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Sermon on Revelation 1:1-8, prepared by Joe Ellis, Jan. 10, 2020

From most people’s perspectives, this has been a year of apocalyptic proportions — defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary “as momentous and catastrophic.” This isn’t the precise biblical use of the term (more on that later), but by that definition this year has been apocalyptic. For me, as an American, this last week was terribly apocalyptic — as I looked while my nations capital was overtaken by the force of a mob. Yet, as one of my friends said, this was just the culmination of what has been building for years. We’ve experienced this year as apocalyptic in terms of racial tensions — Black Lives matter emerged from our nation to the south — closer to home tensions mounted between our Canadian Government and the Wet’suwet’en Nation over land rights and the Coastal Pipeline — a conflict which mobilized Aboriginal Communities throughout our country. Yet, astonishingly, the conflict was eclipsed by another disaster of apocalyptic proportions, COVID 19. This pandemic has wreaked havoc not only throughout our nation, but throughout the world — aside from the sickness itself, this pandemic has strained relationships, exposed differing worldviews and ideologies, and fostered fear of those who think differently. Within these massive apocalyptic events, many of us have experienced our own little apocalypses — little by the worlds standards, monumental by our own. Some of us have had significant changes to our health, our home, our community, many of us find ourselves lonely and alone, 1

some of us have journeys through the valley of the shadow of death. As Christians, many of us have felt marginalized and diminished in the eyes of our community and government. Yes, this past year has felt like an apocalyptic storm, and here we are, meeting as a church on zoom — fatigued and tired. From this place, we turn to the book of Revelation. We read the first verse: “the revelation from Jesus Christ.” The Greek Word for Revelation is Apocalypse. The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. We talked about the English definition of Apocalypse as meaning something “momentous and catastrophic”. The Greek definition of Apocalypse is something more hopeful — it means the unveiling of reality — Apocalypse is a Revelation. We need this sort of apocalypse here and now — we need a Revelation to remind us that despite what is happening in the world, despite momentous and catastrophic events of epic proportions — the Kingdom of God is not in trouble. Christ is on the throne. He loves us. He will not abandon us. He is worthy of our praise. He will make all things new. Those are the main Revelations we will find throughout this book. Sure, there are strange and earth shattering events described in, yet those are not the main point. The main point is that though the people of God may be overwhelmed, God is not. Throughout the Revelation, John describes suffering, difficulties and persecutions, yet the main point remains front and centre — the Kingdom of God is not in trouble. Christ is on the throne! This is why I am drawn to reflect on The Revelation this year. Now, The Revelation is one of the more controversial books of Scripture. There is a huge diversity of opinion as to how to interpret this book — what I’m 2

going to attempt is not a theological overview of different approaches to the Book of Revelation. Rather, we are going to exegetically walk through this book. What that means is we are going to try and hear The Revelation as the churches that John is writing to would have heard it. To get at this, we are going to need to draw on what we know of the socio-political context, what’s happened before in Roman history, the Greek language, other biblical texts, the apocalyptic prophetic genre. Fun stuff. There will be certainly aspects of this book that are beyond our grasp, but I think we’ll get pretty far. Let me start by sharing with you my basic line of interpretation — John is writing a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor. The churches have already experienced some persecution, after all John has been exiled by the Government to the island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus — the church in Pergamum has experienced one martyrdom, but the persecution is about to get worse. John is concerned that these churches simply are not ready for the increase in persecution. Its not just John who is concerned: Jesus is concerned. That’s why Jesus gave John this Revelation — it was to prepare these seven churches for hard times, to encourage them to not give up hope. That is the purpose of this letter. Let’s get acquainted with John. Early tradition identifies John as John of Zebedee — the same person as John the apostle. The same John who wrote the Gospel and the letters that bear his name — This is the John who is likely the beloved disciple that we read about in the Gospel of John as being so close to Jesus. And now, likely sixty years after Jesus was crucified, John encounters 3

His Lord once again. I believe the evidence suggests that John wrote this around 87ad — mostly because the tension between church and state which did not occur in Asia Minor until this time. Asia Minor is where the seven churches were located. If the year is 87, that means that John is likely in his mid to late 70s, an older man, continuing to pastor these seven churches, trying to help them persevere. I mentioned that one of the genres that John is writing in is Apocalyptic — this was a specific genre of literature and explains why Revelation is so weird. Its like other Apocalypses that you’ll find — as in the book of Enoch, the book of Daniel — in this genre nations are often depicted as beasts and different animals. Jesus also picks up on this genre in many of his parables. The apocalyptic genre pulls back the curtain to reveal the heavenly reality over and against the light of the current reality. Apocalyptic literature often was written by the underdogs — they bathed everything they were talking about with stark symbolism. Partly this was to illustrate something visceral about the nations on which they were speaking, but it was also partly to evade getting caught. A Roman official reading John’s letter likely wouldn’t make heads or tails of it. But those who have ears to hear — they heard what John was saying. Yet there are a few differences between John’s Apocalypse and other Jewish Apocalypses — the main one I want to point out is that in the other Apocalypses the message was always written for a later time. The writer was told to seal up the words and save them for a later generation. Yet this is not the case in John’s Revelation. At the end of the book, the Angel who’s been guiding John 4

throughout the book, says, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of the scroll, because the time is near.” The same thing is said in chapter 1 verse 3: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. The first verse of the book says the same: “The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” For me, this is an important interpretive key. As I mentioned, this is not only an Apocalypse, this is a letter. John is writing a letter to these seven churches about what is for them to soon take place. This means that when we interpret the strange, apocalyptic visions within the Revelation, we need to interpret them in light of the historical events of the 2nd Century — shortly after when John was writing this in 87 AD. So we will read in Chapter 13 about the beast coming out of the sea, and about the world being forced to worship the beast, we can read this against the historical facts of the Emperor Domitian demanding people to worship him as a god, and the consequences for those who refuse to comply. What I’m saying is that I’m taking fairly literally the fact that these things are soon to take place. Yet there is also a third genre of this book: It’s Prophecy. Throughout books of prophecy, the prophets always hold tension between what is about to happen in the near future, and what will happen in the ultimate future. John on the big picture, John frames the events soon to take place against the backdrop of Christ’s return, when heaven will come to Earth, when all wrongs will be put right, when all the people of God shall offer the Triune God praise, 5

honour and glory forever and ever. In this book of Prophecy, John is constantly trying to help his churches frame current events in light of the greater Biblical story. Additionally, prophecy is a word to the people of God on how they should live in their current reality in light of the Grand Biblical story. This is why John says, “Blessed are those reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” I’ll say it again: the churches were to hear these words of Prophecy, and take heart. John was encouraging them to hold fast to their faith and their witness to Jesus Christ. John is very concerned that they are not up for it. He sees the church on a collision course with the state. John has already been exiled because of his testimony about Jesus Christ. A member of the church in Pergamum was already put to death because of his faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Things will get worse before they get better — yet in spite of that, John encourages them not to give up hope, not to abandon their witness. Christ is on the throne. That constantly remains the focus of John. The glory, the splendour, the power, and the goodness of God. Listen to the way John opens his letter, as a greeting from the Triune God — Father, Holy Spirit and Son. John says: “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, from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ. First, John greets his churches in the name of the Father, riffing on the divine name revealed in Exodus 3. Moses asks — 6

who shall I say is with me — YHWH says, “I AM WHO I AM — also translated — I Will Be Who I Will Be. The great I am. John greets his churches in the name of the One Who Is, Who Was and Who Is to Come — the great I Am. The same God who revealed Himself to Moses, the same God who delivered the Israelites from slavery to Egypt — He is hear with you now, and He greets you with grace and peace. John then greets the church in the name of the Holy Spirit. Grace to you and peace to you from the seven Spirits before his throne. How is this the Holy Spirit? Are these not seven individual spirits? Most certainly not. The only One who could possibly stand between the Great I Am and Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit. So, why does John says “the seven spirits”? John is drawing from Zechariah 4 where the seven lamps are seen as one Spirit, and from the Greek version of Isaiah 11, Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah coming from the stump of Jesse. Isaiah says the Spirit of YHWH shall rest upon him — now count the attributes of the Spirit: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God. The seven attributes of the One Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and godliness, and the fear of God. That’s why some translations say — “the sevenfold Spirit.” This same Spirit who was with the Messiah with wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, godliness, and fear of the Lord — this same Spirit now intimately dwells with the people of God. Grace to you and peace from the Sevenfold Spirit before the throne. 7

Yet the greeting is not complete — Father, Spirit and now Son — Grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. In describing Christ, John pulls all these lines from Psalm 89 — Jesus is the faithful witness — a legal term, where Christ’s stood trial, and offered faithful witness unto death. The very thing the churches are called to do — offer faithful witness to Jesus unto death. Christ has already done. Yet the churches are not to worry — for Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. Do not worry if you witness leads to death — Christ is the firstborn of the dead. And if you are children of God, you shall soon follow. Yes, but what about these kings who are making our lives so difficult. What about these kings and emperors who are blaspheming the name of God? Do not worry — they shall meet justice. Christ is the ruler of all the kings of the earth. Given the present difficulty of the church in relation to the emperor, you can’t miss the comfort of the this last phrase — Christ is Ruler over all the kings of the earth. Despite whatever reality we are facing, Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. The very thought of this threefold God causes John to burst into praise — a doxology — a doxology not to the Father, but to the Son! To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever. This is the good news. Jesus loves us. Our God loves us. The King James and earlier translations say, “He loved us.” That’s not what the Greek says — He loves us, he cares for us, he will not let anything happen to us that cannot be 8

undone. We can’t skip over that too quickly — He loves us. With an active, ongoing, never giving up love. He has freed us from our sin by His love. He has made us to be a Kingdom and priests to serve our God and Father. Imagine that, John says to these churches, who are despised and spat upon, treated as objects of derision — yet they are a Kingdom and priests. These churches are to live into God’s calling for Israel — to be a light to the nations — with this, John rounds out his praise — to Him, to Jesus Christ, be glory and power for ever and ever. That’s why I think we need to camp out in the book of Revelation. We have a lot in common with the early church. So, let’s take encouragement in the same way John’s churches would have taken encouragement. Christ is coming — He will return. Despite our present difficulties — Christ is on the throne. The kingdom of God is not in trouble. He loves us. He freed us from our sins by His blood. He has made us to be a kingdom and priests. All things will be renewed and redeemed. That is the last and final Word. That is the message that we will hear again and again throughout the Revelation from Jesus Christ.


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