the Old Testament prophets stood in relation to Israel.

Those prophecies were based on the Law of Moses and called Israel to live faithfully under that Law until Christ came.  They did not add to the Law but did provide some divine interpretation and commentary on what had been transmitted by Moses.

The prophets also warned of future events and challenges which were still to come. In particular, they all pointed forward to the coming of Christ to save and judge the world.

In a very similar way the Revelation, the great New Testament prophetic book, came after the giving of the Law of Christ - the Gospel - and it is a challenge to live by faith in Him until He returns. It refers back to God's greatest revelation in the work and doctrine of Jesus Christ which has been transmitted to us in the form of the gospels and letters of the New Testament.  We are now challenged to be faithful to that primary revelation through all the years ahead.

We are encouraged to be faithful to what we have received by looking forward to the glorious fulfilment of Christ痴 work.  The vision of His judgement and triumph strengthens our hope for now and for the world to come.

Since this is the purpose of the book any doctrine which is based SOLELY on the book of Revelation is therefore almost certainly wrong.

[1] 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, [2] who testifies to everything he saw - that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. [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.

Verse one tells us that this book is the revelation of Jesus Christ. See how everything in verse one belongs to Him.  The Revelation (given to him), the servants (his), the angel (his) and John (his servant).

The message, the messengers and the people to whom it is sent all belong to Christ.  This is HIS revelation. This could mean either that it reveals Jesus or that it belongs to Him especially and He is now sharing it with us.

In fact both these alternatives are true.  This is Jesusown revelation, given by the Father to the Son, and it is also a Revelation of Christ as the Lord of all affairs and King of the churches. Here we will learn about His active presence and rule in heaven. Every event is under his control for he is the absolute ruler (v.5). It is also a prophecy (v.3) and like every other prophecy it tells us what He will do and what His will is for us.

The Revelation is not for everybody. It is addressed to Christ's servants. It is not for the curious speculator who has a taste for mystery. This may be one reason for its rather forbidding use of imagery. The intellectual dilettante is likely to become impatient or be distracted into wild theories. More than most scriptures, the Revelation can speak to the faithful follower of Christ while being no more than a conundrum to the sceptic or dabbler.

The blessing promised in v.3 for those who take it to heart (i.e. respond in faith and obedience) is there because the time is NEAR. As it says in v.1 these things must SOON take place.

Here is a problem. If these things were near 1900 years ago have they already happened or are they near now?

The answer is yes to both alternatives! The Revelation was relevant to that generation and it is still relevant to us today because it does not just deal with a few years before the second coming. This book is about the whole period which is leading up to the glorious return of Christ. Both the churches of Revelation and every generation since have been living in the last days.

The last days are the period when we wait for the God who is to come (vs.4,7,8) and while we wait we share in suffering, kingdom and patient endurance (v.9). God's kingdom on earth is real but experienced in strange ways. John himself is exiled on the little Greek island of Patmos as a result of his work (v.9).

1:4-8 Grace and peace from God

Christian experience during this age is full of paradoxes which can be poignant and confusing. Though things often seem to "go wrong" and it seems that God is against us, we actually experience his love often in a special, even intense, way. The greeting "grace and peace" is no empty platitude. That is what God wants to give to the churches.

And how does He do it?

By writing a letter (v.11). True spirituality grows out of God's words. The Holy Spirit chooses the method of inspired words to bring the blessings of God to people.

This is in sharp contrast to the methods we might expect God to use. Even among christians the Spirit is often expected to work through intuition or some other subjective method of revelation or through an intense shared experience in worship. We turn to magical or psychological methods as we seek His grace and peace and forget that it is Jesus' WORDS which are Spirit and Life (John 6:63). These words do not work automatically but they will reach the "servants" for whom they are intended and they will have the effect God desires.

Even by the glorious standard of the New Testament Epistles this is no ordinary letter; it is an unveiling which shows us God's plans and dealings with the world. When we have taken it in we shall see why suffering and patient endurance is needed by us as we live as His kingdom and priesthood.

[4] John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: 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, [5] and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. 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. [7] 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. [8] "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."

The grace and peace offered here comes from the ministry of Christ. His loving action has freed us from sin and given us a glorious standing before God (vs.5 & 6). To anyone with a practical knowledge of churches the statement that he has "freed us from our sins by his blood" may sound like exaggeration. Regrettably, the followers of Christ do fail on occasion and do not seem to be completely free of sin.

The freedom described here is, firstly, a freedom from domination. In christian thinking men are naturally incapable of shaking off the dominance of the evil within their nature and we all require a miracle of release if we are to break free from the pattern of sin.  Christian experience is mixed but definite on this issue - we are free to repent and change.

The second element in freedom from sin is that we have been freed from the penalty implied in being sinners. The weight of an "evil conscience" (Heb 10:22 RSV etc.) has been taken away by the effect of Christ's blood. This is not the corrupt evasion of responsibility found in some religious personalities. It is a spiritual experience of freedom when the word of pardon published by God reaches the soul of a hearer. It is an inner echo of the word of release pronounced by God in heaven and is based on faith in the success of Christ's suffering in bearing the sin of the world.

A large part of "living by faith" means trusting in God's goodwill towards us and trusting him to keep His promises for the future. Like no other book in the Bible, the Revelation shocks us with the contrast between what ordinary believers may have to experience from God's heavy hand in providence and the glowing warmth of His love towards them.

The great fact which proves His love now is the work of Christ on the cross. Verse 5 emphasises that we hope in one who died for us and is now "first-born from the dead" - conqueror over death and with all the rights of a first-born son - and who has "freed us from our sins by His blood". Our confidence in His love is not based on present experience, since the Revelation warns that God's wrath is being revealed in the earth now. Our confidence is based on a surer foundation; the bloody body of the Son of God nailed to a tree and so nailed in human history.

Central to the Jewish temple cult was the theme of blood sacrifice making peace with God. That theme is fulfilled in the shedding of Christ's blood and His death has liberated believers from the bondage of sin. As we read further, we shall see that the picture of heaven in the Revelation is the Jewish temple complete with an altar. The one missing element will be the blood sacrifice. John is telling us that that has happened "once for all" (Hebrews 10:12) at the cross.

Above all we experience God as Trinity (v.4,5); as the eternal, living Father whom we look forward to meeting, as the sevenfold Spirit and as Jesus Christ. The sequence of Jesus' life that is summarised in v.5 is important: First, He witnessed, then He died, then He rose, and now He is ruling. This pattern of Jesus life is referred to in chs. 2 and 3 as an encouragement and challenge to the churches. The pattern will be repeated in the history of churches and individual christians.

The Holy Spirit is represented as seven spirits to imply his complete and perfect ministry (we need no other) so that each of the seven churches has the whole Spirit rather than one seventh. The number seven in Revelation generally has this idea of completeness or fullness in it.

The symbolism of seven lamps burning before the throne seems based on the lights which lit the Holy Place in the temple (Exodus 37:17-24, 2 Chronicles 4:20). We should probably see the throne corresponding to the "mercy seat" of God in the Most Holy Place. There is a hint here of heaven as the Temple of God which is fully worked out in later chapters.

According to Hebrews 8:2 and 5 the reason for the arrangement of the Old Testament tabernacle was that it symbolised the reality of heaven. The concern of the writer in Hebrews was to show us how Christ made atonement and now serves in Heaven as High Priest. In the Revelation the temple image is used in a wider way to portray the worship of angels and God's people and to show us events in heaven in a way we can understand.

Christ is the First-born from the dead and, as the first-born, he has all the rights of the elder son to inherit from His Father and also belongs in a special way to God (Exodus 13:2). As the first man raised from death He is also the sign and pledge of our resurrection.  The title of "first-born" implies that others are to follow.

He is also the "Ruler of the kings of the Earth". It is no exaggeration to say that this is the main message of the Revelation. Christ rules now. All authority has been given to Him.

V.7 says "LOOK". We are meant to see Jesus coming with the clouds now. What does this mean? The idea of Jehovah or the Messiah coming with the clouds is not new and seems to refer to any great act of judgement in history.

The Revelation was written in catastrophic times.  It spoke to a generation that was seeing landmarks uprooted and disaster threatening to overwhelm the Graeco-Roman civilisation of the Eastern Mediterranean.

For those who worshipped the God of Israel the ferocious crushing of the rebellion of 66-70AD, followed by the complete razing of the temple were terrible marks of the vengeance of the Lord. These were prophesied by Jesus when he was on earth and the wording here deliberately adopts the prophecy of Christ before the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:64).

It must have been easy to see signs of God's judgement pounding the earth at that time.

But since then every generation has seen the judgements of God falling on the earth. To most people the disasters and tragedies of history are blind events, brutally meaningless facts. But to those who know God the Spirit says "Look, see the day drawing near".

Christ IS coming on the clouds now and we know that soon every eye shall see. His coming is shrouded now in the clouds but then his appearing will be unmistakable.

There is another important idea involved in the image of Christ coming with the clouds and this is the idea of 砺indication  When God destroys His enemies he vindicates His name.  In Daniel 7 one 斗ike a son of mancomes with the clouds into the presence of the Ancient of Days to be justified and receive an everlasting Kingdom.  The judgements on the Jewish and Pagan enemies of Christ are a sign that he has come with clouds to the Ancient of Days to receive his reward and commence his reign.

How do we react to disaster of either personal or massive proportions? Do we honestly see them as Christ coming near? These are the showers before the storm, the straws in the wind warning of gales to come. Christ is coming. Are you ready?

There has been a tendency in the modern church to reduce the scope of Jesus' resurrection rule. He is often seen as the "God of the good bits" - only present when we see goodness and faith in action. This is true to some extent in that these are things which He commands, approves and inspires. But He is Lord over everything. Even disasters and trials are under His command. There is such a thing as "the wrath of the Lamb" and the Revelation will help us to "behold" Him behind the obscuring clouds of such experiences.

V.7 looks forward to the great last scene of this age when the world which crucified Christ and tried to bury Him will have to face Him. The phrase "the peoples of the earth" seems parallel to "the people of the land" in the Old Testament.  It means that the great mass of humanity who drifted with the crowd will realise (too late) their folly in ignoring Christ.

God is the Alpha and Omega (v8) - the start and finish of the Greek Alphabet. "In the beginning God..." and in the end God too! He was, is and is to come. And He is the Almighty whose will can not be thwarted by His creatures. Man has made his world with its diversions and mockery of God but the unavoidable God awaits us in the future.

 Vs. 9-11 Christian experience and the word of God

[9] 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.

John writes in a humble and familiar way as a "brother and companion". Even though he was probably the only surviving member of the Twelve and was writing inspired scripture there is none of that self elevation which marks so many later "apostles". John writes to us as equals! He shares with us the same life of Christ.

What an astonishing trio of gifts we share with him (v9). Speculation about the "Kingdom" went completely out of hand in the late 20th. century. The word has been hijacked by liberation theologians who see it as opposed to patient endurance and by miracle-workers who see it opposed to suffering. How provocative of the Holy Spirit to bracket the Kingdom between suffering and patient endurance! What a different idea of "Kingdom living".

[10] 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."

John was "in the Spirit". This is not a weird altered mental state but it is not natural to us either. We are in the Spirit when we are in our right minds - properly aware of God, grateful to Him and our minds full of His truth and goodness. John's attention was on God. During communion comes a communication.

The fact that there are seven churches suggests that they are a complete set.  These seven represent the whole church of Christ and within them we find all the varied vices and virtues churches are prone to.  The letter is for the universal church through these seven representative congregations.

1:9-20  The angel of Jesus Christ

 In 1:1 John said the Lord Jesus sent "his angel" to bring the revelation to John. He is "in the Spirit on the Lord's Day" when the angel speaks, but when he turns he sees...... Christ, in all his glory.

This is like those moments in the Old Testament when people meet the "Angel of the Lord" only to realise that they have been dealing with Jehovah himself. The word Angel seems to mean "appearance" or "manifestation" in these cases because when men and women meet the Angel of the Lord they are meeting God in a form which they can see and hear.

 [12] I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, [13] and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. [14] His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. [15] His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. [16] In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

[17] When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. [18] 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. [19] "Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. [20] The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

This encounter with the Angel of the Lord Jesus is the foundation vision on which the rest of the book is based and every element in it is full of meaning. John must write everything down so that no element is lost.

What does it reveal? Two things....

1. Jesus is Lord.

He is Lord because he is God. The vision is a compound of all the sightings of God given to the prophets. The attributes of God are in Christ:

Robe and Sash = Royal Dignity

White Hair  = Eternal Wisdom

Eyes of Fire  = penetrating judgement

Bronze feet =  immovable strength

Roaring voice  = power and authority

Sword = effective word

Shining brilliance = Divine glory

Stars in hand  = ruler of heaven

Ezekiel had a similar experience of Jehovah (Ezek 1:25-2:2). Christ is God, robed in majesty and terrible to behold. He also introduces Himself as the First and Last (v.17) which is parallel to Alpha and Omega (v.8).

This emphasis on the divinity of Christ may partly be to counteract particular heresies infecting the churches of those days, but it is needed by us all.  Such a glorious Lord cannot be domesticated.  He is Judge of the world.  We are all being searched by those eyes of fire and we are all in His hand.  To the faithful this vision is both awesome and encouraging, to the unfaithful it should be terrifying.

Christ is also Lord because he is the Son of Man (v.13).  So he is the worthy man who assumes the right to rule the earth (Daniel ch.7).  And he is worthy to take up that rule by virtue of his death and resurrection (v.18).

Every man, woman and child on Earth is properly a subject of this great Lord.  He ALONE has the keys of death and Hades and is ruling from heaven NOW.

2. Jesus is lord of the churches.

Why does John mention the lampstands (which represent the churches) first and then speak of this glorious vision of Christ as among them? Because Christ is Lord for the church and His great concern is to ready a people for Himself.

He is among us as Lord and King. He holds the angels of the churches in His right hand and despatches seven words of command mixed with authoritative assessments (and generous praise where possible).  The divine combination of mercy and severity is remarkable.

Some of the churches seem to have forgotten that they are his possession and He is present.  Unbelief is an omnivore - it feeds off comfort and ease as much poverty and discomfort.  Yet, in every circumstance, the church is always under the eye of the Risen Christ - He walks among us.

Some say the angels in Jesushand are the ministers of the churches since angel (angelos in Greek) has the root meaning of "a messenger". This is a possible reading but it seems forced after the explanation of the stars in v.20. This book rarely offers explanations of its symbols so when they are interpreted it is best to believe the interpretation.  Christ has already told us what the "mystery" means.

There ARE angels at work in churches and the device of sending a letter "to the angel" simply seems to be a way of addressing the WHOLE church (v.11).  In some cases the ministers were the problem and might not share all the contents of the letters! Yet every member was responsible for hearing and obeying.

Christ usually deals with the church through "ministering spirits".  They are the "spirits of the prophets" (1 Cor. 14:32).  But they have no independence from Christ. They are in his hand.

Such a powerful experience of Christ is wonderful but draining.  John collapses just as Ezekiel did when he saw God's glory.

One thing should already be apparent about John's visions: they are literary rather than visual.  Some of the ugliest grotesques of "christian art" are attempts to portray scenes from the Revelation.  People with strong visual imaginations need to restrain them if they want to hear God's word in this book.  It is more important to understand the meaning which is conveyed rather than wonder how a two edged sword comes out of a mouth or how one beast has room for seven heads.

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Contents   Introduction   Christ the Centre   Jesus and His Churches   The Eternal Worship   The Lion/Lamb Rules   Christs Reign Begins   What is going on?   The Scroll unrolls   God's Word at work   Prospect of Judgement   War and the Churches   Life and consequences   Complete Wrath   The Wicked City   Sin destroyed on Earth   Satan bound   The Day of Judgement   The Holy City   Angels and Prophets