The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
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 the peoples of the 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” (Revelations 1:1-8 NIV).
Revelations – Day 1 “The Hour of Trial”
What on earth is this all about?
That is the question of many inside and outside the church down through the ages since the Book of Revelations was written.
On the one hand, the answer is obvious. It’s about the end of times, persecution and martyrdom, and the attempts of the Roman Empire to stamp out this religion as an enemy of the human race. It’s about seven churches that are rebuked and warned of the hour of trial that is upon them.
On the other hand, the answer is not so obvious. What´s with the seals, the trumpets, the bowls of the wrath of God, the death and sickness and disaster about to be unleashed on the unsuspecting throngs of mankind, it isn’t easy to correlate each item to a historical time or event. And it isn’t a very pleasant outlook either, is it? It is not for the faint of heart and it is easily misinterpreted by those whose point of view is temporal rather than eternal.
After all, as the saying goes, “Satan thinks like a man, but God thinks of eternity.”
The perspective of God on the affairs of man can cause one man to tremble and the other to praise, but both would acknowledge the severity and seriousness of the revelation. John, himself, weeps at the temporal and eternal condition of man and rejoices at the possibility of God’s salvation through the lamb even though it is accompanied by the fierce wrath of justice—a perspective we find hard to accept.
Like many an emperor of Rome, we might consider this perspective to be self-defeating in terms of civilization and Babel-building. After all, Christians seem to be taking satisfaction in the destruction of civilization as we know it and the death of millions in the process.
And that is precisely the point, isn’t it?
In the end, although Babel-building may seem to be in the best interests of mankind, there is no salvation from sin and evil without God. So, the Romans may be right about Christians and label them as “enemies of the human race” but for the wrong reasons. Christians are not enemies of the human “race” but of human “civilization” without God which, even in our modern age of democracy and peaceful co-existence (for the most part) is still riddled with sin and evil and godlessness.
We are certainly “enemies of a godless state” although our resistance is unusual in that we try to love our enemies to (spiritual) death. In any case, God’s perspective on Babel-building will not be in agreement with those who, perhaps genuinely, are trying to build a strong, free, and tolerant society.
Furthermore, there is no point in talking about whether the author is actually, John, the beloved disciple. There is nothing to gain with a detailed analysis of his Hebraic-Greek style as over and against the pure Greek of the gospels and his letters.
Is John the author or Jesus? Jesus, of course, but through John in a manner that takes our breath away.
Not since Jesus walked on earth, did he reveal his heart and plans as directly as in this revelation he received from the Father and gave to John on our behalf.
After all, that is how the book starts and we need to take these words seriously.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1 NIV).
That is a telling commentary and quite unusual, to say the least, even for believers.
First, that the author is not John but Jesus. John is simply the scribe.
“Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11 NIV).
Other books of the Bible have human authors inspired by the Spirit to write their God-given messages. But this is different. The author is Jesus. Directly.
Secondly, even Jesus acknowledges that this revelation came from the Father and not just from himself. His exhortation to the seven churches only makes sense in the light of the revelation that God gives of his redemptive purpose for human history.
John explains the process right at the beginning of the book.
“He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2 NIV).
The revelation is actually from the Father (“the word of God”) and Jesus verifies it (“and the testimony of Jesus Christ”) and makes it known to John (directly but also with the help of an angel) who testifies to what he saw.
John might have been responsible for the prologue (chapter 1) and epilogue (most of chapter 22) and Jesus was the immediate author of the letters to the seven churches (chapters 2 and 3) but the revelation of the redemptive plan of God (starting from chapter 4) is authored by God, Himself.
After all, it is the Father who is in charge of the overall march of history and the plan of salvation. And that is a key element to understanding and interpreting the entire message of the Book of Revelation.
This isn’t just about the end times (although that is an essential part of it) but rather the whole picture from the fall of mankind in the Garden to the curses of God that form the background to history as we know it.
It is about the sin and evil and rebellion of mankind throughout time that causes John, as the representative of the righteous servants of God, to weep uncontrollably asking who is able to open the scroll to reveal God’s solution to this evil.
It is about the solution that Jesus brings through his death and resurrection on earth and subsequent ascension to the throne that his Father had prepared for him.
It is about the age of grace, the reign of Christ as he implements the plan of redemption that would turn the world upside down and it is about the defeat of the great Satan through the blood of the martyrs up to the end times and the great destruction that sin and evil will bring on itself as it battles against the redemptive plan of God.
And finally, it is about the return of the king, the establishment of the new kingdom and the eternal life of God with his people.
Yes, it is true that there is an immediacy to the revelation right here in the first verse. The purpose is clear, “to show his servants what must soon take place.”
“Soon” is a relative word of course (2 Peter 3:8 NIV) but it is also true that they were on the brink of a new wave of persecution. Assuming that this revelation was written down by John during the reign of Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96) it is important to realize that Domitian was the first to openly demand Emperor worship (although it started voluntarily with Emperor Augustus just before the time of Christ).
Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in A.D. 74 (and would be again in A.D. 125-135) so the Jews had been taken care of for the most part. Now the focus was on this new Christian sect.
And it made sense. After all, both the Jews and the Christians had this annoying habit of making their God more important than the emperor who represented Rome herself, civilization itself, (and we would say Babel itself). Where was their patriotism? It wasn’t a big deal. Just a pinch of incense thrown into the fire with a few words of respect for the emperor.
The Romans didn’t mind that you had your own religion and beliefs. Ancestor worship was all the rage, and it was accepted as normal. You could be a stoic or a hard-nosed soldier who worshiped the god of war or any of the gods of Rome or Greece. It was accepted as part of this great liberal, tolerant, open civilization based on Roman law and Greek culture with a healthy mix of anything and everything from every corner of the empire and beyond. What’s not to like?
The heavy hand we see in the gospels which pictures what it was like in Israel during the time of Jesus was only necessary because the Jews were unusually stubborn about their freedom and their religion. Otherwise, the Romans believed that they were bringing civilization to the far corners of the earth, by force perhaps, but that was simply a necessary evil, a means to an end. But there is more to say, another perspective to take into account.
Jesus had come to establish a church. The word “church” (in Greek) came from the idea of “called out ones” and that was the great transformative concept of Christianity. People were called out of their old religions and beliefs into a new community, a new people, a new commitment that was at odds with their religious history, their ancestor worship, and their foreign gods. Jesus made it clear that to follow him would put his disciples at odds with their families, their communities, and even their culture (Matt. 19:29 NIV).
They did not have to become Jews to become Christians (as some of the Judaizers believed) but they did have to leave their old life behind and become “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17 NIV) as part of a new community dedicated to following Christ. And that didn’t sit well with their parents, their relatives, or their communities (much less their government) as you can well imagine. Persecution seemed like a reasonable solution to such a destabilizing force in the middle of the greatest empire and civilization that the world had ever seen.
So, no. Emperor worship was not going to happen. Jews and Christians would not play ball for different reasons and motives but from that same root belief in a God who was above the King, above the emperor, or any government or leader. And persuasion was not going to work either. They tried that too. Roman education and Greek culture took the ancient world by storm and literally influenced cultures throughout the empire for centuries to come.
The only thing left was to force them to comply and if they didn’t it would result in imprisonment and death. The more unstable the empire became, the more serious the attacks of the barbarians at the gates, the more concerned the powers-that-be were that the empire was showing cracks of dissent and disagreement, the more emperor-worship was emphasized and the more suffering and persecution and martyrdom the Christians would endure as the face of the opposition to this most reasonable requirement of patriotism.
It had elements of an epic showdown between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, the two cities (Rome and the New Jerusalem) facing off with the fate of mankind in the balance. And, as we all know, the effective witness of Christians in the face of persecution and martyrdom as they continued to love and serve their neighbors (and often their enemies) transformed the Roman Empire within 400 or so years.
And that is always God’s plan for the redemption of mankind, to use the blood of the saints as an effective witness to a faith in Him that is unwavering as they follow in the footsteps of their Lord and Master.
Jesus reminds us that “to him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21 NIV).
Paul tells us that we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37 NIV) and reminds us that we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17 NIV).
This is not a new message but, rather, the same message with the urgency of “the hour of trial” which was upon them. By looking at their persecution and suffering from the eternal perspective of God and understanding how significant their effective witness is to the redemptive purposes of God to save mankind from sin and evil, the revelation of Jesus would encourage (as it always has) those who would face the ultimate sacrifice and martyrdom.
Even the rebukes Jesus gives to the seven churches (and the rest of the church throughout the ages) must be seen in this light. The call is to “wake up” and “repent” but there is no doubt that Jesus is talking to his “servants” and his “churches,” and the rebuke must be seen in the context of the seriousness of the situation which we would be unwise to ignore in this or any other age.
This is a call to radical discipleship by giving his people the power to see their suffering from the point of view of heaven and the eternal perspective of the plan of redemption. Their suffering is significant and has an essential role to play in the plans of God.
Even the death and suffering of Christ falls into that same context. The author of Hebrews reminds us of Jesus’ motivation as he faced the cross. “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2 NIV). That is the same joy that this revelation gives us as it reveals what is to come and exhorts us (and even rebukes us) to take sin and evil seriously and to take our significant role of effective witness so that we will be prepared for whatever comes our way whether it ends in martyrdom or not.
How sad that we must, in our day and age, call this “radical” discipleship which Jesus considered our normal worship and ministry in our “new creation” relationship with God (Rom. 12:1 NIV). We are not saved simply to go to heaven when we die. We have a redemptive purpose in this life which gives great significance to our efforts on this earth. Of all things, even with all of the heavenly imagery and perspective, this revelation is about the earth, mankind, sin and evil, and our role in this great, divine redemptive plan of God to save mankind from sin and death (especially the second death).
When you discover the power of this fierce joy that comes from God’s perspective, it will increase your spiritual fervor for effective ministry (Rom. 12:11 NIV) because you are done with sin as you suffer for the gospel (1 Peter 4:1 NIV). Now you are starting to get serious about your discipleship. That is the exhortation (and rebuke) of Jesus for our generation of believers even (and especially) in this day and age.
Pray for healing, of course, but also pray for effective ministry whether you are healed physically or not. That is true healing. That is the prayer of a radical disciple who understands the significant role he or she plays in the redemptive plan of God.
The prayer of Job (Job 1:21 NIV) is a great place to start but even he did not understand that his testimony would result in a life-giving ministry to millions of believers throughout the centuries.
The prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane goes even further since his suffering and death was a ministry to every believer and an act of obedience to God in spite of his horror at becoming sin and drinking the cup of the wrath of God on our behalf (Heb. 12:2 NIV).
The plan of salvation did not end with the ministry and death of Christ and his ascension to the throne prepared for him. No, it was just starting. Now Christ will rule through his people and their effective ministry, empowered and anointed by the Holy Spirit, to bring God’s plan of redemption to each and every soul that needs to be transformed. So that, when the time comes to hand over the kingdom back to God, he would have a people of his very own from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
So, yes, it is true that understanding the historical context of this revelation to the seven churches would give us some interesting insight into some of the things Jesus said to those churches of Asia in the first century.
And, yes, it would be helpful to understand Old Testament apocalyptic literature and even some of the Jewish apocalyptic writings to get more flavor and understanding of particular terms and imagery. No doubt.
But don’t miss the big picture here.
Understanding the Book of Revelations is not an issue of history, language, or imagery. It is a spiritual issue.
This is a revelation meant for the people of God who welcome the rebuke and the exhortation to serious discipleship because they agree with God that sin and evil are serious business and saving mankind is a difficult and bloody task. They love Him for his decision to allow even the suffering and death of his own Son to make it all happen.
These radical disciples also embrace the necessity of their own suffering and (possibly) death in the process of saving the people around them. Like Jesus, they voluntarily accept His will and accept whatever comes their way in faith that He loves them and would never allow even a hair from their head to fall to the ground without a good redemptive purpose behind it.
They agree with the priority of that purpose over their own needs and comfort because they share in that fierce joy that their life has meaning, purpose, and significance as children of God.
Yes, this revelation is a condemnation of the Babel that exists and even thrives without God which we call “civilization.” That is not a popular position to take in our day and age. But, as much as we may want to support our democracy and freedoms, there is a greater issue, an eternal issue that simply cannot be ignored.
Sin is not merely an inconvenience. It is not merely personal, unfortunate, or even a necessary evil. It has eternal consequences, and the second death is no joke.
Christianity, of all religions, is the most dangerous. We are destined to die once and then face judgment (Heb. 9:27 NIV). We don’t just disappear. It isn’t like turning off the TV (although that isn’t such a pleasant idea either). We don’t just go to Nirvana or are reincarnated as something else.
No, it is much worse than that. We will be judged. Not just our intentions or our words but our deeds. And the criterion for that judgment is “perfect love” in all of our relationships (even with God who cannot be ignored).
Who, then, can stand? Who will survive such an event? Why is justice at the heart of our universe? What happened to the love of God? Why will he allow us to go (and even send us) to that dark and painful place without any of his blessings that we call “hell?” What are we missing?
The eternal perspective of God on the seriousness of the consequences of sin and evil and rebellion by mankind against Him and the Hell that would result from that, drove him to fulfill his justice with his love (in the person of Jesus Christ and his ministry and death on the cross). The existence of Hell was not God’s idea. His heart breaks for everyone who is determined to end up there (2 Peter 3:9 NIV). And, at great cost to himself, he found a way to save us.
But that is not automatically applied to everyone. It isn’t magic. It’s a relationship, a new relationship made possible by Christ but made real by the Holy Spirit and witnessed by our own transformation (even in the face of suffering and death). That new relationship is not automatic. The gospel must go out, the witness must testify in the context of the real world with all of its sin and evil, and the redemptive event must take place in the power of the Holy Spirit, one person at a time until the job is done.
That seriousness of eternal priorities and purpose is what this revelation is all about.
We may not want to advertise this counter-culture approach to the purpose of history or the self-destruction that sin and evil will ultimately bring upon themselves. But we can’t be naïve. God’s perspective is obviously not going to be accepted by the world. They don’t believe that there is a manipulation of culture and civilization by the great dragon. They hardly recognize the existence of evil much less sin and certainly not that it is a result of a broken relationship with God.
The perspective of heaven is reserved for those who believe, for those who want the rewards offered, and for those who are willing to pay the ultimate price. Even in the church, this message will begin to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, and the cultural Christian from the radical disciple. It is this spiritual perspective that makes sense of the revelation, and it requires a spiritual mind to understand it and accept it as something other than foolishness (I Cor. 2:14 NIV).
Yes, there is mystery. Yes, there is weeping (and rightly so) for those who are lost. But, for those who see the destructive nature of sin and evil in this life and the eternal, unbearable consequences of that broken relationship in eternity, we cannot only weep, but we must also have a defiant joy that recognizes the significance of our role in the redemptive plan of God to save our families, our friends, and even (and especially) our enemies.
The call to radical discipleship is not easy but it is a path that will bring hope, peace, and joy into any life (and there are many witnesses to that fact throughout history). The question is whether you will only hear the call to radical discipleship, or act on it before it is too late.
“Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it because the time is near” (Rev. 1: 3 NIV).
The Desert Warrior