15 May 2022
The First & The Last
Passage Revelation 1
Speaker Chris Haley
I can still remember the first Bible study I ever went to on the book of Revelation: “Revelation made simple” they said, “come and understand it better” they said. I was 19, I left that study after two hours with a mind filled with words that I couldn’t pronounce let alone spell! I felt more bamboozled than ever! Bamboozled is too small a term, I was perplexed! I left that that study not only thinking that I could never understand it, but that no-one could understand it! One of the things they had said to ‘encourage us’ was that even the great John Calvin never wrote a commentary on it, because he claimed not to understand it! I mean how is that encouragement to try and understand it?!
So our goal and title with this series is this: Revelation made slightly less complicated! My goal is not to fill your heads and notepaper with big words, but with a big vision of God! After all this is a Revelation v1 of Jesus Christ- it’s both from Him and about Him! I will try to keep complicated words and ideas to a minimum, or if I use them I’ll explain them. I will also try to spend more time preaching Revelation than preaching about Revelation. And the stuff about Revelation I’ll spread out through the series so it’s not too overwhelming all at once. We’re also going to have a Revelation breakfast in a few weeks’ time so that you can ask any big questions about the series so far- more details to follow.
There are four basic schools/approaches/ways of reading. There are literally hundreds of variations and combinations of these four. Most of what you read, hear or watch comes under these four:
- You can make it all about the past- some think it was all done and dusted by 70 AD when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
- You can make it all about the future- nearly everything in Revelation is about a period in history still to come
- You can make it about the whole of history between Christ’s first and second coming- Either in order- looking for specific people and events in history, or in principle- these are timeless truths that apply to every age.
And the more I’ve looked this week the mor I’ve seen there’s something to commend each one. Even in the early church three of those ideas existed and there was a spirit of mutual acceptance between the different groups- something we should seek to copy. The late comer was the whole of history in order, but that’s because at that point there hadn’t been a lot of history since Christ! And that particular view has an excellent pedigree: Jan Huss, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Zwingli, Luther, Knox, Wesley, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, some think Calvin though, as we said, he never wrote a commentary on Revelation. That list has got to make you sit up and think- even if you disagree!
All views have something to commend them as we’ll see as we go through, because it’s true Revelation does contain prophecy about the future, but it’s also true that Revelation it is steeped in imagery of the first century- it has a context. It’s also true that we can see the outworkings of what this book speaks about in history- history that has been and history still to come. I do favour one position- as will become clear as we go through- but we need to bear all these things in mind as we go through- there is a reason good Bible believing Christians disagree on this.
But as I said before I don’t just want to preach about Revelation. All Scripture is God breathed and useful for us, so let’s dig in to chapter 1 and see Revelation in action, how it works and what it has to show us today.
A Revelation of Jesus Christ v1, 5-7, 12-16
The book is described as a Revelation of Jesus Christ. The phrase is ambiguous. It is Jesus’ message that we’re getting here, but like the rest of the Bible this is not just from Jesus, but about Jesus. And it’s Jesus who takes centre stage in this first chapter, look at verses 12-16.
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash round his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (Revelation 1:12-16 ESV)
If your anything like me you know this passage pretty much word for word from that old song: At your feet we fall… But we need to pause and think: Is John saying this is what Jesus looks like now? Is he giving us a physical description of Jesus? Why would he do that now, when he didn’t do that in John’s Gospel? No, instead he’s giving us a sort of mashup of images from the OT.
It’s mostly a mixture of Daniel’s vision of a man in Daniel 10 and Daniel’s vision of God in Daniel 7. He’s sort of a Son of Man who’s at the same time is Ancient of Days. Whatever else we take from this it’s clear John wants us to see, a sort of God-man here. Here is John showing us what he shows us in John’s Gospel- Jesus is God the one and only who is at the Father’s side, but he’s showing it to us as though he’s Ezekiel, as though he’s Daniel. It’s just something else we see in the rest of the NT, but written as though it’s Zechariah. Ezekiel didn’t write a Gospel, but if he did it would be Revelation. And that should be a clue, a key to understanding this.
It’s written like an OT prophet, but it’s telling us NT truths. That’s the broad picture, but what about the specifics? What else is this vision telling us about Jesus? Well we’re going to do what we would do anywhere else in the Bible when something’s tricky: Understand Scripture with Scripture. That’s all we’re going to do now- see what the rest of the Bible has to say about each part of this mash up. This takes some work- but it’s nothing we can’t do at home with a Bible and a concordance, or nowadays, A bible app and a keyboard.
First we see he’s described as “like a son of man.” This picks up on Daniel 7, and all basically all the Gospels. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man again and again, but in doing so he’s reminding us of Daniel 7. Daniel 7 has a human being who comes through the clouds up to heaven and receives “ 14 …dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14 ESV) He is an everlasting King that all nations will bow down and worship, yet is a human being. No wonder it was Jesus’ favourite way of describing Himself! Yet ambiguous enough not to get him into trouble for a while!
We’re told this son of man is… “clothed with a long robe with a golden sash around his chest.” This is not from Daniel 7, but from Daniel 10. This is what Daniel sees the man there wearing, but why is he wearing it? Well this man is dressed in the garb of a high priest. The word for the long robe is exclusively used in the Greek OT for a priest, and the sash or belt of gold was worn by the High Priest in Leviticus 8. This is almost certainly a vision of a high priest in His heavenly temple. That’s also backed up by the seven lampstands which is almost certainly a reference to the menorah lamp that was in the temple. Jesus here is pictured as a priest, tending to his lamps in the temple. Which we’re told in symbolise the seven churches He is writing to. Helpfully Revelation tells us at points what things symbolise- as we’ll see, but Christ is our great high priest who cares for the churches
“The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow.” This is imagery from Daniel 7 again, but as we said not of the Son of Man, but of the Ancient of Days, whom the Son of man approaches. This Son of Man is divine, yes, it means that, but picking up on the hair- it’s is a sign of wisdom and age especially in Proverbs. The wool and snow though point though to Isaiah 1:18 “…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18 ESV) There’s the notion of purity, absolute holiness.
Then we’re back to the vision of the man in Daniel 10, “…his eyes were like a flame of fire.” Like laser vision, burning eyes, seeing all. “…his feet were like burnished bronze.” Really shiny solid metal feet! Some have commented that in Daniel this is in contrast the statue of the kingdoms of the world which had feet of clay. Here is one who will stand! And they have been tested- refined in a furnace. This person will not fall- this person is firmly established.
“…His voice was like the roar of many waters.” Could be Daniel 10 again, which has the sound of a multitude or it could be Ezekiel 43:2 where the glory of God is described as having the sound many waters. That could work as after all Hebrews 1 tell us that He is the radiance of the Father’s Glory: Someone powerful, overwhelmingly glorious when he speaks. “In his right hand he held seven stars.” This image isn’t used elsewhere in scripture this way, but John tells us in v20 that these are the angels or messengers to the church- helpfully Revelation does that from time to time- after all it’s not out there to confuse us- John wants us to understand this. Here we see that Jesus holds these messengers safe in His hand.
“From his mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword.” In Isaiah 11 the stump of Jesse has a rod coming out of his mouth to rule- itself a reference back to Psalm 2 where the promised anointed one, the son of God, will rule the nations with a rod of iron. Similarly the mouth of the servant in Isa 49, the one in whom God will be glorified has a mouth like a sword. Christ will rule by the word of His mouth! Lastly we’re told “His face was like the sun shining in full strength.” In Isaiah 60 as well as at the end of Revelation the Lord Himself is said to be our source of light, like the sun. There could also be hints back to Jesus’ transfiguration when we shone before his disciples. Again the idea of glory is in mind.
Do you see now what John is doing? He’s not told us anything we don’t know already from the New Testament, but he’s telling is to us in a wonderful and vivid way. Weaving together imagery from the Old Testament. Nothing we’ve looked at so far has required anything but a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, or in most of our cases a Bible that has cross-references in it! This is what John is going to do throughout- combining pictures and language from the Old Testament to show us New Testament truth.
And this was an accepted and established style of writing at the time. There are other ‘apocalypses’ that appear before and after John’s. Just as others wrote gospels and letters to churches. It doesn’t mean all of them are Scripture. This is just a genre that is out of fashion. We have genres now like ‘crime’ and ‘fantasy’ and ‘chick lit’ that all follow certain conventions, well here is a gospel in the form of an ‘apocalypse.’
He tells us these things in plain language too v5
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5b ESV)
Jesus loves us, he paid the price to rescue us, to redeem us by his blood. There are echoes back to Exodus there with the Passover Lamb. The blood of the lamb that sets his people free. The one who is coming v7 whom every eye will see, and then alluding to Zechariah, he talks of those who have pierced Him and will wail. If you want to understand Zechariah better, wait a couple of weeks until Steve preaches it! But here we see all those things were actually pointing towards Jesus.
And that’s our second point: this is a revelation of Jesus Christ…
…from the Triune God v4-5, 8
“4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” (Revelation 1:4-5a ESV)
It has been said that Revelation has the most clear trinitarian theology of any book. In other words Revelation shows us the Trinity more clearly than any other book. Which given its position at the end of the Bible, you’d sort of expect! As well as being an apocalypse, turns out it’s also a letter- a letter that starts with a salutation off grace and peace from one who was and is, and is to come. Now that could be a description of Jesus, but he’s dealt with separately in v5. In context here it’s talking about God the Father.
God the Father
That phrase is repeated in v8 along with the titles Lord God, the almighty, and the Alpha and Omega. Who is and was and is to come. I AM, I WAS, I WILL BE, if we put the phrase in His mouth! It’s a wordplay on God’s name from Exodus, I AM, YAHWEH, the Lord, which is what he calls Him, Lord God. ‘Lord’ there would God’s name too as that’s what Greek speakers replaced it with in the Old Testament. This is the LORD. The Almighty, the Greek version of El Shaddai, the Mighty One, the Powerful One. He is the Alpha and Omega, the A and the Z, the beginning and the end. At the beginning there was God, at the end there will be God. He is all in all. Wonderfully, and amazingly, right at the end of Revelation you will find these words on the lips of Jesus describing Himself!
12 “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:12-13 ESV)
He calls himself ‘the first and the last’ in v17 as we’ve already seen. Although this is God the Father here, it’s not as though God the Father is God and Jesus is somehow secondary. No, He is true God, He is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. All these things apply to Him too!
The Holy Spirit
The second one listed in the salutation is The Holy Spirit. Here He is described as the Seven Spirits who are before the throne. In some translations it’s translated the sevenfold spirit, but it’s the literally ‘the seven’. The same sentence construction as the seven churches earlier in the verse. This is where we begin to see that if we take sevens in Revelation too literally we could end up in trouble. There are not seven Holy Spirits, otherwise it would be the 'Nonity', rather than the Trinity! Seven in Revelation usually has to do with perfection or completeness or holiness So, for example Genesis 2:
3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:3 ESV)
The seventh one is holy, it means the week is complete, creation is complete, so translating the apocalyptic language, as we did with Jesus before, the vision is showing us this is the perfect Spirit- the complete Spirit- the Holy Spirit. New Testament truths, Old Testament language
God The Son
Finally we see the Son, Jesus Christ. We’re told three things about Him. He’s the faithful witness. Literally ‘faithful martyr’, but that word will take on the meaning we understand later. He’s the firstborn from the dead- He is the firstfruits of those risen and Lord of them. He’s ruler of the Kings of the Earth: Christ… rules… now. He is not just future ruler of the kings of the Earth. As John writes this He IS the ruler of the Kings of the Earth. He is the one driving the action. And this is the one who is giving this to John, but the whole of the Trinity is involved here. John is ‘in the Spirit’ as he’s writing this. It’s the message the Father wants us to hear. This is the Father’s plan and it is the Son who’s speaking to John. All of them are involved. It’s from the Triune God.
And last point is that it’s…
to the Church v2-3, 9-11, 17-20
“9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:9-11 ESV)
We’ll look at this more next week, but the letter had original recipients, seven churches in modern day Turkey. ‘Asia’ was at that point the name for that area within the Roman Empire. Here’s a map so you can see. Patmos there is an island in the Aegean Sea where John was exiled and where he’s writing from. Now there were more than seven churches in the area, Colossae for example or Troas. This was not all the churches there were, but here we’re given seven- a literal number here, but not a random number. We’ll deal in more depth with it next week, but for now let’s say the significance of these churches goes beyond the then and there. For now, let’s see that there are things we share with them
Sharing their Status
We share their status in v6. We too are a kingdom, and priests. Some translations have kings and priests, but it’s more likely kingdom, given that John says he’s their partner in the kingdom in v9. It’s also an Old Testament echo again. We should expect this, although there are no direct quotations from the Old Testament it’s estimated in 404 verses there are 400 OT allusions! This one is to Exodus
5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5-6 ESV)
God was telling the Israelites they would be His, and now He extends this to the whole church. He does the same in 1 Peter where the words are echoed too. His Kingdom, with Him on the throne. His Kingdom, but a kingdom of priests- mediating his presence on the Earth, serving God and offering spiritual sacrifices to Him. That goes for us too- we are a Kingdom of priests; bringing our lives as living sacrifices to God; living our lives before His throne, bowing the knee to Him. We share that status with them
Sharing their Troubles
We also share in each other’s troubles. John says he is their partner, a co-owner of something, a sharer in something with them. He says he is their partner ‘in the tribulation’. Some translations have just ‘partner in tribulation’, but it does have the ‘the’ there. That means it’s the same phrase used throughout the rest of the book. Again, to be continued as we go through the series! But at the very least we can say that John is having a tough time, exiled to the Island of Patmos for testifying to Jesus. It wasn’t uncommon for the Romans to send ‘troublemakers’ to random islands to spare them the trouble of having to secure permission to execute someone or if the offense just wasn’t big enough. John is finding it tough, and apparently these churches are too. We’ll see next week they’ve been having a hard time too, some of them have been killed, some of them have been shunned by their families, but John is saying I’m your partner in this. He knows the patient endurance they must have in those circumstances- he’s going through it too.
And this, in a big way, is why God has sent John this vision- to encourage a church where people are finding it hard. This vision was given to sustain Christians through tough times. Some of the churches as we’ll see, weren’t finding it all that hard, but they needed to hear this message too. Easy times don’t continue forever- challenges change, but they don’t go away completely, and John is with them through this- he is their partner. But he doesn’t just consider himself their partner, he considers himself their brother. He’s their brother in these things. He’s not just writing to partners, he’s writing to family; to brothers and sisters. Amazing how this keeps coming up eh! We are family, along with John, a family that shares in one another’s troubles
Sharing their blessings
Finally we can share their blessing v3.
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3 ESV)
He wants his readers to be blessed by what he writes. Reading it aloud was a service to the church when many couldn’t read for themselves; those ones are blessed, but also the ones who hear it and keep it. We can be blessed along with the original hearers and readers. We can hear this and keep it, we can take it to heart.
And it’s urgent. Why? Because the time is near! John say’s he’s in the Spirit ‘on the Lord’s day.’ Now that could mean Sunday, the early church started to use the term for it, but in the rest of the Bible it’s not there, the closest we get is ‘The Day of the Lord’- the last day, the end! It’s not that exact phrase, but it could carry that idea, certainly given the context! If he’s in the Spirit on the Day of the Lord, adds a bit more urgency to it- the time is at hand! The last days are here!
So we need to read and heed! And if we read and heed, John says, we’ll be blessed. What does Jesus want them to hear v17-18.
“17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18 ESV)
“Fear not!” Funny how that keeps turning up! Fear not- John’s so scared he drops down as though dead! “Fear not,” says Jesus. And again not without reason. “I am the first and the last,” says Jesus, “I am the living one!” The one who holds you safe in his hand is the one who has been through those trials and risen victorious! “I have been through great tribulation and now I have the keys of Death and Hades, so don’t fear!” says Jesus, “even if it comes to death- I hold the keys to death!” He is going to encourage the churches that even though it is tough- in the midst of all that they need to cling to Jesus, the risen one, the victorious one, the one who has overcome, and that is what we need to do too. We’ll see more over the coming weeks.
So whilst Revelation is difficult to understand, hopefully it’s beginning to feel slightly less difficult now? It’s a revelation of Jesus Christ, from the Triune God, to the church. Let’s pray that God will help us read it and heed it and be blessed as we see the Lord Jesus Christ afresh, as this vision presents Him to us.