8-13-17 “You Say You Want a Revelation!” - Part 1 Rev:1-3
For most people in the church, the book of Revelation is a closed book. Some avoid it, thinking the book too mysterious, too difficult to understand, or too scary to think about. Others seem to focus most, if not all, of
their Bible reading in this book alone; their faith and theology centered primarily in this one book. Both of these extremes are, in the words of Bible scholar and Book of Revelation expert, Bruce Metzger, “short sighted.” Metzger authored the book, “Breaking the Code:Understanding the Book of Revelation,” and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on this final book in the New Testament.
For many, Revelation raises more questions than it answers because it’s really not like any other book in the Bible. In fact, in the canonization process, that process that, over years, determined what would and would not be included in the Bible, Revelation was almost left on the cutting room floor, due mostly to its difficulty, dramatic imagery, and symbolism.
But it did make the cut and here we are. By a show of hands, how many of you have read the entire Book of Revelation? How many of you have never read it? So I guess that means the remainder have read some of it. As we go through this series, I encourage you, I urge you to take some time and read the book for yourselves. From front to back is about an hour to an hour and a half of reading. We can’t read all of it in worship, but we will talk about much of it. This week we look at the first three chapters of the book. Before we begin though, there’s some terminology I want you to become familiar with to aid in understanding what’s happening in Revelation.
First is one you’re kind of familiar with - hermeneutic. Remember, hermeneutic means the lens through which you look at something, or your point of view. Our common lens together is a 21st century, modern lens, but we also have individual lenses. As a male, my lens differs from that of a female. As a caucasian, it differs from a person of color. A person from the middle-class brings a different life perspective into the reading than would a person from upper or lower socio-economic classes. North Americans bring a different point of view than would a Central or South American, a European, or a person from Africa. All that has made us who we are shapes the lenses through which we view the world, and with it scripture. Everyone has a hermeneutic and always has. It’s present in our reading, it’s present in the writings. There’s no denying it, the important thing is to be aware of it, both in ourselves and in what we’re experiencing. John’s hermeneutic is in part a first century, male, Jewish-Christian hermeneutic formed and shaped under the oppression of the Roman Empire and his writing reflects that.
The second term is one we talked about briefly in the last series - eschatology. Eschatology literally means “last things.” When used in theological discussion it usually refers to what are called “end times.”
Next is prophecy. Prophecy is found throughout scripture and we often mistakenly assume that prophecy means predictions about the future. In fact that’s not entirely true. While some prophetic passages include warnings about the future or do predict some future event - we think mostly of Old Testament passages that seem to point toward the birth of Christ - the overwhelming majority of prophetic passages in scripture are not concerned with the future at all, but are the words or message of God as spoken through a prophet about the situation at hand, in the present. So, it’s God’s commentary, if you will, about what is going on then and there more than what is to come.
And finally, apocalyptic, from which we get the word apocalypse. Apocalyptic is a form of literature of which Revelation is but one example. Much of the book of Daniel is considered apocalyptic, as are parts of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and even a small part of Matthew’s gospel. There are many non-biblical books that are apocalyptic as well. Revelation seems so different from the rest of the Bible because it is - it’s the only piece of entirely apocalyptic literature to be found there. Apocalyptic literature is known for it’s dramatic imagery, it’s profound use of metaphor, and it’s telling and retelling of visions. Other characteristics of apocalyptic literature include,
- Not chronological - it jumps all over the place in both time and location.
- Mostly symbolic - symbolism reigns in apocalyptic literature. And often, that’s where people are thrown for a loop.
- Largely dualistic - the story being told evolves around binary or dualistic ideas, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, light vs. dark, Heaven vs. Earth.
- Common theme - in Revelation, believe it or not, when you get through all of the symbolism, the bizarre happenings, and the misunderstanding, the theme is hope - the promised hope that God will intervene and save God’s people while destroying evil and injustice.
So, there’s your vocabulary lesson, now let’s get some context, beginning with some basic questions:
Who wrote Revelation?
We don’t really know for sure, beyond the fact that the author calls himself John, and that he is exiled on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea. Some have suggested that this John is THE John, the Apostle of Jesus, but John of Patmos never says that. Some of the earliest writings we have from 2nd and 3rd century church leaders say that this John was NOT John the Apostle. So, we don’t know. John was as common a name then as it is now. And regardless, knowing who wrote this doesn’t add to or take away from what is written.
When was it written?
Most scholars date the book to the late first century, certainly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and most likely in the late 90s.
Some have placed it during the time of the Roman Emperor Nero, but most scholars think it later, during Domitian’s reign. While Nero persecuted Christians in Rome, it was only under Domitian that widespread persecution, torture, and killings of Christians was carried out. While every emperor since Julius Caesar were thought of as gods, it was Domitian who insisted on being addressed as “our lord and god,” something Christians would never do, which led most directly to their persecution. So most scholars place Revelation within this historical context.
Who was it written to?
That's easy, because John tells us.
Revelation is somewhat in the form of a letter, or a series of letters or oracles, written to seven churches in what we would call Asia Minor. Why only these seven churches out of the many more churches in the area? One theory is that John had some kind of relationship with these seven that he didn’t have with the others, which is entirely possible. Another theory though - which makes sense if we consider the broader context and content of Revelation - involves John’s use of the number seven. Seven is a common symbolic number in scripture. God created the world in seven days and declared it very good. One week is seven days, which in turn, represents God’s completeness. So the number seven in scripture is symbolic of wholeness, completeness, even perfection. And as you’ll see, John loves the number seven. He mentions seven lamp stands, seven seals, seven stars, seven flaming torches, seven spirits of God, seven eyes, seven angels, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven heads on the dragon, seven plagues, seven bowls, seven mountains, and seven kings. And if that’s not enough, he includes seven blessings as well. So many scholars suggest that seven churches actually represents all of the churches of that day or in that region. Certainly, the issues addressed in these letters are common in one form or another in most churches then and now. So that could be the reason.
As we read Revelation, we have to read it a bit differently than we do other books in the Bible. For example, as Metzger points out, “the Psalms of David touch one’s emotions: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name” (Ps. 103:1). In the Bible are also books of law that involve commands: “Do this! Don’t do that!” Such books speak to our will, requiring us to respond positively or negatively. Still other biblical writings, such as Paul’s letters, appeal primarily to our intellect. We need to think carefully and patiently as we seek to follow his theological reasoning.
The book of Revelation is unique in appealing primarily to our imagination - not, however, a freewheeling imagination, but a disciplined imagination.”
Revelation paints a collage of word pictures, and as we read we allow ourselves to be carried along by impressions created by these pictures. And as Metzger suggests, “Many of the details of the pictures are intended to contribute to the total impression, and are not to be isolated and interpreted with wooden literalism.”
John tells us upfront that he is relating a series of visions. And we know that many different people in the Bible claimed to have experienced visions - we heard two of those earlier with Ezekiel’s vision of the the valley of dry bones and Peter’s vision of “something like a large sheet being lowered down” with various unclean animals for him to eat. And when we hear those stories, we’re not to believe that there was actually a valley filled with bones that were suddenly reanimated, we understand that Ezekiel was relating a vision. Likewise with Peter and the vision of the sheet, we’re not expected to believe there was an actual sheet lowered down to him. Both of them tell us that what they saw was a vision, and we take them at their word.
We must do the same with John.
He tells us that what he saw were visions, not actual events. So when he says he “saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads” (13:1) there’s no reason to believe that such a creature actually existed, or ever will exist. It’s a vision, and it has significance for both John and for us today, because such accounts combine rational insight with emotional response.
John’s symbolic language does that as well.
And much as he uses the number seven throughout the book, he also draws on symbolism from the Hebrew Bible as well, particularly from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. Metzger points out that “of the 404 verses that make up the 22 chapters of Revelation, 278, or 69%, contain one or more allusion to an Old Testament passage.” John knew his Hebrew scriptures, and in recording his vision, he mostly expressed himself by using the words of the prophets of Israel. So we must keep that in mind as we explore this book.
Now clearly, some of John’s symbols seem exceedingly strange to modern readers. He portrays the Roman Empire as a beast like a leopard with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion’s (13:2) - a frightening image,
as those who were being persecuted by the Empire knew well. But these kinds of bizarre beasts are common in the genre of apocalyptic literature. Likewise, it’s not uncommon for us to use animal symbols in much the same way. We’re used to the Russian Bear, the British Lion, and the American Eagle.And the symbolic elephant for the Republican party and donkey for the Democratic party are also common for us, even as they might be a little strange for a new immigrant or someone not familiar with our culture or context. So while some of the imagery might seem bizarre, with some reflection, context, and disciplined imagination, the meaning will usually become clear. It any case, Metzger hastens, “it’s important to recognize that the descriptions in Revelation are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols.” (read that again)
The book opens by telling us that this is the revelation “of Jesus Christ,” meaning either that the revelation was made by Jesus Christ, or that it was made about him, or that it belongs to him. In a sense all three are true: the revelation comes from God through Jesus Christ, who communicates it to John by an angel. And the purpose of the revelation is to show “what must take place soon.” The word translated soon indicates that John intended his message for his own, [not some future] generation.
He begins the letter by enumerating the seven churches to which he is writing, beginning with the one closest to Patmos, and following the route that a messenger would take in delivering a letter to each of these seven churches. And he shares his first vision:
12 I turned to see who was speaking to me, and when I turned, I saw seven oil lamps burning on top of seven gold stands. 13 In the middle of the lamp stands I saw someone who looked like the Human One.
He wore a robe that stretched down to his feet, and he had a gold sash around his chest. 14 His head and hair were white as white wool—like snow—and his eyes were like a fiery flame. 15 His feet were like fine brass that has been purified in a furnace, and his voice sounded like rushing water. 16 He held seven stars in his right hand, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His appearance was like the sun shining with all its power.
So, how are we to understand this description of the heavenly Christ? Well, it may seem like a Yogi Berra-ism, but it does not mean what it says, it means what it means. John tells us that the seven lamp stands are the seven churches. So when he says Christ was in the middle of the lamp stands he wants us to know that he means Christ is present with the churches, supporting them in the midst of their trials and persecutions. Furthermore, when he describes Christ as wearing a white robe with a gold sash, he describes garments we would associate with royalty. This is John’s way of referring to Jesus as king.
When we read that Christ has hair like white wool, John isn’t suggesting a geriatric Jesus, this description is taken directly from a passage in Daniel (7:9) in which the prophet describes God, the Ancient One. In this way, John assigns a dignity to Christ in terms that resemble Daniel’s vision of God, and that Jewish-Christian readers would understand. Piercing eyes like “a flame of fire,” burn away or see through our false selves. “Feet like burnished bronze represent strength and stability,” another reference to Daniel. John describes the voice of Christ as penetrating and unmistakable, “like the sound of many waters,” words Ezekiel used to describe God (43:2). John continues with descriptions like these.
“Instead of taking John’s account with flat-footed literalism,” Metzger suggests, “we should imaginatively allow ourselves to be guided by the poetic quality of the narrative. We trivialize the account if we attempt to make a composite picture of the heavenly Christ showing each of these features literally.” Just as a poet might describe a lover’s neck like a swan, or lips like a rose, we don’t take that literally, and a drawing of that lover would not be too flattering. So too, John’s description of the heavenly Christ does not mean what it says, it means what it means.
The second and third chapters of Revelation consist of the letters to the seven churches, and the literary structure of the letters follows a fairly uniform pattern. Each begins with one of the descriptors of Christ from the vision, so the first letter, to the church at Ephesus, begins with the statement, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lamp stands,” a declaration of Christ’s continuing presence with, care and concern for his people. And the message of each letter is addressed to the angel of the various churches, which could denote a church leader, but most likely refers to the guardian angel of that church, as his use of the term later in the book suggests. Jesus’ words “I know” at the beginning of each of the letters indicates his awareness of the particular circumstances or difficulties of that church. The words that follow, then, are either words of commendation for their faithfulness, or of condemnation for their unfaithfulness. And while the letters vary in length, all end with the admonition from Christ to hold fast and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, in that way they will conquer their ordeal.
The first letter goes to the church at Ephesus, and we know a little of this church from Paul’s letter to them thirty years earlier. Ephesus was the main city in Asia Minor with a population of about 250,000 at that time. It was a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, a bustling trading center, and was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the temple of Diana (or Artemis, as she was called by the Greeks), the great mother goddess. This ancient temple was immense, the size of two football fields, with one hundred columns of sculpted granite fifty-five feet tall, and internal decoration of extraordinary splendor, adorned by works of art created by famous Greek artists. Devotees and tourists from around the world came to see and worship at this great temple.
Christianity was established there in the 60s on Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 20:31). And one result of Paul’s preaching there was a drop in the sales of silver souvenirs of the temple, which caused an uproar among the silversmiths who, fearing that their sales would continue to erode, started a riot to try to curb the further influence of Christianity from hurting their business.
And Paul warned the church that they’re in for a time of trouble, saying, “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice disciples to follow them” (Acts 20:29-30). So it is to the next generation of believers in this congregation that John writes. What Paul had foreseen in the 60s had come to fruition in the 90s. False leaders had arisen and were leading believers astray. To this church, the heavenly Christ says, “I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false” (2:2).
But he goes on, “But I have this against you; you have abandoned the love you had at first” (2:4). They had started well weeding out false teachers, but at a high cost. The love for Christ they had originally had grown cold, as did the love they had once had for other believers - replaced by suspicions of unsound teaching.
So Christ called them to repent, and to return to the works they had done at first. “If not,” he says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from it’s place” (2:5). John’s message here is that the presence of Christ departs when well-intentioned people, zealous to find the right way, depart from the ultimate way, which is love. And the letter ends with a promise: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is the paradise of God” (2:7). The tree of life, denied to Adam and Eve, is now accessible to the conqueror, the person, that is, who obeys the message of the letter and overcomes in the conflict with evil.
The next stop on this “Pony Express ride” delivering John’s message would be thirty-five miles north to the city of Smyrna, a large and prosperous commercial center, another of the great cities of Asia Minor. The city was renowned for its loyalty to Rome and its ritual worship of the emperor. Three hundred years earlier the first temple in the world dedicated to the goddess Roma was built in Smyrna, and seventy years before John’s writing the city dedicated a magnificent temple in honor of the Emperor Tiberius. Thereafter it was a center of worship of both Rome and Caesar.
The letter to the church in Smyrna is the shortest
of the seven messages, and contains no condemnations, only commendations. The Christians in Smyrna had to endure persecutions and deprivations for their refusal to take part in emperor worship.
Christ’s exhortation to these persecuted believers was to remain faithful to the extent of being ready to die for his sake (2:10). Opposition to the gospel was so fierce here that martyrdom, being killed for their faith, was a real possibility. In fact, one of the best known Christian martyrs of all ages was Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, martyred in the year 156.
To the faithful at Smyrna who did not turn away, Christ promised “the crown of life” (2:10), and that they would not be harmed by the “second death.”
Our first death occurs when we die in this life, the second death comes to those who fail to repent at the judgment. Christ tells them they will be held blameless.
Pergamum, or Pergamos, the next church in the series, was also home to many pagan temples, including to Asclepius, the god of healing, whose symbol was a snake, much like the snake depicted in the insignia of many medical associations. To John, however, the snake or serpent was a symbol of the personification of evil; “that ancient serpent,” he wrote, “who is called the Devil and Satan” (12:9). So it’s to them that the heavenly Christ says, “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is” (2:13).
Pergamum, like Smyrna, wasn’t an easy place for Christians to live - hostility to the church was even more vicious than in Smyrna. Persecution was great, some had already been killed for their faith in order to try to persuade others to turn away from Christianity. There were also issues with groups within the community who were trying to play both ends against the middle - attempting to balance pagan practices with Christian belief. So, to those who stand firm against both the persecution and the false teachings the Lord promises to give some of the “hidden manna” (2:17). Manna, you’ll remember, was the food God provided to the Israelites as they journeyed in the Exodus. God is promising here to continue to nourish them. In addition, they are promised a “white stone.” In ancient times a white stone was greatly prized, either as an amulet, especially if engraved with the name of a deity, or as a mark of membership in a special group.
The church at Thyatira faced a challenge similar to that of Ephesus, how to hold true to their faith when the culture that surrounded them was so fully immersed in pagan worship. And again, it had to do with artisans who made their living crafting things for pagan worship turning against Christians who wanted nothing to do with them or their worship practices. So, they faced the same question faced by every generation of Christians, including ours: “Where’s the limit on accepting contemporary standards and practices when it conflicts with my faith?”
Next stop - Sardis, another busy commercial city that, six centuries before was one of the great cities in the world. Devastated by a massive earthquake in the year 17, through the generosity of the Emperor Tiberius, it was rebuilt and would flourish again, although it lost its former glory. To this church, Christ presents himself as the one who has “the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1), indicating his sovereign control over churches and the source of spiritual power.
This is what Sardis needed to hear. As John writes, they “had a name of being alive,” but were in fact “dead.” No condemnation could be sharper: this church was an example of merely nominal Christianity. That is, they were Christian in name only.So Christ exhorts them to wake up! Strengthen what remains! Remember the gospel you received! Obey it! Repent! But he also warns, if you do not wake up, “I will come like a thief” - that is at an unexpected hour.
The city of Philadelphia was devastated by the same earthquake that had destroyed Sardis. By the 90s it had been mostly rebuilt however, and there was a small church there. It was very different than the church in Sardis, though. It was small, poor, and was harassed by both pagan worshipers as well by Jews in the synagogue, but they held strong. Because of their resoluteness, Christ says to them, “I know your works…I have set before you an open door” (3:8), meaning an opening to spread the gospel. Christ has paved the way for them to express their missionary and evangelistic zeal. And because of their zeal and faithfulness, they receive no condemnation, only commendation, and the promise that “I will keep you [throughout] the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world…” (3:10).
The final letter goes to the church in Laodicea, a city 100 miles east of Ephesus that was founded about the middle of the third century BCE by Antiochus II and named in honor of his wife Laodice. This church had declined greatly over the years, perhaps in part due to the great wealth and luxurious lifestyles of their members. Whatever the cause, they receive the harshest condemnation of all, with no commendation.
They are accused of being neither hot nor cold, but of being lukewarm. Among the membership were those who sought a middle ground between worshiping God and worshiping the emperor; thinking they could remain in the Christian church while also obeying the emperor’s command to worship him.
And Metzger offers, “Tepid, or lukewarm religion is nauseating, and the Lord…expresses in the strongest way his repudiation of the church by the warning, ‘I am about to spit you out of my mouth’ (3:16). Their boast of material sufficiency (‘You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’) is deceptive, and shows a proud, smug self-complacency. Materially affluent and self-satisfied, the church is spiritually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17), John writes. And there is intentional irony in John’s words, which contrasts sharply with their achievements in banking, medicine, and clothing manufacturing.” Christ admonishes this church to realize that it is actually poor in spirituality and that it needs to obtain from him the gifts that cannot be purchased with money.
At this point, though, the harsh condemnation - which is much more clear in the reading of it than in my telling you about it - takes a turn towards a tender concern. Christ says to them, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20). He paints a profound picture of grace and free will in action.
Actually, artist Holman Hunt literally paints that picture in his famous work The Light of the World. Jesus knocks at the door, but with no handle or latch on the outside, the door must be opened by those on the inside.
Christ promises to enter when the resident opens the door. The image, and the promise of eating with the Lord symbolizes the joy of fellowship. Sharing a common meal indicates the forming of a strong bond of affection and companionship. That is the promise Christ makes, even to this most strongly condemned of the seven churches.
So, within the letters to these seven churches, perhaps seven representative churches but certainly seven reflective churches, nearly all can see themselves.
The issues that faced these churches two millennia ago are the same that confront the church now. Likewise, the promises Christ made to them are also given to the church universal for all time - a promise of hope. To all who persevere, who conquer those things which seek to hold them back or that seek to turn them to some other god, Christ promises, “I will give you a place with me on my my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21).
For any church, or any Christian, on any day, it may be the best of times or it may be the worst of times, but in all times Christ promises us hope. That is the message of Revelation that we’ll explore that further next week, and the message that, in light of the events in Virginia yesterday, that we must remember and that the church must proclaim - Christ WILL overcome evil and hate in all of it’s forms.
So, I invite and encourage you to read chapters 4-11 for next week - remembering in the midst of the images and symbols John’s context in the midst of the crushingly brutal Roman Empire, and that it means what it means, not what it says. Amen.