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Handling God’s Revelation

“To me, the least significant of all the saints, this grace was given to declare to the nations the incomprehensible riches of Christ and to give light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God through the church may now also be made known to the authorities in heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom the boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through faith in him.”

(Ephesians 3:8-12)

“Light” is a common word picture used in the Bible to describe truth. Light illuminates, it makes things visible, and it highlights truth from error. It reveals the dark lies and half-truths of the enemies for what they are. Such is the case with truth. So, here, when Paul refers to himself as being given the charge of giving “light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God,” this is that of which he speaks. Truth revealed into the darkness o unbelieving lives.

But, from where did Paul get this truth? In Paul’s case, he received it from direct revelation from God (Galatians 1:15-17). It raises, then the matter of revelation. The reason that Paul is revealing truth is not because Paul has discovered some insight; it is because God revealed that insight to him. Further, the reason that this insight was truth is not because Paul had some great personal understanding of God’s plan; it is because God revealed this plan to Paul so that it could be made known.

In today’s culture, revelation tends to be undervalued. The Bible, which is the record of God’s revelation to man, is treated as a mere book that can be edited, interpreted, and re-interpreted according to cultural bases and personal preferences. Further, it is assumed by many that the Bible exists for man’s purposes, allowing people to pick and choose sections that they prefer and to utterly ignore others. rose yet, people assume that it was written by the church to create a power base by which they can control the culture. They treat it more as a book of philosophy to be debated than as a composite of God’s words to us.

Yet, from beginning to end, the Bible presents itself not as the works of men but as the Word of God. Even here, Paul is writing that God has given him this light to reveal to the nations — light that at one point had been hidden in the mind of God. Truth is hidden in God’s mind, it can only be God who reveals it. Further, as God is perfect, that which he reveals is also perfect. If God is incapable of error, so is his revealed Word. And as such, the Bible must be treated differently than we would treat the work of the ancients; it is the revealed Word of God itself. Further yet, as it is Truth, it is not for us to evaluate its relevance or truthfulness; it is for us to submit to that which is revealed. 

Let us take it one more step. If you wrote a letter to me and if in my response, I totally misinterpreted your words, how would you feel? Frustrated? Irritated? Angry? If I intentionally misinterpreted your words to suit my interests, now how would you feel? If I totally ignored sections of that letter, what then? Would you be downright mad? Maybe I even denied that you wrote the letter in the first place and suggested that the mailman had written it as a hoax. Then what? Were it me, I would be very upset — no, I would be downright angry. What then do you think is God’s attitude toward those who deliberately distort the Word of God for their own ends? What do you think is God’s disposition toward those who ignore sections or treat them as cultural anomalies? What do you think is God’s disposition toward whole bodies and groups who reject his word (or parts of it) because it does not fit into their paradigm or their agenda for ministry? Beloved, judgment is coming. Let us not be guilty of mishandling the Word of God but let us strive to be workmen able to rightly handle the word of Truth.

A Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation

“Because of this, and hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus and the love you have toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, making remembrance of you in my prayers in order that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.”

(Ephesians 1:15-17)

For what does Paul pray when he gives thanks for the Ephesian church? His prayer is that God would give to the the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God. This does not so much seem to be a matter of the Holy Spirit (hence we have not capitalized the noun, plus there is no definite article); they already have the Holy Spirit as he is the one who converted them and made them believers in the first place. No, it is so that they would have a spirit of wisdom and that they would have a spirit of revelation.

We have already discussed wisdom at length, but this is just one more reminder of the importance that the Bible places upon wisdom as well as the source of that wisdom, which is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). You can have no authentic wisdom if you do not first approach God with fear and reverence. As the psalmist states, nothing but sin results from the lives of those who do not fear God.

“Transgression utters to the wicked in the depth of his heart; 

there is no dread of God before his eyes.”

(Psalm 36:2 — verse 1 in English translations)

The second thing for which Paul prays is for a spirit of revelation. We often think of revelation — ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis) in the Greek — in terms of the Revelation of Jesus to John that closes our Canon. Because of that, we often only think of revelation in terms of end times things. To be fair, Paul does use this term in such a way (cf. Romans 8:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:7), but he also uses it to speak of God’s revelation to him (Galatians 1:12), and in terms of the full revealing of the Gospel (Romans 16:25). That seems to be the context in which he is using the term here — in other words, that God would more and more reveal to their understandings the magnificent outworking of His Gospel. 

Don’t miss the clarification at the end of the verse, though. Paul is praying for the spirit of revelation for the Ephesian church, but that such revelation always be in the knowledge of God. Indeed, how important this principle is, for anything received or held without the knowledge of God is in vain and worthless. As I look around at the evangelical world today, it strikes me at just how often knowledge of God is downplayed. As a result, this generation is without fear of the Lord even in the bodies that proclaim themselves to be churches (for many are not!). Paul makes it abundantly clear that knowledge, to be of any value, must first and foremost be of God. Plenty of people have knowledge of the world but the world is passing away. The things of God are eternal.

God Revealed

You will notice that in question 25 of the Catechism, when asked about the Trinity, the answer begins with the language of “because God revealed…” At first, that might seem like a simple enough phrase and one that is not that important, yet, from the perspective of the Christian faith, it is of significant value. While indeed, the creation testifies to its creator (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20), such knowledge is not sufficient to save or to produce saving faith for faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ, not by works or by innate knowledge (Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2). Further, that Word cannot be found in nature…no matter how hard you may look or how far you may search. That word must be revealed to us by God himself.

With this in mind, we Christians have a faith that is a “revealed faith.” Apart from the revelation from God, we are lost forever. Left to our own devices, we will seek to earn a salvation that we can never earn and thus be lost in despair. Left to our own devices, our imaginations will create gods after our own image which would be molded by our own hands — little gods that cannot save us from our sins. Left to our own devices, we will create philosophies that will justify our own preferences, thus leaving us in utter moral relativism where each man essentially becomes his own god.

And so, God reveals himself to us and while he did so in many ways (think Hebrews 1:1 — dreams, prophesies, history, poetry, wisdom sayings, etc…), the culmination and compilation of the entirety of God’s revelation is found in His Word. Nothing outside of the Bible (66 books, Genesis-Revelation) is the Revelation of God and thus even the most noble and wisest observations of men must be scrutinized by the light of God’s revelation (not the other way around as is done in many liberal circles). 

The sad thing is that many people today would prefer subjective experience to the objectively revealed Word of God. Many prefer their own pragmatic insights to the revealed wisdom of God on high. And many more would prefer a god of their own making to the God of Heaven. Many prefer a god they can control rather than a God who can make demands of them. Such is the nature of fallen man and such is what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion — for Christianity is a revealed religion, not one constructed by men.

Reigning with Christ! (New Song, part 10)

“We will reign with Christ”

 

            One of the major themes of Revelation is that the prize to those who overcome is not only eternal life with Christ, but a co-reign with Christ as well (see Revelation 2:26-27, 3:21).  As the Messiah is given authority over the nations (see Psalm 2:8), here we see Jesus, who is the Messiah, sharing that authority with believers. 

            We are not given all of the details as to exactly how this will look, though some have built entire theologies around their speculations as to what this is about.  While we don’t know all of the specifics, one thing that we can say is that any authority that we might be given will be given through Christ himself.  The new heavens and earth, will be a world restored to the perfection of Eden, and we, in our glorified bodies, will fill it.  Just as Adam and Eve were given governorship of the world as stewards of God, so too, we will be Christ’s stewards over the world.  If we add much more we enter into the realm of speculation.

            What amazing gifts and blessings Jesus promises to his own!  Not only does he bless us and provide for us while we are here on earth, but he has prepared a land for us and has promised to shower us with blessings upon joining him in paradise.  Simply being in the presence of God is infinitely more than enough, but Jesus goes beyond our capacity to imagine and has prepared a city in which we may live blessedly with him forever!  And yet, at times, we begrudge him the praise he is due…

He rules the world with truth and grace,

and makes the nations prove

the glories of his righteousness

and wonders of his love,

and wonders of his love,

and wonders, wonders of his love.

-Isaac Watts

Our Great High Priest! (New Song, part 9)

“Our Great High Priest”

 

            Though not specifically mentioned here in this particular hymn, where there is a nation of priests, there also must be a high priest.  And, of course, that high priest is Jesus.  He is the one who makes constant intercession for us before the father, and it is he who provided the sacrifice that brought us into fellowship with God the Father.  Jesus is the only head of the church.

            With this in mind, there can be ecclesial hierarchy within the church, though we see hierarchies within many denominations.  Many call themselves Bishops or Arch-Bishops or Cardinals, etc…  These have no place in Christ’s church.  While it is true that the term e∆pi√skopoß (episkopos), from which we get the term “bishop” is a biblical term, it is a term that is used interchangeably with presbuvteroß (presbuteros).  Both of these terms refer to one who is an elder in the church.  In a sense, then, it is perfectly acceptable for any local pastor to call himself a Bishop, yet, given the way the term has been mis-appropriated by certain denominations, it would be the heights of pride for him to refer to himself in this way.  Even the Apostle Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder” in the church (1 Peter 5:1).

Elect from every nation,

yet one o’er all the earth,

her charter of salvation,

one Lord, one faith, one birth;

one holy name she blesses,

partakes one holy food,

and to one hope she presses,

with every grace endued.

-Samuel Stone

A Kingdom of Priests! (New Song, part 8)

“ Kingdom of Priests”

 

            Just as the Levites (the Old Testament priesthood) were not given an allotment of land when the Israelites entered into Canaan, but rather lived amongst the rest of the tribes of the nation, we as Christians are a priesthood without a land here on this earth.  We are called, just as the Levites were, to live as strangers and aliens in this land, for our land is a land that is not of this world, but has been reserved for us in heaven. 

            With this in mind, there are two things that we must always keep before us.  First is that we are not to allow ourselves too high a degree of comfort in this world.  This world is passing away and it has not been given to us; our world is imperishable.  When the Christian becomes too comfortable with the things of this world, he begins to compromise his faith.  Just as the Levitical priesthood allowed the idolatry of the land to corrupt their pure faith, so too, when we become comfortable in the land, we invariably compromise the truth of our faith, and we sink into idolatry.

            Secondly, the reason that the priesthood was spread about the promised land was so that they would be a blessing to the rest of the Israelites.  Yes, the Levites served an important function within the temple, but when they were not physically serving in the temple, the Levites were to teach the scriptures to God’s people and to be an advocate for the widows and orphans, or those otherwise excluded from the society.  Just as the nation of Israel was blessed to be a blessing to the world around them, the Levites were blessed to be a blessing to Israel.

            And friends, this also remains as our task.  Not only must we seek to keep our faith pure and focused on Christ (as opposed to the things of this world), but we are also to be a blessing to the world around us.  We need to care for the widows and the orphans, and by extension, all those who have been discarded by society.  We are to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people and teach them about our God.  And, as we are priests to God, we have an important role in worship itself, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that our sacrifice (as opposed to the Old Testament temple sacrifices) is a sacrifice of praise to our God (Hebrews 13:15). 

Take my will, and make it thine;

it shall be no longer mine.

Take my heart, it is thine own;

it shall be thy royal throne.

Take my love, My Lord, I pour

at thy feet its treasure store.

Take myself, and I will be

ever, only, all for thee.

-Francis Havergal

The Scope of the Atonement! (New Song, part 7)

“The Limited Scope of the Atonement”

 

            At the same time that Jesus’ ransom was for people from every tribe and nation, do note that it is not performed for all people or tribes without exception; rather, it is for all people and tribes without distinction.  Christ’s atoning work was fully effective for the people he came to save, often referred to as the elect.  The names written on the Lamb’s Book of Life were written before the foundation of the earth, nothing could ever erase them, and Jesus died to atone for the sins of those whose names are written within.

            This does not mean that others, who will eventually and eternally reject the work of Christ, do not benefit from the blood that was shed by Jesus.  Yet, the benefit they enjoy is secondary and it is not salvific.  The world benefits from the good work of those who are saved.  Hospitals, schools, relief agencies, and homeless shelters almost always have their roots in the work of Christian believers.  Missionaries have been willing to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to every corner of the earth, where others would never dream of going, in the hopes of taking the gospel to some.  Missionaries have often had to create a written language based on the spoken language that a culture used so that they can translate the Bible for them, this allows the tribes to communicate and learn, preserving their thoughts in written form for future generations.

            God also gives some general blessings to all people.  He gives rain to the crops without distinction; he gives air that is breathable, and new life in the womb.  It is through Jesus that God the Father created and it is through Jesus that all things are held together, thus, without Jesus, the fabric of the universe would have torn itself asunder.

            Were the scope of Jesus’ work to have been universal, there would be no people in Hell.  Yet, Jesus talks more about the reality of Hell and those who will be sent there than any other New Testament writer or person.  He ought to know, I think.  Thus, if Jesus’ work is effective and unable to be frustrated, and if there is a Hell and it is populated, then by definition, Jesus’ atoning work was only for those he came to save.

            Can you have any assurance that you are elect?  Sure.  If you have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, if your life was drastically changed by him, if you are holding to him, clinging to him as your Lord and Savior, if you have served him by serving others, if you hunger and thirst for the things of God, and especially if you have remained faithful even through many difficult valleys, then you are one of the elect.  These things mentioned above are works done within you by the Holy Spirit; they were not things you did on your own strength.  And if Christ has begun a good work in you, he will bring that work to completion (Philippians 1:6).

Come, thou fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount!  I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of Thy redeeming love.

-Robert Robinson

A Mission to the World! (New Song, part 6)

“A Mission to the World”

 

            The Jews assumed that the Messiah, when he would come, would be a political ruler who would restore the Jewish nation state to independence, as in the time of David.  Yet, this is neither how the Old Testament prophets anticipated the Messiah to be, nor was it how Jesus was.  He came as the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophesies (Isaiah 49:6) who would be a light to the nations, drawing people from every corner of the earth to himself. 

            Yet, how would this ministry be ultimately fulfilled?  Jesus would tell his disciples to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:16-20).  And that job has been passed down to us.  Believe it or not, even after all of these years, there are still parts of this world that have never been confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  There are still un-reached tribes in un-reached regions; there is still much work to do.

            We must also remember the commission is to go and make disciples.  That means that we need not only go to convert the people in these nations and regions, but we need to plant churches, build schools, and establish seminaries to teach and train these people up in the truth of the gospel.  This is an ongoing work.

            And this work is work that we all can participate in.  If we are unable to go ourselves, we can send.  We can raise up our children to see missions as a normal and regular part of Christian service.  We can help fund missionaries who are working in the field so that they can concentrate on the work that they have been sent to do.  And we can pray for the missionaries that are at work and pray that God will raise up more missionaries, even from our midst, to go into the field. This is what God has commissioned us to do, that people from every tribe and tongue and nation would come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

We’ve a message to give to the nations,

That the Lord who reigneth above,

Hath sent us His Son to save us,

And show us that God is love,

And show us that God is love.

For the darkness shall turn to dawning,

And the dawning to noonday bright,

And Christ’s great kingdom shall come to earth,

The kingdom of love and light.

-Colin Sterne

The Ransom Paid! (New Song, part 5)

“The Ransom Paid”

 

            We must be careful when we talk about the ransom to be paid, or the debit owed, because we must be absolutely clear as to whom that ransom was paid to.  Through the history of the church, some have argued that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to the Devil for sin, to redeem his people from the clutches of the enemy.  Loved ones, this theology is wrong, for God owes no one, especially not the devil, anything at all.  Scripture tells us that God chose the elect even before he began creating, which means that he chose the elect before there was sin in the world and before there was any need for a ransom.

            Yet, there is a debit that is owed, and that is a debit that we owe to God.  In ancient days, when countries were at war with each other, if one country was loosing badly and wanted to bring an end to the warfare, they would sue for peace.  They would pay a large sum of money to the other nation, and the war would be considered over.

            In a way, that is the same with us.  We, in our sin, have been rebels against God for hundreds of generations.  Our sin is an affront to a Holy and Righteous God, and there is a just penalty—a price—that is owed to God as a result.  The promise is that no matter what we do, and no matter how good we are, we can never hope to repay that debit.  Not even someone like Mother Theresa or William Carey could do it.  Yet, Jesus chose to do it on behalf of those who put their faith in him as Lord and Savior—the elect.  And, oh how grateful we should be!

            John tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sin (1 John 2:2).  Propitiation is different from atonement.  Atonement is the making of peace between two parties.  Propitiation is the act that brings atonement.  We stand convicted and guilty of sin.  Jesus acknowledges that and he acknowledges the price we owe as a result.  And Jesus paid the price, beloved; he paid it all.

For nothing good have I

whereby your grace to claim—

I’ll wash my garments white

in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.

Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe;

sin had left a crimson stain,

he washed me white as snow.

-Elvina Hall

Jesus Was Slain! (New Song, part 4)

“Jesus Was Slain”

 

            To those who would deny the crucifixion, this song affirms even this gruesome detail of Jesus’ ministry.  Without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22); each year, the priest, on the day of atonement, would slay a lamb for the forgiveness of the people’s sins (Exodus 30:10), and Jesus has become that lamb for all of the elect (Matthew 26:28), and as Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and effective, it is a sacrifice that never needs repeating (Hebrews 9:25-26).

            In addition, it is a reminder to the historicity of the crucifixion.  So many liberals would simply say that there was no real Jesus of history, and if there really was, he wasn’t anything like the Jesus we find in the Bible.  Friends, ignore their lies.  This song, as does all of scripture, affirms the historical sacrifice of Jesus.

            Friends, Jesus was willing to pay a gruesome price for the redemption of believers.  If you are a believer, born again by the Spirit in Jesus Christ, then he paid a terrible price for your eternal redemption.  Yet, This is something that Jesus gladly did.  Don’t take it for granted.  It is too easy to relegate the words of scripture to a list of abstract concepts.  There was nothing abstract about Jesus.  He lived and he died, living in this world as you and I.  He was slain for the sins of you and me.  Yet, he arose, and therein lies our hope, for he has promised that if we put our faith in him as our Lord and Savior, then he will raise us as well on the last day.

Death cannot keep his prey—

Jesus, my Savior,

he tore the bars away—

Jesus, my Lord.

Up from the grave he arose,

with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever with his saints to reign.

He arose!  He arose!

Hallelujah!  Christ arose!

-Robert Lowry

The Scroll! (New Song, part 3)

“The Scroll”

 

Though there is some debate as to just what the scroll that is depicted here in Revelation represents, in context, it seems that the scroll represents God’s redemptive plan for history, namely as is unfolded in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  For that book to be opened, God’s righteous judgments against mankind need to be brought about (the opening of the seals).  And Jesus is the only one who is worthy to unfold the plan of God in history.

Paul speaks of God having chosen his elect since before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:4).  That means that before God even began the work of creation, God wrote this scroll.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, he wrote your name on this scroll before the ages began.  And he sealed the scroll up with the judgments that would come as a result of the fall.  Yet, these judgments are only opened up through the mitigation of Christ—Christ who God promised to Adam and Eve at the fall (Genesis 3:15).  Were it not for Christ, we would have perished long ago.  Judgment and redemption are intimately interwoven with the person of Christ.  What a gracious God we have.  What a wonderful savior we have been given!

A wonderful savior is Jesus my Lord,

a wonderful savior to me;

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock.

where rivers of pleasure I see.

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock

that shadows a dry, thirsty land;

he hideth my life in the depths of his love,

and covers me there with his hand,

and covers me there with his hand.

–Fanny Crosby

Jesus is Worthy! (New Song, part 2)

“Jesus is Worthy”

 

Jesus is worthy of our praise and no one else is.  Mohammed was not worthy, Buddha was not worthy, Krishna was not worthy, our governments are not worthy, humanistic teachers are not worthy—no one but Jesus is worthy of our praise and adoration. 

Jesus is worthy first because of his perfect character.  From the beginning of time, Jesus is and was infinitely perfect in all of his ways.  He is God.  And for that simple fact, he deserves our worship.  Friends, not only is the unbelief of the non-Christian a sin, but the refusal to worship both of the non-believer and of the casual churchgoer is also a sin.  Had Jesus never done any work of redemption, he still would have been infinitely worthy of our praise and honor.

Yet, in his work of redemption, how much more worthy is he!  He condescended to take on flesh and walk with us.  He came to us while we were still rebels against God, wallowing in our sin—and he called us to himself.  He did the work of redemption that bridged the infinite gap between a Holy God and a sinful man.  He did that for me.  And if you are a born-again believer, he did that for you as well.  Because he did for me what I could have never done for myself, how much more is he worthy of my praise!

Praise Him! praise Him!  Jesus our blessed Redeemer!

Sing, O Earth, his wonderful love proclaim!

Hail him! hail him! highest archangels in glory;

strength and honor give to his holy name!

Like a shepherd, Jesus will guard his children,

in his arms he carries them all day long;

Praise him!  praise him!  tell of his excellent greatness;

praise him! praise him! ever in joyful song!

–Fanny Crosby

A New Song!: Introduction

Introduction:

 

While we often think of the book of Revelation in terms of God’s judgment being brought upon his enemies, one of the major themes of Revelation is that of worship.  In fact, nearly half (24 of 60 uses) of the New Testament uses of the verb proskunew (proskuneo), which means “to worship,” are found in the book of Revelation.  It is a book that depicts both proper worship in heaven in the here and now and proper worship in heaven when all of the elect are finally gathered around the throne of Christ. 

With that in mind, Revelation is also a book that contains quite a few songs to the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (and especially to the Son for his redeeming work).  It is as if the Apostle John can’t help but break out in joyful song as he relates his theophany to us. 

In the church today, there are (and I expect will always be) debates surrounding the use of new hymns being used in the church.  Some churches even go as far as to exclusively sing the psalms, as God’s inspired songbook.  I think that singing the psalms is great!  I also think that singing the New Testament songs is a great thing to do (though in the New Testament we are largely only given fragments of the song itself)!  And, I think that the inclusion of songs in the New Testament sets a precedent that each generation should always be contributing to the body of hymnody.  Yes, that means that some hymns will pass into obscurity as new ones are added, but the best ones will not.  I can’t imagine a day when a company will print a hymnal without standards like “Amazing Grace”, “O For a Thousand Tongues,” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” 

The key that we have to keep before us is to be careful that the new songs teach good theology.  So much of the theology that we learn is from the hymns.  Hymns often touch us deeply and stick with us, thus helping to shape the way we think about God and the Bible.  One of the great things about the “tried and true” hymns of the faith is that they have been tried and tested by generations as to what they teach.  As a generation that is adding new songs to the hymnody of the church, it is our responsibility to weed through the good and bad hymns on the basis of what they teach about our Lord.

Jesus is worth a hundred thousand generations of hymns and more!  His glory is beyond the capacity of our language to convey!  And once this world passes away, we will have an eternity to try and properly praise his worth.  I look forward to that day.  But for now, even in our limited capacity, we should be giving our all to the joyful task of that praise. 

These two verses contain a fragment of a hymn that John witnessed the angels singing in heaven.  As I mentioned above, there is a lot of theology that is contained within our hymnody.  I thought it would be useful to look briefly at some of the theology that is taught within this wonderful hymn fragment.

God was Speaking Long Ago: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 3)

“God was speaking long ago to the Fathers through the prophets…”

 

We spoke above about how God is a communicating God.  This is one of the things that separates the One True God from all of the false gods of this world—our God speaks to his people.  Buddha does not speak and has never spoken to his followers.  Allah does not speak and has never spoken to his followers.  Those who relate that they have had an authentic and supernatural experience that contradicts the scriptures, like that of Joseph Smith who founded the Mormons, they are visions of the devil only, the great counterfeiter who seeks to do nothing but usurp the power of God.

With this in mind, this clause makes a very important statement to us.  Our God did speak through the ages in many forms and ways, but he did so through prophets and he spoke to the Fathers of the faith.  God has always had a group of called out and faithful people through whom and to whom he spoke.  God did not speak to the pagans and tell them to bring purity to His people; God speaks in faithfully orthodox circles. 

Throughout the ages, false teachers have claimed to have a “new revelation” from God, and beloved, this is not how God works.  Through the Old Testament, God spoke through his prophets, and in the clause that follows this one, the writer of Hebrews will remind us that now God speaks to his people only through Jesus.  God brings us together as a community of believers not only to bless us with fellowship but also to keep us free from error.  The flock that is held tightly together by the faithful shepherd is safer from predators.  Though tradition is always to be subordinate to scriptural truth, God raises up fathers in the faith for our teaching, instruction, and guidance in the study of God’s word. 

Beloved, we are a culture that thrives on what is new and “groundbreaking,” but God is an ageless God.  Beware of those who would tell you that they have found a “new way” to understand the things of God.  For nearly two thousand years, the finest minds in history have been pouring over God’s word, seeking to understand its riches.  And though the depths are infinite, and though we can never exhaust the riches within God’s word, when we think we have found a new way of understanding something that has been understood a different way by the church fathers of old, we are likely flirting with heresy.  Beloved, let us stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, let us be guarded by their orthodoxy so that our lives might safeguard the orthodoxy of the next generation.

In Many Parts and in Many Ways: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 2)

“In many parts and in many ways…”

 

While many of our Bibles read something to the extent of “in many times and ways…” the word that the Greek text uses is polumerw:V (polumeros), which refers not to chronological divisions but to material divisions.  Thus, as the author of Hebrews begins speaking of God’s revelation, he is speaking of the many divisions and kinds of literature within the Canon.  Indeed, the author of all scripture is God himself, but he wrote by inspiring the prophets (and later the apostles) so that you can see their stylistic fingerprint upon the literature. 

One of the things about God’s word that should cause is to stand in amazement is the incredible unity within and between the books.  This is in itself a testimony to God’s existence and inspiration of its writers.  There are 66 books in the Bible, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New.  This was done through 9 authors in the New Testament and at least 29 authors in the Old Testament.  Its writing was begun somewhere around 1450 BC (when the Israelites were on Mount Sinai) and completed around 95 AD (when John penned the book of Revelation)—across 1500 years, which includes a break of 400 years between the last prophet (Malachi) and the close of Chronicles and the coming of a new prophet (John the Baptist) on the scene.  Were this simply a book of compiled religious writings, not only would it not have survived in tact to this day, but it would be filled with inconsistencies and problems—the Bible is not.

In addition, the very fact that God spoke through a variety of people through history is not only a testimony that God exists, it tells us quite a bit about his character.  First, God communicates.  God is not the “unmoved mover” of the ancient Greeks who is transcendent above all else and cannot be communicated with from the mortal world.  God transcends the gap between himself and a sinful world to make his will known to man.  Secondly, God is a God that is active in the affairs of humans.  He cares about the purity of his chosen people and he cares about the right and proper worship of his name.  He cares about the affairs of men and he proved it by speaking to men for more than 1000 years, slowly revealing and explaining his redemptive plan until it met its perfection and completion in the sending of his Son to die a sacrificial death on the cross.

Thirdly, God is a God who had a plan for mankind.  Humans fell into sin with Adam and Eve and sin is deserving of death and destruction.  The simple fact that God pronounced a promise of a coming redeemer (Genesis 3:15) is a reminder that throughout the history of mankind, God had his plan of redemption in place.  That plan had its ultimate fulfillment in the cross, which stands at the very center of all human history.  All that took place before the cross was a process of preparing for the work of Jesus; all that has taken place afterward and all that will yet take place is a result of that work that Jesus completed.  The fact that God did not bring judgment to the human race at the fall and that he would reveal himself to a people throughout history, means that he has a plan for mankind, namely the redemption of the race through the eternal salvation of the elect and the judgment of those who do not cling to Christ in faith.

Fourthly, it tells us that we have a God who desires for his people to know him personally and intimately.  We know about the character and nature of God because he has revealed it to us so that we might know him.  Fifthly, the variety of types of literature contained within the Scriptures (historical narrative, law, prophetic works, poetry, wisdom literature, Gospel, apocalyptic, etc…) tells us that God is a creative God.  And just as God is creative, we who have been made in God’s image express our creativity in what we do and in how we write. 

The fact that God’s word (as well as his world) is orderly tells us that God is an orderly God.  Chaos and misadventure are not part of God’s character and they have only become a part of mankind’s character as a result of sin.  There is also a unity within God’s word that points clearly at his Son, Jesus Christ.  All of the scriptures are about Jesus and God wants us to know this.  He is the redeemer and the author of our faith.  He is the great Lord and Master of the believer and it is through Christ that all things were created (though we are getting ahead of ourselves).  The very fact that the scriptures point unanimously to Christ is a reminder to us that our lives also ought to point to Christ without any compromise.  The way we live should not contradict what we say, just as the way God acts toward his people does not contradict what the scriptures say about the nature of God.

Beloved, while we could go on and on, what I want more than anything for you to see is the incredible unity of scripture as well as its intricate complexity.  It is simple enough for a child to understand the basics when it is read, yet it is complex enough for even the most well-educated scholar to never exhaust, and it is deep enough that any, no matter how wise or how long they have walked in the faith, will find it satisfying and rich throughout a lifetime of study.  This is the nature of the word that God has given us in various parts and in various ways, and this nature reflects the God who is behind these words.  Dig deeply, dear friends, though at times you may feel overwhelmed and discouraged, press on, you will never be dismayed by the depth of what you find.

A Theophany on Patmos, part 4: Revelation 1:17-20

“And when I saw him, I fell toward his feet like a corpse, and he put his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not!  I am the first and the last, and I am the life.  I became dead, and behold, I am living into eternity.  And I hold the keys to death and hell.  Write, therefore, of what you saw, of what is, and of what is about to be after this.  The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand and the seven golden lampstands:  The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.’”

(Revelation 1: 17-20)

 

What is John’s response to being confronted by the risen Christ in all of his glory?  He falls on his face.  This is the proper response to such an experience.  It is the response of the prophets themselves (especially note the parallel in Daniel 10: 8-12).  We must ask ourselves the question, is this how we behave before God?  Is it our first instinct to collapse in utter unworthiness and fear and in worship of that which is infinitely greater than you?  Before you answer, remember that when you pray you come before the throne of God on high.  You don’t need a theophany to experience God, you just need a sincere and prayerful relationship with him.  Again, I place the question before you.  Does this describe your response to the creator of the universe?

I think that one of the problems in many of our churches today is that we take the privilege of worship and prayer all too lightly.  We think of worship as something we do to benefit God rather than our obligation toward him, and we think of prayer as something that we have a right to, rather than as the awesome privilege it is.  Seek to nurture a sense of holy fear when you enter before God’s throne.  Yes, approach with great joy and anticipation because of all he has done, but never forget that you have entered into the presence of something wholly supernatural and outside of your capacity to comprehend.

What is Jesus’ response to John?  Take courage, is ultimately what he says.  He reminds John that he is the firstborn from the dead and that he is the end of all things.  He was in existence before creation, and he will remake the new heavens and earth.  And all true life is in him.  There is no imagery here; Jesus is speaking truth plainly.  The emphasis is entirely on the work of Jesus, and is far from us.  And it is Jesus who holds the keys to hell.  Jesus describes himself as the doorway to heaven (John 14:6), but here Jesus is also reminding us that he holds the key even to damnation.  Jesus is the deciding factor when the sheep and the goats will be separated (Matthew 25: 31-46).

John is once again commissioned to write.  Twelve times in this book of Revelation, John is commanded to write.  It is a reminder of the lasting nature of this book and of Scripture itself.  It is also a reminder of the communal nature of faith.  God did not give John the vision for the purpose of cheering up John.  God gives this vision to John so that John will then share it with the churches.  Let us never forget, as we go through our daily lives, that God’s word is to be shared with others.  It will plant seeds in the lives of unbelievers and convict believers of their need to grow as well.

Lastly, Jesus explains to John two of the images that he has seen.  These two images, of course, will become quite important for they are the central part of the next two chapters of the book.  One of the reasons that people go back to the book of Daniel when trying to understand Revelation is that there are many stylistic similarities, not only in the images, but in the way that God is regularly explaining many of them to make sure that both the prophet and we gain understanding of what God is showing.  As we close with our section of introductions, we can already anticipate where John, being lead by the Holy Spirit, is headed.  Jesus is before him in glory and ready to conquer his foes.  We have been introduced to the King of the universe in this chapter, and he is commending us to stand at his side as he marches victorious in battle.  In the words of Isaac Watts’ classic hymn:

“Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;

We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,

We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,

to fairer worlds on high, to fairer worlds on high.

 

We’re marching to Zion,

beautiful, beautiful Zion;

We’re marching upward to Zion,

the beautiful city of God.”

 

Exegetical Insights:

 

Verse 9:

  • The Greek word that John uses here for “perseverance” carries with it connotations of carrying on in boldness.  It is not simply surviving the onslaught, but bravely putting your face to the wind and moving into the time of trial.

Verse 11:

  • The two verbs that John uses in this verse, “gravfw” (to write) and “pevmfw” (to send), are both imperatives.  They carry with them a sense of urgency.  With God there is no dilly-dallying when it comes to doing his will.

Verse 15:

  • Notice the contrast in this verse with the deformed statue in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 2).  At best, Satan is only a poor counterfeit of Jesus.  Here Jesus is arrayed as the perfect priest and king, in Daniel’s vision, we see the attempts of Satan to build a kingdom, yet it will fall apart.

Verse 17: 

  • The Gospel of John is filled with many “I am” statements of Jesus.  These statements are the claims of Christ to be the great “I am” of scripture.  Here, in this verse, we find another of Jesus’ “I am” statements brought to us through the Apostle John.
  • “Fear Not” is the message from Jesus to John.  It is through God’s grace and by his mercy that we can stand in his presence.  Yet, while we must carry a reverential fear, God’s children must not be afraid in his presence—we are invited guests.

Verse 18:

  • Jesus is living into eternity.  Never again will his sacrifice be necessary as Catholic theology would teach.

A Theophany on Patmos, part 3: Revelation 1:12-16

“And I turned back to see the voice that was speaking with me, and turning, I saw seven golden lampstands.  In the midst of the lampstands was one like the son of man, dressed in a long robe and with a golden belt wrapped around his chest.  As for his head, the hair was white like wool and like snow, and his eyes were like a flame of fire and his feet were as fine bronze as if having been burned in a furnace.  His voice was like the sound of much water, and he was holding seven stars in his right hand and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face appeared like the sun in power.”

                                                                                    (Revelation 1: 12-16)

 

As we wrestle with understanding what John is actually seeing, I think that it is important first to look at the images themselves and then to put them together.  It is worth noting once again, that I hold that every image that is given to us in this book of Revelation either will be explained for us by John himself, or will be explained for us by the way the Old Testament uses those images.

 

Seven Golden Lampstands:  This image is one of the more straight-forward images in the book of Revelation because it is explained for us, yet, to understand its full ramifications, we must also look back at the Old Testament for explanation.  We are told in Revelation 1:20 that the lampstands refer to the seven churches that are listed above. 

Again, we must understand the churches as representative of the Church as a whole, through the ages.  We also must be reminded as to the purpose of the church, which is to proclaim God’s glory.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 5: 13-16 that the church is to be both salt and light.  Salt is a preservative, it prevents food from rotting as quickly.  Light illuminates the things that are hidden in the darkness.  The church must be about this kind of work.  We must be a preservative in our society and we must shine the light of the Gospel into even the darkest places.  Sadly, the church has rarely done this well.

But, there is far more here than initially meets the eye.  We need first go to Exodus 25: 31-40 to more fully understand what we are looking at.  Here we find another golden lampstand described.  This is what is commonly referred to as a menorah.  It consists of a vertical lampstand with three branches stretching out from either side.  In the tabernacle, the menorah stood just inside of the veil to the Holy Place.  As the priest would enter, the menorah would be on his left and the table of shew-bread was on his right.  In the rear of the Holy Place (between the Holy and the Holy of Holies) was the altar of incense.

The menorah symbolized the life that God gave to his people and the fidelity of the priesthood (and the fidelity of the God who has called the priests).  It also served the purpose of providing light inside of the temple at night. In the vision that the prophet Zechariah was given (Zechariah 4), the lamps on the menorah is described as “the eyes of Yahweh, which range across the whole earth.”  The image given to him is of God’s omnipotence and of God’s omnipresence, for they rove across the earth.  The Hebrew word for rove carries with it not only the connotations of going to and fro, but it carries with it the connotations of upturning things.  God is not only present in the world as a cosmic guide of some sort, but he is active turning lives and kingdoms upside down to accomplish his ends.

As we move back to Jesus, then, we see him in the presence of one of these menorahs.  There is some debate over whether John is seeing seven menorahs or whether he is seeing one menorah holding its seven lamps.  I would suggest that since there was only one menorah in the temple, since the Holy Spirit is described in Revelation 4:5 as seven torches of fire (not 49), and since the emphasis is on the fullness of Christ and his work, not on the fullness within the seven churches (remember that seven is a number of fullness and to suggest that each church had a fullness of testimony seems to deny Revelation 2&3), that we should see this as a single menorah which Christ is standing before, just as the High Priest in the temple would.  As High Priest, it is Jesus who lights or extinguishes the lamps of these churches. 

It is also worth noting that in the construction of the menorah, all of the lampstands were connected on the same base.  It is a reminder to us that no church, no denomination, and no individual Christian stands alone in this world.  We are part of the body of Christ, which means when our brother is persecuted, no matter where they happen to be or how far away they are from us, we hurt on their behalf.

Lastly, it is worth noting that Jesus is standing in the midst or in the presence of these lamps.  In the tabernacle, beside the menorah, stood the table of the presence or the table of shew-bread.  This was a holy table that held on it the bread of the presence of God.  There were twelve loaves of bread (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) that were consecrated as holy and laid upon this table.  Each Sabbath, the priests would eat this bread and then replace it with 12 new loaves.  Except for rare times of crisis, only the priests were allowed to eat this bread (see 1 Samuel 21). 

Largely, these loaves represented that the tribes of Israel were always in the presence of God.  Yet, John sees a vision of the lampstands apart from the bread of the presence.  Or does he?  I think that we can safely say that the bread of the presence is here, in Jesus.  No longer must the people of God be represented in a physical temple, because Jesus is the new temple, and his church is kept in him.  We, as Christians, have been consecrated as Holy by the work of Jesus, and in Jesus we are in the presence of God at all times, for Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, enthroned over creation.

 

One like a son of man:  This was probably Jesus’ favorite name for himself (see Matthew 20:28 & Luke 9:44 for example).  Yet, we also must make note of the Old Testament’s use of title.  Oftentimes, when God is addressing a prophet (especially the prophet Ezekiel), God refers to him as “son of man.”  This title designates the lowliness of the person being referred to.  Jesus chose to take on flesh.  And though his taking on flesh did not demean his Godhood in any way, it was an act of infinite humility and degradation (Philippians 2:7). 

But we must attend, also to Daniel 7: 13-14.  For here, in Daniel’s vision, he witnesses “one like the son of man” receiving dominion over all the peoples of the earth.  Daniel is seeing a picture of what John will soon be seeing in Revelation 5.  This is Jesus, in both visions, receiving his rightful place of honor.  God revealed it to Daniel to point to the first coming of Christ, and is now revealing it to John to point to the second coming.

 

Clothed in a long robe and a golden belt:  There seems to be some degree of discussion as to the nature of Jesus’ robe and sash.  Some have suggested that these are judicial robes and others have suggested that these robes represent the dignity of Christ.  There is no doubting the dignity of our risen Lord or the fact that he is coming as Judge.  Yet, to gain a better understanding of these robes, we must again return to Exodus.

If we look at Exodus 28, we will see the instructions that God has given for the high priest’s garments.  He is to wear a long robe, a breastpiece, a tunic, turban, and a sash.  Here, we see Jesus with the robe and sash.  The tunic was worn beneath the robe, so it is not surprising that we are not given a description of it.  The breastpiece was used to hold the Urim and Thummim.  These stones were given to the high priest to aid in the discerning of God’s will.  Since Jesus is God himself, and the Father and Son are one in communication, Jesus needs no aides to discern God’s will.  Thus the breastpiece is unnecessary.

The golden belt or sash is like a wide girdle that goes around the torso of the wearer.  Josephus tells us that when this belt was worn low, it was used for labor or travel, but when it was worn about the chest, as we see here, it was an ornamental piece, which is how the priests wore theirs.

While the priestly connection is clear, we must go back to Daniel’s prophetic visions.  In Daniel 10:5, we see a man who very much resembles the description that John  gives us of Jesus.  In fact, the resemblance goes far further than his wardrobe, but it extends to the flaming eyes and glowing legs as well.  Likewise, Daniel’s response is the same as John’s (to fall down in fear).  Though the one Daniel met was not called “one like the son of man,” he is referred to as “one like the children of man.”  While this is not exactly the same language, I think that the same idea is being conferred.  Daniel’s meeting is with the pre-incarnate Christ.

 

Hairs like wool and white as snow:  The obvious connection to Daniel 7:9 must be made, where the Ancient of Days (God the Father) is described with hair like pure wool.  Yet, John is not getting his images confused.  There are two points that must be made here.  First, Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).  If God the Father is described thus, then it is fitting that God the Son should be described thus.

Yet, there is something more going on here.  All of the imagery that we are given here is light imagery.  You have lampstands that illuminate the darkness representing the churches, you have stars in Jesus’ right hand representing the angels of the churches.  And Jesus is described with eyes flaming with fire, feet that glowed like molten metal, a face that shone like the sun at full strength, and a sash of gold around his chest.  Jesus is glowing brightly in the darkness of this world. 

The scriptures are filled with this kind of imagery.  Daniel’s vision was this way as was Ezekiel’s.  After Moses met with God on Sinai, his face shone brightly.  When Jesus was transfigured, he shone brightly.  John himself writes that God is light and in him is no darkness (1 John 1:5).  Jesus’ birth was heralded by a great light in the heavens and his resurrection was heralded by an angel that shone like lightning on that Easter morning.  I think that Jude alludes to this when he speaks of the fallen angels being kept in “eternal gloom” until judgment day (Jude 6).  When you have been in the presence of the God of creation in His full glory and majesty, even the brightest day on earth is as pitch blackness.

I think that the imagery here is not of white hair as one would think of the aged, but of an illuminated person, where all of them glows with a white glow.  Probably the easiest way to illustrate this would be to have someone, no matter what their hair color, stand in front of a large spotlight.  When the spotlight is turned on, their hair will take on a whitish glow, even if the hair is as black as India ink.  Turn up the wattage a million-fold and then you will begin to get the idea of what John is seeing.  Jesus is there, speaking to him, and electricity is coursing through the air.  It is positively breathtaking—which is what happens with John, he falls down like a dead man.

 

 

Eyes Like Fire and Feet like molten bronze:  Again, we have light imagery.  When Jesus came in his first incarnation, he came as a meek servant and as a sacrifice.  Now we see Jesus clothed with his rightful power and authority.  There is no mistaking that this is king and God over the universe and that he is rightfully worshipped.  It is also worth noting that this is military imagery.  Soon we will see the sword, but fiery eyes denote power and might—a blessing for Christ’s church, but for Christ’s enemies, as James says in the second chapter of his epistle top the church, they tremble.  Bronze was a metal still in use for warfare at this point in history because it is harder than iron, and here Jesus’ feet are portrayed as armored, ready to crush the head of his enemy. 

 

A Voice like Much Water:  Have you ever stood in front of a waterfall and tried to have a conversation?  It is nearly impossible.  This is the idea that John is trying to get across.  Jesus’ voice is booming and loud.  It is almost deafening.  Again, we not only see Jesus speaking with authority, but the “bigness” of what is happening is being emphasized.  Jesus is speaking in such a way that cannot be denied or ignored.  It is also worth looking at Daniel 10:6, which describes Jesus’ voice as like the sound of a multitude of people.  Whether it be a flood of water or a flood of persons, the image is the same, Jesus demands that all eyes and ears be brought into focus on himself—and rightfully so.

 

Seven Stars in His right hand:  First of all, the right hand was a symbol of authority and power.  People were given the right hand of fellowship when they were acknowledged as part of a group.  Jesus sat at the right hand of the Father after the resurrection.  The right hand was also the hand that you used to attack.  Your sword was held in the right hand and the defensive shield was held in the left. 

Again, John tells us the explanation of this symbol.  The stars represent the angels of the seven churches.  Here we see a picture of these angels being under the sole authority of Christ himself.  Any power or any work that these angels might do is at the discretion of Jesus.  Again, we see Jesus here not as the servant but as the reigning king.

Now, there is a great deal of debate about the nature of these angels.  The Greek word, a[ggeloV, which is used here literally means “messenger.”  In Greek, this can refer to either a human messenger or a supernatural one.  Many have debated as to which John is referring to here in Revelation.  The primary argument for suggesting that these angels are human ones is that each of the subsequent seven letters are addressed to the “angel” of the church in …  I would like to put forward several reasons for seeing these angels as supernatural beings.

  1. The term a[ggeloV is used 171 times in the New Testament.  Of those times, it is only used 7 times to refer to human messengers.  John himself uses the term 70 times between his Gospel and The Revelation (the term is not used in his 3 epistles), and in every instance (apart from these few debated instances) John uses the term exclusively to refer to supernatural beings.
  2. Outside of the New Testament canon, in other pieces of apocalyptic literature, the term a[ggeloV is never used to refer to a human messenger.
  3. Generally, in scripture, the image of stars represents supernatural beings of power and authority (Isaiah 14: 12-13, Daniel 12:3, Jude 13).  In fact, Jesus himself is referred to as the bright morning star (Numbers 24:17, Revelation 22:16).
  4. Angels are recorded as functioning as defenders and protectors of specific people and groups.  The Archangel Michael had been given charge over the people of Israel (Daniel 12:1).  Angels intercede for little children before God (Matthew 18:11).  They may function as witnesses (1 Timothy 5:21) and can be seen pronouncing God’s word to his people (Judges 2:1-4, Luke 1).  Likewise, while the precise interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:10 is hotly debated, there seems to be a sense that angels are present with Christians when they gather to worship.
  5. Lastly, I think that this is the natural reading of the text, remembering the apocalyptic nature of this book.  These are spiritual visions that John is having, not earthly ones.  Later in the visions we will see that the true church is sealed and protected against the worst of the tribulations.  It seems to fit with the tone of this book to see heavenly beings as being a part of the protecting of these seven churches.

 

Does this mean that we should adopt a theology of guardian angels?  I think that the scriptures are remarkably silent about this issue.  Why?  Because the object of our worship must not deviate from Christ, and our sense of assurance that we will not fail must come from Him.  It is in God’s hand that we rest and it is by God’s grace that we persevere.  Christ may use his angels in the guarding and guiding of his church, but they are acting under orders of the king.  It is for Christ’s glory that we either live or die; He does not need to entrust us to his underlings.

 

A Two-Edged Sword came from his Mouth:  We would be remiss if we did not look to Hebrews 4:12:

“For the Word of God is living and effective, cutting more than all two-edged swords, penetrating until it divides soul and spirit, joint and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and the intents of the heart.”

This image is portrayed for us vividly.  Christ is the word of the Lord made flesh, and the words of his mouth convict of sins and for some, will condemn to eternal damnation. 

Yet, once again, we need to remind ourselves of the military and kingly overtones that are in this passage.  Christ has come as king and ruler.  This means blessing for some, but for Christ’s enemies, it means that they will face the sword.

 

His face shone Like the Sun at Full Strength:  Once again, we are confronted with light imagery.  Jesus does nothing small.  This image should take our minds immediately back to Exodus 34: 29-33, where Moses, after speaking with the Lord, came down with a shining face.  But it also ought to make us think of the transfiguration of Christ himself (Matthew 17), where Jesus was transfigured and his face became bright like the sun.  When even the smallest hint of heaven shines through this veil of sin that blankets the world, it is blinding to the eye.  Paul says for now we see as if through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), but here, as he saw on the mountain of transfiguration all of those years earlier, John sees Jesus clearly, and the image is blinding.

 

*****

 

So, what is the point of all of this?  When looking at most of the prophetic calls, one thing is consistent: God makes himself known in a big way.  For Isaiah, it was a vision of heavenly worship that he witnessed, and it rocked the temple.  For Jeremiah, it was the voice of God and the actual touch of God’s hand on his mouth.  For Ezekiel, it was of the angels carrying the Ark of the Covenant and of Christ exalted.  For Daniel, it was a similar face-to-face with the pre-incarnate Jesus. 

This vision that John is having is an affirmation that God is in control and that Christ reigns.  John lives in a pagan world that is persecuting and martyring Christians.  His world is a world where Roman emperors demand the worship of their citizens.  John’s world is a world where cults abound and cities are dedicated to false gods.  Yet John sees Christ walking in power and authority amongst his churches.  Christ has the angels of the churches in his hand, ready to be dispatched, and the sword of Christ is drawn and at ready.  What is coming will break the back of the enemies of the risen King.

 

A Theophany on Patmos, part 2: Revelation 1:11

“It said: ‘Write what you see into a book and send it to the seven churches; to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicia.’”

(Revelation 1:11)

 

Here we have John’s specific task.  One thing of interest is the contrast between the specific call of John and that of the Old Testament prophets.  When God calls to them, he calls them to speak (Isaiah 6:9, Jeremiah 1:9, Ezekiel 3:1, Hosea 2:1, etc…).  John is called to write.  In fact, Nahum is the only Old Testament prophet whose writings are introduced as a book (Nahum 1:1). 

In the case of Revelation, Jesus is the one doing the speaking, as he is the true prophet.  John, as his servant, is given the commission to write that which has been spoken for the edification of the church.  Like the faithful servants of the Old Testament prophets, John faithfully transcribes that which Jesus is relaying to him.

It is also worth noting that the churches are listed in order that the letter would probably be delivered.  Patmos was 50 miles off the coast of Ephesus (it was actually in the domain of Miletus, another Asian city, but one where we have no record of a first century church).  It would be read in Ephesus and copied for their own use and then transferred to the next church on the list.  The cities are listed in clockwise order as you would travel through the Roman region of Asia along primary thoroughfares.


There is evidence of a second century church in Miletus, though.  In Acts 20: 17-38, Paul meets with the Ephesian Elders in Miletus, but there is no reference to there being a church in that city at the time.  In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul relays that Trophimus was left in Miletus because he was sick, perhaps that is the beginning of a church plant.  There are no other references to a potential church in the city.

A Theophany on Patmos, part 1: Revelation 1:9-10

“I John, your brother and participant in the suffering, the kingdom, and the perseverance in Jesus: I was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  I was in the spirit in the day that belongs to the Lord and I heard behind me a voice as great as a trumpet.”

(Revelation 1: 9-10)

 

Again, John states his name.  What is interesting about this is the contrast between John’s statement and the statement of the Old Testament prophets.  The Old Testament prophets almost always gave their pedigree.  Isaiah was the son of Amoz, Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, Ezekiel was the son of Buzi, Joel was the son of Pethuel, Jonah was the son of Amittai, etc…  Yet, any form of lineage is absent from John’s introduction.  He does not even list the region that he hails from as many of the prophets do.

What are we to make of this?  It is a reminder that as Christians, our lineage is in Christ and in him alone.  In the Old Testament times, when they were still looking forward with anticipation, there was a need to stand in the authority of their forbears.  As Christians, though we stand gratefully on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith, we do not stand on tradition for tradition’s sake.  All we do and all we accept of those who have gone before us, must be judged against the same rule of scripture.  There is no authority for the Christian but God’s word, and there is no lineage either biological or theological that is of any value apart from Christ.  John’s pedigree is “Christian,” and that is enough.

And what role does John play in the larger scheme of things?  John simply says that he is a fellow participator in the things of God.  Like the other writing apostles, John places no merit in his position as an apostle.  He does not use it to rule in authority over men—though as an apostle, he has greater authority over men—but considers himself a brother in faith to his people.  Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he is to be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b).  The apostles understood this well and it would do us well to understand this better.

Also note the close connection between suffering, perseverance, and the kingdom of God that John makes.  It is a reminder of Jesus’ words at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the ones who have been persecuted in the name of righteousness, for to them is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they reproach you, persecute you, and say evil and lies of you because of me.  Rejoice and Exalt!  For your reward is great in heaven.  For thus they persecuted the prophets who came before you.”

(Matthew 5:9-12)

To those who would suggest that Christians ought not to suffer—that God only wants us healthy, wealthy, and wise—I commend to you the scriptures.  God’s word consistently tells us that if we are followers of Christ, we will have trials in our life, and they will be abundant.  The world hates the Lord who we serve and we ought to expect to be treated with contempt (John 15:20). 

Why is this?  James tells us that through trial we grow in faith and faith brings perseverance (James 1: 2-4).  In fact, with this in mind, trial is not a curse, but a blessing for it brings us closer to God if we persevere.  Why is this important to bring out?  Because the dispensationalist will tell you that God is going to remove the elect from the world before the great tribulations of Revelation begin.  I ask then, why would God deny his church such a great blessing and privilege as to persevere through even the greatest tribulation? 

Next, John not only gives us his location as he received the revelation, but he further connects himself to the people who are suffering in persecution to whom he is writing.  John is in exile because of his witness and preaching of Jesus.  Living in a modern society, I find John’s state interesting.  We live in an age where we strive to protect our leaders from suffering.  Generals designate their authority to lesser commanders and so forth, orchestrating the battles from a safe distance.  Most church pastors have adopted this mentality.  They tend to do very little “hands on” evangelism and ministry—especially if they serve a large congregation—in favor for training others to do the task.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no way that a pastor can do everything in a church, but because they cannot do everything, many pastors take that to mean that they are not obligated to do anything.  Here we have John, the last living apostle, probably one of the few, if not only, men alive at this point that actually spoke with Jesus face to face, and he is suffering in exile because of his preaching.  John’s example should serve as a reminder to all who would shepherd God’s flock that they will have to sleep under the stars.

Patmos was a little island (about 35 miles in circumference), about 50 miles off the shore of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea.  Roman Emperors would often exile political prisoners on the island.  In this instance, under the reign of Domitian, John is exiled.  We don’t know the details of what got him sentenced apart from the fact that it was because of his faithful testimony to the Gospel.  We learn from Josephus, the Jewish historian, that John was given a pardon after Domitian’s death by Nerva in 96 A.D. and returned to Ephesus.  John was the only Apostle not to suffer the death of a martyr, though he did experience persecution.

John tells us next that it was the Lord’s Day and he was “in the Spirit.”  Though some will debate it, this is pretty clear evidence that by this point, for the Christian, the Sabbath had been moved from Saturday to Sunday (from the last day of the week to the first).  We do this primarily to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but it is important for us not to stop there in our understanding of the Christian Sabbath.

Most of the earliest Christian converts were Jewish as well as being Christian.  In fact, they would not have seen a contradiction between the two.  Christianity was the fulfillment of all that Judaism had anticipated.  In practice, then, they usually celebrated both the Saturday Sabbath and the Sunday Sabbath. 

Yet, as Gentiles flooded into the church through the missionary efforts of those like Paul, the Gentiles were not expected to keep all of the requirements that had been placed on the Jews.  The food laws and the circumcision laws were not applied to them.  In fact, the Jerusalem counsel only mandated four restrictions (Acts 15:19-20):

  1. Abstain from things polluted by idols
  2. Abstain from sexual immorality
  3. Abstain from food that has been strangled
  4. Abstain from eating meat that has the blood still in it

Not being required to conform to Jewish tradition, the gentile Christians tended only to keep the Christian, or Sunday, Sabbath, not both. 

  In 70 AD, the Romans came in and sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple.  When they did this, they went out of their way to eliminate potential pockets of resistance and groups that might form an insurrection.  This helped to drive the wedge even deeper between Christians and Jews, until there was a fairly distinct separation between Christian and Jewish Sabbaths.

Yet, the change from Saturday to Sunday Sabbath-keeping was not simply a historical issue, but a theological issue.  It is important to note the comparison.  In the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath for the following reasons:

  1. To rest from the labors of the week (Genesis 2:1-3)
  2. To commemorate God’s creative work (Exodus 20:11)
  3. To commemorate God’s consecration of His people as a holy and set apart (Exodus 31:12-15)
  4. To gather as a people in the name of God (Leviticus 23:1-3)
  5. To commemorate God’s redemption of His people (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

As Christians, we look to Christ’s completed work for our hope and as the focus of our Sabbath day.  In turn, we keep the Sabbath for the same reasons, but with a Christological focus.  As Christ was resurrected on Sunday and the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost on Sunday, we celebrate our Sabbath on Sunday. 

  1. The Christian Sabbath is still a needed rest from the labors of the week.
  2. Not only do we commemorate God’s creative work, which was begun on a Sunday, but we anticipate God’s re-creative work in the new heavens and the new earth, which was secured on a Sunday, as it is Christ’s resurrection that secured for us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Peter 1:4).
  3. We commemorate God’s election, setting us apart as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 1:14-16).
  4. We gather as a people in the name of the Lord.
  5. To commemorate God’s redemption of His people, not only through the history of redemption, but also in the saving work of Jesus, through which we have been redeemed from our bondage to sin and are being prepared for eternity with Christ in heaven.  Because Christ is resurrected, we have the hope of resurrection as well (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:18).

 

John also tells us that he was “in the Spirit” when he received the revelation from Jesus.  While there is some discussion as to just what John means, we can at least say that John was involved in worship.  We can say this for a number of reasons.  First of all, his vision was on Sunday, as we previously discussed, which is a day set apart for the worship of God.  Secondly, scripture encourages us to pray with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26, Jude 20).  And third, we see in Isaiah’s call and probably in Jeremiah’s call, that they were in the context of worship (for are not our souls best prepared for God’s call in this context?).  Isaiah was serving in the temple when God called him.  Though we do not know the context that Jeremiah was in when God called, we do know that he was a priest who resided in the city of Anathoth, which is less than 3 miles from Jerusalem. 

Some will argue that this is referring to a prophetic state that John was in.  John certainly ended up in that state, but to imply that John was in the prophetic state prior to the theophany is difficult to support.  Throughout the scriptures, the Holy Spirit is found to be descending on people in a prophetic way (1 Samuel 19:20-24, Ezekiel 2:2, Acts 10:10, 2 Corinthians 12:2), but what is consistent is that the person has no control over the timing of it.  God is sovereign not only in his creation and his election, but he is sovereign even in his revelation of himself.  My suggestion is that John was involved in sincere prayer and worship and God chose that very appropriate time to reveal himself to him.

We then hear the voice that calls to John from behind.  It is worth noting the imagery that John uses here: it is loud like a trumpet.  Trumpets are used in the Old Testament for a variety of reasons.  It is used to call people together for worship (Exodus 19:13, Leviticus 25:9) or for warfare (Judges 3:27, Nehemiah 4:20).  They were used in worship (Psalm 150:3) and to announce a new king over God’s people (1 Kings 1:34).  But there is one usage that carries over from the Old Testament into the New, and that is the use of trumpets to announce the presence of the Lord (Exodus 19:16-19, Isaiah 27:13, Matthew 24:31, 1 Corinthians 15:52, etc…).  Here John is in the presence of the Lord.

 

The Time is Coming Soon

One of the themes that you cannot get away from when you read the book of Revelation is the theme of the “soon-ness” of Christ’s glorious return.  Yet, for many, this has been a stumbling block.  They say that if John expected that Jesus’ return would be soon, and if Jesus himself said that his coming would be soon, how is it that nearly 2000 years have gone by?  Were they wrong?

Some have sought to answer this by going to 2 Peter 3:9, to point out that God’s sense of time is different than our sense of time.  This answer is not overly satisfying, though.  In context, Peter is speaking of God’s patience in bringing the elect to himself, and reminding the readers that God will endure great spans of time to accomplish his plans.  Peter quotes this statement from Psalm 90:4, where the psalmist (Moses in this case) speaks of God’s eternality. 

So how should we understand this language of Jesus coming “soon.”  Christians are to be a people of anticipation.  Indeed, we look back at all that God has done to learn, but we also look forward with expectation to what God is going to do—namely that Jesus will return, bring sin into final judgment, and then remake heaven and earth in glorious perfection.  We look forward to that day when we too will join with the saints in singing that “New Song” before Christ’s glorious presence (Revelation 5:9).  We eagerly anticipate when we will experience that same bodily resurrection that Jesus experienced and will dwell eternally with our Lord, free from sickness, heart-ache, and the effects of sin.

As John writes this, he is seeking to keep this sense of anticipation before us.  As believers, we are to live every day as if Christ were coming any moment.  Think of the busy anticipation that you feel as you await the arrival of a special guest at your home.  There is the business of rushing around putting everything in its place and finishing all of the preparations.  Yet, there are also those excited looks out the window, wondering when that special guest will arrive.  Friends, as believers, this is how we are to live our lives.  Christ will come—we can be assured of that—we just don’t know the timing.  We should be hard at work, making sure our spiritual houses are in order, yet always look to the sky, asking the question: “Could this day be the day when Christ returns?”  The language of the “soon-ness” of the second coming is meant to help engender that sense of anticipation.