“A Vision, a Voice, and a Victor” – Revelation 1
Easter 3 – April 15, 2018
Revelation of Jesus Christ – not of John, but of Jesus, by Jesus, about Jesus.
Revelation means unveiling or disclosure. So, it’s an unveiling about Jesus, especially in relation to His post-resurrection reign over the church, and His coming again “to judge the living and the dead.”
The Greek word for Revelation is Apocalypse, and that word also describes a unique style of literature that is highly symbolic. You find that style in Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, but especially in Revelation. Its visions include symbols, colours, animals, and especially significant numbers which all seem rather bizarre, but there are various hints that help in understanding and interpretation.
Written in late 1st century.
Context: the brutal persecution of Christians under Roman emperor Domitian, which followed the horrors of Nero’s reign. It wasn’t a great time to be a Christian, and they needed hope. John had been exiled on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, between Turkey and Greece. He was exiled in his old age as a punishment because of his persistent proclamation of the Gospel. But he continued to be pastoral and caring – to all who would hear him or read him.
The book is a unified vision of what John saw and heard while he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. It is a pertinent message for us, even today, for we are living in an era and society that is becoming ever more evil and anti-Christian. We’ll hear the message of life and joy, of victory and hope in each of the sermons in the next few weeks.
Prologue / Greeting
John begins the Revelation by testifying to the words and the events that were revealed to Him by God, a message that He considers the very Word of God, a message by which his readers will be blessed if they take it to heart. That means it has meaning not just for 1st century readers, but for Christians of all the ages.
He greets people with the grace and peace of God. The recipients of his writing are the people of seven local churches that lay in an arc in Turkey within about 200 km. of his island exile perch. Then he offers glory to the God who loves them, who has freed them from their sins by His blood, and who called them to be part of His kingdom. He points to one who was pierced and who is coming with the clouds – something that, in His trial before the High Priest, Jesus said would accompany His own coming at the end of the ages.
Jesus’ revelation to John was first a vision. He calls it a revelation, something that God showed him. He says that He was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. This was a state of spiritual contemplation and reflection and worship, and he saw a vision. It wasn’t a dream – not like OT Jacob’s night-time dream of the ladder reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. No, it was more like Peter’s day-time vision of the sheet of animals being let down from heaven by its four corners. There the term ‘trance’ translates the Greek word ekstasiV – ecstasy, and I suppose in some ways Peter’s experience was like a drug induced state in which consciousness is wholly or partially suspended. Peter saw the animal-sheet vision three times, and clearly understood it to carry an important message from God – that just as God declared all those foods to be acceptable, so God declares all people, even Gentiles, to be acceptable to Him.
But John’s vision wasn’t drug induced, it was a Spirit inspired vision and because of that it was as authoritative as those of the OT prophets. That’s why it’s in the Bible, despite its odd, unique and prolific symbolic images. What did he see? Lots of things… and we’ll get to those in the next few Sundays. But a common refrain that we hear in the book of Revelation is: I looked, I watched, I saw… and then John describes another aspect of his Vision.
He heard a voice – we’ll get to that in a minute – and then he turned around to see the voice… actually to see who it was that was speaking. He describes the speaker: dressed in a down-to-the-feet robe, a golden sash around his chest, with a white head and hair, a face shining like the sun, eyes like blazing fire, a mouth with a double-edged sword emerging, with feet like glowing bronze, his right hand holding seven stars, and a voice like the sound of rushing waters. Pretty unforgettable!! He refers to this person as a “son of man” which was the term used in the book of Daniel for a heavenly figure entrusted by God with authority, glory and sovereign power. Daniel’s depiction of the “Ancient of Days” is eerily similar to John’s vision. Oh, and “son of man” was also Jesus’ most common title to refer to Himself. So, this majestic looking speaker was none other than Jesus Christ.
On seeing the splendor of Jesus, John fell at His feet as though dead.
John had experienced the glory of Jesus once before, on the mount of Transfiguration. There, he stood before Jesus, whose face shone like the sun. There, Jesus’ divine glory was dimmed somewhat as He talked with the long-dead OT prophets Moses and Elijah. There, when the voice from heaven announced Jesus as God’s own beloved Son, John and James and Peter fell on their faces in a posture of worship, and in fear and trembling. There, Jesus came and touched them and urged them not to be afraid. And there, the presence of Moses reminds us that neither could Moses stand before the full glory of God and see His face – not on Mt. Sinai, not in the cleft of the rock.
Here in Revelation, John is overwhelmed by the appearance of Jesus, and unwillingly falls at Jesus’ feet as though dead. In the presence of the risen and ascended Lord, John is subjected to the full brilliance of Jesus’ supreme and majestic glory, where His whole appearance was like the sun in its full power, not dimmed like at the Transfiguration vision. But here, Jesus also touches John with His right hand with comfort and grace and with permission to stand in His presence.
Although we don’t prostrate ourselves in worship, there is Biblical precedent for that as an action of respect and awe and worship. Although we don’t even kneel during confession or prayer – oh, you might kneel in your prayer time at home – we do bow our heads in reverence and honour when we pray or when we come to the Lord’s Supper or when we receive the benediction. John was flat on the ground either as if he were dead or in humility before the one who would later in John’s vision be identified as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. (and yes, you can think Handel’s Messiah and “Hallelujah Chorus” but that’s coming in three weeks!)
That identity of the King of kings was further affirmed by the words that were spoken. The first words spoken were, “Do not be afraid!” These same words were spoken by Jesus to John and the others at His transfiguration, spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary when he announced she would bear God’s Son, spoken by the angel to the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields, spoken by Jesus to the disciples when He came to them walking on the water, and spoken by Jesus to the women at His empty tomb. In each case the hearer was confronted by something startling and unusual and inexplicable. But when those fears were dispelled, the hearer could listen to the message and take in its full meaning. “Do not be afraid…” and John could then listen to the message and not just be overwhelmed by the “brilliant-as-the-sun” sight of the vision and by the “rushing-waters” sound of the voice.
The voice, the speaker, Jesus, then identified Himself in ways that were different from any of His own words in the Gospels, and from most terms used to refer to Him in Paul’s letters. “I am the First and the Last.” In the last chapter of Revelation we hear this phrase expanded to include “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the beginning, and Omega is the last letter, the end. This indicates a one-ness with the eternal Father who had said in v. 8 that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Jesus had once spoken of His own eternalness in the past when He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And He spoke of His eternalness in the future when He promised to be with His people to the very end of the age. That future eternalness is evident here in Jesus’ words: “I am the Living One… I am alive for ever and ever!” That contrasts Jesus with any and all idols which are lifeless. That is comforting… to know that Jesus surrounds His people with His eternal presence.
Then Jesus goes on to give John his assignment: write what you have seen, what you see, and what you will see.
We need to hear those words of Jesus in our days, too. “Don’t be afraid.” The world seems to be getting worse, more evil! It’s easy to become discouraged and afraid: a horrific bus crash with 16 fatalities; terrorism; the threat of war; two provinces at loggerheads with one another; churches on the decline; rise of evil / crime / hatred; even natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes and flooding can create uncertainty and fear in the most stouthearted. Jesus comforted John in those Christian-bashing Roman times with the simple words, “Don’t be afraid.” Those words are for us, too – for our comfort, for our courage, for our hope.
Why are they good and encouraging words for us? Because of who spoke them and because of what He has done! Again, it was the brilliant and majestic King of kings, Lord of lords Jesus who spoke those words. He is the King and the Lord from eternity to eternity, the first and the last. He is the living one, the one who came back from the dead and who lives eternally. He is the one who was pierced, on the cross, for our sakes, that our sins would be wiped clean from the balance sheet of our lives. He is the one with the sharp double-edged sword of truth issuing from His mouth. He knows what He’s talking about, and when He says, “Don’t be afraid,” well, we don’t need to be afraid – ask John, ask Mary, ask the shepherds.
What has He done? That is summarized in His declaration: “I hold the keys of death and Hades!” “I hold the keys of death” means that Jesus is and always will be in control of the issues of life and death. He turned death to life for three people: the 12 year old daughter of synagogue ruler Jairus; the son of the widow from Nain; and His own good friend Lazarus who had already been in the grave for 4 days. But even more significant, He, Himself, conquered death – rising to life on the third day after He had been cruelly crucified on a Roman cross. That’s why St. Paul wrote that death had been swallowed up in victory. Jesus was the victor over death. Death is the great equalizer. You can be rich or poor, old or young, coloured or not, male or female, from Asia, Africa or North America – but all are going to die one day. Yes, last I checked the mortality rate on human beings is 100%. 100% of us are going to die. But Jesus and His power of life conquered death and include us in His resurrection. And that’s another reason why we don’t need to be afraid – not even when we’re staring death in the face.
Not only that… Jesus also holds the keys of Hades. Hades is the place of punishment and torment – eternal jail, if you will. But Jesus holds the keys to that jail, and that means that He controls the power of sin and guilt to condemn us, and that’s why we don’t need to be afraid. Jesus is like our spiritual Monopoly “Get out of jail free” card. We deserve to be there because of our sin, but Jesus has conquered that enemy, too. He is the Victor over Hades. That is a recurring theme in the book of Revelation. Things may be bad. Things may be getting worse. But Jesus has already won the victory – thanks be to God – and we need not fear!
Jesus is alive, and He is in control. This first chapter of Revelation concludes with the imagery of Jesus holding seven stars (the seven churches) in His hand. That would be a message of hope and encouragement for first century believers who were being threatened on all sides. That is likewise a message of hope for us. He holds us in His strong, powerful and gracious hand.
Last Sunday evening, the chaplain of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team gave an amazing message at the community vigil. He spoke a strong Christian witness that Jesus is holding those people, those who mourn, the entire community in His hands. Death wanted them to despair, but Jesus came into that moment with His strong and powerful Voice, with a Vision of hope, all because of Him – the sure and certain Victor over all our enemies. Take courage. Don’t be afraid. Jesus is alive! Amen.