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Seven Letters to Seven Churches: John’s Vision of Christ

January 20, 2013


Sermon:  Seven Letters to Seven Churches: John’s Vision of Christ
Text:  Revelation 1:9-20


Today we continue our series Seven Letters to Seven Churches, which focuses on the first three chapters of the book of Revelation.  I would remind you that on Wednesday nights a group meeting here in the Sanctuary during the Prayer Service time is considering the rest of this very unique book in our New Testament, including the symbols, signs, and wonders.  Consider joining us for that segment as well.

Legend has it that the six Texas Rangers, under the command of Captain Dan Reid, rode into a canyon.  When ambushed by hostile Indians, all were killed except one, John Reid, who was the younger brother of the captain.  John was critically wounded, and the hostile Indians left him for dead.  During that attack, John’s face was disfigured.

Another Native American, Tonto, found John Reid and realized that the Ranger had previously saved his own life.  Tonto aided John and nursed him back to health.  The two became friends, with Tonto calling the Ranger Ke-moh sah-bee.

As Reid recovered, he and Tonto buried the five fallen Texas Rangers.  They dug a sixth grave as well because they wanted the attackers to think that all six of the Rangers had been killed.

During that time of recuperation, Tonto fashioned the black vest that Dan Reid had been wearing into a mask for his friend to cover the disfigurement in his face.  This, of course, gave rise to the story of The Lone Ranger.

I was nine years old when my family bought a television set for our home.  The very first program I remember watching, after seeing a test pattern for about half an hour, was The Lone Ranger.  I actually thought the radio program was better.  The music chosen for this television and radio series, which was the most captivating part to me, was the William Tell Overture, written by Rossini.

Last week in the opening chapter of the book of Revelation, we saw the only reference to the reader in Chapter 1, Verse 3:  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”  The book actually has multiple references to hearers, however, clearly an indication that this book was intended to be read in public.

I would like to suggest that the William Tell Overture would probably be an excellent musical accompaniment when Revelation is read in public.  The scene of someone riding in on a white horse comes later in Chapter 19, but the idea behind the entire book is that someone will come to the rescue and claim the victory.  By the end of the first chapter, we learn that John sees and identifies this “someone” as Jesus Christ.

We take up the reading in Chapter 1 at Verse 9.  Hear now the Word of God.

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 testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Seven churches – those in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia,and Laodicea – are being terrorized, not by a gang of outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but by the emperor Domitian.  The cruelest of all Roman Caesars, Domitian committed his greatest atrocities against Christians.  Those who refused to declare that he was lord were sewn inside the skin of a dead animal and dragged behind a horse in an arena such as the Coliseum.  Then lions or tigers were released.   These animals of prey chased the dragged skin until it was cut loose.  Then they pounced on the skin, ripped it open, and devoured the Christian inside.  Domitian also ordered that Christians be crucified on crosses and spaced like telephone poles along the route into Rome.  At night runners would precede Domitian and ignite those crosses, burning the bodies so that they could light the king’s path into the city.

Many Christians were suffering persecution, and John was one of them.  He was actually exiled to Patmos, a tiny island in the Aegean Sea, only four miles wide and six miles long.  The Roman Empire maintained mines and quarries on this volcanic island covered with rocks and banished political prisoners there.  John, however, would have been persecuted more intensely than a political prisoner.  It is a wonder that he, too, was not sewn into an animal skin or crucified on a cross.  He could have easily been killed because he had committed high treason.  He had preached the gospel, the testimony, of Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection.  One commentator says that he would have been scourged frequently and forced to work hard labor.  He would have had scant food and other provisions.  The ground served as his bed.  We do not know how long he remained a prisoner there, but it was at least three years.

If you visit the island of Patmos, guides will show you a stark, bare cave where they say John lived in exile.  They will tell you that John wrote the book of Revelation in that location.  If you stand inside that cave and look out over the Mediterranean Sea, it brings to mind the line in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.”

You can imagine John gazing out across that water on a calm day and viewing a glassy sea or seeing a sea of fire at sunrise.  You can imagine John looking out across that water so often that he longed for the sea to be no more.  It is easy to understand how John could think he had heard the sound of the surf dashing on the rocks when the voice spoke to him.  John’s description of the voice of Christ resembles Ezekiel’s description of the voice of God in Ezekiel 43:2:  “…his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”

John does not take a position here that he is somehow different from all other Christians.  He is being persecuted right in the midst the Christians to whom he is writing.  In the same way that Paul writes in Philippians that he is a brother and fellow sufferer of the Christians in that city, John has a strong identity with the Christians he knows.

The Greek word for persecution is sometimes translated distress, sometimes tribulation or suffering.  John uses the phrase “patient endurance” in a similar fashion to John Calvin’s phrase “perseverance of the saints.”  Are you surprised that John mentions the phrase seven times in the book of Revelation?  He shares his anguish with them, but he also shares his hope in the kingdom, his hope that one day Christ will reign.  Persecution, patient endurance, and the kingdom hope are characteristics of the Christian life for all of us.  We all suffer.  We all have to patiently endure, and we all have the hope in the kingdom.

We do know that as the sun rises, John is worshipping on the Lord’s Day, Sunday.  While listening to the waves crashing against the rocks, he prays for those persecuted Christians.  He suddenly hears a voice behind him, a voice that commands, “Write.  Write on a scroll what you see, and send it to the seven churches.”  His experience is similar to the call of the Old Testament prophets.  Writing for John, however, is not just a task, not just a response to a command.  Writing for him is an act of worship.  He says that he is in the Spirit, which may simply mean that he is there to worship in the same way that Jesus said that true worshippers worshipped the Father “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).  Maybe John had something like an ecstatic experience, as Ezekiel did.  The Scriptures says that Ezekiel was taken up in the Spirit.  We really do not know.

Some have tried to see some significance here in the order in John names those churches.  If you start with Ephesus, the first church named, and follow from one to the next, they simply make a kind of spiral, showing the route a messenger would follow.  It is like describing a route from Greenwood to Anderson to Greenville to Spartanburg to Gaffney to Rock Hill to Florence to Georgetown to Charleston to Beaufort to Orangeburg to Columbia.

John does what you and I would do when he hears the voice.  He turns to see who is speaking and finds an amazing vision of the heavenly Christ.

Do you remember when Jesus took that inner circle of disciples to the top of Mount Tabor?  There they had one of those Peter-Paul Almond Joy experiences – indescribably delicious – an experience almost too good for words.  They saw Jesus transfigured and clothed in white, accompanied by Moses, the great law-giver, and Elijah, the first of the prophets.  The choice of those individuals perhaps indicates that Jesus had come to fulfill the law and prophets.  Peter tells us in his second letter that the experience on the mountain was a preview of the Jesus we will see in heaven.

The distinguished New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger says that we should not take John’s vision “with flat-footed literalism.  Rather we should be imaginative and allow ourselves to be guided by the poetic quality of this description.”  If indeed this portrayal is intended to be read and heard, maybe the hearers should use their imagination, seeing what John witnessed.

John goes into great detail about the figure standing before him, starting with the unusual way in which Jesus is dressed.  Jesus’ appearance here and throughout the rest of the book actually characterizes his ministry.  Jesus is not wearing the clothes of a working man, not the clothes of a carpenter, brick mason, or stonemason. His clothing is not manufactured by Oshkosh b’Gosh or Wrangler.  His long white robe and golden sash are very special garments worn by high priests, royalty, kings.  In his very garments, we see that Jesus is the “great high priest,” that he is the “King of King and Lord of Lords.”

Jesus’ hair is described as being like white wool.  Does this mean that the Lord has a problem with premature aging?  Not at all.  This description calls to mind Daniel 7:9 where Daniel sees a similar vision of God, calling him the “Ancient of Days.”  Daniel sees the wisdom and purity of God in that revelation.  John sees the dignity of the risen Christ in this revelation.

John says that Jesus’ eyes are like blazing fire from which nothing could be hidden.  A prayer in the Book of Common Prayer says that God is the One before “whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.”  These eyes of Jesus are piercing; they see our sham, our shame, our hypocrisies.  They see deep into our souls.  John adds that Christ’s feet were “like bronze glowing in a furnace.”  Strength and stability are the hallmarks of this Christ.  Jesus’ face appears as the sun shining in strength.  Fire speaks of judgment.  His face was lighted with brilliance, symbolizing the intensity of his truth.

As we continue in this series you will see that one symbol is mentioned at the beginning of each the seven addresses to the churches except for the last.  For some reason, the letter to the church at Laodicea does not include a symbol.  Here in Chapter 1, we see the symbol of a two-edge sword, coming from the mouth of the risen Christ.  This sword symbolizes of the Word of God.

I want to ask you to turn briefly to the book of Daniel, Chapter 10, Verses 4-6.  Here you will see an amazing similarity between the vision of Daniel and the vision of John.  Daniel says,

…I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist.  His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.

Both men fall down in fear, but they are reassured, touched, invited to stand, and given an overwhelming sense of peace.  John falls down before Christ as if he were dead.  Christ reaches out his hand to John and reassures him, “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead.  Behold I am alive for ever and ever!”  There John names attributes in Verse 8, offering some of the characteristics to describe God:  Christ is God.  He is the Son of God.  He is the incarnate Christ.

Throughout the book of Revelation Jesus is presented in various ways.  This particular vision depicts the resurrected Christ as the great high priest, interceding for us at the throne of God.  Here he is presented as the King of Kings, the royal one sovereign over the entire world.  Here is a vision of Christ in full power, in full knowledge, and in full judgment, revealing the Word of truth.  He will appear in Chapter 5 as a lamb, one that was slain yet alive.  He will appear as a lion, the lion of Judah and as a rider on a great white horse in Chapter 19.  The William Tell Overture is appropriate there.   Chapter 21 presents Christ as a groom coming for his bride.

Immediately after offering words of reassurance to John and identifying himself, Christ says, “I hold the keys to death and to Hades.”  This statement means that the resurrected Christ has the power and the authority over life and death.  If an emperor persecutes us and threatens to put us to death at any moment because we are a Christian, it is reassuring to know that our life is not at the mercy of that emperor.  That lesson is important for us.  Our lives are not at the mercy of any person other than Christ Jesus.  If we ever act as if some person or some thing has that power over us, we are guilty of nothing short of idolatry.  Christ alone holds that power.

Verse 20 actually serves as a bridge between this vision and the letter we will consider next week.  It moves us into an understanding by explaining two symbols, which are not new to the revelation of John.  John calls Jesus the Son of Man when he mentions Christ standing among lampstands.  The name Son of Man comes from the book of Ezekiel.  It is a term describing the Messiah.  It was Jesus’ preferred expression about himself.  He called himself Son of Man more than any other of the Messianic titles.

The reference to the “seven golden lampstands” also comes from the Old Testament.  The lampstands were part of the accouterments of the tabernacle the people of Israel built in the wilderness at Kadesh-Barnea, part of that tent that could be moved.  They, too, were a part of Solomon’s temple.  Jesus himself said that the churches were to be the light of the world in Matthew 5:14.

The risen Christ equates the seven golden lampstands with the seven churches.  Here among the churches stands the Son of Man, neither aloof nor detached.  He is there with them, offering reassurance during their difficulties.  He had earlier promised, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”  Jesus is no absentee landlord.  Ladies and gentlemen, he is right there with those churches, and he is right here in this church.  If we pay attention we will see him, not with our eyes, but through the eyes of faith.  “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”  Yes.  The Lord is here in Morningside.

Many rulers of the land had coins minted with their likeness.  The placement of seven stars on the coins was their way of saying, “I am in charge of the entire empire.  I have world domination.”

John sees Christ holding seven stars in his hand.  Christ Jesus, not the Caesars, has world domination.  These stars, which John witnesses in the vision are angels assigned to the churches as guardians.  I wonder if Morningside has a guardian angel.  Probably.  It might be some of you.  Another prayer in the Book of Common Prayers says, “Guide us waking; guard us sleeping.”  Christ is the one responsible for assigning angels, which serve to guide and guard the churches.

In this passage John could not have it any clearer that he wants to focus our attention on Christ.  Christ is the central figure in this chapter.  Christ is the central figure in this entire Book.  Christ is the central figure in all of history, and Christ must be the central figure in our lives, in our decisions, in our homes.  A plaque on the wall in our house that my mother gave to us says, “Christ is the head of this house.  He is the silent listener to every conversation.  He is the invisible guest at every meal.”

Likewise, Christ must be the central figure in the church.

John takes up the charge, writing what he was told to write and focusing his attention on the central figure in his life, the One who is to be central in the lives of the churches to whom he is writing.

One day when we get to heaven we will see this Jesus with our own eyes.  His appearance may not replicate the picture John sees here in these verses of Christ shrouded in mysterious symbols.

One contemporary artist sketched this image, drawing an elderly circus performer, a sword-swallower, wearing Nike athletic shoes with the swoosh on the side.  Why?  The Greek word for victor is Nike.  The Greek word for the one who triumphs is Nike.  The artist at least got that right.

I have a feeling that when I see Jesus, he will be wearing sandals.  It does not matter what footwear Christ is sporting.  Regardless of his attire, I know that he is the Victor.

I have some idea about how Jesus Christ would look based on an experience I had years ago at Ridgecrest when I was nineteen years old.  To this day I do not know if I was awake or asleep, but I had an overwhelming vision of Christ.

He stood at my bed and asked the question, “Kirk, are you willing to do what I want you to do?”

I answered, “Yes, Lord.”

Then he was gone.  The entire experience lasted about fifteen seconds.  I have never again had such a vision though at times I wish I could.  The vision itself, indelibly fixed in my mind, comes to my memory so often, as it did this week when I read John’s vision.  When I see Christ again, he might look a bit like he looked to me that night, with eyes that were piercing yet so gentle and with a face that was rugged yet so warm and inviting.  His appearance did not make me fearful in the least.  Rather, I had an overwhelming sense of peace, which I believe I will experience the next time I see Christ.

Years ago during the time of Charles Dickens, a young lad was kidnapped in England and sold into servitude.  Unable to find him, his mother gave him up for dead.  The young boy was pressed into service as a chimney sweep, climbing down the chimneys of London and brushing away the debris.

One day on the rooftops of London, the boy mistakenly went down the wrong chimney, popping out of a fireplace into the parlor of his own mother.  Though the boy was covered with dirty ashes and grimy soot, the mother recognized her lost child immediately.  Do you think she asked, “Why don’t you get cleaned up”?  No.  She opened her arms and embraced her son, showering him with kisses and tears.

In our text today, John offers the persecuted church a vision of the risen Christ.  It is not a fearful vision; it is a vision of great reassurance.  Christ has come right there in the midst of the churches with stars in his hands to show that he has dominion over everything.  He has come as the great high priest, as the King of Kings.  He has come to offer us great reassurance by saying, “Come to me.  Come just as you are.”  John seems to echo Paul’s sentiment that says, “It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Come to Christ as you are – dirty, grimy, your life pockmarked by sin.  This Christ, who has all the power and all the knowledge, this Christ, who can look deeply into our souls, simply says, “Come to me.”  Remember that he embraced the leper before ever healing the man.  Christ will clean us up, but he wants to embrace us just as we are.

Have you come to Christ?  If not, we extend that invitation to you.  Some of you have another decision to make, maybe one I do not know.  We invite you to make a decision.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2013

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