Revelation 1:1-8 (click to display NIV text)
May 13, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
Introduction to Scripture Reading
Today we conclude the series of messages based on “The Story,” following the narrative sections of the Bible. The narrative of the Bible ends with Paul in prison in Rome and John in exile on the island of Patmos. There is in the Biblical story a kind of realism about life. The Bible is not a “Happily Ever After” fantasy or comedy. It is not a book about how we wish life might be. The Bible is honest about life. Its message is truth. Faith in Christ does not offer false hope about “everything going my way.” In the Adult Sunday Circle and the Thursday morning Women’s Bible study this year, people have been telling their life stories. They have been sharing honestly and faithfully. In sharing our true stories we have been blessed, we have discovered a new freedom in relationship, new avenues for ministry and fellowship. The Bible story also tells the truth, and its truth sets us free.
But there is, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.” Christ crucified and risen. The Gospel goes to the whole world despite persecution, imprisonment and even death. The book of Revelation tells “the rest of the story.” It tells of the vindication of God and the defeat of evil in all its forms.
The structure of Revelation is a vision. John saw what the angel showed him, and then he wrote it down. It is rather like he was looking at a giant mural, and he describes the various pictures in the mural. He looks up and sees heaven, and so he writes of the Throne of God in heaven, the center of power and authority in the universe, and on the throne is a lamb, a lamb that is also a lion. He describes the wedding supper of the Lamb, the Judge who opens the Book of Life, and the time when death and Hades give up their dead and are themselves destroyed. In three parallel series of judgments, all forms of evil are defeated: seals, trumpets and bowls introduce each.
Then the New Heaven and the New Earth come down. The New Jerusalem comes from heaven, and the Story ends in blessing. “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘come!’ Let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life. Yes, I am coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
The Story ends in the supremacy of Christ. We read from Chapter 1today of the identity and work of Christ, and also from Colossians Chapter 1 of his glory and power.
“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 forever and ever! Amen.”
From his place of exile on the island of Patmos, John writes to seven churches in Asia Minor, what is Turkey today. These churches are located in a way that follows the same sequence in which a messenger traveling the Roman roads would deliver the book to them. He writes to what were then the pre-eminent churches in the world. Christianity was flourishing in Asia Minor by the end of the first century. Craig Keener writes that each of these churches was strategically located so the message of Revelation would be easily spread to all the churches in Roman Asia.
John wrote Revelation during the time when Domitian was emperor of Rome. It was a time when emperor worship became a big issue, and when Rome turned against the church. When emperor worship was introduced, the Jews were exempt from practicing it because the Romans recognized they worshiped one God only. But once the Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogue, then the church became vulnerable. They had no standing with Rome, and they no longer had the protection of Judaism. By the second century Rome demanded that Christians call Caesar “Lord.” That is what the faithful refused to do.
These churches shared a number of characteristics. They were being persecuted by Rome, but not all of them all the time. They were growing, as Asia Minor became the center of Christianity for a time. They were located in strong, immoral, wealthy and decadent cities. That placed a great deal of pressure and temptation on them. They all experienced false teachers trying to gain control, and lead them astray. Some of them had lost their first love for Christ, others had compromised their faith and morals, and some seemed sleepy and apathetic. Keener concludes, “Revelation speaks to churches both alive and dead, but more of the churches were in danger of compromising with the world than of dying from it.”
We see many similarities to our own situation. While we are not persecuted, we are somewhat isolated and vulnerable in our culture. The American church is a leader in world Christianity. We live in a strong and wealthy culture that is immoral and offers powerful temptations and also discouragements. We see Christians compromising their faith with the world’s standards and sometimes it seems the church is asleep.
Here is the message that John speaks to the churches of Asia Minor, a message we can understand and take to heart. First he asks the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” He gives three answers: Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
“Faithful witness” comes from the language of the courtroom. When Jesus stood before Pilate and Herod, he was faithful, even unto death. So Jesus is the model for all who follow after him. In a situation where Christians were being dragged to court for their faith, the witness of Christ spoke loudly to them. They were encouraged to stand strong and bear witness to the one who had died for them.
“First born from the dead” speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. Because he rose from the dead, all his followers would also rise to life eternal. Those who follow Jesus have nothing to fear from death. Death and Hades are put to an end, not Christ. This conviction brought courage to those being threatened with persecution. It also brings comfort to all who have experienced grief and loss. Death itself is and will be defeated in Christ.
“The ruler of the kings of the earth” speaks of the sovereignty of Christ over the oppressive rulers of nations. This was felt more keenly in the days of the Roman Empire. The Caesars had great power, and they used it in violent and brutal ways. Just at a time when it seemed like the kings of the world have the last word, Revelation says boldly that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, not Caesar, and that the one who was pierced returns triumphantly, and those who persecuted him will mourn.
What then is the work of Christ in us? John write that he loves us, he has freed us from our sins and he made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God.
Jesus loves you. If you don’t know that or if you remain unconvinced of that, then you will be very vulnerable to other messages in life. Last Sunday we went over to Panera for lunch after church. There was a girls soccer team there, about 15 or so 10-year-old girls all dressed up in their uniforms, running around, hanging on to each other, have a great time sort of clumped together here and there. With all the thunder and rain last Sunday I don’t think they had a game, but they were having quite a nice lunch together. And I wished they could all be in Sunday school.
I have been reading a bit about the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which brought about equality between men and women in sports at Universities. I think one of the results of Title IX is that sports became a prime vehicle for the empowerment of young women in society. Its effect went far beyond universities, down to the sports leagues for children. So now our culture would see Sunday morning soccer for 10-year-old girls as far more important to their development as successful women than Sunday school attendance. I acknowledge the victory of sports over the Sunday school in our society, but we are going to try some new ways to bring Christ and God’s Word to families and children who are not here on Sunday mornings. On Sunday, I just wanted to tell these girls at Panera that Jesus loves them, and I did not know just how to say that. I wanted them to hear that, because it is so easy to forget, to lose that word in the midst of so many other voices.
It is also easy as we grow older to follow our internal pain to other sources of relief. It is said that one in five adults in our country is affected by alcohol or drug abuse or by close family members struggling with addiction. We are bringing our pain to the wrong sources of peace. How can we tell people that Jesus loves them, so that the message sticks even in times of temptation or pain?
Jesus freed us from our sins by his blood. The ancient world understood what sin is. These people lived in the midst of blatant depravity, sexual immorality, sorcery and idol worship and oppressive government. They knew what sin was and how their lives had become entwined in it. Somehow we think sin is limited to a few personal habits and that we simply have to manage it. But the Holy Spirit must open our eyes to our true rebellion. Then we would begin to grasp what it means to be freed from our sins by his blood. We would understand that “freed from sin” means “freed to” live in a new and just way, so we make changes in how we live.
“He has made us to be a Kingdom and priests to serve our God.” This phrase comes from Exodus 19, as Moses leads the freed slaves to Mt. Sinai, where God speaks to them and gives them the law. God gives them an identity and a purpose and a task. He calls them to a new life: Slaves no more, but now priests and a holy nation. John writes to Christians who have been expelled from the synagogue and now have no protection from the decrees of Caesar. He says they have been made a kingdom and priests to serve God. They have a heritage and a name and a purpose. You find your identity by serving God and by sharing his grace and love with others.
Jesus loves you. He has freed you from your sins by his blood. He has given you a new identity in his kingdom.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.