If you’re a Christian here tonight, just imagine how much easier life would be if you were not. Or at least if you were a so-called nominal Christian. On the external front, you wouldn’t have the difficulties of sharing the gospel and standing out and facing negative reactions. On the internal front, you wouldn’t have the difficulties of resisting sinful desires. You could follow any of them into action. It would be easier in many ways not to be a Christian. So why not give up? That question may already have hit you because of the difficulties. If it hasn’t, it will sometime. And if you’re still just thinking about becoming a Christian, it may be your question: ‘If I did become one, wouldn’t I inevitably give up? How could I possibly keep it up?’
Well the book of Revelation was written for believers tempted to give up. So would you turn in the Bible to Revelation 1.9, which sums up why God inspired this book of the Bible:
9I, 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. (v9)
Now I take it, for reasons I won’t go into, that John is the apostle who also wrote the Gospel. And he certainly suffered the difficulties of being a Christian – he was on Patmos Island, a Roman penal colony, presumably because the Roman government didn’t like what he preached. And he was writing to seven churches also suffering the difficulties of being Christians. If you look down to v11 you’ll see he’s told:
"Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea." (v11)
So in one sense, the book of Revelation is no different from, say, the book of Romans. It’s a letter written to specific churches facing specific difficulties. Now if you turn over the page, you’ll see that from 2.1, John writes a specific section tailored to the difficulties of each specific church and we’re going to work through those seven sections in this sermon series to the end of chapter 3. But each of those churches needed the whole letter – all 22 chapters. And 2000 years later, every church equally needs the whole of Revelation as part of God’s Word to us today.
I’ve got two headings to help us through chapter 1. The question is: why not give up? And the answer is:
1. Because Jesus is coming
2. Because Jesus is with us
So firstly, Why not give up? BECAUSE JESUS IS COMING (vv1-8)
Would you turn back to 1.9, where John calls himself: ‘your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.’
It’s a bit like what one heavily pregnant Mum might say to another as they face the difficulties of immobility, backache and so on. She might say, ‘We’re sisters in the suffering and expectancy and patient endurance that are ours in pregnancy.’ So there’s suffering - which you don’t want. But you endure it because of the far greater thing you do want – namely the child. And you can’t have one without the other. So you say to yourself, ‘Patient endurance – because… the end of 9 months is near and it’s ultimately worth it.’
And John says to fellow-believers, ‘We’re brothers and sisters in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.’ So there is suffering in being a Christian – which you don’t want. But you endure it because of the far greater thing you do want – namely, being part of the future kingdom of God for all eternity. And we can’t enjoy having Jesus as King in this life and the next without siding with him. And we can’t side with him without siding against the world, our sinful desires and the devil - and therefore suffering the difficulties. And the message of Revelation is: ‘Patient endurance – because… the end of history is near. Jesus is King and he is coming, to set up the kingdom – where there’s no more conflict with a Christ-rejecting world, or our sinful nature or the devil. And it is ultimately worth it. Because the cost of siding with Jesus in this life is infinitely less than the cost of still being against him on judgment day.
I don’t know if you remember the old Skoda jokes, when they were less desirable cars than today. Eg, ‘Why do Skoda’s have heated rear windows? - To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing.’ There was another one where a man goes into a garage and says, ‘Can I have a new petrol cap for my Skoda?’ And the garage man thinks for a minute and then says, ‘OK - that sounds like a fair exchange.’ Well, the message of Revelation is that giving up in our walk with Christ in order to avoid the difficulties is not a fair exchange. In fact, it would be a crazy exchange - because Jesus is King and he is coming.
The trouble is that the Lord Jesus and his coming again can seem so remote and unreal and invisible – compared to the very close and real and visible realities of the temptations we habitually face and the pressures and persecutions we come under for being Christian, and so on. So God in his wisdom has given us in this last book of the Bible a vision of Jesus as he really is now (if only we could see him); and of how he’s ruling behind the scenes of history – and will one day wrap it up. So let’s plunge in at 1.1:
1The revelation of Jesus Christ [ie, the unveiling of what you can’t see right now], which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3Blessed 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 [ie the time of Jesus’ coming again] is near. (vv1-3)
Now 1900 years have rolled by since that was written. But you have to remember, like it says elsewhere, that, ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day.’ (2 Peter 3.8) So from the Lord Jesus’ point of view, it’s as if it was just two days ago that he died for us and rose from the dead and returned to heaven. The point is: he could come again at any time; so every Christian generation has to say, ‘It’s that near. And we’ve got to live in the light of that.’ Verse 4:
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 before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead [that’s talking about his resurrection that first Easter Sunday], and the ruler of the kings of the earth [that’s talking about his present reign over everything].
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, [that’s talking about his death on the cross for our forgiveness that first Good Friday] 6and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7Look, 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.
8"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." (vv4-8)
And it’s hard to miss the basic message. He ‘is to come’, he ‘is coming’, he ‘is to come.’ But all that can leave you thinking that until then, Jesus is completely absent and that we’re on our own. It can leave you thinking, ‘He was here 2000 years ago, when we could have seen him if we’d been alive. But then he died, rose from the dead, appeared over that period of 40 days, and then returned to heaven. So he’s no longer here.’ And it can seem as if he’s recruited us onto his side but then left us to soldier on alone until we see him in heaven. But the first vision of Revelation is to show that isn’t true. So,
Second, Why not give up? BECAUSE JESUS IS WITH US (vv9-20)
Look on to v9:
9I, 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. 10On the Lord's Day [ie, Sunday] I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11which said: "Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea."
12I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man”, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16In 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. (vv9-16)
At this point I guess some of us, at least, are thinking, ‘I knew it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand this book. I don’t understand the lampstands and the angels and the stars; or how you can have a sword coming out of your mouth and still speak (and so on)’. So before we let this vision make its impact on us, let’s ask how we’re meant to understand it (and this applies to the visions later in the book, as well).
For starters, this is a vision of the risen Lord Jesus as we would see him now if whatever separates time and eternity was ripped open. We know that because of v18:
18I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! [So that’s got to be Jesus.] (v18)
Next, it’s a vision not a photograph. If we could break through whatever separates time and eternity and take a photograph, it wouldn’t look like this – assuming a camera could cope at all. This isn’t a photograph. It’s more like one of those political cartoons in the papers. Eg, imagine I showed you a cartoon of a duck with a human head and wild eyes and big sticky-out ears, limping along on crutches towards a door with a number 10 on it. It’s not a photograph, it’s a picture, and you have to ‘decode’ it to ‘get the message’. And once you’ve worked out whose eyes and ears they are, and that it’s 10 Downing Street, and so on, the message is: ‘Tony Blair’s a lame duck Prime Minister’. (That’s just an example. I’m not putting forward any view!)
So how do we ‘decode’ this picture? Well, when reading Revelation you’ll either find the clues in the book itself, or often you’ll find them in the Old Testament (OT). Eg, look at v20
20The mystery [ie, the code] 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. (v20)
So then you can go back to v13 and read, ‘among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man”’. So it’s a picture of the risen Lord Jesus walking among his churches. So he’s absent (in that we can’t see him); and yet he’s present.
For other clues, you need the OT. Eg, where it says in v13, ‘someone “like a son of man”’, you’ll see a little letter ‘b’ and if you look to the bottom of the page there’s a footnote ‘b’ that says Daniel 7.13 – which was in our OT reading of Daniel’s vision of a man sharing God’s throne. You remember he
approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7.13-14)
Now God inspired Daniel there to describe Jesus’ resurrection and return to heaven before the event. And when God gave John this vision of the risen Lord Jesus after the event, he used the same ‘picture language’, the same ‘code’. So, eg, in Daniel 7, God the Father has brilliant white hair – to stand for his utter holiness and purity. And here Jesus is, pictured the same.
So there are a few clues as to how to ‘decode’ the visions of Revelation. But God didn’t inspire this vision to be analysed, but to have an impact, so let’s now put ourselves on the receiving end of it and try to take it in. Let’s read from v12 again:
12I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. (vv12-13)
So the risen Lord Jesus is not absent. We’re to picture him walking among his churches. He’s with us by his Spirit. He’s here now, here when we’re gathered around the Bible in CYFA, in Home Groups, in Focus, and so on. Here in the sense that he can see everything that’s going on - outwardly and in our hearts, v14:
14His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire… (v14)
…like those blow torches that can cut through six inch steel. His eyes, eg, can cut through the reputation of a church to what it’s really like. So in a few weeks’ time we’ll hear this message which was to the church of Sardis in the first place:
I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (3.1)
Well, we’re a church with ‘a reputation’; a church that’s apparently ‘lively’. But only the Lord Jesus can help us sort out the apparent from the real, and he’ll be doing that if we listen faithfully to this part of his Word over the coming weeks. And it won’t be easy listening like Classic FM (or whatever’s easy for you – I can see CYFA members turning pale at that thought). It’ll be a reality check. It’ll ask each of us individually whether we really are believers, and if so whether we’re whole- or merely half-hearted believers. But it’ll also ask us corporately what we’re like as a church. Eg, are we a loving church? Are we a materialistic church? Are we a self-satisfied church? Read on, v15:
15His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16In 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. (vv15-16)
If blazing eyes are how he sees what needs putting right, the double-edged sword is how he puts it right. And it stands for his Word. And in each of the sections to the seven churches, he ‘puts the sword in’ (or ‘puts the knife in’ as we might say). He says what’s wrong and what they (and we) need to do to respond to him afresh. Eg, next week we’ll hear the message which was to the church of Ephesus in the first place. He tells them he knows how seriously they try to stick to the Bible – which at our best is what we do. Then he says:
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. [Ie, ‘You’re apparently orthodox, but your lack of passion for me and my people and the lost calls into questions whether you really believe the orthodoxy you stand up for.’ He goes on:] 5Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. (2.4-5)
So he’s like a surgeon with his scalpel: his ultimate aim is to heal, to make us the individuals and the church that he wants us to be - and that, in our heart of hearts, we want us to be. But he’s prepared to wound lovingly on the way. And he will, in these coming weeks. And each of the sections to the seven churches that we’re going to look at ends like this:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (eg 2.7)
And one of the challenges of this series, as with all sermons, will be for us – preachers included – to hear Christ’s words, uncomfortable as they may be, and do real business with him. So can I encourage you to pick up a church program card, if you don’t already have one, and look up the Bible passage for each week and read over it a time or two before you come. Can I urge you to pray for yourself, for the preacher preparing and then for the Sunday gathering itself. Can I suggest, if you’ve never tried, taking notes to see if it helps your concentration and helps you remember and respond to God’s Word throughout the week. And can I encourage us to talk together about what God is saying to us as a church over these coming weeks? Maybe over drinks afterwards, or in student supper, or as you drive home - let’s talk about these things, because they are addressed to us as a church, not just as individuals. And where we see things at a group level or a whole church level that call for change or improvement, let’s talk with the relevant person or leader or staff member.
I didn’t point out the most important thing in v16:
16In his right hand he held seven stars… (v16)
Now turn over again to v20:
20The mystery [ie the code] 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…(v20)
A lot of ink has been spilt over that: ‘the seven stars are the angels of the churches.’ I think it means something like ‘guardian angels’, heavenly representatives of the churches. And in v16, the guardians who have the churches in their hands are themselves in the hands of the risen Lord Jesus – the ultimate Guardian of the church. Which is a massive reassurance, because over these coming weeks in Revelation 2 and 3, we’ll be facing up to the very difficult realities of being a Christian and a church in a Christ-rejecting world. And we’ll be aware of our proneness to give up individually, and of the vulnerability of the church corporately - at least in this country, where its very survival can seem doubtful. But this vision goes behind the realities that are against us to the ultimate reality of who is for us. And the picture is that we are in his hands. While he was still with us on earth, the Lord Jesus said:
I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. [That’s his promise to us as a church - so long as we keep depending on him.] (Matthew 16.18)
He also said:
27My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. [And that’s his promise to each of us individually - so long as we keep depending on him.] (John 10.27-28)
So these opening chapters, and the book as a whole, are not meant to leave believers paranoid about whether they can make it to the End. The picture here is that if you’re a genuine believer, the Lord Jesus has you in his hand and will sustain you in the ‘patient endurance’ (v9) of all the difficulties that being a Christian throws at you. But part of how he does that for us is this ministry of the burning eyes and the double-edged sword, as he does spiritual surgery on individuals and churches.
So, v17 to end with:
17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. (v17)
And so would we if whatever separates time and eternity was ripped open now. Because we would be overwhelmed by the deepest awareness of our sin and of his holiness that we’d ever experienced. And I for one would lie there with my mind filled with the thought that he could and should condemn me. But v17 again:
Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18I 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. [Ie, I died on the cross to forgive everything I know about you. So I hold the key to you never being condemned.] (vv17-18)
So does the risen Lord Jesus want us to fear him? Yes. And does the risen Lord Jesus want us not to fear him? Yes. Or put it a different way. He wants us to feel the reality of his holiness - so that we aim not to sin. But he also want us to feel the reality of his love - so that when we do sin, we never despair and think that’s the end of our relationship with him. And that, in a nutshell, is how he keeps his people going, how he sustains that ‘patient endurance’ (v9), with which we began. Because if you imagine life between now and heaven as a road, then on one side of the road is the verge of carelessness about sin. And when we swerve that way, and our wheels go up on that verge, he wants us to feel his holiness and be convicted of sin, to steer us back into the middle of the road. But on the other side of the road is the verge of despair about sin and whether we can be forgiven (for that particular sin, or for doing it yet again). And when we swerve that way, he wants us to know his love – and that we can always be forgiven, because of the cross.
So why not give up? The answer of Revelation 1 is this: Because Jesus is coming. And because Jesus is with us. And if we feel his holiness and his love – ie, if we both fear his displeasure, and yet also don’t fear his rejection - that will be how he keeps us going on the road to heaven, ‘in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance which are ours in Jesus’ (v9).