Friday 26 August 2011

Eyes of fire (Revelation 1:9-20)

I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Revelation 1:9

Do you know how sometimes when you have had a crummy day and everything goes wrong? You had a big argument with your best friend. Someone stole your bike. You flunked Maths. Your boss yelled at you. You missed out on the HP Touchpad firesale.

You just feel crummy, don’t you? You close down your Facebook account. You mope all day long and watch “One litre of tears”.

But then you bump into a friend in church and he’s had a crummy day, too! And the strangest thing happens: He moans about how horrible his life is, how awful his situation has been... and you start to feel better! It’s weird (and it sounds a bit wrong, I know)! But strangely enough, seeing someone and meeting a friend who is just as depressed and just as morose as you are lifts your spirits!

Why is that? The bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice; but also to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). That is, we connect with one another not just when things are all dandy and super and fine. But also when times are tough. We remind each other: You are not alone.

One of the best things you can do for a friend who is going through a tough time in his or her life - is not just to say “Cheer up! Things will get better!” But to let them know that they do not have to go through their pain and suffering alone. As Christians, we too, suffer. As Christians we are willing to share in their suffering.

That is what John is saying in verse 9. “I am your brother and your companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance in Jesus.” He wants to encourage his friends who are going through intense persecution because they believe in Jesus. Do you know anyone like that? Have you ever written an email or a Facebook message to encourage them? To remind them, “I’m your brother; I’m your sister. I am here for you.”

The reason John is in Patmos is because of “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”. Patmos was a prison island, like Alcatraz or Australia. He was exiled - put on a ship and sent far away from his family and friends because he had been preaching the gospel. So when John says, “I understand your suffering”; for John to say, “I am your brother and companion in this suffering” - these aren’t just empty words of comfort. He knows what it means to suffer. He knows what it means to be alone.

Usually we have to remind churches to pray for missionaries. Pray for Judy during her studies in California. Remember our good friends like Joyce, Jimmy, Alan, Molly, Kinki and Kit who have left Cambridge and gone back to Hong Kong where there are greater pressures at work. Or we hear stories about Christians in China who meet in secret, whose pastors have been locked up for years and forced to deny Jesus. So we often say, pray for them, send help to them, take every opportunity to encourage them.

But that’s not the situation here. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

John, who himself has been exiled and imprisoned writes to the churches - some of which are rich and big and successful. He is encouraging them.

I don’t know how much longer some of you are going to be with us here in the Chinese Church. Some of you are leaving next month of uni. Others might go next year. But maybe, just maybe, wherever you go, you could write back and you could encourage us: To remain faithful. To suffer well.

Especially when it is suffering for the sake of Jesus. John wasn’t imprisoned because he took part in the riots in London. It was because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Being a Christian will get you into trouble. Let me just say that right up front: being a Christian will get you into trouble. People are not going to respect you for believing in this book, the bible. People are not going to thank you for telling them about Jesus dying on the cross. And people are not going to like you because you want to live differently from the world - in your workplace, in school, in your marriage - because Jesus says so.

And John isn’t write to the church saying, “Look at how successful I am! Here are ten ways to win your friends to Christ. Here are ten steps to being successful in evangelism.” No, he says I have been telling my friends about Jesus. I have been speaking the gospel. That’s why I am suffering the way I am. And you know what? That is encouraging. Because that has been the experience of Christians for thousands of years. Because of that is the very message of who Jesus is and what he did on the cross - John says, this is “the testimony of Jesus”.

In fact, what John wants us to see is not his suffering; he wants us to see Jesus.
On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
Revelation 1:10-11

Revelation is essentially a letter sent out to seven churches in seven cities. These were churches that John planted and pastored. And the names of these churches appear in geographical order, arranged according to their position along the major trade-route running theough the Roman province of Asia, or what is now modern-day Turkey. It would be like writing to the seven colleges in Cambridge - Corpus, Catz, Kings, Caius, Trinity, John’s, Magdalene. If you’ve lived in Cambridge for any length of time, you would know that I have ordered the colleges according to their location along the major street running through the city.

Now, Revelation is not seven letters - it is one letter to seven churches. Seven is symbolic of God. We saw last week that there were seven spirits before the throne of God (Revelation 1:4) - his one Spirit residing in each and every one of his churches. This is a letter written to the whole church of God and we are meant to read all of it, not just the bit we think applies to us. The church in Ephesus wasn’t just to read the bit addressed to them: they were to read what was written to Smyrna, Pergamum and to all the rest. Similarly for us, it would be very tempting to try to identify with one type of church (are we more like Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum?) I am not saying that we won’t find similarities here and there (we should if we call ourselves God’s people). But a big mistake would be to ignore what God says to the whole church, to every church, addressed in this letter.

And it would be a bigger mistake to think this is just what John is writing. Because John hears a voice telling him to write these words. He turns around to find out who it is who speaks these words to the church.
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man”, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash round his chest.
Revelation 1:12-13

These are the first of many symbols we will encounter in the book of Revelation. The big question is: What do they mean? And the answer is: the bible tells us. Look to the end of Chapter 1: “the seven lampstands are the seven churches”.

There is a big difference between vision and video; between symbols and cinema. A popular video on Youtube can have millions of hits and just as many comments and opinions. A Hollywood movie can have all kinds of reviews and ratings on rottentomatoes and IMDB. The visions in Revelation often have one clear meaning and one clear purpose. And always it is the bible making clear what the bible says. We measure God’s word in the light of God’s revealed truth.

The lampstands represent real, actual churches in real, actual cities in the first century. More importantly, among the lampstands, John sees someone “like a son of man”. The Son of Man was Jesus favourite way of referring to himself. If you read the gospels, we find this phrase “son of man” used over 80 times to identify Jesus. The reason it appears here in Revelation is firstly to identify the person speaking to John as Jesus in the New Testament; but secondly to ground these visions in the context of the Old Testament, specifically the book of Daniel where in Chapter 7, Daniel sees the vision of “one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (we saw that last week in verse 7). It is an Old Testament prophecy that at the end of time when God comes to judge the living and the dead, God will give all his authority, glory and power to this figure, the one who is like the son of man, in other words, Jesus. It is saying that Jesus will return with all God’s authority to judge and to rule.

He is dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet symbolising his kingly authority, or more likely, his priestly role in tending to the lampstands. In Exodus, we learned that one of the duties of the priests in the Tabernacle was to make sure the lights on the lampstand never went out. Every night he had to tend to the oil, making sure it was always filled and trim the wicks. In the same way, Jesus serves as High Priest before God’s presence in tending to and inspecting the seven churches of God represented by the seven golden lampstands.
His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
Revelation 1:14

Again this is taken from Daniel Chapter 7, where God, who is described as the Ancient of Days, has clothing as white as snow, and the hair on his head was white like wool (Daniel 7:9). It symbolises old age, yes, but moreover wisdom and stature. You might not think that having white hair is a good thing, or that growing old is something to thank God for. But the in the bible, old age is a symbol of God’s blessing and grace upon your life. Abraham was buried in Genesis 25:8 it says, “a good old age” adding the words, “with white hair” - Abraham was blessed with long life, and his white hair is mentioned as a symbol of that long and blessed life.

But here, it is not Abraham who has white hair, or even God the Ancient of Days whose hair is as white a wool, but Jesus. Again, this is symbolic. It is not a comment on Jesus’ hairstyle. It is saying that Jesus has taken on God’s role in judgement because he has the wisdom and authority to do so. His eyes of blazing fire symbolise how Jesus sees all and knows all. He says in Chapter 2 verses 18 onwards to the church in Thyatira, “These are the words of the Son of God whose eyes are like blazing fire... I know your deeds, your love and your faith, your service and perseverence.” Jesus sees our actions, our thoughts and content of our hearts.
His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
Revelation 1:15-16

Some have tried painting a picture of Jesus using these descriptions resulting in an image that makes Jesus out to look like Megatron. You see it in some church stained-glass windows with a double-edged sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. That is clearly not what we are supposed to do with these images. John is not told to draw a picture on a huge canvas and email it to the church. We are not told to make a computerised animated video using the latest 3D technology from Transformers and upload it to Youtube. John is told in verse 11: Write on a scroll what you see; and again in verse 19: Write it down. What we are meant to do with Revelation is read it, hear it and take it to heart (verse 3).

The reason is because what we are reading and hearing are the words of Jesus Christ. That is what is meant by the sword coming out of his mouth. These are his words.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Hebrews 4:12

Whenever we open this book, God speaks. We have no interest in hearing some guy talk about his experience, thoughts and fancy ideas - as smart or as nice as he may be. We want to hear Jesus. These words are his words speaking to us. You might ask God to answer your prayers in all kinds of situations, in all kinds of ways. Do you hear God’s voice in this book? Do you hear the voice of rushing waters, the words that cut right down to dividing soul and spirit. Because if you did - if you really did - you would react the way John does in verse 17.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
Revelation 1:17

The point isn’t that John saw something scary and fearful. It wasn’t the fire in his eyes or the sword in his mouth. The point is that John saw him: he saw Jesus.

My job today is not to make you worship. The song-leader’s job today is not to make you worship. Our job as Sunday School teachers, bible study leaders, preachers and elders and deacons is to show you Jesus; to point to him in his revealed Word: who he really is. I want to do this as clearly and as faithfully as I can as God enables me to do so. Because if you saw Jesus for who he really is: you would worship. You wouldn’t be able to help it. You too, would fall on your knees and worship him as God.
Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Revelation 1:17-18

“Do not fear,” Jesus says to John. But notice that Jesus gives two reasons why John should not fear - one is life the other is death.

First of all, Jesus is alive. He was dead but he now lives forever and ever. Meaning the life he has is resurrection life - life from the dead. He is talking about the cross, which is at the centre of how Jesus has conquered death and sin.

Secondly, Jesus now holds the keys of death and Hades.

Now what do these two reasons have to do with fear? Some people like to wear T-Shirts with the brand “No fear”, and usually what I take that to mean is that they have “No brains”. I get what it’s supposed to mean: You are conquering your fear. It’s fearlessness and courage. But often I see a teenager wearing a T-Shirt that says “No Fear” and he goes off and pulls stupid stunt like parkour-ing off the ledge of the Computing Service building, all in the effort to look cool while foolishly endangering his life.

Some fear is condemned by the bible: fear of man, for example, over the fear of God. Doing stuff just to please your friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend, your colleagues at work; knowing that, that thing you are doing is something God isn’t pleased with. Some do not fear God. Many do not fear God at all.

But here is John dealing with the fear of death and the fear of God. This is a fear we ought to be aware off. When God says, “Do not fear!” God isn’t saying there is no basis for this fear. He is saying that he has overcome the cause of John’s fear - the fear of death and judgement.

Jesus is saying, “I have conquered death, through my death on the cross.” He did this by conquering sin - the cause of death. Our sin and rebellion against God is the reason why death entered the world. God in his holiness, perfection and justice cannot tolerate sin, wickedness and rebellion. But what Jesus did on the cross was take our sin and our judgement for sin upon himself. The sentence has been passed. The payment made in full and in blood. There is therefore no more death; no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

But secondly, Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades. Death still exists. Hell still exists. But it is Jesus who holds the keys - all the keys - to death and Hell. He is the Judge.

Paul says to the Athenians:
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Acts 17:31

True: Jesus has risen to bring everlasting life to those who trust in him. He is the firstborn from the dead (Revelation 1:5). Christians will receive new life that is indestructible and everlasting in the new age of the kingdom.

But Jesus also rose from death as proof that he will return as Judge. He holds the keys to death and Hades.

And the only reason why John should no longer fear, is not because there is no such thing as death and hell and judgement, or that God has done away with hell and judgement; but that Jesus has taken his death and judgement on his behalf as a subsitute. He died so that we would no longer die. He lives that we might have life everlasting. Jesus is both judge and justifier - the one who brings judgement and the one who brings forgiveness.
Write therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.
Revelation 1:19

If you have read the book of Revelation before - or maybe you have heard sermons on it - you may have noticed that Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the seven churches, and after that comes the visions: The throne room, the seven seals, trumpets and bowls. Some says therefore, that verse 19 divides Revelation into two sections: what is now - dealing with the church; and what will take place later: the visions of the end. And that’s quite possible.

The problem is Revelation itself doesn’t provide such a division, or even a marker that says the letters are the present situation, and the rest is the future stuff. Rather, Jesus is telling John to write about the real situation going on in the church and the world - the way Jesus sees things from his perspective. The thing to see in verse 9 is not the now and later - but the fact that Jesus says to John “Write down what you see”. It is picking up from verse 11 where Jesus says again, “Write on a scroll (again the emphasis that it is one letter; one book - not seven) and send it to the seven churches”. In other words, Jesus wants us to be able, as it were to see what John is seeing through these words - his perspective on the world and the church. This is a world that wars against God. This is a world under the judgement of God. This is the church that has been purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What Revelation does is uncover for us the mystery of God’s plan. Remember: “revelation” means “uncovering” or “unveiling”; the same way you got up this morning and “unveiled” the curtains to let the sunlight in. Revelation should not cause us to be more confused, but more clear about who Jesus is. And Jesus clears up a mystery for us in verse 20, about the seven stars and seven lampstands.
The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Revelation 1:20

We will find out more about this in the coming weeks as Chapter 2 addresses the seven angels in the seven angels. Some have speculated whether angels here really are angels in the heavenly angelic being sense. After all, the word “angel” simply means messenger (which is important to note each time we see the word, since it reminds us that the angel is carrying a message from God. It helps us ask the important question of “Why has God sent this angel?” or “What is God saying through this angel”). As such, some have offered the explanation that the angels here in Revelation Chapters 1 to 3 refer not to heavenly beings but earthly pastors: Jesus is addressing the senior pastor of each church.
I think it would be much easier in this case, to take verse 20 at face value. After all, Jesus is clarifying the mystery, not adding to it. The stars in his right hand represent angels, and by that, it means angelic heavenly beings. Later on in Revelation 12, the dragon sweeps one-third of the stars in heaven flinging them to earth - and I take it there to mean that Satan influences angelic beings (the stars) to rebel against God. The fact the each church has a superintendent angel above it may similarly correspond to the angel in Daniel’s vision who does battle with the “prince of Persia”, implying that there is a heavenly dimension to every earthly spiritual albeit regional battle.

We do need to be careful about getting carried away in speculating about such details, but at least in Revelation, I think we can come to this conclusion: that as Christ addresses the physical earthly gathering of God’s people as the church, in the same way he addresses the heavenly and spiritual dimensions of such gatherings. Our struggles are not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, authorities and forces in the heavenly realms. From God’s perspective he has raised up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms. There are heavenly dimensions to our earthly gatherings in Christ’s name.

This is why there is some significance, I think, in the situation in which John receives this vision of Jesus. He tells us in verse 10, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit” and it was on this day - the Lord’s Day - that he saw the risen Jesus Christ. This is the only reference in the whole bible to the “Lord’s Day” as possibly referring to Sunday (and I think it is) as the day in which Christians gather for worship. Remember now, John is exiled. He is no longer physically with the church. He can’t meet up with his brothers and sisters in Christ. But on this day and not another, when he knows all other believers have come together, he is in the Spirit and he hears the voice of Jesus. This is the day Jesus chooses to speak to John and have him write down the vision in a book to be sent to his churches.

Friends, today as we gather on the Lord’s Day to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, let me ask you: Have you heard his voice? Do you see in these words, spoken by Jesus himself, the clarity and vision and power of who he really is? As the judge of all the earth. As the Son of Man walking amongst his lampstands? Whose voice is like the sound of rushing waters. Whose word is a double-edged sword dividing soul and spirit.

Do you see who Jesus really is?

I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!
And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Revelation 1:17-18

Behold Him there, the risen Lamb,
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace.
One with Himself, I cannot die,
My soul is purchased by His blood.
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Saviour and my God!

No comments: