Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 28, 2019
Revelation 1:4-8 Commentary
With this week’s Epistolary lesson the RCL takes another step back into the muddy waters that are the book of Revelation. In fact, on this second Sunday of Easter, the RCL returns us to the Revelation 1:4-8 we just visited on the last Sunday of Year B. On this Sunday, then, we take a kind of second/first step on Year C’s five-week journey through Revelation.
It’s an appropriate step and stop on the RCL’s (some argue too) quick tour of the letter. After all, Revelation 1:4-8 answers some very basic questions about the entire letter. Verse 1 answers the question of why John wrote it: to show God’s “servants what must soon take place.”
It’s a “revelation” (1) the seven churches to which the apostle addresses it desperately need to hear. While Revelation’s precise dating is a bit murky, its context seems clearer. The Roman Empire is doing what it can to limit or even eliminate the Christian Church and its influence.
After all, while Rome’s Caesar expected citizens of the Empire to worship and affirm that he was their “lord,” Christians, of course, couldn’t do that. They worshiped Jesus as Lord. Since the Caesar and his Rome assumed that was treason, they vigorously persecuted the early Church.
In the face of that sometimes-bloody persecution, John reveals what “must soon take place” (1). Revelation 1’s preachers and teachers will want to emphasize that its “soon” can mean a variety of things. Our text’s God isn’t necessarily talking chronologically. God is talking about the soon of now, of currently, of the present. God is talking about what’s happening in John and his readers’ world even as the apostle writes.
Revelation’s God is revealing to John how the gospel affects human life and history, including how that life and history responds to that good news that is the gospel. There are a lot of powerful forces at work in not only John and his first readers’ world, but also in our own.
In that sense “what soon must take place” may even refer to Revelation’s mysterious images of human power and authority. John wants to help his beleaguered readers differentiate among those powers so that they may know just “who’s in charge here.”
However, we’re not sure just who this “John” (4a) is. The early Church assumed that he was Jesus’ disciple who was Zebedee’s son. Later scholarship, however, challenged that authorship. Yet our proclamations of Revelation don’t want to get bogged down in that controversy. Its preachers and teachers may want to simply note that Revelation’s John is a Christian prophet or teacher whom the Romans have exiled to the island of Patmos for proclaiming the gospel.
This John writes the book of Revelation “to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (4b), in what most people now call modern-day Turkey. Some scholars suggest John was the pastor of at least some of those churches. “To the seven churches” reminders readers that while Christians sometimes treat Revelation as some kind of mysterious code, it’s, first of all, a letter. John writes it to not just to the seven churches of chapters 2-3, but also to all the churches in order to tell them what God has revealed to him.
John’s letter to the churches is full of imagery that “reveals” or “unveils.” But those who proclaim Revelation will want to state the obvious: its imagery was clearer to its first readers than citizens of the 21st century. In that way, its imagery looks a little to us like things like rotary phones look to people born after the year 2000.
Even this week’s relatively brief lesson gives us a glimpse of some of Revelation’s mysterious imagery. In verse 4c, after all, John greets the churches on behalf of “the seven spirits before” God’s throne. Even the NIV’s text note that suggests it may also mean “the sevenfold Spirit” doesn’t do much to clarify that reference.
John uses that imagery and more to reveal to his readers Jesus Christ (1). N.T. Wright (Revelation for Everyone, Westminster John Knox, 2011) has written about that revelation, “For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving imagery. John would agree with the second of these, but would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside.”
So who is this Jesus whom God graciously reveals to John? On this second Sunday in Easter, those who proclaim this passage will want to emphasize that he is, as verse 5 professes, “the firstborn from the dead.” Jesus is, we might say, the resurrection’s eldest child. After all, the Jesus whom Jewish religious leaders convinced the Romans to crucify didn’t stay dead. God raised him from death to life on the first Easter that we celebrated only last Sunday.
But, of course, while Jesus was the first person to rise from the dead and stay alive, he won’t be the last. Jesus is merely the “firstborn,” the eldest in a long familial line of people whom God promises to physically raise from the dead at the end of measured time. He is, in other words, the first member of our adopted family to rise from the dead. But he won’t be our last.
John adds, however, that Jesus is also “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” (4b, 8). So Jesus is not, like those who read this Commentary, limited to the mid-20th century to the early 21st century. Jesus somehow stretches out over time.
So it’s not just that the Son of God always was or that he was at the beginning of measured time. It’s not even just that Jesus is here and now, by his Spirit. It’s also that Jesus will come again and, in fact, always be. Verse 8 echoes that message: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
This everlasting Jesus is, John adds in verse 5b, “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These were, to Caesar and his minions, fighting words. After all, Rome’s ruler and his cohorts assumed that he, as a son of god, was in charge. The Caesar convinced his Roman subjects that he was the “ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Rome’s Caesar and his minions wanted to make sure that those who watched them strut and parade around had little doubt to whom “glory and power” (6b) belonged. Rome alone was glorious and powerful. Those who doubted that had simply to look at the Jesus and others whom Rome crucified in order to remind everyone just whom it assumed was in charge.
In the face of that, and the political and military evidence that seemed to back up that claim, John insists that Jesus is both the only natural Son of God and ruler over even Caesar. It’s no wonder the Romans banished John (and his preaching and teaching) to the end of their earth the way they had tried to crucify Jesus.
In verse 7 the exiled preacher goes on to promise that everlasting King Jesus “is coming with the clouds.” We generally link this promise to the prospect of Jesus’ return at the end of measured time to judge the living and the dead, as well as usher in the new earth and heaven.
Yet at least some scholars hear in this “coming” an allusion to Daniel’s prophecy of “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13-14). If that’s true, John may be saying that the “one like a son of man,” Jesus, has already come and, in fact, comes every day. John 3:13-14, after all, insists that Jesus is that Son of Man in and through whom God has worked, is working and will continue to work to accomplish God’s plans and purposes.
Those plans and purposes include, as my colleague Stan Mast notes in an earlier commentary on this text, the gifts of “grace and peace to” (4b) to Revelation’s beleaguered readers. That message of grace, in fact, virtually bookends John’s letter to the churches. After all, his “signature” on it is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with God’s people. Amen” (22:21). So to the exiled John who writes to beleaguered Christians, it seems to be all about grace from start to finish.
Mast’s commentary on this text quotes some famous first words. He points out that the country song, “Famous First Words” lists some first words you might hear first in a bar: “Hey, where have you been all my life? Haven’t we met somewhere before? Don’t I know you?”
Mast also quotes some literary first words. Consider C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s, “His name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities’, “It was the best of times and worst of times.”
That got me to thinking about famous last words. Harriet Tubman’s “Swing low, sweet chariot.” Benjamin Franklin’s, “A dying man can do nothing easy.” Groucho Marx’s, “This is no way to live!” And Elvis Presley’s “I’m going to the bathroom to read.”
But how often do famous first last words echo famous first words? Among Revelation’s first words is “grace” (1:4). Among its last words is also “grace” (22:21). There’s a beginning and end to which you and I can give our lives.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!