Revelation 1:4-8 – The One Who Is, Who Was, and Who Is To Come

John,

To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
    and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
    and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (New International Version)

In my undergraduate college days, one of the required classes for my major was “Philosophy of History” taught by a crusty old professor who looked like he was one-hundred-and-ten-years-old. One day he came into the classroom and began his lecture by looking directly at me with those beady black eyes of his and said, as only he could say it, “Ehrhardt! Can God change history?”

The Apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos. Late in the first century, all the other original disciples of Jesus were dead, having been martyred for their faith. Only John was left. The churches that the Apostle Paul established in Asia Minor were undergoing significant persecution. 

The trouble began with the church facing social ostracizing. Eventually, xenophobia took hold with many parts of the Roman Empire, and Christians began getting martyred. Misunderstandings of what the church is all about were rife.

If we were living during that time, we might seriously wonder if Christianity would survive, at all. Into this situation, the last Apostle, John, in exile, experienced a great vision (revelation) of Jesus concerning what is to come. While things looked awfully bleak, God graciously pulled back the veil between heaven and earth long enough for John to glimpse the great lordship of Jesus.

So, can God change history? You might be wondering about my response to the old professor. My answer was this: The question is only relevant if God were never in control and sovereign over history to begin with. There’s no need to change history if God is already actively working out divine purposes through history. Therefore, a more appropriate question is: Since God is Lord over all history, will we submit to the divine lordship? 

In difficult times, it’s only human to wonder if God is really sovereign over all the earth. With so much war, violence, and unrest in the world; with so many natural disasters and diseases all around; and whenever Christianity (and religion itself) is seen as a threat to many, we may sincerely ask ourselves, “Can God change history? Is God even in control of this present world?”

The revelation of Jesus to John, which he then shared with the struggling churches, was meant to encourage them – to give them hope that, even though Christ’s reign is invisible and seems limited and temporary, it will ultimately be visible, and is pervasive and permanent. 

Today’s New Testament lesson is meant to strengthen and bolster the believer’s faith with a vision of who Jesus is; what Jesus has done; and what Jesus will do.

Who Jesus Is

He is the faithful witness. The word “witness” is where we get our English word “martyr.” Faithful believers in the first centuries of the church witnessed to their faith and proclaimed the gospel of new life in Christ. They were effective enough to alter the social order, which brought persecution and, in some cases, death. 

These men and women died proclaiming their devotion to Jesus. They saw themselves as merely emulating and following the way of their sovereign Lord Jesus, who was himself a faithful martyr.

Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, that is, Christ has conquered death. Just as Christ rose from death, so also, we will be raised to life. Because Jesus is alive, Christians will live forever and experience bodily resurrection, as well.

Whatever happens to Jesus, happens to us. Jesus was persecuted, suffered, and died. We, too, shall suffer persecution and death. Jesus was raised from the dead and so shall we. The evil we experience in this life is very much known to God. Our solidarity with Jesus helps us to not grow weary and lose heart.

Jesus is the ruler, the king of kings and lord of lords. God reigns over the past, the present, and the future. Christ is in charge, presently now working out good plans and purposes. God bends events, situations, and hearts toward justice and righteousness. 

What Jesus Has Done

Jesus freed us from the power of sin by his blood. This is more than some nice information to know; it is truth designed for us to live a new life depending on King Jesus. Sometimes, we have horrible, no good, very bad days. We don’t respond to others well,  and then ask God’s forgiveness. Other days are wonderful, with bright sunshine and a spring in your step. We play well with others and express gratitude to God.

Jesus is Lord of both good days and bad days. Faith is not dependent upon our circumstances because it is the blood of Jesus which has freed us to live for God, no matter the situations we face. Christians overcome circumstances by the blood of Christ – and not because everything goes our way.  

We are never far from the cross of Christ. We overcome bad tempers, defeats, disordered love, fears, pettiness, and a host of other things by the blood of the Lamb. The daily goal is to not simply have a wonderful day without any adversity. Rather, the aim is to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, dead, risen and ascended. 

Jesus has made us to be a kingdom of priests. Christians have continual access and unconditional acceptance of God through the blood of Jesus. We can intercede for others by going directly to God. Just as Jesus has unlimited access to the Father, so, the Christian has the privilege of coming to God at all times. 

Christians are a kingdom of priests where every believer intercedes for other believers, and even for the world which persecutes them. Jesus not only freed us from sin’s grip of evil for our own individual benefit, but also so that we can be agents of rescue for others. 

What Jesus Will Do

Jesus will come to judge the earth, the living and the dead. Moving deeper into Revelation, it truly becomes apocalyptic. It’s as if a group of trapped cave explorers choose one of the individuals to squeeze through a narrow flooded passage to get out to the surface and call for help. The point of the choice is more than personal salvation, it is the saving of the entire group. She is to bring help and equipment to ensure the rest get rescued.

Indeed, God elects, chooses, and calls us not only for our personal benefit but for the sake of many.

Conclusion

Jesus is worthy of our praise. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. His kingdom will never end. Since this is true, we are to faithfully serve God. In life and in death, we belong to God. We are not our own; we were bought at a price. 

“Can God change history?” is not the real question. Since God has changed history forever in the sending of the Son, the proper question is, “What will we do with the lordship of Christ over the world?”

Jesus is coming soon. When he returns, what will he find you doing?

Gracious God, we pray for Christ’s Church everywhere. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

When Will We Engage Our Ministry?

Welcome, friends!

Acts 1:1-11 contains the final words of Christ on this earth. Jesus gave his followers a mandate, not to sit idly and wait for his return, but to embody their identity as witnesses to what they have seen and heard for a world in need of God’s deliverance and love. Click the videos below, and let us embrace our purpose and mission as the people of God….

Pastor Tim Ehrhardt, Acts 1:8

God of hope and courage, you call each of us to bear witness to your abundant love in a frightened world. All around us are signs the world is struggling and the future is unclear. Strengthen our confidence in your unfailing grace and grant us the courage to move onward even when we cannot see the way, knowing that you will guide our every step. Amen.

Acts 1:1-11 – When Will We Engage in Our Ministry?

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

When will we engage in our ministry? The short answer: Now.

The angels in this story sound a lot like my mom when I was a kid: “Why are you just standing there looking into an empty sky?  You need to quit your gawking and get to work!”

But sometimes we can be confused about what it is we are supposed to be about or when we are supposed to do it. Jesus was quite clear about what the mission of his followers is to be: witnesses.  And the angels essentially tell the disciples to quite their gawking and get to work on being witnesses.

Being a Witness Now

The mission is not simply to do some sort of evangelical job of witnessing, but to be a witness. What we do flows from who we are and what we have seen. If we have seen and experienced the risen Lord, we are witnesses. We then tell of what we have seen and heard, not necessarily because it’s our job, but because we just cannot help it.

A mom nurtures her kids because she is a mom; it isn’t just a job – it’s who she is. To be a witness involves the kind of people we are. The word “witness” is literally the term “martyr.”  A martyr, as the term has been used throughout church history, is:

  • One who chooses to suffer death rather than deny the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  • One who bears testimony to the truth of what they have seen or have experienced with God.
  • One who sacrifices all things to further God’s kingdom.
  • One who is willing to endure anything from anyone to maintain their Christian witness. 

A martyr is someone we are, not a task that gets checked off a to do list.

There is a clear mandate and mission given by Jesus, the Head of the Church: We are witnesses. We are participants in service to Christ the King, and not fans of Jesus only cheering in the bleachers. It’s a very different experience being a fan in the stands than a player on the field.

In baseball, some fans think they know what all the right calls are, then graciously let the umpire know when he is wrong. Being a spectator is significant. Yet, for us here on this earth, it is not yet our time for that. Those who have gone before us, lived in faith, and were martyrs, are testifying to us….

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect….

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [martyrs], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, (Hebrews 11:36-40, 12:1, NIV)

The Christian fans in the heavenly stands are witnessing that they have participated in God’s mission. And they are not unruly – spilling their beer on people and getting kicked out of the stadium. Instead, they are encouraging us who are here, right now, on this earth, seeking to fulfill Christ’s mandate.

Those who have gone before us are passing the baton of leadership and the message of good news to us – and they expect us to run with it – not to try and sit in the stands as spectators because it is not yet our time.  They are cheering us on, letting us know it’s all worth it.

Now is the time to be witnesses of what God in Christ has done and is doing. God created a perfect world. Man and woman fell into disobedience and sin. Now, God is in the business of restoring and renewing all creation. So, we are to witness to what God has done, and is doing, because our identity is thoroughly in Jesus Christ. It is our heritage and our privilege.

“Let God be the Judge. Your job today is to be a witness.”

Warren Wiersbe

In the 1990s a Christian prisoner in Cuba was asked to sign a statement containing charges against fellow Christians that would lead to their arrest. He said, “The chain keeps me from signing this.” The communist officer protested, “But you are not in chains!” “I am,” said the Christian. “I am bound by the chain of witnesses who throughout the centuries gave their lives for Jesus Christ. I am a link in this chain. I will not break it.”

Christ’s words are directed to us: “You will be my witnesses,” you and me. If we look at this as merely a task, we will likely give up and whine, saying, “This is too hard. It takes too much time. There’s too much suffering. This isn’t for me!” 

If we understand our identity as being a witness, then we will love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We willingly abandon our own personal agendas and adopt the will of God for our lives. And the will of God is that we embrace our identity as witnesses to the redemptive events of Jesus – Christ’s incarnation, holy life, compassionate ministry, suffering and death, rising from the grave, and ascending to heaven.

What do you have to witness to? Here is a teenage girl’s witness when he stood glaring at her, his weapon before her face, asking, “Do you believe in God?” She paused because it was a life or death question. “Yes, I believe in God.” “Why?” asked her executioner. But he never gave her the chance to respond. The 17-year-old girl lay dead at his feet. 

This scene could have happened in the Roman coliseum, in the Middle Ages, or in any number of countries around the world today. People are still being imprisoned, tortured, and killed every day because they refuse to deny the name of Jesus. This particular story, though, did not happen in ancient times or in another country. It happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999.

Being a Witness Everywhere to Everyone Now

The original witnesses of Jesus Christ embraced the mandate of being witnesses. Not far into the New Testament book of Acts, 3,000 people in Jerusalem were converted to Christianity through one sermon from Peter’s witness. Philip broke all kinds of taboos by going to Samaria and being a witness to the half-breed Samaritans. Peter broke all convention by going into a Gentile’s house and seeing the Spirit come on them. Saul, who became Paul, was dramatically converted and went on three separate missionary journeys so that he could take the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

We are to be witnesses wherever we go with whomever we encounter. We will be witnesses in Jerusalem (our families); in Judea (our community); in Samaria (other races and people different from ourselves); and, to the ends of the earth (overseas).

Being a Witness Through the Spirit’s Empowerment Now

Only after giving the mission to his followers did Jesus ascend to heaven. The ascended Lord is to be our confidence and our hope. We are not alone. We possess Christ’s authority and the Spirit’s help. The power to be a witness is not generated from within us but comes from God’s Spirit.

Jesus will return. Until then, we are to be his witnesses. It’s not the time to sit in the bleachers. We have been given power to accomplish the mission before the end of this world comes, and before Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Being a witness is not a one-time, one-size-fits-all work. Our own witness is just that: ours. We all have our own stories of faith and experiences of the risen and ascended Christ. There’s really nothing flashy or sexy about being a witness. Rather, it mostly entails a consistent and patient witness of love. It’s a lifestyle and a way of life in which our love for God pours out of our heart and soul and is expressed with all our mind and strength.

Every Christian can witness to what God is doing in their life – to tell our story of what God has done and is doing with us.

Holy God, you are making all things new through your gracious reconciling and restorative work. Grant us, your people, the vision to see you at work in our world healing our brokenness and making us new. Grant us the wisdom to hear your voice through the noise that surrounds us. And grant us the courage to bring to fruition the world you are creating, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Acts 7:54-8:1 – Humility and Hubris

A 10th century depiction of Stephen’s martyrdom

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (New International Version)

Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, or Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by the people of God.

They weren’t simply unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council truly believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if it were upholding God and God’s Law.

The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora. Many believers in Jesus now found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.

I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying.

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.

Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.

Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with metaphorical stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.

So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to hermeneutical hubris in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses it’s authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.

And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.

Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.

Insisting, for example, that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. 

What I am stating is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).

Far too often churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.

The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.

Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was death and diaspora.

Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin.

Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.