MESSAGES OF THE MAJESTIC SAVIOR (REVELATION 1:1-3:22)
Think before answering this question: If Jesus Christ Himself were to show up in your church unannounced, evaluate your worship, and carefully investigate the interpersonal relationships in your congregation, how would He react? Be honest, now. Would He sit down with your leadership, pat them on the back, and say how proud He was of them and encourage them to keep up the good work? Or would the Lord sit across from them, stare in their eyes, and shake His head in disappointment?
It’s a frightening prospect to be evaluated directly by the One who knows every dark secret, concealed fact, longstanding grudge, embarrassing mistake, and less-than-pure motive. Yet this is exactly what Christ did, according to the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. Much to the surprise of the apostle John, who didn’t expect to see the Lord again until his own death or the second coming, Christ appeared in majestic glory to deliver visions of the future and to dictate timely messages to seven specific churches. As would be expected if Jesus were to explore our personal lives or the lives of our churches, He gives varied diagnoses. From unimpeachable to despicable, from praiseworthy to pathetic, Christ would hold back neither encouragement nor rebuke. He called all the believers in the seven churches to examine their own lives and ministries to see if they measured up to His standards of faith, hope, and love.
The first major section of Revelation includes John’s own introduction to the book (1:1 – 8), followed by a startling vision of Jesus’ glorious majesty in which He instructed John to write everything he saw and heard (1:9 – 20). Jesus then addressed the leaders of seven hand-picked churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus (2:1 – 7), Smyrna (2:8 – 11), Pergamum (2:12 – 17), Thyatira (2:18 – 29), Sardis (3:1 – 6), Philadelphia (3:7 – 13), and Laodicea (3:14 – 22). Here we see Christ functioning as the exalted Head of the church, who is responsible for the church’s discipline and reward at His coming. As the veil is lifted between earth and heaven and we hear the messages of the majestic Savior, let’s allow His words to pierce the veil of our own hearts, fortifying our strengths and correcting our flaws.
The Messenger in His Majesty (Revelation 1:1 – 20)
1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood — 6 and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father — to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen.
8 ”I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
9 I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13 and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. 14 His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. 15 His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength. 17 When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. 19 ”Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things. 20 ”As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
From psychics to seers, from statisticians to scientists — people from every nation and every generation have been trying to discover what the future might hold for them. Occasionally these forecasters get it right and things turn out the way they predicted. Far more often, however, these secular or religious prophets miss the mark. In your own lifetime, just think about some of the false forecasts that have let people down:
• A political analyst calls an election... but the other candidate wins.
• An army general predicts a swift victory... then the war drags on for years.
• A Bible scholar dates the return of Christ... but Jesus doesn’t appear.
• A financial expert banks on a bull market... then Wall Street crashes.
Prophecies about the future are only as reliable as the wisdom, knowledge, and insight of their sources. When the source of information is limited to our human perspectives on the past and present, the most intelligent “expert” can offer only an educated guess. If, however, the source is the all-knowing, sovereign God, we can be certain that what He speaks will surely come to pass.
Before He gives us a glimpse of future events, however, God reveals the reliable source of this information. These visions of the future do not come to us from the pen of a crazed quack or wild-eyed fanatic. The prophecies of the book of Revelation come from our omniscient, sovereign God, through Jesus Christ Himself. They are therefore a reliable and relevant source of information concerning the future of the world.
1:1 – 3
The book of Revelation wasn’t written to confuse, frighten, frustrate, or entertain us. The opening verse of this incredible book reveals its own purpose in no uncertain terms: “to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place.” Though the book reveals the unfolding of future events, don’t let its portrayal of the end times distract you from the real heart of the book: the Author of those events. The title, “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), can mean either the revelation from Jesus Christ or the revelation concerning Jesus Christ; in fact, it may mean both. As we witness the unfolding of events leading up to Christ’s coming kingdom, our mental picture of the person of Jesus becomes clearer. This is true because “the testimony of Jesus Christ” mentioned in verse 2 is itself “the spirit [or inner heart] of prophecy” (19:10). The person and work of Christ is the blueprint that holds together all the pieces of the prophetic puzzle.
The Greek phrase translated “soon” or “quickly” in 1:1 is en tachei. The same phrase is used in Luke 18:8 in reference to the judgment of God and in Romans 16:20 in a description of the future destruction of Satan. The other common Greek term for impending fulfillment is found in Revelation 1:3, where the Greek word engys appears, meaning “near.” These two terms, en tachei and engys, communicate that the fulfillment of future events could begin at any moment. It’s as if Christ now stands at the very door of our world, ready to enter at any moment. We should not expect the return of Christ at a particular time, but rather be ready for His return no matter when it occurs.
In verse 3 John wrote that those who read, hear, and heed the words of the prophecy of Revelation would be “blessed.” What does it mean to be “blessed” in a biblical sense? One commentator notes that the underlying Greek word “does not express superficial sentiment but instead the rugged and tested assurance that it is a good thing to be walking in the pathway of God’s will.” The same Greek term is used repeatedly by Jesus in the famous “beatitudes” passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3 – 11). We often think of Revelation as containing nothing but death, destruction, and suffering. In reality, Revelation contains seven “beatitudes” for believers, designed to provide hope and encouragement in the midst of trials.
1:4 – 8
John began by greeting the churches in Asia Minor with “grace. . . and peace” (1:4). When sinners come to Christ through simple faith, accepting Him as God in the flesh whose death on the cross paid the penalty for their sins, they receive eternal salvation through grace —unmerited, unearned, undeserved favor. God doesn’t save us because of any good thing we have done, or will do, or even promise to do. God saves us solely by His grace through faith (Eph. 2:8 – 9). Salvation is God’s gift to undeserving sinners — we must never forget that! The result of this precious grace is a relationship that offers us true peace that overcomes any trials and tribulations the world can bring. What a reassuring greeting to the members of the persecuted church! Though John will later describe judgment and distress that in the future will overtake wicked unbelievers, God’s own people receive grace and peace.
This present peace and the future fulfillment of our salvation come from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Drawing on several images he saw in the visions, John presented an “elaborate triadic formula for the Trinity.” He called the Father the One “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4). We see this same description in the song of the four living creatures in 4:8. As an allusion to the divine name “I AM” in Exodus 3:14, it indicates God’s complete transcendence over all history — past, present, and future. God is just as much in control of our unknown future and unnerving present as He is of our unpleasant past.
The names John used for “Jesus Christ” are also drawn from Old and New Testament language. The titles “faithful witness,” “firstborn,” and “ruler of the kings of the earth” are drawn from Psalm 89:27 and 37; these refer to Christ’s authority and kingship as the promised descendant of David. These phrases also appear in Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 3:14, possibly referring to Christ’s authority to rule as the promised king from the line of David.
Finally, the Holy Spirit is described as “the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (1:4). John isn’t describing seven distinct Holy Spirits; there’s only one Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:4). In a vision of the heavenly throne room described in Revelation 4, John saw the Holy Spirit symbolically represented by “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne” (4:5). The image of the “sevenfold Spirit” is also drawn from a similar image in Zechariah 4:2 – 7 and the seven qualities of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11:2 – 3: the Spirit (1) of the Lord, (2) of wisdom, (3) of understanding, (4) of counsel, (5) of strength, (6) of knowledge, and (7) of the fear of the Lord.
In light of this glorious truth about the Triune God, John responded with a grand doxology or song of praise (1:5 – 6). He drew the attention of his readers back to the cross where he had once stood as an eyewitness to the sufferings of his Savior (John 19:26 – 27, 35). By shedding His blood, Christ paid the debt in full for the sins of the world and thereby released believers from the guilt and penalty of their sins. On our behalf He conquered death and gave new life to all who believe. We can therefore share with Christ His authority as Priest and coming King through a supernatural union with Him by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:4 – 7; Rev. 5:10; 20:6). Such glorious news is worthy of a grand doxology!
Ultimately, the book of Revelation tells the story about Jesus Christ Himself. As John concluded the opening greeting, he broke into a prophetic description of the coming King in all His glory. When the true Sovereign steps foot on the Mount of Olives, no applause will erupt from those who have rejected Him. No marching band will play His anthem. No red carpet will mark His way. No massive banner will greet Him displaying a bold “Welcome Home!” Instead, His coming will be accompanied by mourning because He comes as Judge (1:7). Using biblical images common in his day, John previewed the glorious descent of Christ at the final battle of Armageddon. Every eye will see Him, even those who did not believe in Him, and all who see Him will mourn greatly.
Jolting us to attention, John interjected a direct quote from God Almighty Himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega... who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). “Alpha” and “Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, mark God as the One who has both creation and re-creation in His hands. It would be a terrible misunderstanding, however, if we were to assume God cares nothing about what comes between the “A” and “Z.” This is why He reminds us that not only is He the God of the past and the future, but of the present as well. As “Almighty” God, the Lord exercises control over all time.
1:9 – 11
After a powerful introduction that climaxed in a quotation from the Almighty Himself (1:1 – 8), John transitioned abruptly to the setting of his first vision (1:9 – 11). As if he were going out of his way to keep the spotlight on Jesus, the apostle John introduced himself and his circumstances with succinct simplicity and humility: “I, John” (1:9). Having been banished to the penal colony on Patmos by the cruel Emperor Domitian for refusing to confess the emperor as “lord and god,” John wasn’t about to turn attention away from the only true Lord and God, Jesus Christ.
Though John could have pointed out items in his résumé that no one then alive could equal, he didn’t. Instead, he described himself in ways that emphasized the common experiences he shared with fellow believers: “your brother and fellow partaker” (1:9). The term translated “partaker” is related to the concept of “fellowship.” It’s hard for most Christians today to imagine fellowship in the church without the three so-called essentials — food, folks, and fun. Yet John verified that fellowship in the early church centered on an altogether different threesome — perseverance through tribulation in light of the coming kingdom.
The Greek word thlipsis (“tribulation”) can refer to the coming great tribulation of the end times, leading up to Christ’s physical return (Matt. 24:21, 29). More commonly, though, it refers to general trials and persecutions experienced by Christians of every age (13:21; 24:9; John 16:33; Rom. 5:3).
The term kingdom refers to a future earthly kingdom that will be established at the return of Christ (Matt. 19:28; Acts 1:6 – 7; 2 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 20:4). In light of their common destiny as co-regents with Christ at His coming, believers are occasionally referred to as God’s “kingdom” in a spiritual sense (1 Cor. 4:20; Col. 1:13).
In the context of shared suffering and in light of the promise of future glory, the Spirit enables believers to share in perseverance. The noun hypomone (along with the cognate verb hypomeno) implies endurance under extreme difficulty, as a beast of burden might endure under a heavy load. God Himself gives believers the ability to endure hardship (Rom. 15:5; Col. 1:11).
In these three things — perseverance, tribulation, and the kingdom — Jesus Christ drew believers in John’s day together by giving them purpose and perspective in the midst of suffering. If Christ the coming King could suffer unjustly for them, they could certainly endure persecution for Him.
During Domitian’s reign, John was exiled to Patmos because of “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). Because of its unpleasant conditions, Rome had established the tiny, remote island of Patmos as a penal colony in the first century. According to the earliest historical records of the ancient church, the apostle John was exiled to Patmos for eighteen months beginning in AD 95.6 Even in exile for his faith, dwelling in the uncertain surroundings of a rocky penal colony, the elderly apostle set aside time on “the Lord’s day” (Sunday) to worship and pray. That’s what I call devotion! Perhaps he was kneeling in prayer or reciting Psalms when something supernatural took hold of him and ripped him out of the sphere of this world and transported into the spiritual realm.
Immediately upon finding himself “in the Spirit,” John heard behind him the clear, penetrating voice of Christ calling to his beloved disciple “like a trumpet” (1:10). He gave a simple instruction: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Christ selected these seven churches because their situations represented conditions applicable to churches of every age, including our own. Ephesus, the first of the seven churches and John’s own home church, was nearest to Patmos. The rest of the churches were on a natural overland route in the specific order given by Christ.
With the booming, majestic voice of the Savior still echoing in his ears, John slowly turned to see who was speaking to him. He noticed first not a man, but seven golden lampstands, each holding an oil-burning lamp (1:12). Then his eyes settled on the source of the voice — “one like a son of man” standing in the midst of the seven lampstands. This was Jesus, no doubt, but not the kind of Jesus John remembered from earlier years — preaching to the multitudes, healing the sick, suffering on the cross, or even ascending into heaven. No, the message from this Jesus sent John’s memories racing backward in time more than sixty years to a powerful experience on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1 – 8; Mark 9:2 – 8; Luke 9:28 – 36). There Peter, James, and John had witnessed Christ transformed before their eyes as He brief ly unveiled His glory. Now, near the end of his life, John saw a vision of the risen Lord in all His splendor.
John used the best descriptive terms he could muster to put into words what was essentially indescribable. The initial image resembled a human form, but He was clearly more than a man. The vision of the long robe, golden sash, white hair, f laming gaze, bronze feet, bellowing voice, and brilliant features (1:13 – 16) all point to one thing: Jesus Christ is God! From His mouth shot a two-edged sword — a symbol for the word of God (Heb. 4:12) as well as an instrument of judgment (Rev. 19:11 – 15). In his hands He held seven stars (1:16). In a brief glimpse of unveiled deity shrouded in mysterious symbols that surpassed even John’s experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, that beloved disciple quickly learned his place in the universe. Saint John — evangelist, theologian, elder, apostle, and elite member of Christ’s inner circle — was instantly reduced to a trembling sinner lying powerless before the King of kings and Lord of lords. In a word, the vision terrified him.
Yet in the midst of the apostle’s heart-stopping terror, the unsurpassable Son of God stooped down, reached out with His nail-pierced hand, and comforted His old friend. Helping the elderly disciple to his feet, He told John not to fear. Then Jesus described himself in exalted terms: “I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (1:17 – 18).
Immediately the Lord reiterated his command for John to write everything he saw (1:19; cf. 1:11). Yet this time he outlined the divine information into three distinct units that can be broken down into past, present, and future.
Like a reporter in the midst of a historic event, John began frantically recording the vision of Jesus still impressed upon his mind (“the things which you have seen”). Then Jesus helped all of us by interpreting two symbols from that vision: the stars and the lampstands. The seven stars in His right hand are the “angels” (or human messengers) of the seven churches mentioned in 1:11. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches themselves (1:20). The charge is clear: John was to write everything he saw and heard and send it to the seven churches through each church’s pastor. This wide distribution of the book guaranteed that the revelation from Jesus Christ would address not only believers in John’s own day, but it would continue to inform and encourage believers of every age.
As I reflect on John’s breath-taking experience on Patmos, I’m struck by two principles.
First, the better our understanding of who Christ really is, the quicker we’ ll respond in submission and obedience. Revelation 1:17 says, “And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.” We sometimes hear people talk about meeting Jesus face to face, giving Him a hug, sitting on his lap, and asking Him all those theological and biblical questions that have been nagging them throughout their lives. In light of John’s response to his brief glimpse of Christ’s unveiled glory, such a view fails to measure up. As we ponder John’s awesome encounter with the risen Lord, we should ask ourselves a couple of questions:
• Do I know and adore the awesome, glorious, powerful Jesus portrayed in the Bible, or have I adopted a culturally appropriate, mild-mannered, user-friendly Jesus after my own imaginations?
• How should John’s portrayal of Jesus affect my attitude in prayer? In worship? In obedience? Does my life reflect a response to the Jesus of Revelation 1:17? In what specific ways have I been too flippant or casual in my approach to my Master and Lord, Jesus Christ?
Second, the greater our willingness to submit to Christ, the deeper will be the truths He reveals to us. No, you won’t receive divine visions of the future. No, Jesus Himself won’t give you a message for your pastor. John’s profound perception of the person of Christ, however, led him to a complete submission to His authority. In turn, this led to a deepening understanding of Christ and His plans for the future. As we open God’s Word and encounter Christ, our attitudes of humility and submission will lead us into a deeper relationship with Him. Let me suggest what you can do to drive this principle home.
Read Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; and Proverbs 9:10. Look closely at these texts. According to them, what one thing is essential for deepening our understanding of obedience to God’s revealed truth? Then ask yourself, “Do I open God’s Word with this attitude? Do I show the kind of respect and reverence necessary to have true wisdom and understanding?” Why not pause and reread these verses? Consider committing them to memory.