Sunday 14 August 2011

The revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1-8)

“We have your image, we have your face... We are coming for you…
No matter how long it takes, we will arrest those people responsible.”

Chief Constable Garry Shewan of the Greater Manchester Police issued this statement as a warning and a promise to the rioters and criminals in his city who just days before had looted, set fire to and wreaked havoc in the very communities they lived in. So far, over 1500 suspects have been arrested. Some courts have stayed open 24 hours a day. Every city is on high-alert, even here in Cambridge where officers are stationed in front of the Grand Arcade, around the market square and where a police helicopter can be heard flying overhead even as I write this.

But is it enough?

The prisons are full. The police were outnumbered. The courts are criticised for leniency. Homes are burnt down. People have died. The offenders remain unrepentant.

Today we begin a new study from the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last book in the bible about the last things: what will happen in the end. In the end, there will be justice and there will be restoration. Because in the end, God will judge the earth and God will restore his people.

The full title of this book comes from verse 1.

The apocalypse

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
Revelation 1:1

The Wycliffe bible translates verse 1 as the “Apocalypse of Jesus Christ”. “Apocalypse” and “Revelation” both mean the same thing – one is Greek, the other is English. It means uncovering something that is hidden. When you rip open that envelope to reveal your A-Level results this Thursday. When City Hunter pulls away his mask to reveal his secret identity. When Clark Kent rips open his shirt to reveal the big red “S” on his chest. When you tell a secret. The book of Revelation uncovers something that was previously hidden by God.

That is, John did not dream this up. He didn’t work it out because he was clever or studied harder. The things written in this book were reveal to John by God through Jesus Christ.

He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Revelation 1:1b-2

Notice how this revelation comes to John: God reveals it to Christ in verse 1, who then shows it to his servants. But in verse 2, God sends an angel to John, who then writes down what he sees: he testifies to everything he saw.

What you find in the book of Revelation is at times, the apostle John writing (verse 4: John to the seven churches); at times, God speaking (verse 8: I am the Alpha and Omega); at times, Jesus speaking; and at times, an angel explaining to John, This is what these visions mean. All of this is no less God’s word.

Yet at the same time, Revelation is a book. In fact, it is a letter – verse 4: John to the seven churches in Asia. It has words. It has a human author. That is: John received images and visions from God (the word “show” in verse 1 – God gave Jesus to “show” his servants – is a word that means to display through symbols and images), and we will encounter these striking symbols soon enough. But then God does not say to John, “Draw a picture”. Or, “Upload a video on Youtube”. What does verse 2 say? John testifies to everything he saw – the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. He writes it down.

And verse 3 says we are to read it, hear it and take it to heart.

The promise of blessing

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Revelation 1:3

Prophecy is not the kind of thing we are comfortable with here in the Chinese Church: It sounds too much like fortune-telling. People get very nervous about prophecy in the bible, especially when it is splashed on a huge banner that reads, “Judgement Day: May 21, 2011”. That is what Harold Camping predicted and prophesied from reading the bible. Many believed him. 80 million dollars poured in from all over the world to pay for posters, billboards and radio broadcasts spreading the message of this prophecy. But May 21st came and went. No Judgement Day.

Prophecy does not mean telling the future. In the bible, prophecy is defined as a word from God – “This is what the Lord says”. To prophesy is to speak God’s word, which can be about the future and can have implications for the future. But prophecy can equally be about the present or the past. What defines prophecy is God who speaks his word. A true prophet is one who speaks God’s word faithfully.

Verse 3 says this prophecy comes with a blessing. It is a promise: God will bless us if we read this book. It is also a command: Christians should read the book of Revelation.

But what is this blessing promised in verse 3?

I am told by one missionary that the believers in China come back again and again to the book of Revelation for comfort and strength at times of persecution. In the midst of their suffering – a pastor gets locked up for preaching the gospel, or another house church is raided – the words of Revelation speak powerfully to their situation, reminding Christians that God is in control and Christ still reigns. That is one blessing.

Or at funerals where Revelation Chapter 21 is often read: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” In the face of death, Christians look to a God who will not only raise them from death, but comfort them in the midst of death. That to, is a blessing.

But the blessings promised in verse 3 are particularly bound up with the reason given at the end of verse 3: “Because the time is near”. Also notice verse 1: God shows his servants “what must soon take place”.

What makes Harold Camping so controversial is not that Jesus will return and judge the living and the dead. It is that he says Jesus will return on this day, at this time, and very soon. Not two thousand years from now; two months from now – October 21st, according to his latest prediction.

Yet doesn’t Jesus warn us not to predict times and dates? “Watch out that no-one deceives you… do not believe them.” (Matthew 24:4, 23, 26). “No-one knows about that day or hour,” Jesus says clearly in verse 36. That includes Harold Camping – No-one. The point is: You won’t need predictions about the end, because everyone will see the end with their own eyes. “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30)

And yet, Revelation seems to impress upon us a great sense of urgency. The time is near. It must happen soon. How are we to understand this? And how does this relate to the promise of blessing?

Revelation is speaking in stark contrast to the prophets in the Old Testament who said that God’s kingdom is coming, but that kingdom was far away, in the end. To be specific, it is talking about Daniel Chapter 2. You will remember from Sunday School, that Daniel is a book full of visions and images given to the prophet Daniel. Daniel Chapter 2 is the episode where he explains the vision of the four kingdoms that rise up one after another, but is finally replaced with the kingdom of God. In it, Daniel says to King Nebuchadnezzar, “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future” (Daniel 2:45). Or later on, Daniel is told by an angel, “Seal up the words of the scroll until the time of the end.” That is: Daniel is looking forward to something that is in the future, far into the end of time.

But here is Revelation saying: the end is near, not far away. This must happen soon, not later. What did Jesus say again and again in the gospels? “The Kingdom of Heaven is near”. “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it.” (Matthew 13:11, 17).

Or as Peter writes,

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
1 Peter 1:10-12

You get to see something Abraham, Moses, David never saw: the cross. The cross is the turning point of the entire salvation history of God. That is the blessing. You get to read this book and have it make sense because Jesus Christ died on the cross to fulfil all the expectations of the prophets and all the promises of God.

The God of history

To the seven churches in the province of Asia.
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits
(or the sevenfold Spirit) before his throne.
Revelation 1:4

God is God over history. That is the significance of describing God as the one “who is, and who was, and who is to come.” It comes from Exodus Chapter 3, where Moses asks God his name and God replies, “I AM WHO I AM”. But if you look at the footnotes of Exodus 3:14, the NIV says this can also be translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE”. The Hebrew is intentionally ambiguous because both names are true of God’s nature. God is pre-existent outside of history and God is unchanging throughout history. The significance here in Revelation being that God has determined the events of history before time began. Nothing takes God by surprise. Therefore Revelation is God’s disclosure of what he has already decided he will do at the end of history.

Before God’s throne are “seven spirits”. Or my NIV footnote alternatively calls “the sevenfold Spirit”. Seven is symbolic of God – a number of completeness and perfection. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day – a day of God’s rest and accomplishment; a day of God’s presence. Hence this could be a reference to God’s spirit of perfection and holiness.

Another possible reason for the “seven” spirits may be the seven churches addressed by the book of Revelation. Again, this symbolises the completeness of the people of God, represented by these seven churches, in which dwells the seven spirits of God. Therefore, verse 4 is saying the God is on the throne ruling over the events of history, but God’s spirit continues to dwell in his church. His spirit is always with us and enables us to come into his presence, into the very throne room of God.

King’s cross

Most attention, however, is given to describing Jesus – seen in a series of titles ascribed to him in verses 5 onwards:

And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loved us and has freed us by his blood and has made us a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Revelation 1:5-6

We forget sometimes how unique and possibly even, how strange it is to refer to Jesus in this way.

Firstly, Jesus is called a faithful witness. John is a witness and he testifies in verse 2. But here, Jesus is a witness – remembering that in verse 1, God gives the revelation first to Christ, and at the end of verse 2 – the testimony of Christ.

The Greek word for witness is “martur”, where we get the English word, “martyr”. Today we commonly associate martyrs with crazy men who strap bombs to their chest. But that is not what the word originally meant. A witness is someone who gives a testimony in a law court. A reliable or faithful witness is someone who speaks the truth clearly. What we find here in Revelation is the transition from one meaning of the word to the other. So in verse 2, John is a witness. But later on in Chapter 2, when Christ addresses the church of Pergamum, he speaks of Antipas “my faithful witness, who was put to death.” Or in Chapter 12 where Christians overcome the devil “by the word of their testimony – the word of their witness; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”

For Jesus to be called the faithful witness, Revelation reminds us to look to him when we face pressure for speaking the gospel. We follow a Saviour who was faithful unto death.

Secondly, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. The firstborn was the eldest son, the Tai Ko, who receives the largest inheritance, who runs the family business, who upholds the family name. All that is bound up with Jesus as the Son of God. But here, Jesus isn’t simply Tai Ko, or firstborn – he is firstborn from the dead.

Again it is speaking about the cross. It is speaking to his resurrection from the cross to everlasting life.

Finally, Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth. Or as Chapter 19 later puts it, he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There is significance in that phrase, “kings of the earth”. We are not to think of Obama, David Cameron or the King of Thailand and the like – though it is true to say, God reigns even over these earthly leaders.

No, for the bible to speak of the “kings of the earth”, it is drawing our attention to Psalm 2. For Psalm 2 says this:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.
Psalm 2:2

The kings of the earth in Psalm 2 are those who use their power and authority to rebel against God and his chosen King. Now all this sounds like one huge battle at the end of time – Armageddon, if you like – where the earth will rise up in a massive war. And yet, the New Testament says this Psalm has already been fulfilled. Peter addresses the church in Acts 4, quotes this very same Psalm and says what it is talking about is the cross.

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.
Acts 4:27

How is Jesus the ruler of the kings of the earth? Through his death on the cross.

So, three strange and unique titles given to Christ: a faithful witness, firstborn from the dead and ruler of kings. The one thing tying them together is the cross. Meaning: you cannot begin to understand who Jesus is unless you know the cross. Meaning: you are not meant to pity Jesus for going to the cross, we are called to praise him for triumphing over his enemies on the cross. This is the King’s Cross – Jesus reigns because of his death and resurrection. The cross is the ultimate measure of Christ’s power, glory and authority.

Nothing but the blood

But most importantly, it is the ultimate measure of Jesus’ love.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.
Revelation 1:5b

We sang this song earlier, “What can wash away our sins? What can make us whole again? Nothing but the blood, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” That is a good song, but it’s a hard song to sing, isn’t it? Especially the bridge, “We praise you for the blood!” It’s gruesome. If some of you had a hard time singing that, I don’t blame you.

But friends, unless you can sing that – you don’t know what it means for God to love you. You don’t. If the only songs we sing are about birds chirping in the air, the wonderful sunshine, and how God loves me so much every day – ladidadaa! And if we never get to the point where Jesus shed his own blood for my sins – you won’t understand the full extent of his love. He paid for your life in blood. That is how much he loves you.

I had a brother once come to me, in bitterness and resentment. Without going into details, he felt that God was short-changing him. His friends had better jobs. His friends had better lives – more money, a happy family a nice car. And his life in comparison was hard. And to be fair, it was.

What would you have said to him? Cheer up? God will make things better? Be content with what you have?

Here is what I said to him. Your life was paid for in blood. You might compare it to others and say, “That looks better. I wish I had that life.” But yours was paid in blood. That is how you measure your worth. That is how you measure God’s love.

Friends, unless you know of the cross – you do not know the full extent of the love of God shown in Christ. Trusting in anything else will only disappoint you and let you down. Trust in Jesus; in nothing but the blood.

Two prayers

What follows are two prayers. Notice the “Amen” in verse 6? And the second “Amen” at the end of verse 7? The first is a prayer of praise.

And has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen
Revelation 1:6

Again this follows from verse 5: He has freed us by his blood, and this enables us to serve God. The order is important – first, God saves; and only after we are saved do we serve. This picture of being freed by blood and then serving as priests is an obvious reference to the book of Exodus, where in Chapter 19, God says to the Israelites, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). God saves them first in Chapter 12 – remember the Passover lamb and the shedding of blood painted on the doorposts – and after that, seven chapter later, enables them to serve him and obey his commands. This is a fundamental difference between Christianity and other religions which say, “Obey God and he will save you.” The bible says God saves us, and we serve him, as a response of gratitude to his love. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and him his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

So that’s the first prayer, praising God for saving us and enabling us to serve him. To him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

But the second prayer is a prayer of judgement.

Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.
So shall it be! Amen.

Revelation 1:7

I doubt many of us pray this way.

Unless of course it was your shop that was smashed up last week; it was your home that was burned to ashes. What was it the police said? ”Not matter how long it takes, we will arrest the people responsible.”

The words of this prayer come from Zechariah 12, where interestingly it says, “They will look on me” –They will look upon God. God is “the one they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10). And God says this will not go unpunished. They will face me as their judge.

Judgement is fundamental in the bible. Yet often, judgement is ignored and sidelined. That God will one day judge us for all that we have done, all that we have said and thought – is fundamental Christian doctrine.

And yet, we act as if God does not see. As if, God will not judge.

We think God has only circumstantial evidence of our sin – grainy CCTV images that we can contest in court. We think, “I’ve gotten away so far. I’m OK”. We express outrage when rioters exit the court and justify their actions. Yet the truth is, all of us think the same way with God’s justice.

That’s the reason you don’t hear about hell a lot these days in church. It’s not because we’re Chinese and it’s impolite to talk about death (Choi! Choi! Choi!) It’s because deep down, we don’t take hell seriously. We do not consider seriously the implication that God will judge our sins. That unforgiven sinners will face eternal judgement and the wrath of a holy God.

Revelation says, the time is near. These things must soon take place. Every eye – that includes every rioter eye, every looter eye – will see him coming in the clouds.

But verse 7 is saying that the one to come is not simply God. No, the point is: this is Jesus. He is the Son of Man coming with the clouds (Daniel 7:13-14). He is the one pierced on the cross.

And the message is this: we either look to Jesus now in verse 5 – for forgiveness, for redemption, in thankfulness and praise. Or every eye will see him in verse 7 – coming in the clouds in judgement; the nations will mourn and one day it will be too late.

“So shall it be! Amen” This will happen.

The Alpha and the Omega

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Revelation 1:8

God is the Alpha and the Omega – the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God stands over history as Lord over all history. He is the one who is, who was, and who is to come. He is the determiner of history – God is Almighty.

In verse 8, this Almighty God interrupts John’s prayer and praise – as if to say to us, “Know who you are dealing with. Know who is speaking to you. The words you read on this page, they are my words.” This message comes from God himself.

How will you respond to this message? Revelation is not a book to be read and ignored. The blessing is promised to those who hear these words and take to heart all that is written in them. Friends, you have the great privilege of receiving this message of the gospel – the fullness of God’s plan of salvation seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

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