Hang In There!

While Revelation finishes big, we hear John's main themes even from the beginning.

Full Text: 

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Revelation 1:1-20

The prophet Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it breaks forth! Do you not perceive it?”

God is continually doing a new thing. In fact, God is making all things new. God is remaking the heavens and the earth. At the center of the new heavens and the new earth is a city that is God’s home among mortals, where everything is new. The old is wiped away. There is no death or sorrow or tears or grief. At the center of the city is the throne of Godand of the Lamb and from the throne flows the River of the Water of Life. On each side of this river is the Tree of Life, bearing fruit 12 months a year and the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations.

That is where all it is going. That is where Revelation is headed. Despite all the suffering and death and evil and darkness, that is what God is finally up to.

That’s the end of the story. We find it in Revelation 21 and 22. Today we go back to the beginning, at least, to the beginning of the book of Revelation. And we find out where it starts.

The book of Revelation starts with John. John was a common name in the ancient world. It’s a common name now. This John is not the John who is the son of Zebedee and who followed Jesus during his earthly life. There is no mention of the teachings or miracles of Jesus. This John is also likely not the author of the gospel that bears the name of John. The vocabulary and the literary style and the theological concerns are just too different. But if you ask this John, the writer of the book of Revelation, he would say, “It’s not important who I am. What I am writing is what is important. Pay attention to what I am writing!”

What is John writing? First of all, John is writing an apocalypse. That’s the literal rendering of the word in Greekthat is translated, “revelation.” “The revelation of Jesus Christ…” (1:1) This is the only book of the Bible that calls itself an apocalypse. So we associate an apocalypse with end-times disaster and destruction. But the Greek word, “apokalupsis,” simply means, “an unveiling” – that is, a disclosing of what is hidden. John of Patmos is going to pull back the curtain so we can see what is going on behind the scenes.

Second, John is writing a prophecy. In verse three, he writes, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the word of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” (1:3)

Most people think of a prophecy as a prediction about the future and judge the truth of the prophecy on whether those events take place or not. Biblical prophecy is about the future, but it is not a prediction so much as it is a call to repentance, a call to action, at a crucial moment in history.

The prophet Jonah, after his time in the belly of the whale, went to Nineveh and preached destruction in 30 days. Then he went to a hill outside the city to watch the spectacle. But the spectacle never happened because the people of Nineveh paid attention to the prophecy and they repented and God repented too – changed his mind – about the destruction. Jonah was beside himself. His prediction did not come true, but the prophecy had been effective.

John of Patmos makes this clear as well – “and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” Even though John talks about “what must soon take place,” he is not so much about prediction as he is about action.

Finally, John is writing a letter. “John to the seven churches that are in Asia : grace and peace from him who was and who is and who is to come…” (1:4) Not many people write letters anymore. But we can still recognize a letter when we see one. It begins, “Dear so-and so,” and it ends, “Sincerely, so-and-so.” The details vary, of course, but it is a personal communication from one person or party or group of people to another person or party or group of people.

Much of the New Testament is made up of letters, many of them by the apostle Paul. They have their own particular form as well and we can recognize them by their form.

Understanding the book of Revelation as a letter may not seem quite so important as understanding it as an apocalypse or as a prophecy. But I believe it is at least as important. Since it is a letter, it is anchored in particular people in a particular place in a particular moment in history. It is tied to John of Patmos and seven churches in Asia Minor late in the first century of the Common Era. The letter has implications for us in the 21st century. But if we are remove it from its own historical setting, we will misunderstand it.

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. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 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 .

John of Patmos is a brother in Christ who, like his readers, is also persecuted and exiled as well to a small island about 37 miles off the coast of Asia Minor, the land that is now Turkey .

John and his readers live in the Roman Empire . The Romans ruled the entire area around the Mediterranean Sea, including all of North Africa and north to the British Isles . The Roman Empire was vast and ruthless, and many suffered at their hands. Though there was no systematic persecution of Christians at the time of John’s vision, Christians were often believed to be enemies of the state.

Why? The Roman emperor was considered a god and the official state religion of Rome was emperor worship. Those who refused to worship the emperor were often accused of sedition, of treason against the state, the same accusation that was made against Jesus.

This is the persecution that John shares with his readers, a persecution and suffering he is encouraging them to bear with patience. In order to inspire them, he states claims about Jesus.

…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. (1:5)

John says, first of all, that Jesus is a faithful witness. Because his faithful witness resulted in death, Jesus is a martyr. So, what the seven churches are facing is no more and no less than what Jesus himself faced. Secondly, Jesus is the firstborn of the dead. His resurrection provides assurance that death is not the end for the faithful, because Christ is the first of many who will die and rise again. And, third, Jesus is the ruler of kings on earth. He may have died at the hands of the rulers, but in actuality he rules over them. Even the power of the emperor is subordinate to his eternal power. And Christians are the real priests of his kingdom.

John makes these claims about Jesus in his greeting to the seven churches. John also shares the vision he has been given. This vision is not for information. John does not share his vision so that people can recognize Jesus when they see him walking down the street. John writes for inspiration, for encouragement.

It is a vision of seven golden lampstands and of a brilliant figure, one like a Son of Man – a figure from the book of Daniel– who holds seven stars in his right hand and from his mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword.

As frightening as the figure is, his words are words of comfort and encouragement. “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, the living one. I was dead, but I am alive forever and ever. And I will let you in on a secret – the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are their seven guardian angels!”

Even though this is just the first chapter of the book of Revelation, already we have heard, I believe, John’s basic message – Hang in there! Keep the faith! God is in charge!

You are being threatened and persecuted, John says. I understand your situation. I feel your pain. Hang in there!

Your lives are being made miserable, John tells them, because you will not acknowledge the god-ship of the emperor, because you know who the true God is and who the true King of the world is. Keep the faith!

God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God is the beginning of the story, John reminds them, and God is the end of the story. Even though it may not appear so at present, God is in charge!

And even though we live in the 21st century and not the first, we can still hear John’s message. When things look darkest – hang in there! Keep the faith! God is in charge! When the world seems bent on destroying itself – hang in there! Keep the faith! God is in charge! When we feel as though we have no place to turn, except to the world, remember – Hang in there! Keep the faith! God is in charge!

When we hear these words and keep them, that is how, in a world of uncertainty, we can live as people of Hope.