Text: Rev 6:1-11
OT Text: Zech 6:1-8
Featured Verse: Rev 6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Main Idea: The four horsemen show God's sovereign guidance over human history. In particular, the forces of oppression, war, famine and plague - while in themselves evil - are still constrained by God's power and used for God's purposes.
Today we meet four of the most iconic figures in the book of Revelation. The four horsemen are sent to the four corners of the earth to shake the nations and bring preliminary judgment on the earth. Perhaps as much as any figures in the book, they have captivated the imagination of people and have filled pop-culture with endless references, including 4 great running backs on the Notre Dame football team in the 1920's, a modern horror movie "Knock at the Cabin", and songs by punk rockers The Clash, and metal band Metallica.
For our purposes, the horseman provide one of the first really significant interpretative challenges...
Who are the horsemen?
The horsemen represent evil powers that are used by God to bring a first measure of judgment on the earth. They represent oppression, war, famine and plague/death. This is confusing because they respond to the authority of Jesus opening the scroll so some people think that they must be godly figures. But the final horseman is associated with death and hades, which are later in Revelation called enemies of God which are thrown into the lake of fire. (20:14) We understand that God can use all things for his purposes and so we can affirm that these four forces are negative things God uses them to shake the nations and establish a measure of punishment on rebellious humanity. In the OT God used wicked Baylon to chastise his people, though he later brought judgment on the Babylonians for their wicked actions. (See Hab 1-2)
When do they ride?
Because of the apocalyptic nature of this event, it is tempting to see the breaking of the first four seals and the release of the four horseman as something that still remains in the future. But a careful look at the context of the book shows otherwise. First, the breaking of the seals on the scroll is conditioned on the death and resurrection of Christ. ("Worthy are you... to open its seals for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed people for God." 5:9) So, the context of the book shows that the seals begin to be opened after the risen Lord Jesus is seated in power in heaven. In fact, the presence of oppression, war, famine and plague are said by Jesus to be characteristic of the entire period of the church - which lasts until his return at the final judgment. (See Matt 24:6-8) Also, notice that the scope of these judgments are limited to one fourth. They are partial judgments of God which happen throughout the church age. The fifth seal shows us that while these horsemen are riding, the martyrs of God are asking for the final judgment and a complete salvation. They ask, "how long before you will judge?" (6:10.) The answer is "until the number of their fellow [martyrs] is complete." (6:11.) We will see tomorrow, that the sixth seal looks forward to a period of time at the end of church history when God will finally bring a complete judgment. But that does not happen until God has completed his work of redemption. In summary, the work of the four horsemen covers the entirety of church history from the resurrection of Jesus until his return.
I recognize that this may represent a significant departure from how some people have approached the book in the past. We will continue to unpack this approach throughout the coming chapters. For now, try to hang with us and consider how this approach illuminates the message of Revelation and allows it to be applied to people from every age of the church.
Why is this good news?
In the introduction John offered "grace and peace" to his churches. It may seem hard to connect the vision of the four horsemen (and indeed with many of the judgments that follow) with "grace and peace." Understanding the OT background of this imagery can help us to see why the work of the horseman could be beneficial. The OT prophet Zechariah shared two images of spiritual horseman riding across the earth as bookends of an eight-vision cycle given to the post-exilic community. In the first of the two visions, the horseman reports that the earth is "at rest." That may seem like a positive, but for the post-exile Jewish community it was not good news because they were in a position of weakness experiencing oppression from the surrounding people. No one wants their situation to be at rest if a 600-pound gorilla is sitting on top of them. If you are underneath a resting gorilla, disruption is a good thing. Toward that end it is a relief to the people of God to learn from a second vision of four chariots that the shaking of the heavens will extend to the far corners of the earth. This OT prophecy matches exactly the situation described in the fifth seal. The spirits of those believers who had suffered on earth, at the hands of the enemies of God, are crying out for justice. They will not be satisfied until God shakes things up. They long for the return of Christ and the final judgment to remove oppression and suffering. Until then, they cry "how long?" We see the work of the horseman bring preliminary and limited judgments (one fourth), so we know that God is active even now - shaking the kingdoms of this world, bringing down dictators and provoking complacent people into repentance. But only the completion of God's redemptive purposes for the "full number" of his people will allow the curtain to close on history and the final judgment to come.
Until then, we know that even the seemingly chaotic forces which shake our present world (oppression, war, famine, plague) are constrained and limited by God.
We also know that God has a purpose in the midst of human suffering. We know that the shaking of the earth is used to bring the eternal and unshakeable kingdom of God. (Heb 12:26-29)
Finally, we look forward to a day in which justice is perfectly established by God. Until then, we know that God is working out his plan of redemption even as his people share in the suffering of Christ.
Text: Rev 5:8-14
OT Text: Psalm 148
Featured Verse: Rev 5:13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Main Idea: As we continue to witness the expansive worship of God in the heavenly realm. It is expansive because it extends to people from every background and is joined by praise from all of creation.
This section overlaps slightly with the sermon text for Sunday Feb 26. In that passage we saw that Jesus is the Lord of history and because of his victorious death/resurrection he is able to open the scroll of God's divine plan which unfolds through the shaking of the nations (see Heb 12:28-29.) Today we will focus more closely on the "new song" which erupts in response to the gospel.
Analysis and Application
After Jesus - the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the Lamb who was slain - is found worthy to open the scroll of redemptive history, praise and worship explode in heaven (5:8.) John tells us that they "sang a new song." (5:9) This song connects the opening of the scroll with the redeeming work of Christ. They sing, "you are worthy to take the scroll...for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God." The authority that Jesus has as the risen Lord flows from his faithful execution of the divine plan of salvation.
The scope of the song continues to roll outward in its magnitude. The ransomed people of God are from "every tribe and language and people and nation." (5:9b) This does not mean that every person will be saved. Unfortunately, many will persist in their rebellion. But it means that God will draw and awaken people from every group on earth. Every type of person will be saved. This is the vision that propels world missions. We send missionaries and call our members to go across oceans and language barriers and cultural divides because God is bringing people of every ethnic group on earth into his kingdom. Our identity as a church is not based on any one nation or people group. The church transcends those barriers as it incorporates a world-wide population into the kingdom.
But John's vision does not end there. The resounding praise is not merely from the heavenly realm, but it is from earth as well. The entirety of creation "in earth and on earth and under the earth" calls out praise to God. It is interesting to think of animals worshipping God. Clearly, they do not do this as humans do. I suspect that when animals live into their calling as creatures, they glorify God. Of course, they are not made in the image of God and we can't apply any human faculties to them. But it is nice to think that God delights in his creation and receives their praise with gladness. I am writing this on an unseasonably warm February day. The birds are singing and whole earth seems set to emerge from its frozen slumber. It may not be as nice when you are reading this, but there are still opportunities for us to see how the beauty of creation points to the glory of the creator. Make some time to get outside.
Today we will read the daily passage (Rev 5:1-10) during the Sunday Worship Service. If you are not able to attend in person, then you can watch the service on our Youtube channel.
Text: Rev 4
OT Text: Isaiah 6:1-7 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Featured Verse: Rev 4:9-10 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
Main Idea: In heaven, God is worshipped.
This chapter is a huge turning point in the book of Revelation. John's attention is turned from earth, where the seven struggling churches are in various states of faithfulness as they face external oppression, false teachers, and spiritual lethargy. By contrast, in the heavenly realm, God is worshipped perfectly with unending splendor.
After two references to "doors" in the last sections, John again sees a "door standing open in heaven." (4:1) This phrase introduces a heavenly scene in which he is given a vision of heavenly worship. In the Bible, the heavenly realm is contrasted with the earthly realm. In the heavenly realm God receives perfect worship, but in the earthly realm humans resist his authority. Jesus taught his followers to pray for God's name to be recognized as holy "on earth as in heaven." This vision forms a bookend with the final two chapters of Revelation, where the New Jerusalem descends down from heaven and God dwells on earth with his redeemed people. In the end of Revelation, the Lord's prayer is fully answered.
In the meantime, John gives his struggling churches a picture of heavenly worship. Right now, City Reformed - like all of God's people throughout the world - is invited to enter into this chorus of heavenly worship when we meet together or worship on our own.
Conclusion and Application
Remembering this in context brings a striking message. The seven churches of Asia Minor face significant challenges. In addition to their own struggles with spiritual vitality and the allure of compromise through false teachers, the pressure from the outside world is ratcheting up. John has been exiled to Patmos "on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" and is a partner with these churches in "tribulation." (1:9) We also heard in the address to Philadelphia that "an hour of trial is coming on the whole earth." (3:10) Even the best of them have "little power" (3:8) and an outward appearance of "poverty" (2:9), so they is little that they can do to change the situation. We know from history that the first empire-wide persecution of the church broke out at the end of the first century. The warnings in this book would fit well if they were given to the church on the eve of that particular time of tribulation.
So... what does John offer to the churches in this position? - "Repentance and faith."
If we are honest, this is not the answer that we initially want. We may want strategies to effect change, tips for greater power, secrets to unlock untapped potential. Instead, John brings a prophetic word from Jesus in which the seven churches are corrected and encouraged. In other words, he calls them to greater and deeper repentance. Rather that speaking to them as victims of insurmountable opposition, John's Revelation calls them to examine themselves and respond with repentance and renewal. But he does not end there. John also invites them to join him on a tour of the throne room of heaven where God is worshipped in infinite splendor. And... as the revelation unfolds, John shows that our present calamities are being used by God to usher in the everlasting kingdom of God here on earth. As we face difficulties and opposition, this is what we really need. Repentance and faith. May this vision be the shaping perspectives on our lives.
Text: Rev. 3:7-22
Parallel Text: Col 4:2-4 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison-- that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
Featured Verse: Rev 3:20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Main Idea: We connect with God's power through humility. The lowly church in Philadelphia has "little power" but they are commended for their faithfulness. The proud church in Laodicea boasts of their self-sufficiency, but the door to their connection with Jesus is closed and their spiritual condition is "pitiable."
When it comes to addressing the churches, John has saved the worst for last. The next-to-last, Philadelphia (like Smyrna before it) is a church that appears to be largely faithful. Jesus has no prophetic word of correction for either of these congregations, though they are warned of coming difficulties. By contrast, the final church - Laodicea - has no positives to speak of. They are "lukewarm" in their faith, "neither hot, nor cold" (v.3:15-16) so Jesus warns that he will spit this unappealing water out from his mouth! That is a pretty stark picture of heavenly rejection. The irony is that the Laodicean Christians seem to be thinking pretty well of themselves. They don't recognize the truly wretched state of their spirituality. Instead, they believe that they are "rich, prosperous, and in need of nothing" (v.3:17) Jesus calls them to repent and receive freely the righteousness that comes by faith (v.18-19.)
The key principle in both of these sections is humility. The Philadelphia Christians seem to have "little power", at least from a human perspective (v.3:8), but in their dependence upon God they are connected to his almighty power. One day this will be demonstrated before the watching world as their current enemies are caused to recognize their royal connection to Jesus. (v.3:9) By contrast, the Laodiceans regard themselves as "rich and prosperous", but in their pride their lukewarm spiritual condition is "pitiable." (v.3:16-17)
Conclusion and Application
An interesting feature of the two passage is that both have symbolic references to doors. Jesus has placed before the faithful Philadelphia Church - "a door that no one is able to shut." (v.3:8) When we consider other ways that this idea is referenced in the NT (see Col 4:2-4) it would appear that an open door is a reference to the ability of the church to witness faithfully to Jesus. That is, this church has power to be a faithful witness, even though they appear to be weak from a human perspective. By contrast, the Laodecians have closed the door to Jesus. Jesus continues to pursue them, he "stands at the door and knocks" (v.3:20) summoning them to open themselves up to his saving power. Even after their spiritual deadness he continues to "knock" and hold out the potential that they could repent, return and renew their fellowship with their savior.
In what ways to do you experience "little power" like the Philadelphians? How do the promises of Jesus challenge your perspective on that and bring encouragement?
In what ways do you find yourself self-satisfied, content and spiritually lukewarm like the Laodecians? How can you open the door to trust him (humility and repentance) and experience greater fellowship with him? (You can begin by praying.)
Text: Rev 2:18-3:6
Creedal Reflection*: WCF 25.5 The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error, and some have so degenerated as to become not Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there will be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to his will.
Featured Verse: Rev 3:2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.
Main Idea: Jesus has a strong rebuke for these two churches. Both have a surface level appearance that all is well, but Jesus is the one who searches hearts and minds (2:23). He does not tolerate hypocrisy but challenges his churches to call them back to faithfulness.
As the saying goes, "looks can be deceiving." Both of the churches in Thyatira and Sardis have a mixed record. A person looking in from the outside would likely be convinced that all was well. After all, Thyatira had "love and faith and service and patient endurance (v.2:19.)" But Jesus had concern that they were tolerating a false teacher, who like the OT figure Jezebel who was actively leading people into sexual and religious transgression (v.2:21) In a similar way, Sardis had a "reputation of being alive" but Jesus proclaimed their spiritual health to be the opposite (v.3:1.) So he calls them to "wake up" (v.3:1), lest he be forced to come against them. Similar to yesterday and the two prior churches, Jesus is portrayed as actively disciplining his churches to return to them health and vitality.
Conclusion and Application
Part of what is being revealed here is the character of Jesus. He is portrayed as one who has "eyes like flames of fire" (v.2:18), whose vision penetrates "mind and heart" (v.2:23.) We cannot fool him with an outward religious appearance.
How does it change our perception of our spiritual life if we think of the sight of Jesus penetrating our thoughts and desires ("hearts and minds")? For me, it stirs me to repentance and to fresh pray for spiritual help in the daily struggles.
The other part of what we see in this section is the persistence and active ministry Jesus has to refine his church. While there could be a situation in which God's presence leaves a church as he left his OT temple (Ez 10), it is often a case that our churches - like the churches addressed in Revelation 2-3 are mixtures of good and bad. Truth and error are side by side.
This reality should guard us all against complacency. We cannot lean into our reputation before others while indulging spiritual apathy. On the other hand, this leads us to be more gracious with others. It is often easier to see the sin and error in another person or another church. It is easy for us to assume that once we see that error we can dismiss them and wash our hands. While there are examples of Churches that have departed from the faith, it is always the case that all of our congregations are "mixtures of truth and error" as we are taught in the Westminster Confession (WCF 25:5.) Jesus does not immediately write off the congregations of Thyatira and Sardis, but engages with them, calling them back to faithfulness and life-giving spirituality. As always, Jesus cares enough to say the hard thing. He cares enough to pursue spiritual good even when it means shouting "wake up" to the Christians in Sardis that have drifted into a deep spiritual slumber.
*There is a slight change from the typical arrangement here. Usually we have an OT reading or a parallel passage from another place in the NT. Today I substituted a creedal reading from the Westminster Confession of Faith since it seemed to be so relevant to the discussion.
Text: Revelation 2: 8-17
OT Text: I Peter 4:17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
Featured Verse: Rev 2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.
Main Idea: Jesus brings correction to wayward churches to restore them to faithfulness.
After a flurry of activity to get acquainted with the book, I hope to see the daily devotionals settle into a shorter and more approachable length. Today we will look at two more of the churches in Asia Minor. If you have not yet looked at the chart for the "Seven Churches of Revelation", you will find it below. It is a helpful tool to quickly see the patterns which are present across the addresses to each of the seven churches in the book.
Yesterday we saw that the addresses to the seven churches follow a pattern. This is easily visible in the chart attached above. One of the features of this pattern didn't make an impression on me until I was involved in this current study. I failed to make the connection between the opening vision of chapter 1 and the address to the churches in chapters 2-3. In particular, each of the addresses starts with a description of Jesus. But the description in each of the seven addresses is drawn from the opening vision of chapter 1. In other words, after showing a general picture of the ministry of Jesus - present in the midst of the lampstands, John highlights a particular aspect of the ministry of Jesus which is important to each church.
The church in Smyrna is regarding as being faithful, but they are going to face a coming trial (v.10, "for ten days you will face tribulation.") These people are facing persecution which could even result in death (v.10b), so it is important for them to be reminded that Jesus is the one "who died and came to life." The corresponding promise also applies to this. Jesus promises that for the ones who are "faithful unto death... I will give you the crown of life. (v.2:11.)"
By contrast, the church in Pergamum is not as faithful. There is a mixed record. Consequently, the picture of Jesus is one suited to correction. He is shown as having a "sharp two-edged sword" in his mouth (1:16,2:12.) This is a symbolic way of saying that Jesus will speak words which bring discipline and correction. Pergamum started well, but was being seduced into error. They had been steadfast in past persecution (v.2:13), but now are being led astray by false teaching, which is called "the teaching of Balaam."
This is a reference to the experience of Israel in the wilderness (Numbers 23-25.) The king of Moab had been frightened of the Israelites so he hired a prophet to curse Israel. This prophet, Balaam, was unable to attack Israel through this direct spiritual attack. God made it clear his intention was for spiritual blessing. So, Balaam taught the Moabite king to come at the problem in a different way. He counseled a path of sensual corruption rather than direct power encounter. He showed the king (Nu 31:16) how to lure the people into idolatry and its accompanying sexual practices (Nu 25.) What he could not accomplish through direct power encounter, was achieved through seductive temptation. In the OT account, God brought severe judgment on the people of Israel because they "yoked themselves" to a foreign God through their idolatry (Nu 25:5.) In a similar manner, Jesus threatens to war against the church in Pergamum if they do not repent (v.1:16.)
Conclusion and Application
From this we learn that God takes it seriously when we turn from him and "yoke ourselves" to a rival spiritual power. He does for our good - to bring us back to himself. He does this for the good of his church - to limit the damage to the rest of the church. He does this for his own glory - so that his character will not be misrepresented by his followers in their witness to the world. But this brings up an uncomfortable truth. Being part of the church means that we are subject to discipline from God. For all of the good reasons listed above, "judgment begins with the house of God." We learn from this that we have more to fear from temptation than from direct spiritual attack. It was not attacks of Satan or even the death of a disciple which are the great causes of concern. Rather, it is the alluring temptation to compromise - especially in ways that align with the surrounding culture and its sexual immorality.
We learn from this that there is a healthy fear that comes from belonging to Jesus. The same Jesus who stands in the midst of the lampstands for support, warns his church of the proximity of discipline. His presence brings both comfort and appropriate concern for faithfulness. At the end of the day the encouragement is for those who repent. They are promised the blessing of God ("hidden manna.") Surely this is far greater than anything offered by the sexually immoral idolatry which was creeping into their congregation.
In what ways are you being tempted to compromise?
How does it help to know Jesus brings correction, but also offers the comfort of being known and cared for (v.2:17.)
Text: Rev 2:1-7
Parallel Text: Hebrews 12:5-7
Featured Verse: Rev 2:3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first."
Main Idea: Like the other prophets before him, John brings a corrective word from God to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Nearly 20 centuries later, we are in need of the same thing.
Through John, 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 there are representative of other churches and this was a way to show the totality of Jesus interactions with the first century church. As we have already said, one of the important ways that we ground our interpretation of Revelation is to recognize that the letter is addressed to actual people and interacts with their specific situation.
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 5:18) to the church for their good and for their growth. We see a pattern that Jesus acknowledges something specific about how they are doing. [At the end, I have attached a chart that shows the way this pattern plays out through all seven churches.]
First, there is commendation (what they have done well.) Second, there is a critique (where they need to improve.) Then he gives a promise (“to the one who overcomes”) and in many cases he offers a warning, (“if have this against you”, so “if you don’t stop this will happen.”) As we move through the addresses to the seven churches, we want to keep the big picture in mind. Ask yourself:
What does Jesus get concerned about here?
What are his priorities?
How can I learn from these rebukes and be encouraged by these promises?
In his first address, to the church in Ephesus, John brings a commendation about their positive regard to doctrine. They have rejected false teachers. (2:2.) The critique is that their hearts don't seem to be in it anymore. They "abandoned the love they had at first." (2:4) I think that this word of warning is particularly relevant for conservative Presbyterians. People in our circle are inclined to spend a lot of time on doctrine, and give a lot of focus toward orthodox teaching - as we should. But Jesus told the Ephesian church that he was concerned about their affections.
Do you love Jesus as passionately as you have at the early phases of your Christian journey?
Do you love him as you should?
As he deserves?
Fortunately, we are not left to generate this affection out of the thin air. Love, itself, is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5) Renewed faith in Christ naturally stirs up our emotions. We are drawn to love Jesus as our vision of his beauty is refreshed. The entire book of Revelation will work toward that purpose. Emersion in God's word is a powerful tool toward regaining the "love we had at first."
In this particular case, Jesus calls the Ephesian church to remember and repent (v.5.) But he grounds this in the visionary promise. Jesus "holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands" (v.2.1.) He is with us, holding us close. Jesus also holds before the church the vision of future restoration which will form such an important part of the book as it reaches its conclusion. The promise for those who remain faithful and "conquer" is that they will "eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God" (2:7.) We will see how this promise is shown to be fulfilled in the New Heavens and the New Earth (22:2.)
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.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.
Text: Rev 1:4-20
OT Text: Daniel 7
Featured Verse: Rev 1:5b-6 To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Main Idea: The OT background of Rev 1 shows that Jesus fulfills prophecy by receiving a kingdom that will never end. The kingdom is established at his resurrection, runs throughout the church age and finds completion at his return.
Welcome to day #2 of our Revelation reading project. Today will be a more standard entry, compared to yesterday - a post full or introductory material. We will continue to look at chapter one and consider important background information which shapes our understanding of this important vision. In verses 12-20 John tells us about a vision in which he saw "seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man..." (v.12)
Please read Daniel 7 if you have not done so already.
Alright. If reading Revelation feels a little crazy, then reading Daniel 7 may convince you that other parts of the Bible are similarly difficult. We won't try to explain all of Daniel 7 today, but there are several really important things to take note of.
(1.) Notice how a similar style of prophecy is found in both places. The use of symbolic images to describe God's intervention in human events is remarkably similar between the two books.
- Remember the way Daniel describes the world kingdoms as "beasts with horns" which devour. (Dan 7:1-8) The language of "beasts" will be very important later in Revelation. Just remember, it didn't appear out of thin air.
- Notice the way in which Daniel describes the appearance of God - the ancient of days. God appears in humanlike form, though Daniel does not give specifics of his features. He has white hair, like "wool" and fire comes from him. (Dan 7:9-10) When John sees Jesus in this opening vision it bears a striking resemblance to the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. Jesus also has hair that is "like white wool, like snow and his eyes were like a flame of fire." It is as if John looks at Jesus and says, "here is divinity!"
- Notice also the similar refrain of God establishing an eternal kingdom (Rev 1:6 and Dan 7:14, 18,27.)
(2.) Notice also that in Daniel a second figure shows up. Viewed through a Trinitarian lens, we can see that God the Son and God the Father are able to interact. In Daniel's vision, "one like a son of man" shows up "with the clouds of heaven." (It would be strange for anyone other than a divine figure to appear "riding the clouds" given the way that terminology is used in Psalm 104:3 and Isaiah 19:1.) Think about how this vision forms a backdrop of Revelation 1.
- In Revelation 1:7, Jesus is described as riding on the clouds of heaven.
- Jesus is also described as "one like a son of man." (1:12) This was his favorite term for self-description in the gospels. (Though it was not a clear messianic term at the beginning of the first century, the connection with Daniel 7 and clear use of the term by Jesus solidified this connection.)
- Jesus has a "dominion that is everlasting" (Dan 7:14), also called "dominion forever and ever" (Rev 1:6.)
- Through his sacrificial ministry, Jesus brings believers into his kingdom (1:5-6) which fulfills Daniels vision where "the saints of the most high receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever and ever" (Dan 7:18.)
Conclusion and Application
I took time to draw out these comparisons, because it is important to underscore the connection between the imagery of Revelation and other parts of the Bible, particularly OT prophecy. Seeing the parallels helps us to understand how the symbols are being used and can make them feel less random.
Seeing these connections also underscore the interpretive meaning. Daniel 7 is a passage about world-wide conflict in which God's agent (the son of man) will receive authority and establish an everlasting kingdom which overcomes the oppressive power of the worldly (beastly) kingdoms. Let's connect that to the idea that was discussed in the first blog post. John shows us that the son of man is standing in the midst of the lampstands holding the stars in his hand. As we saw, that means that Jesus is present with his church, representatively* holding the Christians in his right hand. Combined with the background of Daniel 7 our reading of the vision is given added depth. We now see that Jesus is able to care for his church because he has received power and authority from the Ancient of Days. The very purpose of this power (dominion) is to establish his kingdom and uphold it forever. In the face of "beastly" opposition from world powers, we have confidence that Jesus can hold us fast.
* Jesus spoke of the stars as the "angels of the seven churches" (Rev 1:20.) It is not clear exactly what is meant by an "angel." Because the term means "messenger" it could be a human messenger (ie. a human leader) or a divine being that has special connection to a particular congregation. Either way, that figure has a representative relationship with the church as a whole, such that when we see Jesus holding the stars in his hands, we know that same care is extended to everyone in the church.
Text: Rev 1:1-20
OT Text: Zechariah 4:1-13
Featured Verse: Rev 1:12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.
Main Idea: Because we understand that Jesus is the son of man and that the lampstands represent the seven churches of Asia minor, we understand that John's vision is meant to show us that Jesus dwells in the midst of his church and that he is able to help us in our Christian journey.
Welcome to the CRPC 2023 Reading project. In the last two years we have done some very ambitious reading projects. In 2021 we read through a large part of the history sections of the Bible and talked about the "story of salvation in Scripture." Last year, for 90 days, we read through all 150 Psalms and talked about worship. This year, the number of readings will be less - only 50 days. Also, the amount of reading each day and the amount of devotional material will be reduced. The goal is to make the reading program more manageable and sustainable. However, as you will see the task before us is no less challenging and no less rewarding. We will be reading through the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. It is a book filled with strange and provocative images. It can be both intimidating and bewildering. It has produced in the church opposite reactions of morbid fascination or silent dismissal. What we shall see if that Revelation is a book designed for pastoral purposes. It is meant to stir faith and repentance in the church by revealing the spiritual realities of our present struggle and the power and presence of God in human history as it moves toward his final victory.
A word about the website
The homepage for our website has three "buttons" on it. The first goes to an 8-page intro to the book of Revelation. I recommend reading that before you start. It will give important theological background on the book. The second button links to daily readings. Each day a new blog post will pop up which will work through the section of Revelation assigned for that day. (If you are reading this now, you probably found out how to use that button and access the blog posts.) The final button links to a 50-day reading schedule. This shows you the big picture of what we are hoping to accomplish between now and Easter.
A word about the daily posts
The daily posts will be a little shorter this year. We will not have a full liturgy of prayers and songs. I encourage you to continue to incorporate our daily readings into a larger time of personal worship. You can use the weekly liturgy from Sunday (in the bulletin) as a guide for worship throughout the week. As with former years, you can engage with the reading in several levels of involvement.
- The fullest engagement is to read both the passage from Revelation and the accompanying passage listed at the top of the post. Today, the reading from Revelation is chapter 1, and the accompanying passage is from Zechariah chapter 4. Because Revelation has so many biblical allusions, we will best understand the meaning of this book when we see it in its biblical context.
- However, if you don't have time to read everything, you can simply read the passage from Revelation and the devotion which follows.
- Finally, we will also include a "featured verse" and a "main idea." If you are really pressed for time, you can simply read the featured verse and the main idea and get a sense of what we are talking about. This will provide a good summary of what we see in each passage and will be written with one eye toward the purpose of being a resource for families to use together.
A word about prophecy
The most important thing to understand is that Revelation is a book of prophecy. We are told that explicitly in verse 3, "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy." As such it has similarities to other book of prophecy in the Bible. But reading prophecy is not natural for us. There are several things that we need to consider as we seek to read this together.
(1.) Biblical prophecy is God speaking to his people. John understands that to be the case. In his very first sentence he titles this work "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants." When we read Revelation we expect to hear God speaking to his people.
(2.) Prophecy uses symbols to show spiritual truths. Revelation is a highly symbolic book. This can be confusing, because sometimes people associate reading the Bible symbolically as being unfaithful. Some people make it their goal to try to read the book as literally as possible. The only real question to ask is, how did John intend for this to be understood? The most faithful reading of anything is to follow the author's intention when receiving input. In this case, it is actually quite clear. Most biblical prophecy is highly symbolic. Furthermore, in the first passage, John shows us that his vision has symbolic value. He tells of a vision of the son of man in the midst of lampstands (Rev 1:12.) Then, he interprets the vision by showing us the symbolic value of the images that are shown. In verse 20 he tells us, "the seven lampstands are the seven churches." If you were to try to interpret this vision literally you would miss the whole point. It has nothing to do with a literal lampstand. The message of Rev 1 is that Jesus is standing in the midst of his church ready to support them in their hour of need.
(3.) Symbols are interpreted by context. (This is discussed more in the "Introduction" paper.) In short, the rest of the Bible provides biblical context and the situation of the seven churches provides historic context. These two contexts guide our interpretation so that we understand the meaning of the symbolic visions. This is (admittedly) not always an easy thing to know for certain, but grounding our interpretations in biblical and historic contexts is a helpful and necessary guide. In the case of Revelation chapter one, the visionary image of the son of man is drawn from Daniel 7 (more on that on Day #2), and the visionary image of the lampstand is drawn from Zechariah 4. Zechariah's use of the lampstand image would indicate that we are meant to understand it as representing the church in need of divine assistance. Which is exactly what John tells us it means in verse 20.
(4.) Prophecy relates to present and future events. One way theologians talk about his is to say that prophecy is both foretelling (future) and forthtelling (present.) The vision of Jesus among the lampstands is an example of forthtelling. It is not about some future event, but it shows a present reality in a visionary way. In a similar manner, the next two chapters involve prophetic addresses to the seven churches. In those addresses, we hear Jesus address each church directly, calling them to greater repentance and faith. By contrast, other parts of Revelation (especially the last couple of chapters) are clearly about future events. We see a powerful depiction of the return of Jesus and the restoration of all things. In between, the visions of Revelation combine some mixture of the two - which we will try to sort out as we move along.
(5.) Prophecy calls for action. The point of prophecy throughout the Bible is that God wants his people to respond with greater repentance and faith. This is what the OT prophets do. This is what Jesus did in his earthly ministry. It is precisely what the seven churches are called to do in chapters 2 and 3. But we can easily lose sight of this core principle. The dramatic images of Revelation can stir our fascination. But if we are not led to repentance and faith, then we are missing the point. Others are tempted to see in Revelation an exact template for understanding the events which accompany the end of the world. They try to match the visions to modern day events and develop a timeline for the return of Christ. Considering that Jesus himself said, "No one knows the hour or the day of my return", (Matt 24:36) this is clearly a mistake. More importantly, this fixation often distracts from the primary message of the book. Revelation was not given so that (so-called) experts of biblical prophecy could tell us the exact dates for the end of the world. (Again, this is a possibility that Jesus, himself, excluded.) Rather, it is written that we would be led to deeper repentance and faith. When he addresses the seven churches they are called to "repent" (v.2:3,18, 3:19), "not fear" (v.2:8), "hold fast" (v.2:25, 3:11), "wake up" (v.3:2), and "hear the voice [of Jesus]" opening our lives up to up. In fact, this first chapter ends with a call to action. "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
A word about the lampstands
Most blog entries will not be so long. In fact, most Sundays the blog entry will be replaced by a link to the sermon. But given that there is so much groundwork to cover, it seemed good to start with some more introductory comments. But Revelation chapter one also includes a very powerful visionary image. In addition to several comments about what the book is (prophecy) and how we should respond ("listen"), the opening image is powerful. On day #2 we will explore the background image of Jesus as the son of man. But I want to briefly consider the significance of Jesus standing among the lampstands.
The seven churches in Asia Minor were facing many difficulties. There was opposition from outsiders. It seems likely that this was written in the face of increased persecution from Rome. John himself was exiled on the island of Patmos because of this beginning "tribulation." (v.9). They were also facing increased danger from within as false teachers were beginning to corrupt the churches (see chaps 2-3.) And they were wrestling with their own sinful hearts as their "first love" for Christ was beginning to fade (v2:4.) Finally, in all of these things a massive spiritual battle was being waged in which Satan was seeking to destroy the church. Much of Revelation will serve to reveal the nature of that spiritual battle.
What was the church to do? Through repentance and faith they were called to hold fast to Jesus. As we shall see throughout the book, those who hold fast to Jesus in the face of all this opposition will be "overcomers."
And how do we overcome? We overcome by trusting that Jesus is able to care for us. That is why the opening vision is so important. In this vision we see "one like a son of man" (Jesus) standing amidst the lampstands (churches) with the stars (leaders of the churches) in his hands. Think about what this means. Jesus is with us. Jesus is holding his saints in his hands. When all the armies of Satan war against the church, and when we are wracked by spiritual division, persecuted by Ceasar, and when we face the dullness of our sinful hearts - Jesus is with us. We can trust him. We can trust that he has the ability to defeat our enemies and bring us into his heavenly kingdom. His final victory is certain and as he dwells in the midst of his people. He has the power and position to give them grace to help in times of need. Revelation brings hope in the midst of conflict.