The End? Do not fear

This is our second post in our journey through Revelation.

Never before in recorded history have people been so aware of the fragility of our existence, of human life.  My newsfeed informs me of natural disasters, plague-like diseases, terrorizing wars, economic depression, political instability, brutal kidnappings and drug syndicates as they occur.  These updates and images are on every screen that catches my eye.

Knowledge of these threats leaves us uncertain and afraid.  We feel angry at the loss of innocence, the (illusion of) peace that we once enjoyed.  We live in a pandemic of panic, in a world longing for peace, stability and security.  We wall up, save up, or pack up in the hope of keeping the evil outside – but we learn that the spores of terror have landed on every continent, every community, every child.  Is This The End?  Is this THAT END?

Awareness of the destruction of our Father’s world brings believers down to our knees, looking up, praying our fears with tears.  “How long, Lord?”  “Lord, do you see?  Do you care?”  “Are you in control?”  “When will you act?”

There were the cries and concerns of John and the believers during the tyrannical, egocentric reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome AD 90-92 who banished the old disciple to Patmos.  But John’s prayers were answered when this island prison became his inner chamber with his Beloved Lord, containing a window into the throne room of God revealing the cosmic conquest of Christ’s victory over evil, culminating in the glorious restoration of all creation.

This letter of Revelation was a message of hope and comfort, to help and correct the early church in its struggle with evil – to endure both trials and temptation in faithful witness of Christ’s coming kingdom.  Although this prophecy was written for them, it is preserved for us.  Therefore, everyone who reads these holy words today and hears its invitation to “behold!” will also see how Christ is near to us, is moving in us, through us and for us his Church to accomplish the culmination of his glorious kingdom.  This revelation of Christ’s victory over evil in this world brings comfort and strength to endure until The End.

Guillaume-Francois Colson
Guillaume-Francois Colson, The Spirit of Evil Is Hurled into the Abyss After the Arrival of the Messiah, 19th century.

A note on my approach towards Revelation: In this discovery through Revelation, I will not write scholarly or critical, but rather devotional and encouraging.  The posts will be like all my other posts: an attempt to read the text from the view of the first readers.  How did these seven congregations make sense of this apocalyptic prophecy from their imprisoned apostle?  What was the message of hope to them?  For this I will keep to the explicit nature of the book: Revelation is an apostolic letter to seven congregations in Asia Minor (1:4,11), which contained a prophecy from the Lord (1:3), in the apocalyptic genre (1:1) which is rich in symbolic images and numbers, rooted in (a) their first-century geopolitical context, and (b) Old Testament literature.  If we stick with these principles, the symbolism in this remarkable book becomes alive and life-giving. (I expounded more on this in the first post in this series).

 

Greeting and blessing (Revelation 1:4-8)

This short greeting by John is a masterful introduction and succinct overview of the book’s message.  He blesses his readers (and hearers) with grace (divine help) and peace (wellness) from the Triune God.  His name for the Father “(He) who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) takes the readers back to God’s self-revelation to Moses (Exodus 3:14) before His great deliverance from Egypt.  The Spirit is titled “Seven Spirits” (1:4) from Isaiah 11:2 in that great chapter that speaks of the Messiah’s divine wisdom and righteousness by which he will destroy the oppressive nations and restore all of creation in peace. Here John says “God had delivered his people before from the tyranny you suffer, and He has promised to end this violence once for all!

Next, John answers the question “Can Jesus save us?” with a loud “Yes, he can, and he will!”  Jesus is first introduced as the “Christ” (1:5) – the long-awaited Messiah who will restore the righteous rule of God on earth.  Then Jesus is hailed “the faithful witness” to a church struggling to maintain their faithful witness under brutal persecution and the seduction of a perverse society.  He is held as their example who faithfully proclaimed and demonstrated God’s kingdom and eventually accomplished it by His vicarious death and resurrection: the ultimate witness of God’s Kingdom coming to earth is Jesus’ rank “Firstborn from (or over) death” (1:5).  Not only does Jesus have authority over every spirit, even death, he is also “Ruler over the kings of the earth” (1:5) – good news to the readers oppressed by Emperor Domitian!  These titles stirred flickers of hope to those battered congregations wondering whether Jesus is indeed the Christ who will bring righteousness and peace to the earth.

The next portion answers the question in the heart of every suffering believer: Does God care about me?”  John writes YES HE DOES!  Jesus is called “Him who loved us and loves us and frees us from our sin by His own blood” (1:5). This phrase, a reference to the Cross, is a clear allusion to the Passover lambs slaughtered to deliver God’s covenant people from Egypt by judging the oppressors and preserving the Israelites (Exodus 12:21 ff).  And as God adopted and honoured the delivered Hebrew slaves, these battered believers were called “kings and priests to God” (1:6, compare Exodus 19:6), sharing in his eternal reign.

“But does God not see how we suffer by the hand of our oppressors?” Yes, he does, and his Day of Judgment will come!  Alluding to Zechariah 12:8-10, John writes how the Christ will defend and deliver his covenant people from their oppressors, and how he will reveal Himself in glory to those oppressors so that they will weep at his fierce judgment (1:8).

As the nature of the letter is prophecy, the greeting ends with Jesus introducing himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8).  For the contemporary reader of the day, the Greek alphabet was known to have each letter attributed to a major Greek god.  Thus, Jesus’ self-revelation comforted his hopeless church “I am the All-powerful, Ever-living One – your covenant God and Saviour. Do not despair!”

Section 1: Christ among the Lampstands (Revelation 1:4-3:22)

seven-golden-lampstands.jpg

Like prophets of old John describes how and where he received this prophetic message to these churches (1:9-10).  Imprisoned on the island Patmos, John was “In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” – meaning in fellowship with the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship on resurrection day – what we call Sunday.

This is significant.  Although this beloved disciple was isolated, shamed and cruelly treated, his suffering did not lead him away from Christ to self-pity; instead, it drew him to Christ as he drew near to the Lord in Spirit.  And his cries and concerns in Spirit gave birth to one of the most excellent messages of hope the church had ever received.

A question every suffering believer asks is Lord, where are you when I suffer?” This is the question the Lord clearly answers in the first section of Revelation (Ch 1-3).

John hears Jesus declaring with a loud voice with the clarity and urgency “like a trumpet”: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last”, followed by the instruction to write what he sees in a letter to seven specified churches (1:10-11).  (Throughout Revelation, what John hears and what John sees is very revealing, because things are not always what they seem to be at first).

John turns and sees Jesus walking among seven golden lampstands – the precious, sanctified churches of Jesus, the recipients of the letters (1:12-13, 20).  Where is Jesus, while these churches are suffering? “I am among you,” he says, “and I am intimately aware of what you are enduring for my name’s sake.” (Ch 2-3).

Then John describes how he sees Jesus, a vision that makes him collapse with awestruck terror (1:17).  John sees the Son of Man as described in Daniel: One who has received eternal dominion (Daniel 7:9-14; compare 10:4-9).  The white hair, long robe and golden sash reveal Christ’s dignity and honour. His burnished feet portray the strength of his kingdom. The force of his voice cannot be ignored. His fiery eyes see everything – open and hidden. The sword represents judgment from his mouth which brings both justice to the oppressors and mercy to the oppressed (1:13-16).  This is Christ in his ascended glory.

 “Do not be afraid – I’ve got this”

The first message of comfort this exalted King Jesus speaks to his suffering churches is “Do not be afraid” (1:17).  Why not be afraid?  Because this exalted, glorified, All-mighty King Jesus is with you, and for you.  He is not distant or disinterested.  He is with you, knows what you face, and cares for you.  What’s more comforting is that he has met with the worst this world can throw at you (death), and conquered the grave, holding “the keys to death and Hades in (his) hands” as eternal comfort to his followers.

Christ’s message of comfort ends with the declaration that He holds the angels (messengers/ leaders) of these seven churches in his hand (1:16, 20). Thus, Christ directs the world rulers and affairs towards his eternal reign (1:5) while protecting and leading his church in service of his unfolding reign, holding the leaders in the palm of his hand.  What great comfort this must have brought to these struggling churches!

“Sounds great, but I don’t see it (yet)”

For a church in an uncertain, harsh world, these introductory words brought so much peace.  The All-powerful, Ever-living Lord, is among his people, promising to fulfil his long-awaited prophecy to eradicate evil from the earth and establish his reign of eternal peace – as it was in Eden.

But how is Christ working out his Great Restoration if it seems that this world is ruled by evil through violence, seduction and deception? For that answer, we are invited to look from God’s perspective, to “Come up here” (4:1).  But first, the Lord will encourage and exhort each congregation (unpacking the church’s battle against evil), thus revealing Jesus’ intimate knowledge and care for each community of believers (Chapters 2-3).

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26

THE END?  An introduction to Revelation

This is the first post in a series through the book of Revelation – a letter meant to bring comfort and encouragement during times of uncertainty and hardship.

What have you heard or read about the book of Revelation?  How does that make you feel?

For many, their response to this book include feelings of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety.  These feelings are precisely what the Revelation aims to address in its readers, leaving them feeling comforted, encouraged and hopeful in Christ’s presence and victory over evil in the world.

7 trumpets - mountains

How then should we read Revelation to make the meaning clear, leaving us peaceful and hopeful during times of uncertainty and hardship?  John states this clearly in his introduction: this document is an apostolic letter (1:4), containing prophecy from God (1:3), written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre (1:1).   Reading the book with this in mind will leave you encouraged and exhorted to live confident in Christ through tough times.

 

THE NATURE OF REVELATION: A letter containing prophecy in the apocalyptic genre

Revelation is a letter of encouragement and exhortation to suffering believers.  This epistle was penned by John (1:1,9; probably the Beloved disciple), while imprisoned on the island Patmos (1:9) addressed “to seven churches in Asia” (1:4; 1:11).

The meaning of the book becomes apparent when it is read from the perspective of the first readers – the seven congregations in Asia minor listed as recipients.  Like every other apostolic letter by Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, this letter answered real questions, brought instruction, warnings and encouragement to the first readers. The message was written to them, yet preserved for us. The truth becomes clear to us as we see what the letter meant for them.

Secondly, Revelation is called prophecy (1:3) ­– God’s Word to a people in a specific context. Like Isaiah, Amos, Malachi, etc. this book contains prophecy (God’s spoken word) to the seven congregations in the seven towns in Asia minor.  This message from the Lord brought real comfort and confidence as the Lord revealed love and care for them, but also corrections and challenges as prophecy always calls God’s people to covenantal faithfulness.

Prophecy is often addressed to his people in a particular time and place. However, Revelation, like many old Testament Prophets, places this Word from God in the context of his cumulative redemptive work through the ages.   It is said that 287 of the 404 verses in this book contain allusions to Old Testament texts, notably from Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah.  This means that John, here in a prophetic capacity, aimed to ground this accumulative message to these seven, suffering churches in the history of God’s great redemptive plan for his people.  God is bringing his great work of salvation to a climax.

Again, the reader is invited to read this book primarily as a prophecy from God to the persecuted believers in these seven congregations.  This message was clear and made sense to them.  If we want to understand God’s word to us, we have to understand God’s word to them first.

Thirdly, this book is self-titled as “Revelation [or apocalypse] of Jesus Christ” (1:1).  This Jewish literary style, of which Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are prime examples, was at its most popular during the time of John’s writing.  Apocalypse means “unveiling” or “uncovering” and aims to show that things are not entirely as they seem – there is more at play than meets the eye. More specifically, it reveals the heavenly drama behind our earthly struggles – that “our fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).  Note how Revelation starts with the earthly reality of the seven congregations and shifts realms to show the cosmic drama behind everyday events.

Apocalyptic writing makes use of symbolism through vivid imagery and representative numbers in dramatic scenes that aim to evoke powerful emotions, and a sense of participation in the story told. Secondly, this genre is rooted in Old Testament literature; Revelation is filled with Old Testament references (but not one direct quotation, as this is uncharacteristic of the style).  Thirdly, Apocalyptic language is rooted in the historic-political context of its day; the message of the writing was clear to the 1st Century Greco-Roman believers of their day, and this ancient context is our key to unlock its meaning.  Lastly, this genre (like most Jewish genres) is not chronological.  The reader should not ask “what happens next?” but rather, “what does John see next?”  The letter is written in the sequence of John’s visions, not chronological time – and therein is much meaning.

 THE CONTEXT into which John wrote Revelation

The letter of encouragement and exhortation is set during the terrifying reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome (AD 90-92). This egomaniac revived the Imperial cult (much like the infamous Nero thirty years earlier) and decreed that all his subjects worship him by offering incense, exclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” For most of the Greco-Roman pluralists, this was an easy instruction to comply with… unless you lived by the confession that “Jesus is Lord.”  This led to the severe persecution of Christians, resulting in their imprisonment, torture and execution. Sadly, due to their hatred for the “blasphemous” Christians, Jews were often the first to turn their Christian neighbours over to the Roman authorities.

Suffering did not only come by Roman persecution.  Many communities in Asia minor suffered from disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, barbaric raiders and widespread disease.  People lived in fear. Convinced that these disasters were the result of followers of Jesus’ refusal to worship the gods of the elements, this led to the cruel treatment of Christians by their pagan neighbours, leaving them ostracized, excluded from public social life and the market economy.

This severe persecution and hardship caused many late 1st century Christians to lose hope in Christ’s return and to doubt his power over the affairs on earth.  Is Christ’s kingdom indeed more potent than that of Domitian?  If so, how?

Jezebel2

However, a more significant threat was the seductive nature of the Greco-Roman lifestyle: sensuality, perversion and revelry were the order of the day and frequently associated with the worship of pagan gods.  Against the backdrop of persecution and the pain and poverty resulting from social exclusion, the pleasure and prosperity associated with participation in this sensual society could seem attractive. Believers were naturally tempted to draw away from the public witness of Christ and blend in with this contemporary pagan culture.

In his apocalyptic letter, John describes this struggle as the intimidation from the Beast (worldly power), the seduction from Babylon the great harlot (sensuality), and the deception of the False Prophet (false religions and ideologies) – all three servants of the Great Dragon (Satan) warring against the church.

John, far from the churches in his care, was praying for these believers who were subjected to hardship and vulnerable to temptation.  Then Christ invited him to see their present reality in the light of the cosmic struggle as it played itself out on earth.  In and through this, His Kingdom was advancing!

THE AIM of the Book of Revelation

The Revelation shows Jesus Christ as victorious over the forces of evil, leading his church in victory over their enemies (17:14).  This prophecy aims to firstly comfort the church in its struggle against evil by showing them that Christ is among them (1:12-20) and that he is intimately aware of their unique situations (ch. 2-3).  He steers the world affairs in the interest of his church (5:7,8), in response to their prayers (8:3,4).  The revelation shows that God sees their tears (7:17, 21:4) and will avenge their blood (19:2), yet their victory is assured (15:2).  Lastly, the revelation reassures them that Christ is coming to take his people to Himself to live with them in His renewed creation (21:22), stirring confidence for His return (22:17).

Secondly, this prophecy is a correction of the church’s perspective in its struggle against evilThough it may seem that their prayers are ineffective (6:10), we see God’s response (judgments) as a result of it (8:3-5).  Though they seem defeated, they reign now on earth (5:10), and will reign with Christ (20:4) forever in the renewed creation (22:5). Though it may seem that the dragon (12:3), the beast (13:1), the false prophet (13:11) and Babylon (14:8) wield power on earth – they are all defeated (18:2; 19:20; 20:10) and will be bound forever. All is not as it seems.

Thirdly, this revelation calls for a renewed commitment to Christ in the believers’ struggle against evil, patient endurance in trials and steadfastness in resisting temptation. For this, there are great rewards (22:12).

Compromise

HOPE TO THE CHURCH IN ANXIOUS, UNCERTAIN TIMES

The structure and layout of John’s Revelation letter brings much hope to fearful, confused believers during hardship.  The Spirit shows John firstly that Christ is among his people (ch. 1-3), secondly that God is on his throne. Christ is unfolding his Kingdom reign in history (ch. 5-16), thirdly what this world is really like and how Christ will conquer it (ch .17-20), and lastly the renewed creation in beauty and peace, with rewards for the faithful (ch. 21-22).

1: Christ is with his church

The first thing John sees is that the church is not abandoned by God during their hardship. The Spirit reveals Christ walking among his people, between his suffering congregations (1:10-13).  Then Christ reveals his intimate knowledge of every congregation’s faithfulness, challenges, struggles, and promises (ch. 2-3).

The comfort for every believer and believing community today is the same: Christ the Victorious One is with us, always among us.  He knows our efforts and struggles and will reward our faithfulness.

2: God is on his throne, and Christ is unfolding his redemptive plan for creation

The second thing that the Spirit shows John is God on his throne in all his goodness and glory (ch. 4), and Christ receiving the Scroll of God’s redemptive plan with his creation (ch. 5).  As Christ opens the seals, rolling out God’s kingdom reign with cosmic consequences, he calls the nations to repentance before the Great Day of Judgment (ch. 6-16).

This reassures the church during turbulent times that indeed God is in control, and that these events which shake our world is part of Christ’s work in establishing his peaceful reign on earth – even through the hardship we face.  In some way, these events are answers to the cry of his saints (5:8; ch. 16).

3: The nature and spirit of this world (Babylon and her Beast)

The third thing the Spirit reveals to John is the true nature of this world, which is likened to seductive Babylon and her power-hungry Beast (ch. 17).  John also sees her fall and judgment – with all who follow her (ch. 18-20).

The unveiling of this fallen world stirs our hope in Christ and strengthens our resistance to temptation because we know that the best this perverse, power-hungry world has to offer is corrupted and temporal.  But one day, Christ will return to bring lasting justice and goodness and peace, to restore lasting joy to His people.

Furthermore, the knowledge of judgment on this greedy and oppressive world brings much comfort and hope to those suffering under this regime – as was the case in John’s day.  Judgment of the consuming lust and abusive power of rulers (and their allies) means the vindication and deliverance of the oppressed.   In God’s kingdom, the oppressed are freed, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed because their oppressors are judged.

4: The New Heaven and New Earth

The last thing that the Spirit shows John is God’s new creation (ch. 21-22) – the marriage between heaven and earth. John is encouraged to see that God’s creation will be reconciled with its Creator, and his image and reign will be restored in mankind.   Indeed, John is comforted that the pain and sorrow of suffering and death that now marks the church’s existence will be no more, because “Look! I make all things new!” (21:4-5).  The faithful are richly rewarded, the perverse are judged (21:7; 22:12-14).

This unveiling of Christ’s great renewal stirs much hope that our tears of suffering and sorrow are short-lived; he has conquered sin and death forever.  Furthermore, overcoming the temptations of sin and terrors of persecution does not go unnoticed; our short endurance of hardship secures our eternal rewards in Christ’s eternal reign.  This is great encouragement and exhortation to hold on to Christ’s promise: we will inherit His kingdom and receive His rewards.

TAKE IT TO HEART

Reading the Revelation as a letter to seven real congregations facing severe hardship on every front, as a prophecy of encouragement and exhortation from God about his redemptive work in and through them, in the emotive, unveiling genre of the apocalypse makes the main message clear.  (Yet there are parts that are difficult to understand – as in every Bible book!)

Even this simple outline encourages me that Christ is always among his church, ready to comfort, correct and call his church to faithful commitment during hard times.  It reminds me that God is still in control and that Christ is always busy unfolding his redemptive plan with creation.  This unveiling calls me to see that this fallen world in all its splendour and power is at best corrupted and temporal, but Christ’s kingdom is eternal, and his reign will be marked with restored beauty, justice and peace, eternally.  And the bonus: my faithfulness and your faithfulness during these hard times will be rewarded!

How do you feel about the message of Revelation now?  Ready for a more in-depth look into chapter 1?

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26