Well, we are starting into our final book in the 90-day series through church history. This final book will be the most unusual and the most difficult to understand. The book of Revelation is notoriously challenging, but it plays an essential role in understanding the flow of Biblical history. Part of what makes it hard to understand is that it covers history that has not yet happened. We get to see the arc of the Biblical story from God’s perspective because he reveals it to us. It is unlike any other history that we ever talk about – because it is history that has not yet happened. Only God can reveal it, because only God has the capacity to know future events. In the next post we will go into greater depth, but we want to begin by thinking about the original audience. We will ask, who was the book of Revelation written to and what was the original purpose? (While all of the Bible is for all of God’s people, each book or letter had an original audience. For the letter of Ephesians, it was the church in Ephesus. For I & II Chronicles it was the Jewish people after exile. For Titus it was… Titus as he ministered to the church. Keeping the original audience in mind, helps us to ground our interpretation.)
The book of Revelation describes a series of visions that John saw while on the Isle of Patmos. Traditionally, this was understood to be the Apostle John, who also wrote the Gospel of John and the letters of John I, II, & III. The letter doesn’t say this explicitly, but this was affirmed from the earliest periods of church history. The first vision is from Jesus Christ himself, who is (v.17) “the first and the last… the living one, [who] died and behold is alive forever more.” What we need to see about the vision is that Jesus is “in the midst of the lampstands” (v.13), which represent the church of Asia Minor. Jesus is standing in the middle of the church and he is working to build his kingdom even when the world opposes the gospel. Like the book of Acts, Revelation is a book about the continuing work of Jesus, in and through the church. (Again, the whole time frame thing, is going to get tricky, more on that tomorrow. But we need to build this insight as the foundation.)
Jesus brings an address for seven churches in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. These cities are all real places that existed in the first century and everything about the letter indicates that this is intended to be a prophetic word of correction and rebuke for each of these churches. The number seven is a biblical number of completion and is used figuratively throughout the book. It may be that John chose to list seven churches because they are representative of other churches and this was a way to show the totality of Jesus' interactions with the first century church. But, we can ground our interpretation in recognizing that the letter is addressed to actual people and interacts with their specific situation. From here, we will be given a scope of Biblical history that can apply to all of us, but it starts with a word that is personal and specific for particular people.
And what does Jesus say to the churches in Asia Minor? He brings encouragement and correction. This is not a surprise, because nearly every prophetic word in the Bible includes some combination of encouragement and correction. Jesus is speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15,19) to the church for their good and for their growth. We see a pattern for all seven churches in that Jesus acknowledges something specific about how they are doing. Then he gives a promise (“to the one who overcomes”) and in many cases he offers a warning, (“I have this against you”, and “if you don’t stop then there will be consequences.”) For the purpose of our study, we will have to draw back from looking at the details, but they are very interesting. When our reading program slows down, I would suggest going back and looking at each church – What does Jesus get concerned about here? What are his priorities? How can I learn from these rebukes and be encouraged by these promises?
Reflect: When we see that Jesus is offering a prophetic word of correction and encouragement to the people of God, we can understand that this book is fundamentally similar to the rest of the Bible. Just as the prophets came to bring encouragement and correction to the people of Israel, and just as the apostles wrote letters to encourage and correct the early church, John offers a prophetic word straight from Jesus to accomplish these purposes. The principle holds true for us. Every church needs to be reformed or it will go astray. We all need a cycle of renewal if we are going to stay spiritually vital.
Connect: The book of Hebrews shows that discipline and correction are an act of love from God toward his people.
Hebrews 12:5-7 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.
[Note: At this point, our survey of Biblical history will again pick up speed as we move quickly through the second half of the Book of Acts. Beginning in Acts 16, the rest of the book will focus on the missionary work of Paul. I have to admit that I regret skimming this entire section in one post, but I believe that many people are more familiar with these stories and we have (fairly recently) preached through the books of Acts as a congregation. At the least, I hope that this survey will not only help to give us a big picture of biblical history, but also stimulate interest to return and read some of these books more fully.]
After the early church settles the matter of Gentiles inclusion and the ceremonial law at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, the rest of the book focuses on Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Chapters 16-17 cover Paul’s second missionary journey (the first was before the Jerusalem council in Acts 13-14.) Chapters 18-20 will cover his third missionary journey. In chapter 21 Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and the remainder of the book follows his ministry while imprisoned. The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, but “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (Acts 28:31.)” What we can learn from these chapters is that Jesus is continuing to build his church as he empowers his followers to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth”. (Remember Acts 1:8.) As this happens, we see these two principle truths emerge. First, it is happening by the power of God. Second, Jesus is using people to do it.
Sometimes, the power of God shows up in such unexpected ways that we are reminded that this could never happen without him. In chapter 16 he calls Paul supernaturally to change direction, then a demon is cast out which causes opposition, then a church is planted after divine intervention in prison. At the close of the book, we pick up the story in chapter 28 after Paul is miraculously spared from a shipwreck and then he gains a hearing among the island people when God protects him from a snakebite. In all of these things, we can see God working through both blessing and suffering to build his church. The large pattern of the story is completely out of Paul’s control, but God is working none the less.
But, in the midst of it we see something else. Paul also makes plans and takes initiative. He develops strategies for his missionary journeys, he raises funds, and he sends reports to the churches. We should not think that Paul simply wakes up each day and “goes with the flow.” He has a plan and a strategy. When in doubt, he tries to go to places where the gospel is not yet known, and seems to target larger urban centers. He intentionally goes to synagogues and looks for Jewish people to reason with (17:2,10; 18:4,19.) He also goes to the Areopagus, where the Greek philosophers meet, and reasons with them (17:22.) In each case, he reasons with people in ways that they can understand. This is part of a clear missions strategy.
So, what do we make of this? We can clearly see that the mission that Jesus gives to his church is always accomplished in his power, but always through his people. We never see Jesus act without using a member of his church. On the other hand, we never see the church grow in fruitfulness without being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, the activity is through human initiative. That is, Paul makes plans and carries them out in the power of the Holy Spirit. Other times, it is completely a God thing. For example, we know that Paul wanted to go to Rome, but the way he reached Rome was as an imperial prisoner who appealed his case to Caesar. Furthermore, no one could have thought up the strategy of starting the Philippian church by getting arrested, then refusing to leave after an earthquake. Faithfulness in ministry means both human planning and dependence upon God’s power and leading. The gospel advances by any means necessary.
Reflect: What plans are you making in your personal life to minister to the people that God has put in your sphere of influence? Are you praying and seeking God’s power to accomplish this?
Connect: In his letter to the Philippian Church, Paul reminds them that they have a responsibility to act, but that they must rely on the power of God to do everything.
Phil. 2:13 “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
This blog is part of the ministry of City Reformed Presbyterian Church. Unless otherwise noted, the entries are written by Matt Koerber. This is part of a project that our church is doing as we read through the narrative sections of Scripture between early January and Easter 2020. New entries will be scheduled to drop automatically at 5:00 am on the scheduled day.