A vision of the heavenly Christ
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Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you who choose to make clear your purposes and plans through our Lord Jesus and through your Word, be with us today as we seek clarity of both thought and action as we listen for you speaking in these images and declarations. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This summer I read the newest book by C. J. Sansom, an English author of historical fiction whom I came across a few years ago. He achieved some measure of success with a series of five murder mysteries based in Tudor England. His latest book, Dominion, is what some call alternate history, described in these words: “1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. The press, radio, and television are tightly controlled. British Jews face ever greater constraints.”
In such circumstances, how would a person communicate who was not content to appease Hitler and his gang of thugs? You would certainly try to keep anything written out of the wrong hands. But perhaps the best thing to do was find some sort of coded language not understood by the enemy. I chose this as my beginning point for this series of sermons and studies because it is within persecution and exile that this part of God’s Word is received. I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. The old man, John, has been sent to Patmos. The government is tired of him and his preaching; some official decides that if they confine him to an island his influence will be gone and his passion quenched for what he calls the good news. How wrong his enemies were!
Before we go any further in this study, though, I want to lay out my understanding of how to approach this part of the Bible. The most important thing for me is that we look at Revelation, at least at the beginning, in the same way we look at any other part of God’s Word. For example, the past two summers we have looked at 2 Corinthians. In order to understand that letter we needed to know what was going on in that church and in their relationship with Paul. The original context of any part of God’s Word is a primary consideration for us. Yet, there are preachers and authors who treat Revelation as if its only message was to our age. In other words one goes looking for where Revelation predicts Vladimir Putin’s attack on the Crimea rather than how God’s Word gives encouragement to those living under the thumb of Caesar and his armies.
There is no sense, then, keeping you in suspense. I do not think that we find in Revelation the sort of direct link to modern day events that are popular with some preachers. Part of the reason for this is that the almost 2,000 years of Christian history has been marked with all sorts of predictions regarding the end of the world that have been wrong. The most positive thing I can say about such predictions is that eventually someone will be right. But I do find it helpful to hold Revelation in one hand and the latest news in the other, because all over our world today there are sisters and brothers in the faith who want to hear from someone like John who is sharing with them in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.
Let’s then set the stage for the whole of our study of the last book of the Bible. As I said John has been exiled to Patmos. Why has this happened? It is the result of the age-old conflict between church and state. You may remember that I have talked about what we believe is the first creed or statement of belief of the early church—Jesus is Lord. Now on its own this does not appear to be a statement that is going to be a concern for any government. But what if the government insists that Caesar is Lord? Both of those statements cannot be true. They are in conflict.
What we know of the Roman world following the death and resurrection of Jesus is that the understanding of the status of the emperor began to change. When Augustus died he was declared divine by the Roman Senate and a temple was built in the city. Tiberius, his successor resisted any suggestion of such honours while he was alive, but the next emperor, Caligula (37–41) claimed that he was the incarnation of the god Jupiter and demanded that his statue be set up in the temples of other gods throughout the empire. By the time we get to the later part of the first century, under the rule of Domitian (81–96), emperor worship is widely established in the empire and particularly strong in the province where John lived. We simply don’t know where and when pressure was exerted for people to participate in the cult of emperor worship. What we can be sure of is that John would have none of this and would urge any Christian to reserve worship for the God revealed in Jesus Christ and him alone.
It was likely a local official in Ephesus who finally had enough of John’s preaching and influence. There’s little doubt in my mind that if John had been younger he would have been executed. Perhaps such a sentence would have provoked unrest among the citizens of that city and it was concluded that sending John into exile might kill him anyway. Even if it didn’t, what influence could he have when he was so far away? —simply the influence of this book over almost 20 centuries.
The second thing that I think is important to notice is in verse 10 of our text: I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day. We need to bring this filter to our understanding of Revelation—this book or letter or sermon comes out of a vision that is received as part of worship. One of the aspects of worship that needs to be understood is the use of images. Here’s an easy example. We will sing this morning that great hymn, “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.” Think about that for a moment. Does this lamb have many heads? If not, why would he need many crowns? You see what we do is we translate the image. The Lamb of God is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! (Revelation 5:12). Crown him with many crowns is not an attempt to cover a multitude of heads but rather a poetic way of saying that our Saviour is worthy of all the praise we can give him. This is the sort of language with which we will deal through the whole of this book.
With that in mind let me share an image with you.
You can see it on the screen behind me. This image is of a coin that depicts a child straddling earth and heaven and holding in his hand seven stars. There is more content in this image than one might expect.
The seven stars could refer to the sun, moon and the five planets that could be seen with the naked eye, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and Mars. Seven was also thought by the ancients to be a perfect number and would not simply refer to these specific planetary bodies but the whole of the universe. It is though a child who is depicted. This is the son of Domitian who died as an infant and was then declared divine by his father. Now what would John think of that?
John is going to tell us. If you have your Bible open take a look at the part of the text beginning at verse 12. It’s on page 245 of the New Testament in Pew Bibles and on page 1922 of the large print edition. We need to read this as if for the first time. John turns to see from where this voice like a trumpet is coming. He tells us he sees some sort of heavenly figure. He is dressed in a robe with a golden sash. This likely suggests a priestly role for this being. The white hair likely refers to the divine wisdom found in this being. It is more difficult to know what is meant by the eyes like flames, but it is likely to do with a penetrating scrutiny possessed by this being which leads to a wise and righteous judgement. Feet of burnished bronze may also be a symbol of judgement, but may simply point to the glorious appearance of this being. A voice like the sound of many or rushing waters is an image of power and sovereignty. In this part of the world, many of us will have heard the roar of Niagara Falls and been awe struck.
Then comes this part of the description: in his right hand he held seven stars. Look closely at how this being is described and at what happens. Does John know the identity of this being? I don’t think he does at least not yet. John falls at the feet of this being and then John feels the touch of a hand and these gracious words, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever.” Now John knows; he knows this is Jesus. Just as Mary in the garden does not know the risen Lord until he speaks to her, so also John recognizes Jesus when he hears that voice, “Do not be afraid.”
It occurred to me that despite all the strange and complicated images that are to come in this book, that it might be we have the foundational “revelation” opened up to us here in chapter one. I think it is as if John says to us, “Come a little closer and take a look at this being I saw in a vision. The clothing, the hair, the eyes, the feet, the voice—and this one held the seven stars. Who is it? Is it the infant son of Domitian, declared divine by an emperor greedy for power? No, when I heard that gracious voice, ‘do not be afraid,’ I knew the one who holds the universe in his hands is Jesus raised from the dead and alive forever and ever (Romans 1:4).
This then is where we begin. The vision given to John, exiled to Patmos, the vision given to the church which mourned the loss of its aging saint, the vision given to us as we often feel exiled to the margins of our world is this: it is God, who loves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and who takes away the sin of the world through this our Saviour, it is God whose will and purposes will triumph. No emperor, no tyrant, no president or prime minister is sovereign. Here is the truth the faithful are asked to believe. “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”