Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Last week we took a look at Jesus’ message to a church that was preoccupied with good things to the neglect of what was most important. This week we are going to be reading Jesus’ second letter to another church in Asia Minor that was dealing with another issue—persecution. That is right, the church of Smyrna found in Revelation 2:8-11 might best be described as the persecuted church. In his message to this congregation, Jesus follows a similar pattern to what was found in the message to the church in Ephesus with two omissions—there is no word of condemnation nor are there any real words of correction. Other than that, a similar structure is shared by this letter and many of the other messages to the other churches found in Revelation 2-3. Ultimately, in this correspondence we learn how important hope is in the midst of struggle—a message the church in Smyrna could have used and a message that becomes more applicable with every passing day in our increasingly post-Christian context.
As with all of the other letters to the churches, Jesus addresses the message “to the angel of the church.” The angel that he writes to second is over the church in Smyrna—a city some 35-40 miles northwest of Ephesus (the destination of the first letter). This major seaport city was situated on the gulf of the Aegean Sea and was claimed as the home of the great poet Homer. Noted for its beauty, some of its coins read “First of Asia in beauty and size”—something with which neighboring rivals Ephesus and Pergamum took issue (Wilson, ZIBBC, 263). The beauty of the city is attested to in its name “Smyrna” which identifies a perfume whose aroma that was released by crushing the resin of a small thorn bush. Also present in this region was the practice of emperor worship. In fact, as early as 25 A.D. a temple was built there to the Roman Emperor (Hindson, Revelation, 35).
Again, in keeping with the organization of the other letters, the speaker or character bringing the message is introduced via an element of the description of Jesus provided to John in chapter 1. “The first and the last” is borrowed from 1:17 and once again identifies Christ as present and active both at the beginning of all things and at the end of all things. He is, in other words, bigger than time itself. “Who was dead and has come to life” (taken from 1:18) once again references Jesus’ entire ministry of redemption (death and resurrection). Taken together with the first description in verse 8, all three fundamentals of the gospel are present—deity, death, and resurrection of Christ. That Jesus would identify himself in this way to this church is important for, as we will soon see, the promise of resurrected life after death, would provide this particular church with the hope they required in the midst of their difficult circumstances. Because Jesus overcame the grave, his people can overcome whatever adversity they face, fully assured of a most glorious future.
We must pay special attention to how Jesus describes himself to each of these churches. If you will remember, to Ephesus he described himself as the omnipotent one (holding the stars in his hand) walking among the seven golden lampstands. Later in that message he threatens to replace the church’s lampstand if they don’t repent and the descriptions of his character mentioned to this body of believers demonstrate that he has both the power and access to do it. In this message, he appeals to his ministry of overcoming trials and overwhelming death with resurrected life in an effort to encourage this church and identify with their plight.
Identifying with this church in their struggle is revisited as the commendation is given in verse 9—“I know your tribulation.” Jesus understood and was intimately aware of the very real struggles this church faced in Smyrna. Not only were pagan emperor worshipers persecuting Christians, evidence suggests that the Jewish population in Smyrna was particularly anti-Christian. This rendered ministry especially difficult in this particular context.
The brand of persecution thrust on these Christians led to significant economic hardship. Jesus doesn’t just know their tribulation, he also knows their subsequent poverty (“and your poverty”) (2:9b). Believers had apparently lost their jobs or their businesses after suffering boycotts (Wilson, ZIBBC, 263). This is not unlike what was witnessed in Nazi Germany when Jewish businesses suffered the same plight. In fact, economic discrimination is well known in many parts of the world even today where Christians comprise a minority. It is one brand of persecution that the forces of evil have tried against the people of God for millennia.
However, Jesus, in an encouraging aside, corrects the record. Though the church members may be outwardly impoverished, Christ sees something totally different when he observes what matters most—the heart—(but you are rich). Perhaps Jesus’ comment betrays the same sentiment shared in Matthew 5 when Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, 10). Though the world would look upon the church at Smyrna and see a poverty-stricken minority group with no one to blame but themselves for stubbornly clinging to their religion, Jesus sees heirs and heiresses of the Kingdom of God.
Not only does Jesus commend this church for enduring persecution and subsequent poverty, he also acknowledges their ability to endure blasphemy-“and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9c). Certain Jews in both Smyrna and Philadelphia (see 3:9) are called a synagogue of Satan. While Satan will receive a more robust introduction in Revelation 12:9, here Christ recognizes the father of lies in his description of this corrosive group in this region. It is woefully unfortunate that some of Christianity’s worst enemies in the first century were hateful Jews. It was the rulers of the synagogues in various Roman cities who often persecuted Paul (see Acts 13:50; 14:2, 19) and Jews were even responsible for Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27ff). In John’s gospel the Jews are often singled out as vehement enemies of Jesus (John 2:18; 5:18; 10:31). All of these references do not implicate every Jew everywhere, but it does convict those members of Jewish authority structures, particularly in Jerusalem and in other prominent cities like Smyrna, who actively opposed and antagonized Christians in the latter part of the first century. In fact, in keeping with what Paul says about real and spiritual Jews in Romans, these “Jews” that Jesus identifies in Revelation 2:9 are “not” Jews in the truest sense of the word.
Romans 2:29-“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
Persecution, poverty, and blasphemy surrounded the church in Smyrna rendering it an especially difficult place to do ministry. Though I’m sure the church would have loved for these observations to be followed up with a promise of relief, an ominous call follows this commendation in verse 10.
The first element of Jesus’ call upon this church is to fear not—“Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (2:10a). Jesus does not dance around the fact that soon, the persecution will ratchet up even more and he wants the church to be prepared. In spite of the pressure that is to come, Jesus calls for the church to fear not—Lit. “do not be fearing.” Suffering was coming. The word is emphatic as it describes acute physical and/or psychological distress. In spite of this, the believers of Smyrna are encouraged to hang tough.
Is it better or worse to know exactly what to expect when what is coming is going to be uncomfortable? At several of Audrey’s routine doctor’s appointments we as parents debated amongst ourselves whether or not we should tell Audrey that she would be getting a shot. Is entering into it blind better than suffering the anguish of it weighing heavy on your mind for days leading up to the appointment? More often than not, we would tell her ahead of time with the hopes that she would be prepared and not caught off guard. Jesus does the same with this church.
Jesus doesn’t give the church a choice in the matter of knowing or remaining ignorant to what is about to transpire. He tells them exactly how this persecution will occur as verse 10 continues—“Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days” (2:10b). “Fear not!” is followed by “look out!” as Jesus reveals what this church can expect around the corner. Authorities that are inspired by the devil himself are going to throw several of the church members into prison and while there, they will be “tested.”
Interestingly this word “tested” means “to endeavor or attempt to cause someone to sin.” Often if Satan can’t get someone to sin on their own turf, he will displace them and increase the pressure to make people more susceptible to fall, give in, or give up. Jesus predicts that while the church has endured a lot already and remained strong, some of them are going to see much worse and will be tempted to throw in the towel. Though the prediction made is bleak, there is a silver lining. The test will only last “ten days.” This is perhaps a figurative reference to Daniel 1:12-15 where the fames vision-interpreter and his three Hebrews friends refused to eat the defiled Babylonian food and were tested for ten days. When this 10-day assessment was over, the four were vindicated and blessed for their resolve. Jesus seems to indicate that vindication and blessing also await those who will be tested in Smyrna in special ways.
This is why Jesus ends his call with a third charge—be faithful!. Fear not! Look out! Be faithful! “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10c). For those who would die in the persecution, a crown of life is promised. This “victor’s crown” or wreath was already an established eschatological symbol in the early church.
2 Tim. 4:8-“In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
This Paul shares at the very end of his life while awaiting his execution.
1 Peter 5:4-“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
This Peter says before, as church history tells us, he was crucified for the cause of Christ, most believe, upside down.
Interestingly, even this promised crown would have spoken to this church in special ways given their unique context—specifically Smyrna’s topography. The acropolis Mount Pagus which loomed over the city, was described by ancient writers as its crown. Jesus suggests here that the victor’s crown given in glory to those who would give everything for the cause of Christ would dwarf even this impressive local landmark (Aune, Revelation, 1:171-75).
Unwilling to compromise their own worship of the one true God, the church in Smyrna was filled with faithful believers who didn’t participate in the pagan practice of emperor worship. Particularly, their devotion to Christ prohibited them to burn incense at Caesar’s bust. However, they would pay dearly for their faithfulness to the Lord. In the middle of the second century (around 156 A.D.) the elderly disciple of the apostle John, Polycarp, who served as the bishop of the church for forty years was burned at the stake for his faith in Jesus. “Swear by the genius of Caesar and I will release you. Revile Christ!” the proconsul demanded of Polycarp. “For 86 years I have served him and he has done me no wrong” Polycarp replied. “How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me? I am a Christian!” Condemned as “the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of the gods,” Polycarp died with calm dignity and unflinching courage.
History reveals that many Christians were martyred in Smyrna over the next several centuries along with Polycarp (Keener, IVP BBC, 733). Those who sacrificed it all in this region proved Jesus’ prediction and demonstrated the kind of courage and faithfulness He hoped to see in the midst of oppression.
As with the other letters there is a challenge at the end that applies to more that just the immediate recipients—“He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (2:11). As with Ephesus and the other letters yet to be read, the challenge comes with a promise reserved for those who are overcomers (nikaw) (where the popular clothing company came up with the word Nike). This verb is often used to identify victors or winners of some kind of competition. Here, in the competition between good and evil, those who in Christ win against the forces of evil are promised a glorious prize. In the letter to Ephesus the prize was paradise and the tree of life. In this letter to the church of Smyrna the prize is avoiding the second death. Second death? What in the world is this?
The second death, introduced here, is explained much later in Revelation 20 (not unlike how the tree of life introduced in Revelation 2 resurfaces in chapter 22). This is what Revelation 20 says about the second death.
Revelation 20:4-6-“Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.”
This passage along with several others later in the book of Revelation teaches that there is going to be two resurrections—a resurrection of the saved and a resurrection of the lost. The resurrection of the saved will take place before a millennial reign of Christ. These will be raised (soul and body reunited into a final glorious form) to eternal life. The resurrection of the lost will take place after the millennium and these will be judged at the Great white throne and suffer a second death at which point they will be separated from God forever in a very real hell. This second death will have no affect on those who are saved and overcome in Christ.
What a glorious hope this would have been to the struggling church of Smyrna (who, according to this letter, could initially expect things to get far worse). While they would have struggles in this world under all kinds of threats, in the world to come no threat would ever harm them.
It is this same hope that we must cling to today when/if we suffer persecution for the cause of Christ. Though many of us have probably never felt the same kind of pressure and oppression the church of Smyrna did, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ do experience grave persecution. According to a 2017 report by Franklin Graham, “The persecution of Christians is not just happening in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and other hotbeds of extremist ideology. It may come as a surprise that some of our neighbors and allies are on the list of perpetrators. For example, did you know that not only is Mexico among the top 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution, but 23 Christians were recently killed by drug cartels there, specifically because of their faith? And just a couple of years ago, local authorities in Chiapas drove more than 150 Protestants from their community, effectively stealing their land and leaving them without food. Also consider the Christian refugees across Europe, including 88% of those surveyed in German shelters, who have experienced religiously motivated persecution — 32% of whom have received death threats. In the United Kingdom, some Christian converts from Islam are even under armed police protection because of death threats, according to Barnabas Aid. In Egypt, the problem is not the result of terrorists alone. Coptic Christians, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, are subject to government-enacted blasphemy laws, bureaucratic roadblocks to erecting churches, and routine rejection from well-deserved advancement in careers and even sports. Some countries use anti-terrorism laws to broaden police powers which, in turn, have brought about the persecution of Christians. Some countries have used blasphemy laws.” (USA Today, 2017).
Friends these realities we observe third party are nearer to us than we probably realize. We must encourage our brothers and sisters any way that we can by reminding them that while many will see trouble and tribulation in this world, there is real hope in a glorious future beyond what we see around us. We must also drill these truths into our own brains so that whenever we may face the sting of persecution, we too can lean on the resurrection hope and power of Jesus to see us through, even if it costs us everything. Only Jesus offers the hope that brings perseverance and the crown of victory!
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
As we enter chapter 2 of Revelation we begin a new major section of the book. Concerning “the things which were and the things which are and the things which will happen after these things” (see 1:19), in chapter 2 John begins recording Jesus’ message that speaks into this second category (the things which are). This includes seven individual letters/messages to seven historical churches that existed in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. We are going to devote a week to each of these churches and observe a consistent pattern in their corresponding messages. This pattern includes seven components that are nearly consistent in every letter found in these two chapters (with a couple of exceptions). The first of these messages is addressed to Ephesus and recorded for us in Revelation 2:1-7. Therein, Jesus identifies what ought to be of greatest importance to any body of believers as they persevere to the end.
1. COMMISSION-2:1-“…To the angel of the church in Ephesus write…”
Ephesus was the fourth largest city of the first-century Roman empire with a population of 250,000 inhabitants. Situated on the western coast of Asia Minor, Ephesus was an important port and even called the “First and Greatest Metropolis of Asia.” Throughout the ancient world, Ephesus was regarded as the temple keeper (see Acts 19:35) of the goddess Artemis as the temple of Artemis constructed there was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (measuring 220 by 425 ft.). Yearly festivals and other events were promoted for the worship of Artemis and at least fourteen other deities in this region during the first century. Pervasive paganism on this scale no doubt made it difficult on the local church body in this city as they promoted and lived out the gospel.
Jesus calls on John to record the following: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write…”(2:1). As indicated earlier (in 1:20), the seven stars in Jesus’ hands each represented the angels assigned to the seven churches. In this opening line Jesus sends word to the angel (one of the stars) assigned to the body of believers in Ephesus.
2. CHARACTER-2:1b-“…The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands says this:…”
After identifying the destination of this message, Jesus identifies himself—the speaker of the message—“The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands says this,…” (2:1b). In this identifying description, Jesus borrows from what has already been revealed in the imagery of Revelation 1 (particularly in 1:16 and 1:13 respectively). At least two divine attributes are suggested by these phrases—omnipotence and omnipresence. As the one who holds the stars in his hand Jesus betrays his sovereignty and power over the realms (especially the spiritual and angelic realms). As the one walking among the lampstands (earlier in the middle of the lampstands) he is understood as present among each of the contexts they symbolize simultaneously. Such imagery was readily assessible to the church and its context as the emperor Domitian in A.D. 83, in an attempt to deify his infant son, manufactured coins that showed the young child seated on a globe surrounded by stars. In an effort to encourage the church in Ephesus and speak into the culture of first century Rome, the Revealer borrows these images and demonstrates Jesus’ superiority over the leaders of the world. Jesus is everywhere and holds the stars in his hand!
3. COMMENDATION-2:2-3, 6
After introducing the message to the church of Ephesus, Jesus offers a three-fold commendation. First, Jesus compliments the church on her perseverance in the truth—“…I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false,…” (2:2). It was probably not very easy to remain in the truth in first century Ephesus when the majority of 250,000 were worshiping pagan gods, visiting glamorous temples, and celebrating multiple festivals throughout their calendar year. Perhaps this is why Jesus describes their perseverance in the truth with words like “toil.” In spite of the pagan pressure around them to leave the gospel message, Jesus recognizes the church’s deeds, inability to tolerate evil men, and willingness to test those who claimed apostle-status and praises them for their steadfastness in truth.
The early church was often plagued with false teachers and fake apostles. Paul predicted this would be the case in Acts 20:29-30.
Acts 20:29-30-“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
Paul also asked Timothy to call out errant doctrine in 1 Timothy 1:3. Later Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus are even named as Ephesians who wandered from the truth (1 Tim. 1:19-20, 2 Tim. 2:17-18). One can imagine that in this particular context (Ephesus), the church was in a perpetual state of defense against falsity.
Continuing in his commendations, Jesus also compliments the church’s fortitude under pressure saying, “and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary” (2:3). The pressure the church of Ephesus experienced was not merely philosophical/ideological (paganism vs. Christianity), it was existential. The word for “have endured” means “to continue to bear up under unusually trying circumstances and difficulties” (Louw Nida). In spite of cultural pressure and persecution believers faced in this region, Jesus says that the church of Ephesus has not “grown weary” (become emotionally fatigued and discouraged—Louw Nida).
A third commendation/compliment Jesus makes is found later in verse 6, “Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (2:6). In other words, Jesus commends this church for having the same enemies he does, proving that you don’t just know the character of a person by what they like, but also what they hate. So who were these Nicolaitans and why are they disdained?
This obscure sect is mentioned later in the letter to Pergamum. “Their name ‘Nicolaitans’ (literally, “victor over the people”) is a wordplay on [one of] Revelation’s key word[s] nikao, ‘to be victorious, conquer’ and translated ‘overcome’ in the victor sayings. [As we will soon see in the book of Revelation]. Unlike the true victors, who were to overcome by resisting the existing political, social, and religious order, the Nicolaitans apparently advocated accommodation to pagan society by eating food sacrificed to idols and engaging in sexual immorality” (Wilson, ZIBBC, 263). One might surmise that the Nicolaitans were into syncretism, not sanctification (being set with the world, not set apart from the world).
These commendations reveal that the church of Ephesus had a lot going for them. They persevered in the truth, exercised fortitude under pressure, and rightly hated this accommodating group of syncretists. However, after issuing these compliments, Jesus raises a very serious concern.
4. CONDEMNATION-2:4-“…But I have this against you, that you have left your first love,…”
The concern Jesus raises is jarring—“But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4). While in the throws of defending the truth, ferreting out the falsity, remaining steadfast under pressure, and avoiding those who deserved to be avoided, the church had become overly preoccupied with good pursuits to the neglect of their greatest pursuit—Christ—their first love. What does this look like? What does it mean for a church to abandon its first love?
In John 14:15 Jesus says “if you love me, you will keep My commandments.” Earlier Jesus confirms what a central command is “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). After that John the apostle reiterates this teaching in 1 John 3:11-18.
1 John 3:11-18- “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
These teachings confirm Jesus’ summary of the law: Love God and love others (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34). This is exercised not in platitudes and pontificating, but in practical service and support of one’s fellow man. Love as a verb does things and in loving others the church proves its love for Jesus himself (see Matthew 25:31-46).
As far as the church in Ephesus was concerned, one commentator puts it this way “Years of vigilance concerning orthodoxy (correct doctrine) have perhaps dulled their sensitivity to orthopraxy (correct practice), both of which are necessary for a spiritually healthy congregation” (Wilson, ZIBBC, 261). Another scholar offers the following explanation of the Ephesian church: “Sound doctrine and perseverance are inadequate without love” (Keener, IVP BBC, 732).
The severity of this problem is accentuated by the word of correction that Jesus offers in verse 5—“therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5). The prescription for this problem is two-fold. First, the church needs to remember from where they have fallen. Jesus imagines a pedestal upon which the church at Ephesus, committing themselves to truth AND practically loving others, once sat. However, an unhealthy preoccupation with the former led to a neglect of latter and caused them fall out of their seat. In an effort to climb back onto the stool, they have to remember from where they fell. Second, they need to repent (turn in a different direction in their thinking and corresponding activities). Rather than grow increasingly satisfied with their spot on the floor, they need to look up and change their behaviors in an effort to climb back onto their perch and return to the ministry table.
Following this two-fold prescription is a frightening warning—“or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent…” (2:5b). Unless the church changes its ways, Christ promises that he will move the Ephesian lampstand from its leadership position as an apostolic church among the Asian churches and pass its authority along to another congregation (Wilson, ZIBBC, 262). This reiterates how seriously Jesus takes the practical ministry of the church. A church in which there is much study but no service, does not deserve the blessings of God and can easily be replaced.
5. CALL-2:7a-“…He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,…”
Following the word of correction is the call for others to listen in—“He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7a). Though the message found in verses 1-7 is specifically addressed to the church in Ephesus at the end of the first century, Jesus almost seems to invite others who can learn from this letter to apply it also in their own respective contexts if needed. Remember, the entire book of Revelation (containing all the individual letters) was circulated among the churches and beyond. If others could stand to learn and apply something appropriately, then they ought to do so as well.
6. CHALLENGE-2:7b-“…To Him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God,…”
In keeping with this more general audience and more general call is a challenge containing a promise that is true for any believer (in Ephesus or anywhere else)—“To Him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God” (2:7b). Though the idea of overcoming can be used in militaristic or athletic imagery, here the connotation appears to involve persevering in the face of conflict and hardship (a theme that we will see repeated in many of the letters and thereafter in the prophetic portion of the Book of Revelation). Those who overcome will be ultimately saved (glorified—see Matthew 24:13—“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved) and this is assured to those who have through faith and repentance entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ (See also Romans 8:30-“ and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified”). Once, glorified, believers will be granted access to the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.
The imagery of this promise involves the reversal of the curse that was introduced in the garden of Eden. In fact “Paradise” is the Greek word assigned to “Eden” in the Septuagint. Therefore, what Jesus promises here is, in some ways, described as a return to the paradise originally created when all things were perfect and very good (see Gen. 2-3). There, the “tree of life” will be enjoyed by those who in Ephesus (or anywhere else) endure in Christ to the end. In fact, at the very end of Revelation, this tree of life reemerges in John’s description of heaven.
Revelation 22:1-2-“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit yielding its fruit in every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
This promise of paradise and of this tree (though universal for the church) is highly contextualized for those in Ephesus as a grove called Ortygia outside of Ephesus in the first century was known as “paradise” by the locals who visited there frequently, believing it to be the birthplace of Artemis. The Paradise Jesus promises to Ephesian believers and all worshipers of the one true God is greater than all other presumed oases for which the pagan world pines.
Now that is something to look forward to! However, while we anticipate this glorious end and persevere in the meantime, let us who have ears hear how this message to Ephesus is applicable today. Like the church in Ephesus, it is so easy for today’s body to become preoccupied with all kinds of things that are good to the neglect of what is essential. I often refer to a taxonomy of priorities (hills upon which to die) in the classes I teach and reveal that the gospel and all theological issues appertaining thereunto (deity, death, and resurrection of Christ, etc.) is what is most important to any person and any system. Believing this and taking this message of hope to the world seems to be what is nearest to God’s heart as witnessed in Jesus’ last earthly words—“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20) and 2 Peter 3:9—“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Loving God and others to this end (living out the true gospel in practical ways) cannot be overwhelmed by other considerations (eschatological charts, ecclesiological concerns, etc.). To be sure these are important and necessary areas of study as we seek to apply the entirety of Scripture and understand what the whole of the Bible is saying about God and his work. However, if and when the pursuit of answers to these lesser questions gets in way of our pursuit of the Way, the Truth, and the Life and loving Him by loving others, there is a serious problem.
Might you need to be reminded of what is most important today? Do you need to repent of your current preoccupations and become fascinated once again with the glory of Jesus and the practical ramifications of this?
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Over the last several weeks we have been working our way through the preface of the Apocalypse of John (found in chapter 1 of the Revelation of Jesus Christ). In this preface John has successfully introduced the book (1:1-3), the seven churches (1:4-8), and the Revealer (1:9-16). In our study we have been impressed not only with the sophistication and aesthetic beauty of this work but hopefully we have become even more enamored with its principle subject—Jesus Christ. In Revelation 1:17-20, one more introduction is made that successfully leads to the next major section of John’s Apocalypse—the introduction of the message to the seven churches. As we examine the four parts of this final introduction in the preface, we are going to gain an even better appreciation of the Revealer and understand more about how what is revealed is organized and for whom. As a whole, this last passage in Revelation 1 will inspire reverence before our unique and holy God who sends Jesus to encourage us as we endure our world.
1. The Precursor to the Message-1:17a
Though many in our culture (even “Christian” culture) would love to tame down our understanding of Christ and reduce him to “homeboy” status, it is instructive to observe John’s response upon seeing the Ancient of Days described in 1:9-16—“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.” Remember, this is the same John who calls himself “the beloved” throughout his gospel and the same John who is tasked with taking care of Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross. If anyone could claim a “tight” relationship with Christ, it would have been him. And yet, no matter how close they proved to be while Jesus walked the earth, upon seeing him again, John falls prostrate on the ground as if dead before this glorious figure. This posture of humility, reverence, and fear is similar to what is seen in Isaiah and even Daniel when these prophets, in their respective experiences, are ushered into heaven or gaze upon someone glorious.
Isaiah 6:5-“Woe is me, for I am ruined!...”
Daniel 10:8-9-“So I was left alone and saw this great vision; yet no strength was left in me, for my natural color turned to a deathly pallor, and I retained no strength. But I heard the sound of his words; and as soon as I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a deep sleep on my face, with my face to the ground.”
As will prove to be the case in chapter 5, one wonders how John is going to be able to pick himself up after this. Who/what is going to be able to settle him down so that he can observe what needs to see and report on it accordingly? In this instance, it is Jesus himself who provides the comfort John requires—“and He placed His right hand on me saying, ‘Do not be afraid’” (1:17b). This statement is made by other divinely-appointed messengers when they appear to humans throughout the Scriptures. It is the familiar statement of Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:30) and Joseph (Matthew 1:19-25), and the angels to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), etc. Similar reassurances exist in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 3:2; Joshua 8:1; and Jeremiah 1:8). Even in Daniel, it is only after the revealer touches the writer than he can proceed to do his writing.
Daniel 10:10-“Then behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees.”
2. The Personality Bringing the Message-1:17c-18
After reaching out to John, Christ reveals who he is and why, at least for the apostle, he ought not be afraid. First, Christ reveals that he is “the first and the last” (1:17c). This particular title was originally used of God the Father in Isaiah 44:6 and later in Isaiah 48:12. Now that it is applied to Christ, this shared title emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and his equality with the first member of the Trinity. The apostle John has already made a case for Jesus’ preexistence before creation in John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word and the was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God”). In John’s report in Revelation 1:17, Jesus establishes that not only is he the Lord of the Beginning, but he is also the Lord of the end. Also, the Greek word for last (escatoV) acts as the root for our word eschatology which refers to the theological study of last things.
Next, Jesus describes himself as the “living One, and I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:18). In this way, Jesus sets himself apart from all other deities. Christianity is the only worldview that believes that God himself came down out of heaven to save humans. It is also the only belief system to argue that to do this God gave up his life. Therefore, Christians are also the only ones who believe that once dead, God has been resurrected to life forevermore. When added to “the first and the last,” this second descriptive phrase identifies Christ’s entire ministry and therefore the heart of the gospel—deity, death, and resurrection. Anything less than this cannot be called the good news. A gospel of death and resurrection without deity would not have the power to save. A gospel of deity and death without resurrection is not good news. And a gospel of deity and resurrection without death does not make sense.
As the divine one alive from the dead, Jesus also identifies himself as the one who has “the keys of death and Hades” (1:18c). In the Old Testament (Ps. 9:13; 107:18) and in Jewish Literature “the gates of Hades” referred to the realm of the dead and to the power of death. Therefore, the one who holds the keys to these realms (the gates) rules over them (Keener, IVP BBC, 730). The only other New Testament text to use “hades” and “keys” together is Matthew 16:18-19.
Matthew 16:18-19-“…I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Here, Jesus affirms that the power of death cannot prevail against the church and that he has given the church the authority to allow or forbid entrance into the kingdom. As Jesus is resurrected and now served as the head of the church, he has the power over death and the grave.
In this reassuring statement, Jesus identifies his equality with God, his ministry of death and resurrection, and his subsequent authority over death. Who better to provide John the comfort he would need in this moment? Who better to reveal the message intended to the seven churches?
3. The Perspective of the Message-1:19
Now that John is off the ground and can perceive what is going on, now that Jesus has revealed his glory and, in so doing, has reflected on his credibility to reveal the coming message, Christ continues by revealing the perspective of the message John will be used to write down saying, “therefore, write the things which you have seen” (1:19a). In other words, John needs to quickly catch up and begin writing what he has seen/experienced. I imagine once John collects himself, Jesus looks at him and says, “aren’t you recording this down yet?” This would include everything form the beginning of this book (chapter 1).
In addition to what John has already seen, the apostle is directed, nay, commanded to write “the things which are” (1:19b). This does not only refer to what John saw at present (what the apostle was presently viewing before him), but also the events/situations connected to the church in the world in which he lived—i.e. his sitz em liben or current context. In the letters to the churches, John would be writing about what was in his field of vision—i.e. his present world and the congregations therein. Applied to the organization of Revelation, “the things which are” would include everything contained in chapters 2-3 (Jesus’ message to the seven churches).
Rounding out yet another triad—this time as it pertains to the three-fold perspective of the message being revealed—Jesus says that John is also to write down “the things which will take place after these things” (1:19c). This predictive future verb “will take place” implies that what is about to happen will be different from a previously existing state (either in time or place or nature). This future perspective includes the message that John will be given later, beginning in chapter 4 and covering all the way to chapter 22. In fact, John seems to indicate a shift from the things which are to the things that will take place when in verse 1 of chapter 4 he says, “After these things…” (4:1) and then proceeds to describe an entirely new set of scenes both in heaven and in a very different world (different that is from the world described in chapters 2-3).
In other words, John’s entire book might be divided as follows: (1) the things which were found in chapter 1, (2) the things which are and pertain to the first century condition of the seven churches in chapters 2-3, and (3) the things that will soon take place in the future that are described in chapters 4-22. The message that is revealed by Jesus to John and distributed to the churches endorses this three-fold perspective.
4. The Players Involved in the Message-1:20
In an effort to move from the things which were (in chapter 1) to the things which are currently underway in John’s first century world (in chapters 2-3), the Revealer identifies some of the players involved in the coming message. First, Jesus identifies the identity of the seven stars that were first introduced in 1:16 (“In His right hand He held seven stars,…”)—“as for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches” (1:20a). As we will soon see in Revelation 2-3, these angels are addressed first in each of the seven messages. The view that believes that these are actual angels and not human pastors/bishops is best, especially when one considers that in the early church the presence of angels was assumed at the assemblies (see 1 Corinthians 11:10), and, as was the case in Revelation1:1, angelic messengers were integral to the transmission of the message from the beginning of this work (Wilson, ZIBBC, 259).
Revelation 1:1-“The Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave Him to show to His bondservants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel”
Consider this: like people’s popular perception of personal guardian angels, this verse suggests that, at the very least, these seven churches had angelic beings assigned to their congregations. One of the hallmarks of apocalyptic literature involves both the division and connection between the natural and supernatural worlds. There is both a cosmic dualism and cosmic conflict between these two worlds that is present now but will one day be made more obvious as the climax of history is reached.
Though typically we consider angels in another realm (and demons), here, Jesus describes that although invisible to us now, angels are in fact active in the well being of God’s people in their world. As the church perseveres the battles and persecutions it experiences, much activity is also going on in the spiritual realm that directly supervenes on the outcomes and goings on in the physical world.
Among the other players identified in verse 20 are the seven lampstands—“and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20b). Though a comment has already been made about the symbolism of the lampstand in 1:12, it is worth expounding on this familiar image here. The lampstand, or menorah, was a fixture first presented in the desert tabernacle (Exodus 27:21; Leviticus 24:2-4).
Later it was seen in the first and second temples (2 Chronicles 4:20). The latter-most lampstand in the temple was permanently extinguished when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and carried it off to Rome as booty. Evidence of this stolen property was scratched into the triumphal arch of Titus erected in Rome a decade later. Another emblem of a lampstand appears on some steps of the library of Celsus that can still be seen in Ephesus to this day. It is one of the few evidences of a Jewish presence in this city (which housed the first church mentioned in chapters 1 and 2 of Revelation). John transforms this traditional image of a single menorah with seven bowls to an image of seven individual lamps, indicating that each of the Asian churches are holy vessels of spiritual light in their respective communities (Wilson, ZIBBC, 259).
When this final introductory passage began, John was lying on the ground as if dead, overwhelmed by the glorious visage he beheld. When we end this passage we see John poised with a pen in hand ready to write down the message to the churches (chapter 2-3) and then the prophecy that will be revealed later (chapters 4-22). What made the difference? Christ, who reaches down to bring us the reassurance we need to be about his business, makes all the difference. It is an amazing phenomenon to consider, that the same one who is equal with God the Father, who died and was resurrected, and who holds the power of death and the grave, can touch our lives so as to prepare us for whatever he has in store. In John’s case, Jesus was preparing him to write an important message. What is it that you need to be prepared for today? Are you overwhelmed, confused, lying face down, unable to process what is going on? The only one who can take us from reeling to ready is the same Christ we read about in these verses. After all, if he possesses the keys to death, if he is alive from the dead, and if he is God, surely when he calls us to a task, he will see us through. This very personal lesson for John no doubt foreshadows some of the messages we will see in the next few weeks. The same Christ who encourages John, and will encourages the churches in chapters 2-3, is the same Christ who is with believers today—providing necessary endurance for the incredible call he has placed on them.
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
Many works of literature are fascinating in part because of who wrote them. Some of the most interestingly story-lines are usurped only by the personal stories of those responsible for them. I’m thinking of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Shelly, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, etc. Some of these characters are as multifaceted as the works they created. The same is true with biblical works. Moses, Daniel, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, and others all led incredible lives and are as interesting themselves as some of the characters in the works they were used by the Spirit to produce. Revelation is no different. Most recognize the incredible beauty, complexity, and sophistication of this work. Might these qualities betray something of those behind it? Is it possible that the one responsible for this work is more glorious than what we read about in these pages? In Revelation 1:9-16 we discover the answer as John makes his next introduction—the introduction of the production staff.
1. The Writer-John-1:9-11
In his introduction of the producers of this text John identifies the writer first (himself). The way in which he describes himself is telling for several reasons—"I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus” (1:9a). His name—John—reveals once again, in case people were wondering or didn’t believe him the first time (see verse 1), that famed apostle of Jesus Christ penned the following words. With yet another triad, John reveals that he is connected to his audience on at least three levels. First, he is a part of the same family of God—“brother.” Rather than elevate himself above his audience by means of exposing his unique status as apostle, he places himself on the same level as his readers. Second, he betrays that like his audience, he too is a “fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus” (1:9a). in other words, like many reading this in the first century, John too was suffering under the oppressive Roman regime in an anti-Christian climate. Third, like his audience, he knew that he was, although suffering at present, a citizen of another kingdom—the Kingdom of God. With this shared hope in mind, and in spite of the current context, John, like the church to which he wrote, was persevering. All of this John endured along with the church “in Jesus.” The church suffers with Christ in tribulation, is established as a kingdom with Christ as King, and perseveres with Jesus as its ultimate hope.
Roman 8:16-17-“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
Philippians 3:20-“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;”
2 Tim. 2:12a-“if we endure, we will also reign with him…”
John writes as one who shares the experiences of the church members who received this and these shared experiences they have in common with Christ.
However, several details set John apart from most in his audience, He “was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9b). Governors of various Roman provinces often punished political antagonists and those of higher social status received lighter sentences than others. These more recognizable delinquents were exiled to islands in the Aegean Sea instead of executed. Patmos, John’s final earthly home, was an Island of about 50,000 and was fully equipped with a gym and a temple of Artemis (the island’s patron deity) (Keener, IVP BBC, 729 & Wilson, ZIBBC, 255). John was exiled to Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” In other words, his testimony of Christ was not well received in his day. Beginning with the emperor Nero, Christianity was no longer considered a sect of Judaism (which was a legal religion in the empire). Instead, it was looked upon as a menacing cult. Therefore, proliferating the gospel was a punishable offense. John’s punishment happens to be exile. As such John is comparable to Old Testament prophets like Daniel who were exiled to Babylon. Both Daniel in the Old Testament and John in the New Testament write against worldly systems as those displaced from their homeland anticipating a great return for their people.
While in exile, John says “I was in the Spirit on the lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice the sound of a trumpet” (1:10). This is the first of four times in Revelation when John finds himself “in the Spirit” and on each occasion an angel summons John to see a vision (see 1:10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10). As best as can be determined to be “in the Spirit” as far as John is concerned means to be in a condition where “the natural senses, mind, and spirit are not operative in relation to and responsive to the natural world.” In such a state “God brings a man’s spirit into direct contact with the invisible spiritual world…” (Thomas, Revelation I, 90). Technically speaking, this was not a revelation given by a dream because, John is never said to sleep during the process of transmission. He is wide awake in a different realm actively witnessing and taking in everything so that he can write it down.
While in this state John reveals, “I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet” (1:10b). Very much like Ezekiel’s experience in Ezekiel 3:12, John is startled by a trumpeting voice that highlights the significance of what is about to be revealed. In fact, a loud voice/sound consistently indicates an important forthcoming message throughout the book (5:2, 12; 6:10; 7:2, 10; 8:13; 10:3; 11:12, 15; 12:10; 14:2, 15, 18; 16:1, 17; 19:1, 17).
Following the call of the trumpet John is mandated to do the following: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea” (1:11). John is commanded to write what he sees; he is not merely requested. His exile is interrupted by the Spirit of God and the apostle is given a task to perform and this he does by recording the vision disclosed to him and distributing it to seven different churches. W. M. Ramsay theorized that the order of the seven churches represents a circular postal route that a courier would usually follow along the existing Roman roads. Also, the mention of only seven churches (among many in this region in John’s day) might indicate some symbolic significance beyond these literal destinations. After all, the entirety of the book was obviously passed around and disclosed to all of these individual churches as it was circulated and was disseminated beyond that. If the 7-fold Spirit (1:4) is understood as a fancy way to identify the complete Spirit of God, it might well be that though each of these churches is given an individual message, the whole message of Revelation is also intended for the entire universal church.
All of this establishes John as a primary member of the production staff of this book. He is called to write down the vision that he sees while in the Spirit and then commanded to distribute it to the churches accordingly. However, even though he has a big role to play as writer, the content is not determined by him, but by the revealer described in verses 12-16.
2. The Revealer-Jesus-1:12-16
Upon hearing the trumpet, John says “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands,…”(1:12). A seven-branched lampstand or menorah was one of the most common symbols for Judaism and synagogues in antiquity. By identifying the churches as lampstands, John seems to see a very real continuity between Judaism and Christianity as least concerning its source (Keener, IVP BBC, 730). Because Revelation portrays heaven as a sanctuary (see 4:6-8; 5:8-10; 7:9-12; 8:3), the lampstands may also allude to the spiritual representation of the churches in heaven.
That Christians and groups of Christians (i.e. churches) would be associated with light is consistent with what is portrayed elsewhere in the New Testament.
Matthew 5:14-16-“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Ephesians 5:8-“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light”
The symbol of the church as a lampstand is not too difficult to understand. God has established his churches as lights shining in the darkness, indicating through their proclamation of the gospel, the way to salvation in Christ.
In the middle of these lampstands stands the inspiration behind the Book of Revelation and the second (more important) member of the production staff—“and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man,…” (1:13a). His position betrays his rightful place among the churches—centralized—and his description harkens back to the figure witnessed by Daniel in Daniel 7:9-14 and 10:15-19. Though John’s first inclination is to assume that this is an angelic being of some kind, what becomes obvious in the description is that this is none other than one glorious picture of the “Ancient of Days”—Jesus Christ. Elements of the description found in the next few verses are repeated later and used to introduce Christ’s message to each of the churches in chapters 2-3. As God saw fit to describe Christ in this especially glorious way here and repeats each trait in his message to churches he singles out later (in chapters 2-3), let’s read through this carefully so as to gain a better appreciation of who Jesus is and will prove to be in glory.
The first element of this description is his title—“Son of Man.” This is an apt title to endorse here at the beginning of Revelation as it is a label related to Jesus’ capacity as judge. In fact, John makes this connection in his gospel.
John 5:22, 27-“For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son… and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.”
Certainly Jesus will satisfy this office in the judgment he carries out in the remainder of the book.
However, “Son of Man” also was used by the early church as Christs’ title whenever the suffering of believers and Christ’s suffering and glory were in view (These themes comingle in the rest of John’s apocalypse also).
The first thing John notices about this Son of Man is his apparel—“clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash” (1:13b). Though some associate this fashion statement with Jesus’ office as highest high priest, the weight of evidence favors the more general meaning of dignity when the same two Greek words come together in Ezekiel 9:2.
Ezekiel 9:2-“Behold, six men came from the direction of the upper gate which faces north, each with his shattering weapon in his hand; and among them was a certain man clothed in linen with a writing case at his loins. And they went in and stood beside the bronze altar.”
The man so clothed in Ezekiel 9 is tasked with marking some of the Jerusalemites before the destruction of the rest. This setting of impending judgment from Ezekiel fits one of the principal themes of the visions to follow in the Apocalypse. In both contexts the “son of man” is understood as possessing great dignity and high rank and the robe helps illustrate this prestige (Thomas, Revelation I, 99).
The robe comes complete with “golden sash” “girded across His chest” (Rev. 1:13c). Again, while some want to connect this to Jesus’ high priestly office, a better interpretation of this accessory is reached when one takes into account something similar in Daniel 10:5.
Daniel 10:5-“I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist.”
In this Old Testament reference, a divine messenger is in view. The similarity of the words both in both in Daniel and Revelation coupled with the fact that the girdle in the Daniel passage is also made of gold (as the one is here in Revelation 1) seems to indicate that Jesus is not only highly dignified and qualified to judge, but like the figure in Daniel, he is a divine messenger sent this time to John with a message for the church.
As the description continues John next focuses on the Son of Man’s head—“His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire” (1:14). Interestingly, while Daniel 7:9 employs these features to describe the Father, John uses these same attributes to describe Christ. This helps demonstrate their equality. The white hair might indicate any number of appropriate shared divine qualities—holiness, wisdom, immutability (Thomas, Revelation I, 101). The second feature of his head mentioned are the eyes. Again, probably borrowing from Daniel (particularly 10:6), John uses familiar biblical references to describe the figure that he sees in his vision.
Daniel 10:6-“His body also was like beryl, his face had the appearance of lightning, his eyes were like flaming torches,”
In Daniel 10:6 the divine messenger clothed in linen had eyes “as flaming torches” (see also Rev. 2:18; 19:12). In both contexts the fiery eyes indicates the penetrating vision that is capable of supernatural intelligence afforded him by an omniscient gaze.
After describing the dignity of this messenger (clothes) and alluding to his divine qualities (head), John calls attention to the figure’s feet—“His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace” (1:15a). Once again, like Daniel 10, bronze figures prominently in the description of this diving figure.
Daniel 10:6-“his arms and feet like the gleam of polished bronze.”
Feet in the New Testament indicate movement. Polished or burnished bronze feet are strong and pure after being refined by fire. Certainly as the Jesus’ message will be distributed soon to the churches, so too will Jesus’ glorious presence go with it.
After writing down what he sees, John writes down what he hears—“and His voice was like the sound of many waters” (1:15b—see also Daniel 10:6c-“ and the sound of his words like the sound of a tumult.”). Inspired in part by what he remembered of Daniel’s similar description and with the waves of Patmos crashing in the background, John calls attention to the power of Jesus’ word with this final descriptive phrase.
The cumulative impact of these images is to present the risen Jesus as the greatest conceivable figure and John uses available biblical imagery to this end (Keener, IVP BBC, 739). This Christ that John sees is consistent with what Daniel perceived in his vision in 600 BC. This proves that not only is Jesus the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but that when God reveals more to his church, he never reveals something that is in conflict with what has already been made known.
After describing the figure himself, John covers some of the other distinctive features in and around him. Christ is seen holding something –“in His right hand He held seven stars” (1:16a). This description is the only one of the ten features that does not draw directly from the Old Testament. Holding the seven stars seems to point to Jesus’ complete authority and sovereignty. If he is able to hold seven stars (possess complete authority over things above the earth), certainly he holds the same sway with things on the earth. By drawing attention to his authority in things above, his authority in things below is assumed.
If the image couldn’t get more unreal, John next sees something coming our of his mouth—“and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword,…” (1:16b). Once again John draws from a prolific theme in the Scriptures.
Isaiah 11:4-“He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth…”
Ephesians 6:17-“…and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Heb. 4:12-“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Even in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul predicts that upon Christ’s return he will destroy the man of lawlessness “with the breath of His mouth.” All of these seem to indicate the awesome power of Jesus’ spoken word. While the word of God brought the universe into existence as a creative agent (in Genesis 1), and brought salvation to the world as a saving agent (John 1), here the word is shown to be capable of pronouncing judgment and annihilate the enemies of God as a destructive agent (Revelation).
Finally, John centers in on Christ’s face—"and his face was like the sun shining in its strength” (1:16c). This is a clear indication of Jesus’ unrivaled and unparalleled righteousness and glory. It is this same glorious visage that the disciples saw glimpses of on the mount of transfiguration. Just imagine what it must have been like for John to say here at the end of his life upon seeing this vision “Hey! I’ve seen that face before!”
In this passage two members of the team that together produced this work are identified—John and Jesus, man and God-man, writer and revealer. John’s lengthy description of Jesus directs our focus today on the revealer responsible for making what follows available. In this description we see an unusually high Christology. Jesus is depicted as equal with God the Father in dignity (clothes and hair), the most qualified divine messenger (sash and bronze feet), the all-knowing and aware one (fiery eyes), the almighty revealer (tumultuous voice), the sovereign Lord of the realms (holding stars), the victorious warrior (two-edge sword), and the most glorious and righteous being (shining face). This is the Jesus John is shown, the Jesus he describes for the churches, and the Jesus that we worship today. He is not just a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled. He is not just a baby lying in a manger. He is not just a miracle worker and traveling preacher in Israel. He is just a martyr hanging on a cross. He is the risen Lord standing poised, ready to judge, bring the final victory, and usher in a new heaven and new earth. And He has decided to disclose a message for His church—a message given to John to write down—a message for the seven churches to read in the first century—and a message that continues to speak today. Only those with a high view of Christ will heed the message he brings and apply it rightly.