Comments and Observations
We have spent an entire year following the ministry of Christ and learning what it means to be followers of that Christ. Now, on this last Sunday of the liturgical year, as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, our reading from Revelation 1 brings us face to face with Christ the King. Here the unseen Christ whose voice we seldom hear comes out of hiding and speaks directly to us. If we can resist the temptation to avoid this text because of the bizarre imagery and coded language that make Revelation a closed letter for many Christians, we will receive the two gifts that are necessary for survival in a violently secular world, namely, grace and peace.
These verses are the key that unlocks the mysterious book of Revelation. I know, that sounds like an overstatement; every “expert” thinks he or she knows the secret of this book. But I’m not talking about any secret. I’m talking about the simple facts presented in these opening words: “John, to the seven churches of Asia.” These words remind us that this book is not first of all some theological tome designed for 21st century Christians in America. This is a pastoral letter from a man so well known that he didn’t even have to identify which John he was. And it was addressed to 7 little churches in 1st century Asia (Minor). Whatever we make of what follows in the body of the letter, we must always begin with these simple facts and ask what message Pastor John was sending to those primitive Christians.
After an opening prologue (1:1-3), John’s letter begins with a benediction from God (1:4-5a), a doxology to Christ (1:5b-6), a prophecy about Christ (1:7), and the signature of the Divine Author (1:8).
The heart of John’s message for those primitive Christians (and, by extension, for us) is found in the benediction/greeting from the Triune God. “Grace and peace to you….” Whatever we do with the numbers and the pictures and the rest of what follows, we must remember that the entire letter is intended to bring those two gifts to these suffering Christians. That they were suffering is clear from the verse right after our reading: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus….”
When you are struggling to survive in difficult circumstances, what are the two things you need the most? Well, you need grace, God’s unmerited, unearned, undeserved love extended to sinners in Christ. If you know that God loves you with an unconditional love, that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, you can be more than a conqueror (Romans 8). But you also need peace, the assurance that the God who loves you can and will make all things right (the original sense of the Hebrew word for peace, Shalom). If you know that God will not let you go and that God will make it right, you can survive anything. That’s what John wants his readers to know. In spite of all things you can see and hear in your world, grace and peace are yours.
But it’s hard to believe that when you are under attack, so John reminds us where this grace and peace comes from—not from the world, but from the Triune God. In fact, this opening benediction is so Trinitarian that this could be the text for Trinity Sunday later in the liturgical year. John wants them to know that nothing in this world can deprive them of grace and peace, so he roots those gifts in the complexity and majesty of the Triune God. Note the exalted language he uses for God. By referring to God as “him who is (a direct allusion to “I Am Who I Am”) and who was (before anything else was, from all eternity) and who is to come (into the far reaches of any future you can imagine, to all eternity),” John emphasizes the utter transcendence of God. What happens in time cannot change God; thus, grace and peace are assured.
In the words that follow, John emphasizes the immanence of God. In Jesus Christ, God was with us as “the faithful witness,” telling us the whole truth about God and his will for us, as “the firstborn from the dead,” proving that even death cannot rob us of grace and peace, and as “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” assuring us that God in the flesh is sovereign over all human sovereigns, even Caesar.
What’s more, the God who gives grace and peace is present with us in the Holy Spirit, whom John typically refers to as “the seven spirits who are before the throne….” I say “typically,” because throughout Revelation the number 7 figures prominently. Whatever else it might mean, it is clearly the number of completion. So our grace and peace come from the fullness of the Spirit, or from the Spirit working in all his ways, or from the Spirit at work all over the world (on all 7 continents?). When you stand before the throne of Caesar or get caught up in a real “Game of Thrones” where the stakes are life and death, remember that your grace and peace are a gift from the sevenfold Spirit who is “before the throne” at the center of the universe (even as that Spirit is in you).
John’s bracing benediction is immediately followed by a dramatic doxology to Christ the King. In the process of praising Jesus, John uses phrases designed to build our faith and hope. He “loves us,” present tense, continuative, all the time. He has freed us from our sins by his blood; this is a done deal, in the past. Thus, it is an unshakeable reality of life. And this loving King has made us to be a kingdom and priests. We may feel like unimportant peons under the thumb of the powers that be, but we are, in fact, royalty.
Further, we occupy not just a position of privilege in the world because we are a kingdom; we also occupy a position of great responsibility, because we are priests in the world. We are here to serve the God and Father of Jesus by representing a sinful humanity before a holy God. Jesus is the great High Priest, as we saw again and again in our recent study of Hebrews. But Jesus has made us his earthly representatives, entrusted with the task of making disciples for Jesus in all nations. In his love Christ the King has changed everything for us. “To him be glory forever and ever.”
Lest those 7 little churches miss his message, John follows his benediction from the Triune God and his doxology to Christ the King with a prophecy about that King. “Look, he is coming with the clouds….” That little word “look” (idou in Greek, meaning, “look, see, behold”) is central to Revelation. This letter is all about seeing what we usually cannot see, namely, Christ the King. As you read through this mysterious letter, note how many times, John says, “And I saw.” What we have here is not so much a sequence of events as a series of visions, not only a prediction about coming things, but also a pulling aside of the curtain so that we can see what already is. Rev. 1:19 summarizes the entire book. “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.”
Right now, we cannot see Christ the King, but he is there, on the throne at the center of universe, ruling all things according to the plan of God. So grace and peace are ours. And he will come again, as he left, “with the clouds.” Though only a few saw him go and no one sees him now, when he comes, “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him….” Even those who disbelieved that Christ is King so fiercely that they nailed him and speared him, even hardened unbelievers will see him then. But grace and peace will be yours then, too.
Will there be grace and peace for everyone? That’s how some interpret those last words of verse 7, “and all the people of the earth will mourn because of him.” At the end, the sight of the King will move all to tears of repentance for their rejection of Christ, and all will be saved. That’s one way to read verse 7, but Revelation ends with the destruction of all that opposes God. Thus, this mourning at the beginning may well be tears of despair. That interpretation seems to be more in keeping with John’s words in his gospel, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18) If this is what the prophecy of Rev. 1:7 means, then the mourning of humanity is filled with regret, but not repentance (cf. II Cor. 7:8-11). But we should leave that up to God. John’s point here is that the invisible Christ is coming. Let there be no doubt about it. “So shall it be! Amen!”
Our lectionary reading for the celebration of Christ the King ends with the signature of the Divine Author. Using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and repeating the formula of the opening benediction, the Lord God claims to be the Almighty (pantokrator). Is this God the Father speaking? That’s how verse 4 uses the formula “is and was and is to come.” But in 1:17, 18 and in 21:6 and 22:13, Christ claims to be the Alpha and the Omega. We’re undoubtedly touching the mystery of the Trinity here, so we don’t really have to decide which person of the Godhead is speaking. The point is that the invisible One whose voice rings throughout Revelation is eternal and almighty, contrary to “The Powers That Be” who seem to rule the world of the 7 churches.
Whatever we do with the pictures that follow the individual letters to the 7 churches in chapters 2 and 3, we must always keep in mind these opening few words. Whoever the Beasts may be, whenever all this takes place, however we interpret the numbers that dot the letter, whatever we make of the 1000 years, John has relayed this series of pictures to give these persecuted Christians the grace and peace that are rooted in the persons of the Trinity and the work of Christ the King. We can survive anything if we are sure of that grace and peace.
Because Revelation is a letter to Christians struggling to survive, we should be especially alert to survivalist talk on the fringes of today’s church. The headline said, “Mormon Apocalypse Prediction Has People Stocking Up On Food.” The attending article from the Salt Lake Tribune dated September 13 said the following: “Sales of freeze dried food, flashlights, blankets, and tents have soared in recent weeks as some Mormons have begun to prepare for the end of the world. The so-called ‘preppers’ believe the world is ending this month based on biblical prophecies, the Hebrew calendar, an unstable economy, world politics, and astronomical occurrences.” So, what you need when the Apocalypse is about to happen is blankets and dried beans? Contrast that with John’s simply profound, “Grace and Peace to you.”
As you ponder God’s first words to these struggling Christians, recall famous first words in our culture. A well-known country song entitled “Famous First Words” lists some first words you might hear in a bar. “Hey, where have you been all my life? Haven’t we met somewhere before? Don’t I know you? I sure like that dress. It matches your eyes. How ‘bout a drink? Where are you from?” On a more cultured front, think of famous first lines in literature. “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (George Orwell, 1984) “In our family, there were no clear lines between religion and fly fishing.” (Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities) Contrast all of that with “grace and peace to you.” And thank God.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2015
Revelation 1:4-8 Commentary