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Lesson 1: Look Who's Talking

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Revelation 1:1-20

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy aloud, and blessed are those who hear and obey the things written in it, because the time is near!

4 From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen. 7 (Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen.) 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God – the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come – the All-Powerful! 9 I, John, your brother and the one who shares with you in the persecution, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony about Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 saying: “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches – to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” 12 I turned to see whose voice was speaking to me, and when I did so, I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands was one like a son of man. He was dressed in a robe extending down to his feet and he wore a wide golden belt around his chest. 14 His head and hair were as white as wool, even as white as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. 15 His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth. His face shone like the sun shining at full strength. 17 When I saw him I fell down at his feet as though I were dead, but he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, 18 and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive – forever and ever – and I hold the keys of death and of Hades! 19 Therefore write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:1-20).1

Introduction

This message reminds me of my first visit to India. I arrived in Bombay (that is what they called Mumbai in those days) a couple of weeks before my letter indicating my travel information, particularly my flight schedule. A few hours and a couple of phone calls later, I was talking to someone who knew where I was supposed to meet my contact in Bombay (then a city of 8 million). She told me that I should go to the YMCA, where my contact was staying. That sounded easy enough, but her last words to me were troubling:

“Make sure the cab driver doesn’t take advantage of you.”

I was soon to learn exactly what that meant. I could not conceal the obvious fact that I was an American tourist, unskilled in dealing with the likes of cab drivers, and this driver knew it after his first glance at me. He did indeed get me to the YMCA, but only after driving through every back alley and taking every side road known to man. I’m guessing that the trip was three times longer than it needed to be, a reality to which the meter on his dash testified. (Honestly, I was so glad to get to my destination, I didn’t mind paying more than I should have.)

Now you may wonder what driving around the back streets of Bombay has to do with this message. Well, let me set your mind at ease by informing you that I will get to our text from the first chapter of Revelation. But like my experience in Bombay, it will take us a while to get there. That is because I am going to try to accomplish several things in this message, making it a bit out of the ordinary (if there is such a thing with my sermons).

Next Sunday we will have a special Christmas program, and I will not be preaching, so this is my only opportunity to address Christmas until after the holiday has passed. My primary reason for preaching from Revelation 1 is that this is the first of a short series entitled, “Our Lord’s Letter to the Seven Churches of Asia.” While the letters to each of the seven churches of Asia are found in Revelation 2 and 3, the introduction (to chapters 2 and 3, and indeed the entire Book of Revelation) is recorded in chapter 1 – our text for today. My intention is to summarize the way the four Gospels of the New Testament comment on the coming of the Lord Jesus, and then compare this to the description of our Lord in the first chapter of Revelation. In so doing, my hope is that we will not only gain the proper perspective of our text(s) in Revelation, but also on our celebration of Christmas.

Observations

Let me begin by making a couple of observations regarding the way in which the Gospels deal with the birth of the Lord Jesus in Bethlehem. The first is that only two of the four Gospels actually contain a birth account. Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of our Lord, while Mark and John have no birth account. Second, I want you to notice that even Matthew and Luke have little to say about the actual birth of our Lord:

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, 25 but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus (Matthew 1:24-25).

6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:6-7).

This raises a question in my mind: “Why doesn’t the actual birth of the Lord Jesus receive more attention in the Gospels?” I’d like to attempt to answer this question by considering how each of the Gospels deals with the coming of our Lord, and then consider Revelation 1 in the light of our conclusions. So let’s begin by looking first at the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The Coming of Christ in Matthew and Luke

One of the greatest issues in the New Testament is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. This is especially true in terms of salvation, sanctification, and fellowship. Jews were strongly opposed to taking the Gospel message to Gentiles, as we can see from this text in Acts:

20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:20-22)

The Judaisers’ solution was simple: Gentiles must convert to Judaism. They insisted that Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (see Acts 15:1ff.). The issue then expanded to the area of sanctification (see Galatians 3:1-5; Romans 6-8). Keeping the Law was the means by which one was sanctified.2 One aspect of the controversy concerned the observance of the Old Testament Jewish food laws, which would effectively prohibit fellowship between Jews and Gentiles, not to mention mutual participation in the Lord’s Supper. This became a major issue in the church, as we can see from Acts and Galatians.3

I believe that both Matthew and Luke were written to help resolve some of the tension between Jewish and Gentile believers.4 Matthew is written by a Jew and thus seems to be addressed primarily to Jewish readers. Luke, on the other hand, is written by a Gentile and is targeted primarily toward a Gentile audience. But here is where the surprise comes. The “Jewish” Gospel of Matthew contains a great deal of Gentile content. Likewise, the “Gentile” Gospel of Luke has a great deal of “Jewish” material. Matthew reveals that while the gospel came through Jews, and initially to Jews, it also came through some Gentiles and was intended for Gentiles as well as Jews. Luke informs Gentile readers that Christianity has a rich Jewish background and heritage, which should neither be ignored nor despised.

Let’s look first at the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew opens with a genealogy that begins with Abraham and ends with Joseph. This comes as no surprise because Jews placed a great deal of emphasis on their biological relationship with Abraham (see John 8:33). However it is not enough to be one of Abraham’s physical descendants; one must become Abraham’s offspring by sharing his faith (see Romans 4). How shocking John the Baptist’s words must have been to these “biological Jews:”

9 “And don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am – I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:9-12).5

Matthew’s genealogy is also informative because it contains the names of three Gentile women (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth), all of whom were in the lineage of the Lord Jesus. Gentiles are somehow a part of the “seed of Abraham.” In a short time, it would be evident that the true “seed6 of Abraham” that would bring God’s promised blessings to the world was Jesus. Abraham’s true children (plural) are those who are men and women of faith, whether Jew or Gentile:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant [seed]. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants [seeds],” referring to many, but “and to your descendant [seed],” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:16).

9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (Romans 4:9-16).

Matthew’s account of Jerusalem’s response to the arrival of the Magi, with their startling news that the “King of Israel” has been born, reveals the low spiritual state of Jerusalem and the Jews at the time of our Lord’s birth:

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3, emphasis mine).

Think of it. The Promised Messiah has been born in Bethlehem, just as the prophet Micah had foretold. Bethlehem was within easy walking distance from Jerusalem (5-7 miles), and yet no one who heard the report of the Magi (so far as we are told) went to Bethlehem in search of the Christ child. Worse yet, Matthew’s words do not indicate mere apathy on the part of the residents of Jerusalem; his words inform us that “all Jerusalem” was troubled by the report of the Magi. They were uneasy about the coming of Christ. In my opinion, this was because they feared that His appearance would be detrimental to their own interests, and in a certain sense, they were absolutely right (see John 11:47-48).

In Matthew’s Gospel, things will not get better for Judaism as the book unfolds. In Matthew 4:12-16, the Gospel writer reports that Jesus began His public ministry in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” and this in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 9:1-2).

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) was our Lord’s frontal attack of the scribes and Pharisees and of their version of Judaism. It begins with our Lord pronouncing blessings on those whom the scribes and Pharisees rejected as unworthy of the kingdom (Matthew 5:3-16). He then shocked everyone with these words:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

The Pharisees were considered “first in line” for the Kingdom of Heaven, the gatekeepers of the kingdom. They expected to have 50-yard-line seats in the kingdom, and yet Jesus had the audacity (in their minds) to declare that their version of Judaism would not even get them admission into heaven. Beginning in Matthew 5:21, our Lord sets out to correct the false teaching of the scribes and Pharisees regarding the interpretation and application of the Old Testament Law. Then, in chapter 6, Jesus warns against the public display of piety in order to win the praise of men, focusing on acts of charity, prayer, and fasting. It is no wonder that the scribes and Pharisees were threatened by Jesus and His teaching. And to make matters worse (for the Pharisees), Jesus backed up what He taught with miracle after miracle, so that the people acknowledged that His teaching was vastly superior to that of the Pharisees:

28 When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, 29 because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law (Matthew 7:28-29).

In Matthew’s Gospel, Gentiles were not only part of Messiah’s genealogy, they were also those whose faith surpassed that of the Jews:

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion7 came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:5-13).

Perhaps the ultimate “Gentile” moments come in Matthew 15. It is here that Jesus declares all foods clean.8 It is also in chapter 15 that Jesus grants the request of the persistent Canaanite woman, whose faith Jesus commended for being great (Matthew 15:21-28). If these were Old Testament days, this Canaanite woman would have been put to death, but here her faith is commended and her petition is granted. Gentile faith once again trumps Jewish self-righteousness.9

Time does not permit me to deal with Luke’s Gospel with the same degree of depth, but I can safely say that this Gentile-focused Gospel has a very strong “Jewish” flavor. Just as Jewish believers needed to understand that the gospel (promised in the Abrahamic Covenant) includes Gentiles, Gentile believers needed to see that their salvation has Jewish roots. Luke 1 is primarily about the birth of John the Baptist, while chapter 2 focuses on the coming of Jesus Christ. Luke intertwines these two events because they are so closely related, in prophecy and in fulfillment.

John’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, both have impressive Jewish roots.10 Zacharias and his wife are of the tribe of Levi, and thus Zacharias is fulfilling his priestly duties when the angel Gabriel appears to him, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, who will introduce Jesus as the Messiah. The shepherds who come to worship the baby Jesus are also Jewish (although they certainly are not at the top of the socio-economic ladder of Judaism). Luke records two of our Lord’s visits to Jerusalem (both with His parents) while He is a child. The first visit is for His circumcision, where He is welcomed and worshipped by both Simeon and Anna, elderly and godly Jews who have long awaited the coming of Messiah. The second visit occurs when Jesus is 12 years old. Here, Jesus amazes not only the Old Testament scholars, but also His parents. When Jesus makes His appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth, He reads from the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2 and declares that this prophecy has been fulfilled by His appearance (Luke 4:16-30). Notice the intensity of the Jewish response to our Lord’s reference to Gentile salvation (of the Gentile widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian), as recorded in the Old Testament:

22 All were speaking well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 23 Jesus said to them, “No doubt you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ and say, ‘What we have heard that you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown too.’” 24 And he added, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three and a half years, and there was a great famine over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4:22-30).

We should not only note how Luke begins his Gospel (with his account of the births of John and Jesus), but also how he ends it. The saving work of our Lord is described as the fulfillment and culmination of what God had foretold in the Old Testament:

27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures. . . . 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:27, 44-48).

We have seen that Matthew and Luke both begin with the story of our Lord’s birth. Matthew speaks to Jews, but in a way that reminds (or informs) them that Gentiles have always been a part of God’s eternal plan of salvation. Luke writes to Gentiles, but he emphasizes the Jewish roots of Christianity. But what of the other two Gospels – Mark and John – which do not include the “Christmas story”? What do they have to offer regarding the coming of Christ? Let’s pursue this matter a little further.

The Coming of the Christ in Mark and John

When we come to Mark’s Gospel, it is readily apparent that he chooses to pass over a number of events, including the birth of our Lord. We should also note that even when Mark’s account of a particular event is brief, it may include information that is not included in the more lengthy accounts of the other Gospel writers. For example, note the original information we find in Mark’s account of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs (Mark 1:12-13).

Here we see that our Lord’s temptation included much more than just that which Matthew and Luke have recorded in greater detail; we find that Jesus was continually tempted over that 40-day period. In addition, we are told that our Lord’s testing not only involved fasting, but also spending days and especially nights in the presence (or proximity) of wild animals (which would likely include such creatures as wolves and coyotes – or their Middle Eastern counterparts – as well as scorpions and vipers).

I am especially fascinated by Mark’s choice of words at the commencement of his Gospel:

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:1-3, emphasis by underscoring mine).

Matthew and Luke present the beginning of their Gospels as the birth of the Lord Jesus. Mark, on the other hand, presents the beginning of his Gospel as the Old Testament prophecies11 concerning the coming of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Messiah. Mark passes over much material that is dealt with in greater detail by Matthew and Luke, but in his account, opposition to Jesus begins in chapter 2, and by chapter 3 (verse 6), the Pharisees and Herodians will conspire to kill Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, the beginning” really is the beginning – of creation:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created (John 1:1-3).

John’s Gospel is not like Matthew’s, for Matthew presents the coming of Jesus in a way that makes the reader gradually aware of who He is. Thus, we find Peter’s “Great Confession” in Matthew 16 and our Lord’s transfiguration in chapter 17.

John lets us know who Jesus is in the first chapter of his Gospel. He deals with the coming of our Lord in theological terms. Jesus is God, the Creator (John 1:1-3), the One who is both the light and the life (1:4-5). He is the true light who was rejected by the world, but nevertheless the only One through whom men may become the children of God (1:9-13). In verses 14-18 of chapter 1, John presents Jesus as God incarnate, God come in human flesh: His undiminished deity took on uncorrupted humanity for all eternity. And in verses 19 and following, Jesus is presented as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36).

And so we learn that while only two Gospels include the Christmas story of our Lord’s birth, all of the Gospels start at the author’s choice of a beginning place. Matthew and Luke make the beginning the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Mark starts with the Old Testament prophets, and John starts with creation.

My Concern Regarding Christmas

I have no objection to the celebration of the birth of our Lord at Christmas. It is one of my favorite holidays. What does concern me is that the idea of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” does not quite do justice to the person of our Lord at His incarnation. “Baby Jesus, lying in a manger” is not how we should think of our Lord now. In the Gospels, it is not long before it becomes very clear that Jesus is not a helpless victim, whose destiny is subject to the whims of mortal men. The words of the Christmas carol remind us that Jesus was truly “Lord at His birth.” Likewise, a careful reading of the Gospels informs us that Jesus was also Lord at His death. He was the One in control of all things so that His death would take place precisely how and when it had been prophesied, in spite of the fact that the Jews were determined not to put Him to death during the feast of Passover.12

Throughout the Gospels, there are numerous indications of our Lord’s true identity, and thus of His deity and sovereignty. Our Lord’s appearance at the temple as an infant, and later as a 12-year-old child, revealed that He was no mere mortal.13 The Father’s testimony at our Lord’s baptism was yet further proof of His true identity.14 So, too, was the voice from heaven in John 12:28-33. The miracles Jesus performed in His public ministry,15 and the circumstances surrounding His crucifixion,16 resurrection,17 and ascension,18 were all proof that someone greater than John the Baptist (or Jacob or Abraham)19 had appeared. This is further confirmed by Stephen’s vision at the time of his death,20 and Paul’s vision at the time of his conversion.21 Our Lord’s cleansing of the temple22 was not done by “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

What I am trying to say has been said far better in Scripture than I can articulate on my own:

4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:4-11, emphasis mine).

It is those final three verses of the text above to which I wish to call your attention. When we worship Jesus today, it is not the “babe in the manger” that we worship; it is the risen, glorified, exalted Lord that we worship and serve:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son 20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross – through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20).

Jesus in the Book of Revelation

When we approach Revelation 1 with Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 in mind, we are not surprised at all by John’s depiction of our Lord as the great and mighty Savior that He is. The Jesus on whose breast John once leaned23 is now the Jesus before whom John falls, as though he were a dead man.24

A Few Observations

As we now approach Revelation 1, let me make a few observations about this text.

1. Revelation 1 (and, indeed, the rest of the Book of Revelation) is Christ-centered. This is “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (verse 1). The Father speaks in verse 8, but it is the Son who has center stage. It is He who speaks to the seven churches. It is He who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals in chapter 5. It is He who will come triumphantly for His bride in chapter 19. That is why He is central from the beginning of this book.

2. The Book of Revelation is church-centered. The entire Book of Revelation is written to the seven churches of Asia. We find the seven churches in view at the end of the book just as they are at the beginning:

From John, to the seven churches that are in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from “he who is,” and who was, and who is still to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne (Revelation 1:4).

“To the angel of the church in . . . write . . .” (Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14).

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

“. . . and then all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts. I will repay each one of you what your deeds deserve” (Revelation 2:23).

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star!” (Revelation 22:16)

Given my background and theological training, I would have expected the closing book of the Bible – a book of prophecy – to focus almost entirely on the nation Israel and on the Jews, but this is not really the case. The English term “church” (singular or plural) occurs 20 times in Revelation, while “Israel” is found 3 times25 and “Jew/Jews” occurs 2 times.26 In no way do I wish to diminish the role of Israel in prophecy. I only intend to point out the important role the church plays in prophecy, and particularly in Revelation.

3. The Lord’s return and the conclusion to God’s plans and purposes for human history are viewed as near at hand in Revelation. In Daniel’s prophecy, the prophecies are to be sealed up, because the end is far away:

“But you, Daniel, close up these words and seal the book until the time of the end. Many will dash about, and knowledge will increase” (Daniel 12:4).

He said, “Go, Daniel. For these matters are closed and sealed until the time of the end (Daniel 12:9).

But you should go your way until the end. You will rest and then at the end of the days you will arise to receive what you have been allotted” (Daniel 12:13).

But in the Book of Revelation, the time of the end is near, and thus the seals are removed:

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy aloud, and blessed are those who hear and obey the things written in it, because the time is near! (Revelation 1:1-3)

(“Look! I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy expressed in this book.”) (Revelation 22:7)

(“Look! I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to pay each one according to what he has done!” (Revelation 22:12)

The one who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon!” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

4. There is a very strong emphasis at the beginning and the end of the Book to listen carefully to what is being said, and to heed it.

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy aloud, and blessed are those who hear and obey the things written in it, because the time is near! (Revelation 1:3)

“The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

What is written in this book comes from God and is not to be modified, either by addition or subtraction:

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1-2).

18 I testify to the one who hears the words of the prophecy contained in this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19 And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).

The vision John sees of our risen and glorified Lord in Revelation 1:12-20 is surely intended to get our attention and to cause us to listen to what this Awesome One has to say to us.

5. The description of the glorified Christ in chapter 1 is not to be thought of as a photograph of our Lord. You will notice the frequently used word “like” in verses 13-15. His hair was white “like wool”; His eyes were “like a flame of fire” (verse 14). The most graphic imagery is employed to describe the majesty, power, and glory of the risen Lord, but even it falls short of the reality, which is beyond words to describe. The Lord Jesus will again be described in chapter 5 as standing “as if slain,” with seven horns and seven eyes. I read these words of description as highly symbolic, rather than as a starkly literal picture. The description is meant to have a powerful impact on the reader, but I don’t personally think that it can fully encompass the magnitude of His majesty.

6. The description of our Lord in chapter 1 reminds us of several texts in the Old Testament. The statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 has a few similarities to the description of the risen Lord in Revelation 1, but this statue seems to be the backdrop against which the person of our Lord is contrasted.

31 “You, O king, were watching as a great statue – one of impressive size and extraordinary brightness – was standing before you. Its appearance caused alarm. 32 As for that statue, its head was of fine gold, its chest and arms were of silver, its belly and thighs were of bronze. 33 Its legs were of iron; its feet were partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 You were watching as a stone was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its iron and clay feet, breaking them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold were broken in pieces without distinction and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors that the wind carries away. Not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a large mountain that filled the entire earth” (Daniel 2:31-35).

So far as I can tell, the statue is precisely that – a statue. It is not a living being. No wonder Nebuchadnezzar will order that a golden image be made and worshipped in chapter 3. Nebuchadnezzar’s vision was of a statue made of metals of different and diminishing quality: gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. In Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, our Lord is depicted as a stone which strikes the image at its feet and brings it down, thereby defeating and destroying great kingdoms.

In the revelation of our Lord in Revelation 1, our Lord is a living being, very much alive and very active. His feet are said to be “like burnished bronze,” heat treated and strong. Unlike the statue of Daniel 2, our Lord has no weakness in His feet, and nothing will bring Him down. He is the One who will rule as “King of kings” and “Lord of lords.”27

When we come to Daniel 7 and 10, we see a description of our Lord which more closely matches the description we find in Revelation 1:

13 I was watching in the night visions,
“And with the clouds of the sky
one like a son of man was approaching.
He went up to the Ancient of Days
and was escorted before him.

14 To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty.
All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him.
His authority is eternal and will not pass away.
His kingdom will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).

5 I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen; around his waist was a belt made of gold from [Uphaz]. 6 His body resembled yellow jasper, and his face had an appearance like lightning. His eyes were like blazing torches; his arms and feet had the gleam of polished bronze. His voice thundered forth like the sound of a large crowd. 7 Only I, Daniel, saw the vision; the men who were with me did not see it. On the contrary, they were overcome with fright and ran away to hide. 8 I alone was left to see this great vision. My strength drained from me, and my vigor disappeared; I was without energy. 9 I listened to his voice, and as I did so I fell into a trance-like sleep with my face to the ground (Daniel 10:5-9).

In addition to these similarities in the Book of Daniel, there is a direct reference to Zechariah 12:10 in verse 7 of our text in Revelation:

(Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen.) (Revelation 1:7)

This provides us with an important key to the interpretation of the entire Book of Revelation. The reader is expected to interpret and understand the Book of Revelation in the light of Old Testament prophecies. The past is the key to the future. (Old Testament) Scripture enables us to understand current scriptural revelation. Put differently, the prophecies we find in Revelation speak of the fulfillment of things that were prophesied in Old Testament times. New Testament prophecy is the reiteration, clarification, or amplification of Old Testament prophecy.

7. The exhortations of Revelation, as well as the prophecies concerning His Second Coming are based upon what He has already accomplished at His first coming:

5 And from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen. 7 (Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen.) (Revelation 1:5-7)

9 They were singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

Conclusion

There are many details in Revelation 1 that could be discussed and would be of interest, but we have chosen to focus our attention on the seven churches addressed in chapters 2 and 3. Let us conclude this lesson by considering several applications of our text.

First, let us approach these words of our Lord to the seven churches of Asia as words that are directed at us as well. One of the Bibles in front of me is a “Red Letter Bible.” Frankly, I’ve never been very enthusiastic about such Bibles because every word of Scripture is from our Lord. But when I turn to chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, I see red writing. These are the words of our Lord to His church. What is spoken to one church has application to all the churches, including the church today. Let us therefore approach these chapters in the light of the introduction in chapter 1:

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen very soon. He made it clear by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who then testified to everything that he saw concerning the word of God and the testimony about Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy aloud, and blessed are those who hear and obey the things written in it, because the time is near! (Revelation 1:1-3, emphasis mine)

When we go all the way back to the Book of Deuteronomy, we find words which look forward to the coming of Christ and to His revelation of future events such as we find in Revelation:

18 “I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command. 19 I will personally hold responsible anyone who then pays no attention to the words that prophet speaks in my name. 20 But if any prophet presumes to speak anything in my name that I have not authorized him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die” (Deuteronomy 18:18-20).

Jesus is that “prophet” promised so long ago by Moses. As he indicates, we had better listen well to what He has to say. But he goes on to warn about self-appointed “prophets” who will speak false words. The “revelations” of such a false prophet are to be rejected.

Second, since these words in Revelation come from our Lord, we dare not distort them in any way, by adding to them or taking from them:

18 I testify to the one who hears the words of the prophecy contained in this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19 And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).

Third, let us take note of the fact that the time of our Lord’s return is portrayed as imminent. The prophecies of this book “must happen very soon” (verse 1). The Christian must always be ready and expectant with regard to our Lord’s return. To look upon our Lord’s return as distant is dangerous:

35 “Get dressed for service and keep your lamps burning; 36 be like people waiting for their master to come back from the wedding celebration, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom their master finds alert when he returns! I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them! 38 Even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night and finds them alert, blessed are those slaves! 39 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35-40; see also verses 42-48; Matthew 24:44; 25:10; 2 Peter 3:1-10).

And so the Book of Revelation concludes with the saints eagerly awaiting our Lord’s return; indeed, they are hastening Him on:

The one who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon!” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20).

Fourth, the Book of Revelation presents us with a God who is in control of His creation and of human history. The sovereignty of God assures us that what God has promised He will fulfill because nothing can thwart His plans and purposes. Revelation not only reveals things to come, it reveals a sovereign Lord who is able to bring these things to pass. It is our absolute confidence in His sovereignty that sustains us in those times of persecution and apparent chaos. That is a lesson that Job learned, albeit the hard way:

1 Then Job answered the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:1-2).

He does whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all the ocean depths (Psalm 135:6).

“Who announces the end from the beginning
and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred,
who says, ‘My plan will be realized,
I will accomplish what I desire’” (Isaiah 46:10).

“All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35).

5 and from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen (Revelation 1:5-6).

11 Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called “Faithful” and “True,” and with justice he judges and goes to war. 12 His eyes are like a fiery flame and there are many diadem crowns on his head. He has a name written that no one knows except himself. 13 He is dressed in clothing dipped in blood, and he is called the Word of God. 14 The armies that are in heaven, dressed in white, clean, fine linen, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth extends a sharp sword, so that with it he can strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod, and he stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God, the All-Powerful. 16 He has a name written on his clothing and on his thigh: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:11-16).

Fifth, the Book of Revelation is (so far as the canon of Scripture is concerned) God’s final word of invitation to unbelievers to forsake all efforts at earning God’s favor and to embrace Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary as the means to the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of spending eternity in His presence:

16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star!” 17 And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say: “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge (Revelation 22:16-17).

The Good News of the Gospel is not only that God will bring His kingdom to earth, but that He is the One who brings men into this kingdom. The bad news is that sinners cannot enter into God’s heaven. The Good News is that the way into heaven is through the cleansing of sin that comes through Jesus:

12 “(Look! I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to pay each one according to what he has done! 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end!) 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can have access to the tree of life and can enter into the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral, and the murderers, and the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood!” (Revelation 22:12-15)

This cleansing from sin that is required for entrance into heaven is a cleansing that Jesus accomplished on the cross of Calvary for all who receive it:

5 and from Jesus Christ – the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, the ruler over the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood 6 and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen (Revelation 1:5-6).

9 They were singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

The Book of Revelation ends with a word of warning and a word of invitation. Those who cling to their sins will not enter God’s kingdom. Those who cling to the person and work of Jesus Christ and His saving work at Calvary will be saved and live forever in His presence. The death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary was not for His sins, but for yours. He bore your punishment on the cross, and He offers you His righteousness if you trust in the work He has done on your behalf. I urge you to trust in His saving work so that your sins might be forgiven, and so that you can enjoy the benefits of being on the winning side of human history.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the three-part series, Our Lord’s Letter to the Seven Churches of Asia, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 12, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:

www.netbible.org.

2 See Galatians 3:3.

3 See Acts 10-11; Galatians 2:11-21; also Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 8-10.

4 I do not mean to say that this was the only purpose for these Gospels, or even the primary purpose of these authors.

5 This matter is also taken up in Romans 1-4, and again in chapters 9 and 10.

6 “Seed” is singular here, as Paul specifies in Galatians 3:16.

7 Yet another centurion, stationed at the foot of the cross, will declare, “Truly this one was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54).

8 Matthew 15:10-20; see Mark 7:14-23, especially verse 19.

9 See the powerful way Paul deals with this subject matter in Romans 9:30—10:13.

10 Luke 1:5.

11 The prophecies cited here by Mark are Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.

12 See my sermon on John chapter 18 on bible.org:

http://bible.org/seriespage/jesus-lord-thy-death-john-181-11

13 See Luke 2:22-52.

14 See Matthew 3:13-17.

15 See Luke 4:32-37; 5:8.

16 See Matthew 27:54.

17 See Matthew 27:50-54; 28:1-7.

18 See Ephesians 1:18-19; 4:7-8; Romans 8:11.

19 See John 4:12f.; 5:36; 8:53f.; see also Matthew 12:6, 41, 42.

20 See Acts 7:54-56.

21 See Acts 9:1-9.

22 See Matthew 21:12-15.

23 See John 13:23. While not named, it is generally assumed that this one is John.

24 Revelation 1:17.

25 Revelation 2:14; 7:4; 21:12.

26 Revelation 2:9; 3:9.

27 See Revelation 17:14; 19:16.