Seven Letters for Seven Churches: The Revelation to John
For the next several weeks I will be preaching a series of sermons entitled Seven Letters to Seven Churches that will focus on the first three chapters of the book of Revelation and then skip to Chapter 21. I begin this series with some trepidation. Many Christians avoid this book because of its difficulty. Those who enter into a Read-the-Bible-in-a-Year program certainly get discouraged in Revelation if they have not already gotten hung up in the book of Leviticus. I invite you to enter into the study of this important book with me, though, because we all need to read and study this book, which is certainly part of God’s Word.
You might ask, “Kirk how do you plan to address the visions and symbols in the book?”
I will address those topics during Wednesday night Bible studies. Doing so will allow us to have a thorough study of Revelation.
Please turn to the first chapter of Revelation, Verses 1-9. Hear now the Word of God.
1 The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
Greg Tolbert spoke about his involvement in the Boys and Girls Club on Tuesday of this week at a civic club meeting. Someone asked him the question, “How did you decide to become involved with this organization?”
Greg, who had previously worked as a very successful accountant, replied, “I was parked in the area across from Ike’s Grill, next to the railroad track, when God spoke to me. I knew that I needed to give my life to this ministry of working with the Boys and Girls Club.”
Nothing about that explanation surprised me except that God would speak to anyone that close to Ike’s.
Here is the point. God can speak to anyone anywhere. He may speak to us in the most unlikely of places, places, for example, like a volcanic island twenty-six miles off the coast of Turkey. On this isolated island called Patmos, the Romans had established a colony for prisoners. There, the author, named John, was held captive in a prison. It is there that he had the visions described in Revelation.
Almost everyone agrees that these letters came during the reign of Domitian, a cruel, heartless emperor who was so grandiose that he thought he was a god. Domitian, demanding that people say to him, “Caesar is lord,” persecuted anyone who refused. It was a time of intense persecution for the many Christians who did not recognize him as a god. Domitian punished them in almost unimaginable ways. Other Christians felt compelled to acknowledge him as “lord” only in order to protect their families and themselves. Those individuals later repented of that sin. The church had quite a debate about whether this group of Christians who had denied God should be included in the church at all. The final decision was to welcome those who had repented of their sin into the household of faith.
Verse 9 substantiates the author’s own personal suffering. He was exiled and imprisoned because of his role in preaching the Word of God and in proclaiming the gospel and testimony of Jesus Christ. He is not writing as someone faraway and detached from the experiences of harassment other Christians were experiencing. We will see, as we go through the letter, that he himself had clearly been persecuted.
People have often ascribed this book to the Apostle John, especially in the early days. Many believe that the author is the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and the letters of John. Knowing that an original apostle connected with the ministry of Jesus was the author served to authenticate a work. That fact finally served as a criterion to include the work in the New Testament. For that reason the book of Revelation probably became attached to the Apostle John.
An alternate view is that another person some early Christian writers referred to as John the Elder wrote Revelation. John was a very common name in the first century among Jewish Christians. John the Elder does not call himself an apostle, but he does claim to be a prophet and servant. The identity of the author really does not matter. The Scripture says it was given by Jesus Christ through God. That is the way we need to hear it.
Terror strikes our hearts when earthquakes, hurricanes, outbreaks of tornadoes, or mass shootings occur. The political situation in this world also frightens us. Fear is awakened within us because we realize just how little control we have over some of the natural and political circumstances in this world. In our fear, we sometimes avoid the truth and change our minds about important issues in life. The book of Revelation produces such a reaction in many people. This portion of God’s Word can absolutely scare us to death.
I have told you the story about the time a stem-winding evangelist from Texas came to Croft Baptist Church for a week and about scared the bejeebers out of everyone there. He preached about how we were all going to hell. On Sunday night he actually showed a film of hell. Being only eight years old at the time, I did not think to ask him where he obtained the movie. I realized later that many of the scenes, like those of mud bubbling and steam spewing out of the ground, were filmed in places like Yellowstone National Park. One particular section showed a lake of fire filled with dead floating bodies. Until my high school years, every time I had a high fever, I dreamed of that scene, which absolutely terrified me.
The book of Revelation has traditionally been presented in this same manner. Some of its revelations are fearsome with their mention of plagues, earthquakes, wars, invasions by strange creatures, glassy seas, bottomless pits, rivers of bloods, and malicious monsters with multiple heads. The book also mentions a lion, an ox, an eagle, and even the countenance of a man, with bizarre bodies having six wings and multiple eyes. These creatures, called the watchers, surround the throne of the risen Christ. Those of us who do not like scary movies avoid such films. No wonder we should shy away from the last book of the Bible. The frightening depictions make us wonder whether we will survive.
I invite you to consider the book of Revelation in a different way. Dr. Earl Palmer has said, “Revelation is hard to understand, but it is impossible to forget.”
Sometimes we call this book “the revelation of John,” but John immediately describes it in Chapter 1, Verse 1 as “the revelation from Jesus Christ.” This one verse also tells us that we are reading the Word of God made possible through an angel. The book of Revelation is actually an aviary of angelic appearances.
To understand this portion of the book, we must consider the Greek word apocalypse and its true meaning: an unveiling, a disclosing, a clarification. You might read Revelation and say that the book does anything but offer illumination because it confuses so many people with its references to all kinds of strange beasts and people. We need to understand that most of the symbols that appear here are not original. John did not create them to appear just in this last book of the Bible. Most of the symbols have appeared earlier through other prophets, through the wisdom literature. Likewise, Revelation has also gathered many of the themes found throughout the Bible. We see that Genesis introduces a theme, and Revelation brings it to a conclusion.
In the 400 year span called the interestamental period, apocalyptic writing was very prominent among Jewish writers. In that time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, some of the apocalyptic writings are included in what we sometimes call the Apocrypha or the Pseudopigrapha. A smattering of them appears in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Zechariah. Some appear in the New Testament, even in the teachings of Jesus.
Imagine that you are a member of one of the seven churches said to be receiving this letter from John. Using a map, you can see that those churches cover an area about the size of South Carolina. The number seven is probably used in the same way it is used throughout the book of Revelation. It actually means all churches. Seven particular churches are named, but John was actually writing to every church in his day. We know of more than seven. The Apostle Paul established so many more. When you read these letters you will see every church you have ever known, including Morningside. This letter does not address just churches of long ago. This letter also applies to all churches, even now.
Why did John use this particularly very difficult style of writing? He was living on an island in exile. The churches were located on the mainland twenty-six miles away. Cell phones, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook were not available. A handwritten letter was the only means of communication. Who would deliver this letter from John, an exile, to the churches on the mainland? He had no way to deliver a message across the area. The postal service was non-existent, so John was forced to rely on a Roman soldier. It was necessary for John to use apocalyptic literature as a means of instructing the churches how to stand firm against the tyranny of Rome. A Roman soldier reading the letter would merely say, “This man has gone slam crazy!” John had to encrypt his messages so that Roman soldiers would not have a clue about his clandestine role. Knowingly delivering a message of this sort would deem the soldier guilty of high treason. Jewish Christians would have understood John’s code, and they would have interpreted it to Gentile Christians. These letters, written in an Eastern style, still baffle many Western Christians. We have such difficulty trying to make sense of John’s book.
During World War II, the United States government employed the same technique as John. It devised a code that could not be cracked by the Germans and Japanese. They relied on Native Americans from the Navaho reservation in the Southwest to communicate in the Navaho language. These men were called Code Talkers.
Notice in Verse 3 that John states that those who read these words of prophecy are blessed. John, who considered himself a prophet and servant of God, resembles the Old Testament prophets. We look at some of their prophesies, especially the ones about Jesus called the Messianic Prophets, and interpret them through our Christian eyes, using a kind of instant-replay perspective. Those prophets wrote to a particular people at a particular time about particular issues. Their purpose was to address the near future, not the far-distant future. John’s purpose in the book of Revelation is also to address the near future.
For this study we will not try to find a map or timeline for the end of the world. John’s purpose was not to provide exact dates. That notion is contrary to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 24:36 where he says, “The Son does not even know when the time will be.” Only the Father possesses that knowledge. None of the rest of us can know. Neither will we try to interpret the Bible, and particularly the book of Revelation, using what is sometimes called event substitution. Doing so identifies the beast or the mark of the beast as our Social Security number, the European Common Market, the United Nations, or whatever people decide is the beast of their day and time. John clearly defines this reference to the beast as the Roman Empire, which was trying to destroy Christianity.
Verse 4 reads, “Grace and peace to him from him who is, and who was, and who is to come…” This passage refers to the Eternal God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. John then states that seven Spirits surround the throne. In order to understand the meaning of that reference, we need to turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD – 3and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
The seven Spirits listed here in Isaiah 11:2 are the Spirit of the LORD, the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of understanding, the Spirit of counsel, the Spirit of might or power, the Spirit of knowledge, and the Spirit of fear of the LORD. Again, the number seven means many or all. The seven Spirits are the Holy Spirit in its fullness, its completeness. It is John’s way of saying, “It is all God – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.”
John recognizes right at the outset of this chapter that Jesus is the central figure in the book, calling him the “faithful witness” or truth-teller. His words “the firstborn from the dead” are a reference to his resurrection, and the “ruler of the kings of the earth” we see in the epithet “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Here in the introduction we see Jesus – the teller of truth, the life-giver, and the law-giver – affirming John.
John continues his first doxology by emphasizing that Jesus loves us. Notice the use of present tense, not past. We quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…,” a passage written in past tense. This passage, however, uses present tense to state that Jesus loves us.
Ray Steadman talked to an Anglican pastor educated at Cambridge University. While the pastor was a student there, the administration invited Dwight Lyman Moody to address the student body. Many, however, protested, not wanting this backcountry preacher who could not use the English language correctly to speak on their campus. They thought they were too good for that, I suppose. In protest, they decided to congregate in the front row and disrupt the revival meeting.
Early in the service, Ira B. Sankey, Moody’s music minister, stepped to the platform and led a hymn. Then he sang a selection, which served to calm the crowd. As soon as Dwight Lyman Moody stepped to the platform, he pointed his finger at the young protesters on the front row and said, “Young gentlemen, don’t you ever think that God don’t love you for He do.”
Though Moody did not use proper English, he made a powerful point.
This Anglican minister went on to say that Moody made that point repeatedly throughout his sermon. He added, “That was the day I surrendered to Christ.”
I repeat Moody’s message to you: “Don’t you ever think that God don’t love you for He do.”
John emphasizes this same point through his use of present tense.
John makes a second point in this Verse 5: God “has freed us from our sins by his blood…” God is our Redeemer. Perhaps you know the hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and its words, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free; His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.”
Verse 6 states that Christ “has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve” the Lord our God. Do you think of yourself as a priest? John claims that Jesus thinks of us that way. A prophet speaks to the people on behalf of God. A priest speaks to God on behalf of the people. If we are priests, think of the powerful ministry of prayer to which God has called us. We are to lift people up in prayer.
John claims that Jesus will come again in glory and that “every eye will see him” in Verse 7. No one will miss Christ’s coming, a prevalent theme through the Bible. Jesus himself said in Matthew 24:30, “At that time the Son of Man will appear…” Paul called this event the “splendor of his coming” in II Thessalonians 2:8.
John goes on in Revelation 1:7 to quote Zechariah 12:10, saying, “‘even those who pierced him” would witness his return. Those nonbelievers who put him to death would see him, and “all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’” I think of that great hymn in Philippians 2:10-11, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.”
John states in Verse 8 that God puts His own signature on this book by saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” referring to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is saying, “I am the A to Z. I am the first and the last ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’”
My favorite story about the book of Revelation tells of an old man who shined shoes for a living. One day a college professor climbed up on the stand and requested service. The old man immediately began cleaning his shoes.
As he was waiting, the professor glanced down and saw by the stand an open Bible turned to the Revelation. He asked, “Are you reading the book of Revelation?”
“Do you read the Bible often?”
“Do you think you understand the book of Revelation?”
“Yes, sir. I do.”
Somewhat perturbed by the response, the professor asked brusquely, “What in the world makes you think you can understand that book? Scholars have debated its meaning for centuries.”
“Oh, I understand it.”
“Well then, would you please tell me what the book of Revelation means?”
“Sir, it means that the Lord is going to win!”
Churches under persecution and churches having a hard time for whatever reason need to hear that same message. The Lord is going to win. It is the message John gave at the end of the first century, and it is the same message we will hear as we continue through this study. The three great themes we will see in the book of Revelation are God is sovereign, God is faithful, and Christ is victorious.
Do you know Christ Jesus? Maybe he has not spoken to you at Ike’s. Maybe he has not spoken you to on an island. God can speak to you though, right now if you will listen. If you do not know Christ as your Savior, he is calling you to come into relationship with him. He may be calling those of you who know Christ very well in a different way. You respond as God leads.Kirk H. Neely © January 2013