January 11, 2016.
Reading: Revelation 1-5.
Background: The book of Revelation holds a very unique position amongst Christian thought and theology. The book is a letter containing the revelation that the apostle John was given to send to the seven churches in Asia minor, probably near the end of the first century (though some argue that there is internal evidence that suggests an earlier date), and spans three different genres: apocalyptic, prophetic and it is a letter. Revelation has been interpreted in a variety of different ways. Some see it as a description of the cycles of history, others as a prediction of the future, and still others as describing only the events that would happen in the apostolic era through the fall of the Roman empire. Perhaps one reason that the different interpretations arise is the perspective one takes when looking at the book. To get the best picture of what Revelation is trying to say, one must look at it through the eyes oppressed and persecuted Christians of the early church, as this was the audience that John was writing to seeking to give them encouragement to persevere though times were going to get rough. The revelation that John records is very polarized- there are no gray areas; black or white, right or wrong, winning side or loosing side. Whatever interpretation we take on it, we must not loose sight of the main point: there is a spiritual war going on whose outcome has already been decided. Jesus wins. We much choose a side. A great deal of symbolism is used throughout the book as John is trying to describe a spiritual realm with physical words that simply cannot do it justice and also to send a coded message to the churches about Rome. John uses a great deal of Old Testament symbols and allusions to ensure that the Jewish Christians of the time would know exactly what he was talking about, whereas a Roman would not. As we continue to read, keep in mind that this was written to early Christians who were about to experience some of the worst persecution that Christians have ever faced under the reign of Caesar Domitian. His concept of emperor worship lays well into Revelation’s themes of choosing a side of loyalty, as Christians could not worship anyone besides their risen Lord.
Concepts and Connections.
The revelation of Jesus Christ: John opens his letter with an introduction to the things that he is about to relay to the people of God from the revelation of Jesus Christ that he was given while exiled on the island of Patmos. It is interesting that this is one of the only prophecies in scripture that indicates a blessing for reading the words aloud. The revelation is specifically addressed to the seven churches in Asia minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Though these are specific churches, each given a specific message over the course of the next two chapters, it should be noted that seven is a complete number when used in symbolism, often the number of completeness for God (along with 10 and 12). John calls himself a fellow brother and partner in the tribulation with those to whom he is writing.
After opening and addressing his letter, John turns to the main subject, Christ Himself, giving a glorious description of the risen Lord, pictured as the Son of Man (see Matthew 24:3-31), which bears a striking resemblance of the vision that Daniel describes in Daniel 10. We see Christ in His glorified form only here at the opening of the book, as for the majority of the book He will be depicted as a lamb which was as if it had been slain. Jesus here tells John that He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. He was the one who had died, but stood alive forevermore, and the seven stars and golden lampstands corresponded to the seven churches in Asia to whom He had a message to give. The specific messages He had for each individual church will be laid out over the next two chapters.
The Spirit to the seven churches: Chapters 2 and 3 encompass the specific messages that the Spirit has to each of the seven churches in Asia. In all but two cases, there is something that stands amiss about the church, and they are told to repent lest the Lord come and remove their candlestick from the golden lampstand, representing their state of apostasy. There is much to be learned from the messages to the churches, as the phrase “he that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” is heard at the end of each message. These messages remind us that we are to be on our guard to avoid the apostasy that these churches had allowed to creep in, even unnoticed. We should look at each church to learn about some of the dangers that threaten our spirituality and even our place in Christ.
Ephesus: The first church that is addressed is the church in Ephesus. Before getting to the rebuke, the Spirit shares with them the positive things He sees amongst them, specifically their toil and patience. They were diligent in testing the spirits (see I John 4:1) and exposing those who were falsely setting themselves up as being form God. However, it seems that the Ephesians had grown weary in their work and had allowed it to slip (see Galatians 6:9). Their fire was not burning as bright as it had in the beginning; they had left their first love. They were told to remember the love and the works they had at first and repent, lest their lampstand be removed from its place.
Smyrna: The church in Smyrna is one of the two churches that does not get a rebuke from the Spirit. Instead they are praised for their riches, though physically they were poor and afflicted. Note that the church in Smyrna are humble in circumstance, but they are brought to the top when the Spirit praises them in a way that is different than most of the other churches. Notice that the Spirit doesn’t tell them that things are going to get better for them because of their steadfastness, but rather that they would be saved in the end. In fact, He tells them that they are about to suffer; but they were not to be afraid. They were doing well, and the Lord would give them a crown of life when they were faithful unto death.
Pergamum: The church in Pergamum was in an interesting situation, as they are praised for their adherence to faith in the Lord, even in great persecution, yet they had gone astray in their teaching. They had put a stumbling block before their members that they might fall, just as Balaam did for the children of Israel in Numbers 24 (see also Numbers 31:16). They were also following after the false teaching of the Nicolaitans. Though they still kept their faith, they had allowed false teaching to overtake them, and for this they were called to repent, lest the Spirit come war with them.
Thyatira: Similar to the churches above, the church in Thyatira is first praised for their love, faith, service and patience, as their works now exceeded those even in their beginning. However, they were tolerating sin in their midst, described as the woman Jezebel (see I Kings 16:29-34), who was teaching the people to do evil things in the sight of the Lord. Even so, it would seem that not all the Christians in Thyatira went along with this ‘Jezebel’, and the rebuke is directed mostly at her and those who follow after her, noting that He knows who do not hold to this teaching. To them, He tells to hold fast to what they have until He comes. He would give to each according to his works.
Sardis: Continuing on in the specific addresses to each of the churches in Asia, the message for the church in Sardis was probably shocking to the church themselves. They had a reputation of being alive, but they were really dead. They looked like they were active and on fire, but on the inside they were withering away. Perhaps they were going through the motions, but their heart was not in it (see Isaiah 29:3, Matthew 15:8 and Mark 7:6). The message to Sardis was simple: Wake up! For if they did not repent, the Spirit would come against them. Yet, there were still a few in Saris who had not soiled their garments whom the Son of Man would confess before the Father and His angels.
Philadelphia: The church in Philadelphia is the second of two churches in the list that is not given a rebuke, but only praise for their patience and faith. Like the church in Smyrna, the church in Philadelphia is humble, for they had little power, but they are praised in their humility. They had kept the word of Christ and not denied His name, and because of this, He would make it known that He loved them. He tells them that He will keep them from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world. They are encouraged to hold fast to what they had, that no one would seize their crown.
Laodicea: As the message finally comes to the church in Laodicea, we find no praises here as we did for many of the other churches. The Laodiceans had reached a point of comfort and apathy, and it made the Lord sick, vomiting them out of His mouth. We see here the true feelings that the Lord has towards apathy in His kingdom. Though they thought they were rich and doing well, they were wretched, poor and blind. They were comfortable where they were, but the Lord would not tolerate their apathy. They had left Jesus knocking at His own church. The church is called to be zealous and repent, opening the door once again to the knocking Savior.
A glimpse of heaven: As we enter the vision that John had on the island of Patmos, the first place we are taken is straight into heaven. This is important to note, as the vision will soon get quite messy, with frightening images and a look at what is to come, but first we are invited to the throne of God to remind us of who is in control always. As we enter, we see the throne of God with the Lord God seated in power, surrounded by 24 thrones for the 24 elders, which likely represented the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles. There is great power in the throne, represented by the flashes of lightening and peals of thunder that were before the throne, and the seven torches of fire that represented the seven Spirits of God (remember that seven is a number of completeness for God). Around the throne were four living creatures, likely representing wild animals, domesticated animals, mankind and birds of the air. The four living creatures would praise the Lord day an night as the One who was, is and is to come. The 24 elders similarly would praise the Lord by casting their crowns before Him, exalting Him and calling Him worthy to receive glory and power, for He was the creator of all things. As we look into heaven, we see the Lord worshipped and glorified by all His creation. His glory is unending.
The Lamb of God: As the last chapter revealed to us the Lord God sitting on the throne, this chapter opens with a scroll in his hand that only the One who was worthy could open. A search was made, but none were found to be worthy to open the scroll, and this is enough to make John cry. But his tears were stopped, for the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, enters the scene worthy to open the scroll. Here we see Christ take His place as divine, worthy to open the scroll. Note how He is depicted, however. He is called the Lion of Judah, but He stands as a Lamb as though it had been slain (see Isaiah 53). There is great irony in this picture, as it shows the difference between the wisdom of man and the wisdom of God. Note the use of the number seven here, again a sign of completeness for God, showing further the divinity of Christ. As the Lamb takes the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down in worship, holding instruments of praise and incense that was the prayers of the saints, singing a new song before the risen Lamb calling Him worthy to take the scroll and open the seals. He was worthy because of the sacrifice He made for mankind, ransoming them to their God, making priests from every nation, language and people of the earth. After the creatures and elders worship, myriads and myriads of angles join in their song, as do every creature in heaven and on earth, giving all glory and honor to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb of God. All praise be to Him.
Next Reading: Esther 1-5.
Worthy is the Lamb.