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.

Revelation 2:8-11 – Spiritual Endurance

The remains of ancient Smyrna in Izmir, Turkey

This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Smyrna:

I am the first and the last. I died, but now I am alive! Listen to what I say.

I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. I also know the cruel things being said about you by people who claim to be Jews. But they are not really Jews. They are a group that belongs to Satan.

Don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life.

If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever wins the victory will not be hurt by the second death. (Contemporary English Version)

Jesus not only speaks in the four Gospels of the New Testament; Christ also speaks in the final biblical book of Revelation to seven different churches.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus addresses the church at Smyrna – a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea (present day Turkey). 

Jesus was letting the believers in Smyrna know they were about to experience severe persecution. However, they need not be fearful and can remain faithful because their Lord knows all about suffering. 

The church’s perseverance under such trouble would result in the crown of life, given to them by Jesus himself. Words coming directly from their Lord and Savior must surely have been an encouragement to the believers as they underwent extreme difficulty.

The congregation at Smyrna was facing imprisonment and, for some, even death for their faith. The heart of the message by Jesus is to remain faithful. 

The seven churches of Revelation which Jesus addressed

There will always be those who are faint of heart with weak faith, giving up when the going gets tough. Yet, persecution and hardship have a way of purging the soul, as well as the church, of its dross. Suffering is inevitable; how we handle adversity when it comes is completely under our own control.

Few of us will likely never face a hardship that could result in martyrdom. Knowing there are brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the world who do face daily hardship for devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light.

The daily irritations and trials that God puts in our way to refine us and shape our faith certainly seem small compared to imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no matter who we are and where we are located on this earth – whether facing uncommon hardship or banal difficulty – the afflictions of both body and soul come to us as opportunities to lean into faith and love Jesus to the end.

Jesus is not looking for perfect people – just faithful followers willing to endure suffering with the truth that our Lord stands with us. 

Whatever our current circumstances may be, Jesus offers us his perspective on it. He knows precisely what is going on and understands the spiritual resources you and I possess for each adverse situation we encounter.

In fact, few of us really discern the largess of internal resources within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personhood God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born.

Even though it seems, at times, we lack the strength, wisdom, and courage for what is ahead – Jesus has supreme confidence in us to maintain faith and endure through our afflictions.

Life is not a sprint; life is a marathon. And to finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run – step by step, stride by stride – with boldness, despite fear of the unknown future around the bend.

Spiritual endurance requires becoming comfortable with risk, vulnerability, accountability, and the steadfast love which is both received and given.

Perhaps, most of all, it requires keeping our heads up and running toward the promise of reward at the finish. The crown of life is an image of both congratulation and celebration of a race well-run and the enjoyment of unending fellowship with our Lord for whom we have endured so much.

After all is said and done, and the end of the age has occurred, we will be able to look back in hindsight and see that it was really Jesus who all along was fortifying us to keep standing and keep going. Christ is so vested in us that he continually ensures our ultimate victory through a constant presence of help and encouragement. The heritage of both the Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.”

John Calvin (1509-1564)

“I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, CEB)

May the grace of Jesus sustain you; the love of God surround you; and the encouragement of the Spirit surprise you, today and every day. Amen.

Grant, O God, That we may never lose the way through our self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that we may never abandon the struggle, but that we may endure to the end, and so be saved; that we may never drop out of the race, but that we may ever press forward to the goal of our high calling; that we may never choose the cheap and passing things, and let go the precious things that last forever; that we may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that we may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So keep us and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

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.

John 15:16-25 – On Facing Hatred

 The Face of the Savior by Noehani Harsono

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” (New International Version)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus suffered on this earth. He was hated, persecuted, and killed. Although Christians readily recognize this, somehow we still seem surprised when, following Jesus, there are people who downright dislike us. 

Yet, Jesus clearly and unequivocally stated that we ought to expect persecution. Emotional, psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse can and does occur against God’s people who seek to follow the words and ways of Jesus. 

There was a time in the first few centuries of the church that becoming a martyr for one’s faith was welcomed. It was considered a privilege to imitate Christ in his suffering and death.  Even many modern day Christian martyrs around the globe have estimated martyrdom as an opportunity to experience solidarity with their Savior.

God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. (Philippians 1:29, CEB)

This kind of thinking may sound quite strange to Westerners who tend toward the notion that, if we do everything with excellence and effectiveness, then there will be no reason for persecution and suffering. 

However, the Christian reality is that Jesus promised his devout followers that there will indeed be those who seethe with hatred toward us. We are not above our Master. If he suffered, we will, as well.

So, the question is not whether we can or ought to avoid suffering. Rather, our consideration needs to be how we will respond to the inevitable persecution of verbal violence, physical violence, or both – not to mention the various forms of discrimination, abuse, and oppression we might face.

“They gave our Master a crown of thorns. Why do we hope for a crown of roses?”

Martin Luther

First off, there is no honor for any Christian suffering because of one’s own stupidity or obnoxiousness. If we face persecution because we have initially made others suffer through our bullhorn presentations of the gospel, or metaphorically clubbing groups of people with oversized King James Version Bibles, then whatever consequences come are of our own making and have nothing to do with being united with Christ.

And second, paying no attention to the real human needs of people locked in poverty or dismissing the body as secondary to the soul is a gross misrepresentation of Christ – not to mention the sheer ignoring of multiple books in Holy Scripture which point to caring about such things.

If, however, we endure abuse because of being humble, merciful, gentle, pure in heart, and an unflinching peacemaker amid conflict, then we can enjoy the smile of heaven. If we communicate good news with grace and compassion, seeking love-laced words of truth, along with genuine acts of mercy – and then are repaid with unmerciful oppression from prideful persons – then we understand the type of hate Jesus faced.

We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope. (Romans 5:3-4, CEV)

The genuine article withstands the test of adversity. It doesn’t fall apart in the vigorous agitation of the first washing. People who oppose Christians with persecuting words and actions need to discover an authentic believer who is ready and willing to absorb the hatred, repackage it as love, and along with the gospel of grace, gift it back to the persecutors as an offering to God.

Experiencing the hatred of others is not the worst thing which could ever happen. Knowing Jesus better is of utmost value – even if, at times, comes through the worst of circumstances.

God, who shows you his kindness and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. (1 Peter 5:10, GW)

Almighty God, thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, on my behalf.  Just as he suffered for me, I willingly suffer for him, since his infinite grace has delivered me from sin, death, and hell.  I only ask to be found faithful at the end of the age when he returns to judge the living and the dead.  Amen.