The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelations 1:9-20 NIV).
Revelations – Day 2 “The Priorities of God”
One of the most difficult, if not harsh, realities of the Christian life is the realization that God may allow us to get hurt, suffer, and perhaps even die horribly.
It seems contradictory given all of Jesus’ warm assurances that we would be taken care of, that we would be clothed and fed and protected from the Evil One.
I imagine that Peter had no idea when he was listening to Jesus on the shores of the Lake of Galilee that one day, he would insist on being crucified upside down since he was not worthy to die as his Master had died (or so the legend goes).
Paul may have been taken by surprise by the pain of the forty lashes less one that he received more than once, not to mention a stoning here and there. I’m sure he must have prayed for deliverance, but God evidently didn’t agree.
Even John, the beloved disciple, seemed to have a charmed life and Jesus had even hinted that he might stay alive until he came back again (John 21:21-22 NIV). But here he was, an old man, arrested, charged, and put in a penal colony on the Island of Patmos just off the coast of Asia Minor and not far from Ephesus where he had been preaching and ministering for a number of years.
“I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9 NIV).
Being in prison was no joke.
The Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96) insisted on emperor worship and targeted the Christians for their stubborn refusal to obey him. Going after the leaders is standard procedure in cases like this. The conditions were harsh, the food barely enough to survive on, and the treatment rough since everyone from the guards to the emperor expected him to die sooner rather than later.
Whenever pain and suffering, injustice, and death come knocking at our door, we usually have a fundamental crisis of faith in the providence of the God who claims to love us. Our prayers go unheard, our expectations of deliverance are dashed to the ground and, finally, we are forced to deal with the harsh reality that God has a different agenda for our lives than we do.
Prayer is not a magic wand.
You cannot hold God to promises of providence and protection just because you can find a passage in the Bible that seems to offer it to you. Many of those passages are in the Old Testament and, although they are still true, there is a New Testament reality, priority, and purpose that has changed the dynamic of the situation.
We are now all prophets, priests, and kings (Rev. 1:6 NIV). There are no common folk (but cf. Exodus 19:1-6 NIV). We may have different roles and ministries, but we must all follow, we must all make disciples, and we must all suffer for the sake of the gospel. There are no exceptions. In the New Testament, there are new priorities. The priorities of warfare and witness.
The providence of God exists in the context of the priorities and purposes of God. It is promised to those who are involved in ministry. The sun shines on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:25 NIV) but you don’t need faith for that creational providence. For believers, creation is the context of redemption, and redemption is the focus of creation.
Even Jesus made it clear that the providence of God was for those who seek first the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33 NIV). He was speaking to his disciples and the expectation was that they would follow him. They may not have known at the time that it would lead to martyrdom for many of them, but they were not naïve about the dangers of following a Messiah in the middle of a Roman occupation. It wasn’t the first time that messiah-followers would be hunted down and crucified.
Even so, how it all played out was different than what they expected. This wasn’t political but rather spiritual warfare. It may have looked the same, even felt the same, since pain and suffering hurt regardless of the cause or the reason. But it was different and vitally so.
Even Jesus demonstrated the priority of loving obedience in the face of suffering and pain. His crucifixion may have looked ordinary to many, but it was extraordinary in every way. What is needed is the perspective of God.
It happened to some in the Old Testament as well and the litany of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, describing the horrible ways that prophets have been murdered, often by their own people, ends with the profound truth that “the world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:38 NIV).
In the New Testament, we all are heroes of faith when we are willing to sacrifice everything for the Kingdom of God. To become a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1 NIV) or a “martyr” (a witness) is expected of all of us and the revelation of the redemptive plan of God in the Book of Revelations demonstrates how God uses that radical discipleship to transform individuals, communities, and even Empires.
The solution is not to shrink back in fear but to embrace the priorities of God in faith. That is the lesson the disciples learned between their sojourn as fishermen in backwater Galilee to their destiny as living martyrs.
But it isn’t a trick of the mind. It isn’t about convincing yourself with gritted teeth or focusing on the glass half full. It is a truth, a conviction, even a fierce joy that considers any price a small one to pay for the pearl of great price – the pleasure of God.
Created for His Pleasure
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
Getting rid of all my small ambitions
to make this one thing the hallmark of my life.
To please God.
Whether I get what I pray for or not,
whether my circumstances change or not,
whether I am healed or not.
To consider every sacrifice a small price to pay
to obtain the pearl of great price.
After all, God’s priority to save mankind from his own sin and evil has the face of your children, your parents perhaps, certainly a few friends, and even a number of people you know in your own church. Each one of them is worth saving. Each one of them, individually and separately, is worth all of the pain and suffering of the cross and whatever sacrifice it takes from us to provide an effective witness bathed in prayer for the Holy Spirit to break through and bring them to salvation.
Peter knew this truth and embraced it. So did Paul. And, obviously, John the beloved disciple, who was supposed to live until the Lord returned or so the rumors had it (John 21:23 NIV) was willing to pay the ultimate price to witness to the transforming presence of God in his life.
And so, we find him in his cell on the Lord’s Day, perhaps sitting in the sun that filtered through the open window of his cell, resting after the makeshift service the few prisoners could throw together to encourage each other in their walk and witness. Apparently, there was a desk and chair for John to sit at, with scrolls to write on, and a pen at hand.
And God would reveal the glory of his priorities, his redemptive plan, and his reasons for allowing his “beloved disciple” (John 13:23 NIV) to suffer so terribly.
We don’t always get to hear his reasons for our suffering but here, in this divine moment, he would reveal his perspective, his plan, and his reasons so that all of us can take comfort in the fact that this was no arbitrary, inconsiderate, or light decision to allow the suffering and death of his people, whom he loved so dearly.
Our participation in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the gospel bears the weight of eternity, the purpose of history, and the urgent necessity of saving as many as possible before the end comes.
And it is coming soon.
“On the Lord’s Day, I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:10,11a NIV).
Before the revelation of God’s plan of redemption and the significant role we would play can be revealed, Jesus, as the head of the church has a few words to say to get us ready. Without understanding the context of what was to come and how important our role would be in the salvation of mankind, the rebuke of his churches may seem harsh.
But it wasn’t. It was necessary in light of what was going to come.
Before a time of effective ministry can take place, there must be exhortations to stand firm, rebukes that lead to repentance, calls to wake up and understand the times that we are in, and our role in the great redemptive rescue that is taking place all around us. And who better to encourage the saints, than the Savior himself?
We haven’t seen him since the ascension after all. He showed up briefly to talk to Paul and we know that he is always around and will be with us to the end of the age (Matt. 18:19,20 NIV).
But this is something different, more significant, more direct. This isn’t John being inspired to write the Gospels or his pastoral letters to the churches. These are the words of the Savior himself, sent to the seven churches of Asia Minor but meant for all the churches, everywhere, down through the ages until he comes again in glory. Because of this unusual appearance, he knew that we would want to make sure it was him.
“I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned, I saw seven golden lampstands and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man” (Rev. 1:12, 13a NIV).
The words “like a son of man,” of course, are a dead giveaway for anyone familiar with the prophecies of the Messiah or Jesus’ own words during his earthly ministry. But what are the “lampstands” all about? Perhaps they looked like candelabras each with seven candles (Zechariah 4), but we aren’t sure (and it doesn’t matter).
Jesus explains a bit later on that the lampstands represent the churches, and he is “among” them. Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven and is sitting at the right hand of God and is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5 NIV). But he is still “among” his churches. Not that he comes down to visit but rather that the churches exist in heaven always with him and that there is no distance, no separation, no disconnect between them. Jesus is “among” his people. He knows what is going on. He is intimately aware of every situation (as becomes evident in his letters to the churches).
“Dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest” (Rev. 1:13b NIV).
And yet, this was no earthly Jesus that John was witnessing but rather the glorified Christ who could only be described with the imagery of heaven. This first description is somewhat normal and evokes the image of a high priest in the Temple. And that is exactly the role of Christ in heaven to be “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5 NIV), which refers to his death on the cross as the first martyr for the truth of God’s perspective on the sin and evil of mankind and what needed to be done about it (cf. I Timothy 6:13 NIV).
He was also the “firstborn from the dead” (Rev. 1:5 NIV) which vindicated him and his ministry in the eyes of God since it was God who raised him from the dead. And he is the first of many that will be resurrected from death.
And therefore, he is worthy to be our high priest, to pray to God on our behalf, to intercede when we face trials and tribulation, to give us prayer support together with the groans of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26 NIV) in our effective and anointed ministry.
This heavenly imagery reflects his role and that is a key point to remember. This is not a photo op or meant to be a realistic picture of what he really looks like. He continues to have a human body into eternity and still looks like the original Jesus whom his disciples knew on earth, but this imagery is meant to evoke in symbolic terms his role, his character, and his purpose as the glorified Christ.
“His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire” (Rev. 1:14 NIV).
Most people interpret this as an indication of wisdom, purity, and truth because of the reference to the white hair that attributes wisdom to the elderly. After all, even heavenly imagery has to have an earthly reference otherwise how could we understand any of it?
The mention of his head and hair also being “white as snow” is generally considered to refer to his purity (Isaiah 1:18 NIV) but is also a description of the “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9 NIV). Describing his eyes to be like “blazing fire” is probably a reference to fire as a purifying force.
The fact that it was coming from his eyes, which are the windows to the soul, probably refers to the fact that this truth is not merely theoretical but relational. It comes from the character of Christ which is a reflection of his relationship with the Father and condemns everyone who would look to him for salvation. After all, salvation begins with accepting the uncomfortable, even burning realization of our true condition before a Holy and Just God.
His role as the wisdom of God coming to purify a people with the refining fire of truth is something that we are familiar with and have experienced for ourselves.
“His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters” (Rev. 1:15 NIV).
Now things are getting a bit more difficult. We might be reminded of Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim who had feet that “gleamed like burnished bronze” (Ezekiel 1:7 NIV).
We might think of Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the statue that represented four kingdoms and the fourth had feet “like clay mixed with iron” (Daniel 2:33 NIV) which would be destroyed by a rock “that would become a mountain and fill the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34,35 NIV).
Perhaps, then, the reference is to say that the kingdom of Christ did not have clay feet but rather feet (or a foundation) like bronze. But what should we make of the phrase “glowing in a furnace?” It would seem to indicate something more like glory than strength but, then again, isn’t the glory of the eternal kingdom rooted in its strength and foundation in the person and work of Christ (who is being described here)?
The reference to the sound of his voice “like the sound of rushing waters” might remind us of Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God coming from the east with the voice like the “roar of rushing waters” (Ezekiel 43:2 NIV).
This seems to connect this imagery of Jesus to the Shekinah glory of God that inhabited the Tabernacle and temple of the Old Testament and that Ezekiel witnessed as leaving Israel in his time. The return of the Shekinah glory in the form of Jesus of Nazareth is now demonstrated with heavenly imagery and effectively connects and bridges the Old Testament and New Testament in one person.
“In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” (Rev. 1:16 NIV).
The last phrase is clear enough since a person’s face represents his character and therefore his glory (or lack thereof). The glory of God is the character of Christ in his willingness to obey his Father in all things, even unto death.
This act of love by Jesus towards the Father, allowed the Father to demonstrate his love for the world by fulfilling his justice through the sacrifice of his son on the cross. His justice is not merely set aside but fulfilled and it was fulfilled not simply as an act of love by Jesus (as the second person in the Trinity) toward the world (although that is true) but as an act of love by Jesus (as the son of man in his earthly form) toward his Father.
That godly character that, in faith, obeyed his Father even when he was asked to become sin for us and drink from the cup of wrath of the very person he loved with all of his heart, soul, and mind – that godly character is his glory and would shine for all of eternity from his face with the brilliance of the sun.
Likewise, the mention of a double-edged sword is clear enough. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the “Word of God is alive and sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The sword represents both divine judgment for those who do not believe and the conviction of the Holy Spirit that leads to repentance for those who do believe.
What is interesting is the reference to “the seven stars” that Jesus is holding in his right hand. We have some help here because Jesus himself interprets the meaning a few verses later on. The seven stars are “the angels of the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20 NIV). When Jesus addresses the seven churches in the next two chapters, each section starts with the words “to the angel of the church” in each one of the locations.
What’s that all about? Does each church have a guardian angel? Or is this more about the generic understanding of the word “angel” as a messenger from God?
Probably the latter (without denying the former). Whether we have a guardian angel whose job it is to bring us a specific message from God (as Gabriel did with Mary in Luke 1:26 NIV), or whether it refers to pastors and prophets who have a similar calling to bring the word of God to the people, the reference is the same.
What is interesting is that the seven stars, angels, or messengers are held in the right hand of Jesus. He is paying special attention to them, keeping them “close at hand” so to speak so that there is a clear and consistent flow of “messages” from Jesus to his people. He speaks to his people through his messengers and that specifically means the spirit-filled leaders who have the gift of prophesy and preaching.
What is also interesting is the implied rejection of the emperor (or his heir) as the god of the universe. There are seven planets in our solar system (not including Pluto) and they are seen as stars by people on Earth. Everyone knew the story of Domitian’s son and heir who died as a child. Since he was not able to take his place as Emperor on earth, he was given dominion over the stars of heaven, according to the official interpretation. But here, the meaning is clear that the “seven stars” are in the right hand of the risen savior and not the dead heir to an ungodly ruler on earth.
There are even more subtle (and not so subtle) references to the cult of emperor worship, but you get the idea. There are also other references to many Old Testament passages that speak of the coming Messiah or God Himself. Again, you get the idea. Don’t get caught up in the details and complexities of the imagery.
The point is to indicate that this was unequivocally the same Jesus of Nazareth, now the glorified Christ, that we all know and love, clothed in the attributes of deity.
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One. I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17,18 NIV).
No one is surprised by John’s reaction to seeing the risen Lord. This isn’t just a visit by his beloved master in the flesh but rather by his glorified Lord in the spirit. Same person. Different role. And, of course, a glorious impact on anyone who sees him, even his beloved disciple.
The theme of death is an important one throughout the book and it is emphasized here as well. He falls at his feet “as though dead” and he is raised up with the words “fear not.” But why should we not fear death? Because he has also died and conquered death and holds “the keys of death and Hades.” His followers can face death confidently, in faith, knowing that Jesus has gone before them, that the gates of hell cannot prevail (Matthew 16:17-19 NIV), and that he has the power to set them free.
“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now, and what will take place later” (Rev. 1:19 NIV).
Again, an exhortation to write. The phraseology here has been taken by some interpreters as an indication of the structure of the entire book. “What you have seen” would indicate John’s prologue and testimony that he was on Patmos and saw the Lord. “What is now” would refer to what Jesus has to say to the seven churches in Asia Minor in the present day. “What will take place later” refers to everything else in the Book of Revelations that has yet to take place.
At first glance, this might seem to be the case. Grammatically, it can be understood just as well to say that “what you have seen” refers both to the present and the future but without any division or distinction. Looking at history from the perspective of heaven requires a healthy respect for “the eternal present” of God and there are many indications in the latter part of the book that refer to past events (like the birth of Christ, the woman and the dragon, etc.).
Although there seems to be some structure around the prologue and epilogue of John, the warnings and exhortation to the churches by Jesus and the revelation of the redemptive plan of God and our significant role in it, being too strict about saying it is “all about the future” is probably not accurate or helpful. It would be better to let the revelation speak for itself.
The book of Revelations is a fascinating piece of literature. Many scholars have studied it and other apocalyptic literature their entire lives and most of them have gotten lost in the details and missed the message. It is a message that is only discerned by the Spirit and is meant only for those who have accepted their role as “living sacrifices” focused on effective ministry for the salvation of souls.
The only way to get there is to embrace the loving purposes of God in faith. To believe that the second death is far worse than the first. To understand that the eternal consequences of sin and evil far outweigh anything we will experience on this earth. To join our master in his suffering so that we can also share in his glory. And that this radical discipleship is not reserved for the leaders, the specially chosen, the elite of the people of God, but for all of us without exception if we take seriously our discipleship even into the jaws of hell itself.
Perhaps it won’t come to that but there are a thousand ways that our discipleship can become effective and all of them require the acceptance of our significant role in the redemption of mankind.
But be warned.
This isn’t about pride or ambition or even about the rewards that Jesus so freely bestows on those who take their discipleship seriously. This is about love. Morality is a limit to our will and rightly so since we are willfully selfish and sometimes even evil. We must put limits on that tendency to think of ourselves first. But love is the freedom of the will since it doesn’t even consider the cost but only the benefit to the other whom we love.
We call it a “sacrifice” because we are truly giving up something that we have every right to keep (and even protect) but if we want to discover the “joy” that Jesus experienced in the face of his most agonizing temptation, we must follow his example and focus on the “joy of the Lord,” the pleasure of God, as our essential motivation for everything we do.
Getting there is not easy, but it is the goal of the Spirit and the expectation of the Father and demonstrated by the Son. Experiencing the fierce joy of pleasing the Father no matter what it costs us is the ultimate definition of radical discipleship and one that all of the disciples (and many others throughout the ages and around the world) have discovered. And you can too.
The Desert Warrior