The Revelation of Jesus Christ
We're going to get into the heart of who Jesus is in the book of Revelation- and in our lives- today. And John is going to use heavy symbolism to describe him. As we walk through this passage together, I'll identify these symbols for you so that you can get a clear picture of what Jesus is going to look like in this book. And we're going to revisit the whole literal vs. figurative debate because as you'll see, attempting to read the symbols here how some would describe as "literally," the picture is pretty absurd.
Literal or figurative?
Literal or figurative?
Briefly though, a note about the word, "literally". What does it mean? We all sort of have an idea of what it means, but it's hard to come up with a definition for it, isn't it? So you'll hear the debate, and my interpretation is often accused of interpreting Revelation "too figuratively." But my question, when that accusation is made, is, "what does 'literally' mean?" About this idea, one of the foremost New Testament scholars, N.T. Wright, says this:
It is important to notice a key difference in meaning between one of the Reformer's central technical terms and the way in which the same word has been used in the modern period. When the Reformers insisted on the "literal" sense of scripture, they were referring to the first of the four medieval senses. Though, as we saw, this would often refer to the historical meaning and referent of scripture (when scripture says that Solomon's men built the Temple, for example, the literal sense is that Solomon's men built the Temple), the "literal" sense actually means "the sense of the letter"; and if the "letter" –the actual words used by the original authors or editors– is metaphorical, so be it.
N.T. Wright, The Last Word, p. 73.
In other words, if John intends something to be interpreted as a symbol, the literal interpretation is to interpret the symbol as it is intended. The literal interpretation is the author's intended meaning.
-"You're driving me crazy."
-"I'm over the moon."
With that in mind, I want to look at Revelation 1:9-20 this morning and peel back the layers of symbolism that John is employing here to show us who Jesus is.
I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus. It was the Lord’s Day, and I was worshiping in the Spirit. Suddenly, I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet blast. It said, “Write in a book everything you see, and send it to the seven churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” When I turned to see who was speaking to me, I saw seven gold lampstands. And standing in the middle of the lampstands was someone like the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow. And his eyes were like flames of fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves. He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came from his mouth. And his face was like the sun in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as if I were dead. But he laid his right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave. “Write down what you have seen—both the things that are now happening and the things that will happen. This is the meaning of the mystery of the seven stars you saw in my right hand and the seven gold lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
So after reading that, should we take it at face value? Did Jesus really appear to John with a literal sword sticking out of his mouth? If he did, how did Jesus say anything? Do you see the problem with interpreting it this way? I'll call this "literalistic interpretation." If we try to force that, we lose the beauty of what John is describing here. So what's going on here, and how does it affect our lives (again following the Bible study method of what does it say, what does it mean, how does it apply)? Let's look at the symbols here and break them down one at a time to see if we can't piece this together for our lives today:
I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus. It was the Lord’s Day, and I was worshiping in the Spirit. Suddenly, I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet blast.
Now this is all pretty straightforward here. The Lord's Day is, of course, Sunday, because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday. John is exiled to Patmos, an island commonly used for exile. There are two kinds of exile that were used by the Roman empire:
Two Types of Exile in Rome
Two Types of Exile in Rome
deportatio includes the confiscation of property and the removal of civil rights and could only be declared by the emperor.
relegatio includes the simple exile usually to an island in the Mediterranean Sea without the removal of civil rights or property and could be declared by any provincial governor.
deportatio (including confiscation of property and removal of civil rights) and relegatio (without such penalties); only the emperor could declare the former, but a provincial governor could declare the latter, as [in John's case]. (Keener, IVP BBG, Rev. 1:9)
So this is what's going on here: John has been exiled, but still maintains his rights. He's still able to send letters and own property.
I do want to point out that John mentions that he is the partner in suffering of the churches to which he writes. This is the same word that will be used later to describe what people refer to as "the Great Tribulation". John says that he's a partner in it. It's the word θλῖψις (thlipsis) and is used 5 times in Revelation (Rev. 1:9, 2:9, 10, 22, 7:14), 4 of those times, talking about Christians experiencing it. The message to the church here is that we should expect attacks from the enemy. If we are Christ-followers, we will be attacked. And that will take a couple of forms:
1. Overt persecution
2. Cultural seduction
And we'll see this in the letters addressing the seven churches specifically. And John says that this persecution demands patient endurance.
It said, “Write in a book everything you see, and send it to the seven churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” When I turned to see who was speaking to me, I saw seven gold lampstands. And standing in the middle of the lampstands was someone like the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow. And his eyes were like flames of fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves.
John is borrowing elements of Daniel's description of the Son of Man and from Ezekiel and from Exodus here. The point of all of these symbols is to point to Jesus as the one supreme over all creation. Over life, over death. Royal. Powerful. Authoritative. And even though he is powerful and authoritative and royal, he is walking among his churches. He is here in Colony Christian church. We are not too small or insignificant for his gaze and his personal attention. He sees when we're faithful. He sees when we're not. He cares about this church. He walks in it.
The trumpet, specifically, I want to look at Ex. 19:16
On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled.
This is in the Old Testament frequently how God's proclamations come. With power and authority. It's not quiet or demure. He isn't tricky. He makes sure his people hear his message.
He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came from his mouth. And his face was like the sun in all its brilliance.
I want to break down with you the sword, because this is fascinating and helpful.
How does the New Testament use this symbol? What's a two edged sword in the New Testament?
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.
Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Do you see what John is doing? He's not saying Jesus literally appeared with a sword protruding from his mouth, but that he is so powerful and authoritative that when he speaks, it's the voice of God. He speaks with the power of God. And I don't think that John would be upset if we read back into this his words in John 1:1 back into Genesis 1:1. Every time Genesis says, "and God said," that's Jesus doing the work. Executing with authority that which the Father desires.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as if I were dead. But he laid his right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.
This is common. People see the glory of God, and they fall at his feet. Isaiah experienced this, as did Daniel. Remember Isaiah 6?
It was in the year King Uzziah died that I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Attending him were mighty seraphim, each having six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. They were calling out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Heaven’s Armies! The whole earth is filled with his glory!” Their voices shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke. Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.” Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
And Jesus' response is "Do not be afraid". Why? Because he is. Literally, ego eimi. Do not fear because he is always in the present tense. He is equating himself in terms of authority and power with the Father. And in case we miss that, he says "I am the First and the Last, the Living one."
The first= the one who was
The last= the one who is to come
The living one= the one who is
And Jesus says he has the keys of Death and Hades. If you have the key of something, you have authority over it. Jesus has conquered death for us, so John's premise is that we do not need to be afraid if people kill us for following Jesus, because Jesus will raise us to life. Do not be afraid.
“Write down what you have seen—both the things that are now happening and the things that will happen. This is the meaning of the mystery of the seven stars you saw in my right hand and the seven gold lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
In the New Testament, I want you to know that the word "mystery" is not something unknown. It is something that has either already been revealed or is being revealed in the speaker speaking. It's not like we think about mysterious today. When Scripture calls something a mystery, don't throw up your hands and give up trying to understand it. It is already revealed. Paul often calls the Gospel the mystery of Jesus. It's only a mystery because outside of God's revelation to us, it doesn't make sense. God shouldn't love us. He shouldn't die for us. And yet, he does.
And John concludes this section before he gets into the letters with a command of Jesus to write down the vision literally of "that which you saw, and which is and which is about to come to be after these things." That's a phrase that has end time or last days, or (the formal word) eschatological significance. Because of that, I want to look at how the New Testament defines "last days" or "last times".
‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.
Quoting from Joel, which references the New Covenant, Peter references Pentecost. And also 1 Peter:
God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake.
Peter said we are in the last days. The last days can be defined basically as all the time since Jesus came until the end of time. We are living in the last days. That means Jesus could come back before. I. Finish. This. Sentence. Maybe next time.
The point of this section is that Jesus is authoritative, powerful, royal, and yet he sees us. He cares about us. He pays attention to us. And we need to lead lives that seek to please the King above everything. That means we put away falsehood. We put away slander. We put away hatred. We put away drunkenness. We put away lust (that includes pornography, homosexuality, cohabitation AND cohabitation). We put away unrighteousness. We put on righteousness. We put on grace. We put on love. We put on joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control. Will we do it perfectly? No. That's where grace comes in. When we fail at living up to the standards of the King, he will forgive. But he's watching. He's waiting to reward the patient, plodding, enduring faithfulness of those who love him. And isn't that what we yearn for? Refuge. Take comfort. Jesus knows everything there is to know about you. He knows your deepest, darkest secrets that no one else knows. He knows the thoughts you have in your dark, lonely moments. And yet he still loves you. Your sin does not surprise him. He died for every one of them.