Revelation about Jesus Christ’
“Revelation of Jesus Christ”
we have in Revelation an unveiling for us of the exalted and glorified Jesus Christ. All the events of this book center around visions and symbols of the resurrected Christ, who alone has authority to judge the earth, eventually to remake the earth, and then to rule over the earth in righteousness. So many people get caught up with the intricate details concerning future events, that they miss the point that the Lord Jesus Christ is the chief subject of this book. If you miss Him, you’ve missed everything.
We also mentioned the fact that many people approach this book with fear and trepidation. It’s a bit mysterious to them, and that usually is because of several of the misunderstandings concerning this book that I believe are often derivative from false methods of interpretation that are applied to it.
Now look with me very, very quickly at chapters 1 to 3 – we see Christ as the exalted Priest King in the midst of His churches. Chapter 2 and chapter 3 in particular – Christ is in the midst, ministering to His church. Then if you look quickly at chapters 4 and 5, we see Christ as the glorified Lamb in the midst of the throne, Christ is in the midst reigning. Then chapters 6 through to 18, a few more chapters, we see Christ as the Lion in the midst of the nations of the world, Christ in the midst judging. Then in chapter 19 we see Christ as the conquering King of Kings, and Christ comes into the midst returning. In chapter 20 we see Christ as the Heavenly Bridegroom in the midst of the marriage supper, and Christ is in the midst of His people rejoicing with them and over His new-found bride and wife, the church. Then in chapter 21 and 22, the last two chapters of the book, Christ is the light in the midst of eternal glory, Christ in the midst of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, shining.
If you think knowledge is the most important aspect to interpreting the book of the Revelation, you’re wrong, it is love: love for the Lord, love for His word, love for His people. May I remind you in our introduction of 1 Corinthians 13:2: ‘Though I have the gift of prophecy’, Paul says, ‘and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity’, love, ‘I am nothing’. Christ is the love of God to our hearts, let’s not miss Him.
John, the author, wrote this book from a vision he received on the Isle of Patmos, and the book was probably written in the late first century, around the 90s AD, which were the latter years of the reign of the Roman Emperor, Domitian. Now that’s important, it’s important as we’ll see a little bit later, the message that this book conveys to these Christians and to ourselves today – to know that John himself was exiled as a persecuted Christian to the Isle of Patmos, and John, when on the Isle of Patmos, receives a vision to give and write to persecuted Christians in seven churches in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey.
Incidentally, there are seven ‘beatitude’, blessings pronounced in the book of the Revelation. We’ve just read the first in chapter 1 verse 3, turn with me to the rest. The second is found in chapter 14 verse 13, speaking of martyrs during the tribulation period here on the earth, in chapter 14 verse 13 John says: ‘I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth’ – those martyred for the cause of the Lord Jesus are blessed. Chapter 16 and verse 15, we read there: ‘Behold, I come as a thief’, Jesus says, ‘Blessed is he that watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame’ – those who are faithful until the coming of the Lord Jesus are blessed. Then turn with me to chapter 19 and verse 9, the marriage supper of the Lamb when the Lord Jesus will be united with His church, ‘He saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb’. Then in chapter 20 and verse 6, we read: ‘Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years’ – those who rise when Christ raptures His church are blessed. Chapter 22 verse 7 Jesus, speaking of how He will come: ‘Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book’. Chapter 22 and verse 14, the ending blessing: ‘Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city’.
Then we see in this blessing at the end, we are to ‘keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand’. Now the word for ‘time’ there in the original Greek that Revelation was written in, is the word for an ‘epoch’, or an era, a season of time in history. But he is saying that this time, this epoch is at hand. John is telling us that the great epoch, the next great epoch in God’s redemptive history is imminent, it is at hand. Now the word ‘imminent’ is very important in Biblical prophecy, it means ‘impending’, something that is about to take place without delay. Now the word ‘imminent’ is different than ‘immediate’. ‘Immediate’ is something that is going to happen there and then, but the second coming of the Lord Jesus, as it is portrayed within the whole of the Bible, tells us that we can expect it at any time – and yet 2000 years have passed and it still could be at any moment, because it is at hand, it’s imminent not immediate
Is it? Will you be with Him evermore? Well, let’s move on. For an introduction I want to give you four points tonight. The first is: my motivation for studying this book. The second is: the mystery that is often perceived in this book. The third is: the methods of interpreting this book. The fourth is: the message of the book.
let me add a caveat to it: it is essential to distinguish in Christian doctrine fundamentals, fundamental issues, from issues that are important but not fundamental. Now listen carefully to this, because this will stand you in good stead for a lot of doctrinal disputes: it’s important to distinguish between fundamental issues and important issues that are not fundamental. Now what do I mean by that? Well, what I mean is: the fundamental non-negotiable truth in prophecy is, Jesus is coming again! Anyone who denies that has denied a fundamental, and has put themselves beyond the pale of Christianity. You’ve got to understand that. But though that is the fundamental, how we understand prophetic scripture, and how Jesus will return again, is not a fundamental – and that’s why we need much grace and love when we deal with a subject like this. There’s much heat rather than light when it comes to prophetic preaching and teaching these days
Now it has to be said that no one has all the answers concerning this book. We cannot be dogmatic on many things that we find within this book. But that being said, we must face, all of us, whatever our prophetic persuasion, the fact that this is the only book in 66 books of the Bible that is called ‘a Revelation’ – the opposite of a dark concealment! It is revealed!
Both are apocalyptic literature, Daniel was told in the Old Testament ‘Conceal it’, John is told in the New Testament ‘Reveal it’. Well, the answer is very simple: Calvary, Jesus died for sinners; the Messiah of God, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the King of Israel – He was buried, three days later He rose again, He ascended into heaven forty days later, ten days later He sent the Holy Spirit into this world. All of these events, these New Testament gospel events, ushered in what the Bible calls ‘the last days’.
Now, the reason for the misunderstanding of the book is probably due to my third point: the methods, the various different methods of interpretation that are applied to it. Here are four – now if you don’t have a notebook and pen with you tonight, you need to get one because you’ll never remember all these things, or get the CD or tape and study these things again. There are four basic approaches to the book of the Revelation. The first is called the preterist school or approach. Really the preterist, which means ‘past’, he interprets Revelation as having already been fulfilled in the first century AD in the events after AD 70, which was after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the scattering of the Jews. They say it symbolises and records the struggle of the Christian church with the Roman Empire of the day, and now that is all past, it’s all fulfilled – that’s what the preterist says.
Then secondly there is the historicist school. The historicists really believe that the book comprises the unfolding of Church history until the second coming of Christ. Now the strength of that view is that it makes it relevant to subsequent ages, and it has a meaning to other generations other than the generation to which it was written. It has to be said there are many parallels between truths in the book of the Revelation and things that have happened in Church history. The weakness of the historicist view is that though it becomes relevant to us, it becomes therefore irrelevant to the original readers, because they would have needed to have an extensive knowledge of history which hadn’t happened yet, and even subsequent readers need to be au fait with history. Though there are parallels, it has to be said that the interpretation of this book by historicists is often in the light of Western European church history, it forgets the rest of the world – and there’s a great divergence of opinion regarding what these symbols represent, and what historical characters they represent, among historicists.
Now, finally, if you’ll bear with me for five minutes: the message of the book. H.B. Sweet says this, and it is profound, and I want to spend a bit of time on it: ‘In form this is an epistle’, never forget that, this is a letter to seven churches that was circulated around Asia Minor. ‘In form it is an epistle containing an apocalyptic prophecy’, apocalyptic meaning, it’s full of signs and symbols that are revealing something, it’s a prophecy, it’s pointing to the future. ‘But’, he says, ‘in spirit and inner purpose it is pastoral’. Warren Weirsbe puts it well, who is a pre-millennialist and a futurist, he says this: ‘Do not get lost in the details, but try to see the big picture and keep in mind that John wrote this book to encourage believers who were going through persecution. Every generation of Christians has had its antichrist and Babylon, and the hope of the Lord’s return has kept those saints going when the going was tough’. Now, yes, it is speaking of the future – hope for tomorrow – but that hope for tomorrow is meant to give you strength for today. It has an application for today: it was a book that wasn’t originally given to these early saints to satisfy their curiosity about the future, it was given to them pastorally to comfort them, to give them hope for the days that lay ahead. Remember what we said: it was written by John, a persecuted Christian; it was written to the churches of Asia Minor, persecuted churches; and it was written for the purposes of encouraging and exhorting them, by reassuring them of this central fact – don’t miss it – Jesus Christ controls the course and the climax of history! The course and climax of history is in His control!
This is how it went, and I’ll just read it as it is, the American pastor asked the Chinese leader: ‘What book in the Bible is most precious to you?’. The Chinese pastor said: ‘Well, probably the book of Revelation, because…’, and the American pastor interrupted him, ‘Because your suffering makes you long for the end of the world, and you’re strengthened by the vision of how it will end with Christ’s victory? Yes?’. The Chinese pastor: ‘That too, but we don’t just take Revelation to be a description of the way the world will end, we see it also as a description of the way the world is now’. ‘I’m not understanding you’, the American pastor said, ‘Surely Revelation is a book that tells us how the world will end?’. He agreed, ‘Yes it is, but I am telling you that it is also a description of the way the world is now. Suffering has made this clear to us in China, clearly prosperity has hidden this from you in America’. ‘You see’, he went on, ‘We had a Caesar here in China called Mao Tse Tung and he, like the Caesar of the early church period, demanded what was only God’s – that he should be worshipped as a god. As in Revelation, he used a beast to coerce us, communism; and a false prophet to beguile us, false bishops. When we resisted this idolatry with the testimony of the Lamb, we were slaughtered and jailed. In this way we saw that Revelation is a description of spiritual warfare that always goes in any society, including yours’. The American pastor said, ‘But it’s not going on in America today – you say we have that hidden from us, what do you mean?’. ‘Well’, said the Chinese leader, ‘this conflict is obvious to us in China. You could not miss that Mao Tse Tung was setting himself up as an idol and demanding worship, so the veil was removed and we saw the world as it really is – a place where idols are demanding our worship. But this is not obvious to you in America because it is more subtle’. The pastor from America said: ‘Maybe it’s not happening at all, we are a Christian country and we have a Christian president’. The Chinese pastor said: ‘I tell you, there are Caesars or idols in your society just as much as in ours, and even in your churches – and there are false prophets telling you that the idolatry is biblical, and beasts coercing you. For example, your Caesar may not be a person but an idea. In our fellowship’, he said, ‘we have a clever young man who lived with an American family for a year whilst studying. The couple was generous, but he noticed something about them: they were always exhausted. Both worked incredibly hard, though they had plenty of money. They had three cars, two homes, expensive country club memberships – and, as far as he could tell, gave only a minimum to the Lord’s work. They never asked him a single question about the Chinese church, and when he left they give him an envelope with $20 in it. He told us: I felt so sorry for them, they thought they were free but they were slaves. They were dropping from exhaustion because they had to live up to something called the American dream, but they never knew that the pursuit of that life had stolen their heart from Christ’. ‘Hmmm’, said the American pastor, ‘If what you say is true, then consumerism could be a more effective killer of faith than communism’. The Chinese pastor said: ‘You’re right, and this is what we are afraid of here in China. Consumerism clutters up life so much that’ – listen to this – ‘we fail to see the world as it is: full of idols trying to steal our worship from God’.
Revelation is about the future, but do not miss its message for the present. It doesn’t just describe the world as it will be, but that iniquity works already – it describes the world as it is!
“Inspired, Inerrant, Infallible Word of God.”
Revelation: From God to man (man hears what God wants written)
Inspiration: From man to paper (man writes that which God wants written)
Illumination: From paper to heart (man receives that which God has written)
This is absolutely a must if we are going to read and believe the Bible that every word is inspired by God and from God!
2nd Peter 1:19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
20Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
21For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost
So we believe in what is called the plenary, verbal inspiration of holy Scripture. That means: plenary, every word of the verbal Scripture, that is every word of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that were given to the authors of those books, are divinely inspired by God. Let us never lose that, for we are living in a day where in many places it has been lost. The ancient designation is given to the source of this letter, God is described as ‘him which is, and which was, and which is to come’. Now there is a lesson for us: these Christians who were facing fiery trials from the Emperor Domitian, they were taking security in the One who was the source of this letter, that is the unchangeable God – the One who was, and is, and ever shall be the same. There is another doctrine: the doctrine of the immutability of God, the unchangeableness of the Almighty.
There is another doctrine: the doctrine of the immutability of God, the unchangeableness of the Almighty.This God that is inspiring, who is the source and signature to this book, He’s coming! He’s not just the One who ever will be eternally in His nature, but He’s coming, He’s going to enter history again…I want you to note one difference in this designation of God in verse 4 from the original ancient name for God. You see the original name goes like this: ‘The One who was, and is, and ever shall be’, that’s not how John has it. He has it: ‘The One who was, and is, and is to come’. I want you to note that, because right away we are seeing that John is emphasising the prophetic nature of this book. This God that is inspiring, who is the source and signature to this book, He’s coming! He’s not just the One who ever will be eternally in His nature, but He’s coming, He’s going to enter history again.
This is a prophetic book, don’t let anybody tell you it’s not
If you have a margin to your Bible, if it’s a study Bible, it might even render the seven Spirits of God as ‘the sevenfold Spirit of God’. Now, let me show you what I think this actually means when it says ‘the seven Spirits of God’. Turn with me to Isaiah 11, verse 2 of Isaiah 11 reads like this, speaking of the One who was to come, that is Messiah in His first coming to earth, that’s already happened, it says that: ‘the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him’, there is the first description of the Holy Spirit there, ‘the spirit of the LORD’, which is the name for Jehovah, so it is ‘the spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon him’, one; ‘the spirit of wisdom’, two; ‘the spirit of understanding’, three; ‘the spirit of counsel’, four; ‘the spirit of might’, five; ‘the spirit of knowledge’, six; and ‘the spirit of the fear of the LORD’, seven. It’s speaking, I believe, of seven characteristics of the one Spirit of God. If you had time, and we don’t tonight, you could go into Zechariah chapter 4 and see that the Holy Spirit is represented there as the seven branches of the Jewish menorah, the candlestick, the lampstand
The only reason He is third in this instance is that there is going to be a long description of Him in the rest of this portion of Scripture. Verse 5: ‘And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth’, we’ll stop there. Jesus Christ, this message comes from Him, and is about Him.
I remember when we had our gatherings over in the old building, that one evening after a Monday night meeting, or before it, or before Sunday or something, I lifted a little booklet that was pushed under the door about the book of the Revelation. The long and the short of it was, this author – who remained nameless, but I know who he is because sometimes he comes to this meeting – he actually propounded that the book of the Revelation was not inspired. His reasoning for doing that was, he said it portrays Christ as a mere man apart from God. He was implying that the book of Revelation is not trinitarian, and because it’s not trinitarian it should be rejected. Now that man is not here tonight, but if he were – just in case any of you are thinking along the same lines – you need to read the fact that this book is not only a book with a blessing, it’s a book with a curse. In Revelation 22, we read at the end of it: ‘If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book’. It’s bad enough to take something out of the book, but to take Revelation out of the Bible is an entirely different and more serious sin.
Then He is described secondly as ‘the first begotten from the dead’, or ‘the firstborn of the dead’ – now that doesn’t mean that He was the first person raised to life again, because He wasn’t, He raised three Himself. But He was the first to rise from, now mark this, the mass of men who had died, in order that He would die no more, now that’s different. Lazarus was raised, he died again. The widow of Nain’s son was raised, he died again. Jairus’ daughter was raised, she died again – but Christ has risen to die no more in the power of an endless life!
But I want you to see also in these three names of the Lord Jesus Christ that, first of all, faithful witness speaks of how He began this age. What am I talking about? Well, He came as the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us, and He witnessed to God, He displayed Him. Then we see that He died, but He became the firstborn from the dead – He rose again! He ascended to heaven, and that’s the present, that’s where we are now. How is it all going to end? He’s coming back as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Those are the three offices of the Lord Jesus Christ: the faithful witness, He is God’s Prophet; the firstborn from the dead, He is a man in the glory at the right hand of God, a Mediator for us, a Great High Priest, Prophet Priest; and He’s coming again as King, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Well in verse 5, at the very end, is it any wonder that John bursts into a doxology of praise? Can I just say that it’s wonderful to have a spirit that naturally and spontaneously bursts into praise? We don’t have too many like that these days! How could you not praise God after getting a glimpse of the One who was, and is, and is to come, of the seven Spirits before the throne, of the faithful witness, the firstborn from among dead ones, the ruler over the kings of the earth? He cries, look at it, ‘Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood’. Why does he do that? Apart from the obvious, as I’ve stated. I think it is because he knows that this One who he has just seen and had described to him by the Holy Spirit is not an august and distant Deity who is administrating His rule passively without care or feeling, but this Christ is the One who loved us and washed us from our sins in His very own blood!
Now I know I say this all the time, and I’m probably going to get sued by whoever wrote the song, but I hate it: ‘From a distance God is watching us…’, He’s not at a distance! He’s at blood-nearness, flesh and blood. Incidentally, the tense here is not ‘loved’ in the past, it actually speaks of the present continuous action, ‘He loves us’. He loves us, and ‘washed’ is in the past – completed work! He has loved us, but He does love us, but His washing of us is something that happened a long time ago! There is an order here, now mark it carefully, and this is precious: He loved us before He ever washed us – now that’s mighty. Romans 5 and verse 8 says that it was ‘while we were yet sinners’, while we were still in our sin Christ died for us – add to that fact that He was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, and we were in Christ then
Do you need to be washed from your sins tonight, and have the assurance of salvation? There is only one way – water will not wash it, whether it is baptistic water, it’ll not do anything – only the blood of Christ will wash it away. Do you want to be redeemed? Not redeemed by your tradition, or by your religion, or by money, you’re redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. You must trust in that blood. If you’re a Christian and you’re struggling with sin, you need to hear tonight that you’ve died with Christ, and His shed blood has allowed you to have His righteousness. You can overcome the devil himself by the blood of the Lamb and the power of your testimony.
We need, all of us, to be depending upon the blood of Christ. There’s another doctrine – theologians call it ‘soteriology’, the doctrine of salvation. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? To save us at such a price was more than we ever deserved, but do you know what the mighty thing in this portion of Scripture is? That’s not where God stops, for He doesn’t just leave us saved, but verse 6 shows us – look at it: ‘He hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father’. He has enrolled us in service. We have salvation, but now He calls us to serve, and not to serve an earthly sovereign but the Sovereign, the God of all heaven.
Verse 9 of 1 Peter 2 says that as royal priests there’s something we do also, we ‘shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. So if we operate as holy priests through worship, practical service, what Peter is saying here is that we operate as royal priests in witness. We tell others of the wonderful Saviour whom we have! Can I just say in passing that the priesthood is not the domain of professionals. There is no clergy/laity system in the word of God, for that matter there isn’t any one-man ministry at all. We are all priests before God, men and women. As holy priests we worship, as royal priests we witness – and a priest is a person who speaks to God on behalf of men, and he’s a man who speaks to men on behalf of God, and that’s the two sides of this responsibility. As holy priests we go into the church, the assembly, to worship; and as royal priests we go out to witness. The problem is, because it has become a professional job for ministers and pastors and the rest, the saints of God have ceased doing it and decided, ‘We’ll pay somebody else to do it on our behalf’ – that’s unbiblical.
That will become manifest in verse 7: ‘Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen’. This is the theme of the book, it’s what it’s leading up to in chapter 19, where the Sovereign Lord comes to dispossess His enemies from the earth. This blessed One that you have just seen is coming! Here’s three things about this coming: one, it is an undeniable certainty. ‘Behold, He is coming with clouds’. In Acts chapter 1 we read that the apostles gathered and saw the Lord Jesus go up into heaven in a cloud, and the angel said: ‘This same Jesus that you have seen go in this manner, shall so come again in like manner as you have seen Him go with clouds’ – is that not what it says? ‘Behold, He cometh with clouds’. The scoffers may say, as Peter said in his day, ‘They say, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? The fathers have died and sleep, they spoke of His coming, and He didn’t come and they died”.
- 2nd Peter 3:4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
What this is speaking of is that Christ is not only the beginning and the ending, but He is the Supreme Sovereign Divine Alphabet, there is nothing outside His knowledge. Colossians 2: ‘In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’, that’s why He is called at the end of verse 8, ‘the Almighty’ – El-Shaddai, the Omnipotent God! The book of the Revelation is the consummation of all things by the Alpha and Omega, by the beginning and the ending. Someone has called it, and I like this, ‘Revelation is the Grand Central Station of the Bible, because it’s here where all the trains come in’.
The book of the Revelation is the consummation of all things by the Alpha and Omega, by the beginning and the ending. Someone has called it, and I like this, ‘Revelation is the Grand Central Station of the Bible, because it’s here where all the trains come in’.
‘What trains?’, you say. Trains of thought, trains of thought that began in the book of Genesis and followed through to the other Bible books, such as the concept of the scarlet line of redemption, the nation of Israel, the Gentile nations, the church, Satan and the adversaries of God, God’s people, the Antichrist, many many more trains – and they’re all coming together. I wish I had time to show you tonight. In Genesis you have the commencement of heaven and earth, verse 1 chapter 1, ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth’. Here in chapter 21 of Revelation we have the consummation of heaven and earth. Genesis chapter 3 we have the entrance of sin – praise God, in Revelation 21 we have the end of sin, the end of the curse. In Genesis chapter 3 we have the dawn of Satan and his activities, in Revelation 20 we have the doom of Satan and all His adversaries. In Genesis chapter 2 and 3 we have the tree of life relinquished, rejected, and then in Revelation 22 the tree of life is regained. In Genesis chapters 2 and 5 death makes an entrance – praise God, in Revelation 21 death makes an exit, gone forever! In Genesis 3 sorrow begins; in Revelation 21 sorrow is banished – we could go on and on, and on and on – all of it due to what? The Revelation of Jesus Christ, it’s all in Him, He is the total message of this book. Indeed, He conveys the whole revelation of the truth that God wants man to know, it’s in Him! There is nothing revealed before Him, there is nothing after Him, there is nothing without Him – He is the sum total of all of God’s revelation to mankind.
William MacDonald put it well: ‘The one He is who spans time and eternity, and exhausts the vocabulary of excellence. He is the source and the goal of creation, and it is He who began and will end the divine programme in the world. He is the Almighty’. Even so, come Lord Jesus
Now if you look at verse 11 you have there designated the names of these seven churches, the second half of the verse tells us they were: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Let me say right away that there were most certainly more than seven churches in Asia Minor, we know that from the Scriptures. I’ll give you two for instance: there was Colossae, the letter of Paul to the Colossians proves that; there was Miletus, as Acts chapter 20 shows us, and there were various other churches, we’ll not take time to mention them. So the fact that John mentions seven, the Lord Jesus is inspiring him to do so, it’s obvious that these seven in particular were representative of something that John wanted to communicate – and we will see that very clearly when we turn to chapters 2 and 3 and look at those seven churches in detail, but they are chosen for characteristics that the Lord Jesus wanted to highlight
And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches”.
He doesn’t use any ecclesiastical terms concerning himself, not even the title ‘apostle’ that he was perfectly right in using if he had done – but he just calls himself ‘John’, and he also confesses his solidarity with those who were in the churches of Asia Minor who were suffering for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the apostle John was there incarcerated on the Isle of Patmos. So we saw in previous weeks that this book is a letter written by a suffering saint to the suffering saints of Asia Minor. It’s terribly important that we remember that in all of our interpretations.
God’s plan is that suffering, tribulation, is the pre-requisite for entering into the kingdom of God. In other words, there will be no crown without the cross – for the Savior the cross must come before the crown, and it is no different for us, His servants. It is the suffering, and then the glory: that is God’s order.
We want to entertain people into the kingdom of God today, these folk were dying to get them in – literally.
Can I say to you, discouraged servant of the Lord: that is always the case for the saints of God. No matter what you have experienced in your past, and no matter how useless you feel you are in the present, the best is always yet to be – even if that is death itself. Things can only get better for the people of God!
Psalm 25:14 “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” Do you really want to see and hear Him? It’s up to you!
There is a lesson for us all, and please don’t miss it: to love the Lord Jesus Christ is to view the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not how much you know, but it’s got a lot to do with how much you love. This beloved disciple who had a special place before the Lord when He was on the earth, also found a special place before the Lord when He had ascended to heaven.
So the voice that spoke and said ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last’ is the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God the Son. How could anyone doubt the doctrine of the Triune Godhead, and the deity of our Lord Jesus?
Now, of course, note in verse 13 that the focal point of this vision is not so much the seven churches, but Christ in the midst of the church – He is the focal point of the vision. The Spirit of God wants these seven churches of Asia Minor to recognize the One who is in their midst.
Now why do I tell you all that? Well, at the moment Israel’s testimony for God is suspended because of their unbelief. So, during this age, which is the church age, the Church of Jesus Christ gives testimony to God on the earth, and it is a complete testimony – as the seven lampstands testify, seven being the number of completeness – but these seven lampstands are separate. It’s not now seven lights on one candlestick, it’s not an entity that is one nation, but seven separate local churches giving testimony to the Lord Jesus – individual congregations, each of these lampstands, as you can see, stands alone: single stemmed, freestanding, with one base.
We have to reach out to unbelievers, but we don’t order ourselves according to what suits them, but what suits Christ for He is the one and only Head of the church. Of course the parable of the lampstand, which we looked at as we were going through Mark’s gospel, shows us that the Lord Jesus envisaged that we, the church, should be the ones who should shed abroad His light in this age.
Here’s a second practical application: Christ, just as He is in this vision, today is in the midst of His church. Now let me ask you: do you believe that? Do you believe that Christ is here, now? He said: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age’. He said: ‘I will not leave you comfortless, orphans, I will come to you’. He said: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst’. That is a truth that should revolutionise our gatherings as Christians: that Christ is still in our midst!
Here’s a third practical application of the lampstand: please note that there is nothing between the Lord Jesus and each individual lampstand. Let me be more specific: there is no agency, there are no hierarchies, no organisations – each of these lampstands are autonomous, they are self-governing, and the only thing that unites them in common is their relationship with Christ. I believe that’s the way it should be. No denominations, no churches gathering concerning particular interpretations, but just in their relationship to Christ. That’s the way it was in the beginning, and I believe it’s the way it should be today.
Now how does He appear here in Revelation 1 in the midst of the church? Let’s look first of all at His dress. The first thing we see – and if you look at the screen it will give you a picture of it, but do look at the scriptures primarily – is that the Lord Jesus is wearing a linen white robe, and He is adorned by a sash across His breast. Now Exodus 28 verse 4 tells us that this was the garb of the High Priest of Israel. Now there are many other things mentioned there, but certainly this dress that the Saviour is shown to wear here is the high priestly garb – but it’s a little bit different in that the Lord is appearing here as not just the High Priest in the midst of the churches, but He is appearing to judge them, so we could say that this is the High Priest Judge before us.
Now in Scripture we find that angels represented nations, we find that Peter, according to the church of his day, had a guardian angel who looked after him when he was in prison and escaping. We find in Hebrews that angels are ministering spirits – should it be strange if we think that angels can represent churches before God? After all, God gave this vision to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ gave the vision to an angel, and an angel gave the vision to John the apostle. Why should it be strange that these letters should be addressed to angels that may well represent some of these churches? But the final reason for me interpreting it like this is verse 20: it’s very unlikely for John to interpret the symbol of a star by another symbol – did you hear that? It is very unusual for John to interpret one symbol by another symbol, because that’s what he’d be doing if these angels meant something other than angels – but he interprets the symbol, star, as an angel. Well, I’ll leave it there, I’m sure many of you won’t agree with me on that. The point is this: these stars are in Christ’s right-hand, and in the next number of weeks we’re going to see in these seven letters to the seven churches that He has some scathing criticism of them as their High Priest Judge – and yet, with all that, they are secure in His right hand.
The sixth description we have of Him here in verse 16 is that out of His mouth comes a twoedged sword – and that is, I believe, the judging power of the word of God as we see it in Hebrews 4 and John 12. It is here Christ’s judgement not of the church’s enemies, but of the church! Then seventhly in verse 16 we see that ‘His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength’, ‘brilliant’ is the word, it is the word ‘dynamus’ that we get the word ‘power’ and ‘dynamite’ from, it is Christ’s glory. When you can find all of these depictions and descriptions of the Lord Jesus, you see Him as the Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest as He is in His ministry to the church now in this age, supremely as the High Priest and Judge of His people. Now later we’re going to see in this Apocalypse that He judges His enemies and His foes, but here He is judging His church – why? Because judgement must begin at the house of God! So that’s where it begins here in the book of Revelation.
I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last’. Now this is beautiful: John expires, as if he was dead he falls. This was not prostration of worship, he was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he falls before Christ! The Lord Jesus reaches out His right-hand and touches him – this is mighty! The hand in which He holds the church is also at the disposal for an individual saint of God who needs His touch. Does that help you tonight? It helps me! He’s not too busy to take my needs into account, and He says to John and He says to us: ‘Fear not; I am the first and the last’, the title of Jehovah Himself – why should we fear?
‘I am He that became dead’, that’s what it literally means. It doesn’t sound that good in English, but that’s what it means, because He could not die. We are dying from the moment we are born, but this is the Eternal Son of God and He became dead. The One eternally alive died and rose again, and is now alive for evermore. He says, look at it in verse 18, He has the keys of Hades and of death. Now Hades was the realm of the dead, and that speaks of the soul. Death speaks of the grave, which is where the body goes. What the Lord is saying is: ‘Because I died, and because I was buried, and because I rose again, I have the keys of Hades – the place for the soul – and the grave – the place for the body’. Oh, this is precious: Christ snatched from Satan his power over death, it was his and it’s no longer his! Now He possesses authority over death; and that means, Christian here tonight, no one can die who is saved apart from His divine permission. That helps me – as one old saint of God said: ‘I am immortal until it is my time to go’, so are you if you’re a child of God.
You see, the potential problem with the church in John’s day, and I believe it has been the church’s problem every day since Pentecost, is that they lose a vision of the glorified Lord. The tempter, Satan, is conscious that many good men will never be deflected by outright evil, so his ploy is that he seeks to get them obsessed by other things. He gives preeminence of place to displace Christ from His central position. Church history observers for years have pointed out that almost every organization that began in the power of the Spirit, sooner or later gradually were drawn away from their devotion to Christ – every one. What has been true of organizations has also been true of individuals: distracted from a vision of the glorified Christ in our midst
Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God”.
‘Write the things which thou hast seen’ – that comprises the vision of chapter 1 – ‘and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter’. The things which shall be hereafter, chapter 4 right to the end of the book, things that are yet to be, in the sense of future. What we are looking at these weeks, as we look at the seven churches, in the things which are – the things that were for John as he wrote these books, these seven letters – but these are also the things which are for us, because as they referred to the church age, we are also in the same age as John was.
‘Write the things which thou hast seen’ – that comprises the vision of chapter 1 – ‘and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter’. The things which shall be hereafter, chapter 4 right to the end of the book, things that are yet to be, in the sense of future. What we are looking at these weeks, as we look at the seven churches, in the things which are – the things that were for John as he wrote these books, these seven letters – but these are also the things which are for us, because as they referred to the church age, we are also in the same age as John was.
Now let’s move on to the prophetic interpretation to give it some time for a moment. When we look at the seven churches from that perspective and understanding, we see that this loveless church of Ephesus speaks of the post-apostolic church, that’s how scholars often understand it – that is, the first century church that was generally praiseworthy but had already begun to leave its first love. Next week we will look at the church of Smyrna, which speaks of the persecuted church, the church from the first century through to the fourth century who were persecuted under various Roman emperors. The third church of Pergamos is the compromising church, which fits very well with the church of the fourth and the fifth century Christianity which became recognized as the official religion through Constantine the emperor’s patronage. Incidentally, some scholars see these first three churches as conditions of the early church, and the next four as general conditions and main components of what we would call Christendom today – those who profess to be Christ’s, whether they belong to Him or not. So those four remainder churches are: Thyatira, which we could title ‘The Corrupt Church’, and it fits well with the sixth century to the 15th century, or if you like right up to today. The Roman Catholic Church largely held sway in Western Christendom until it was rocked by the Reformation, and in the East the Orthodox Church ruled. Then we have the church at Sardis, which could be called ‘The Dead Church’, the 16th and 17th century, or right up to today, the post-Reformation period where various reformation denominations began to grow cold and away from the doctrines of the Reformation. Philadelphia could be called ‘The Faithful Church’, and of course it is very similar to the 18th and 19th century right up to today, where there were mighty revivals and awakenings, and missionary endeavour increased right across the globe – and we know that that’s still happening in places today. Then finally the seventh church of Laodicea, and in the prophetic understanding of these seven letters they are ‘The Lukewarm Church’, picturing the last days church, an apostate church through false teaching and various other problems.
‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches’ – seven times it is repeated. In other words – ‘He that hath an ear to hear’ – there is a personal application, as well as a prophetic, a universal and a literal, there is a personal application of the teaching of these seven letters to the seven churches.
So let’s look at these five different features in this particular letter to Ephesus tonight. First of all let’s look at the characteristic of Christ that we find in verse 1. He is depicted for us as the one who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands. In other words, Christ is in His proper place in that sense of guiding, controlling and ruling all that goes on in this assembly. The churches are depicted as being secure because Christ is holding them firmly in His right hand. Now incidentally there are four mentions of these seven stars being held in the right hand of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look at the first, it’s found in verse 16 of chapter 1 and it speaks of the seven stars being in the right hand of the Lord Jesus – that speaks of security. If you look at verse 20 of chapter 1, we read of the seven stars being on the right hand of the Lord Jesus – that speaks of support. In chapter 2 verse 1 He is holding the seven stars in His right hand – that speaks of control. In chapter 3 verse 1 it says He has the seven stars in his right hand – speaking of possession. He controls the churches, He is the support of the churches, He is the security of the churches, He has the churches in His possession – and what is being communicated to us in all of these visions is that all the church needs is in the hand of the risen Christ! Do you believe that?
But very quickly the Lord Jesus moves from commendation of this church to criticism of this church. Let’s look at that in verse 4, for He says: ‘Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love’. Who would ever have expected it? I doubt none of us would have, other than the Lord Jesus Christ who, remember, has these eyes of fire. With x-ray omniscient vision He was able to see what no one else could see. Now if love was measured by activity, the Ephesians would have been the most loving church in existence, but you see it’s not. Activity is not the same as love.
Now, what does this verse mean? ‘You have left your first love’. What is your first love? Well, it’s not immediately clear from this verse, and some have said that this means ‘a love of first importance’. What I mean is, it’s speaking of their love for Christ, they have lost their love and devotion to the Lord Jesus. Others have said: ‘Well, this means their love for one another’, and it was a common characteristic of the New Testament church how much they loved one another. Others have said: ‘Well, it is their love for mankind in general’. It is very hard to pinpoint exactly which one of those three it would be, but then there are others who say: ‘This is not speaking of a love of first importance, but rather a love that is first in point of time’. What I mean by that is – and that of course incorporates all three of these loves – the love for the Lord, the love for one another, and the love for mankind in general. Let me put it how J. B. Phillips translates it: ‘You do not love as you did at first’, I believe that is the sense of this verse. You do not love the Lord Jesus, love one another, love all mankind, as you did at first. To put it in our terms, if I could, what is being said to Ephesus is: the honeymoon period of your early love in the first days of your Christian faith is now over – for the Lord, for one another, for the lost world.
What about your enthusiasm that you used to have years ago for the Lord Jesus Christ? Could it be said of you: you do not love as you did at first? Has the fire and the passion, and the fervency and the ardour, has it gone? For the Ephesians – who knows, only God – but could it have been that the idol of their sound doctrine had taken the place of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself? Therein lies a great danger, because orthodoxy costs too much when love has to go out the window. These Ephesians were like the pitbulls of doctrinal dogma: in the midst of their fight with false apostles, and in the midst of their right, correct doctrine, they lost their love for Christ, for one another, and for mankind as it was in the beginning of their faith.
So the Lord gives them this corrective command in verse 5, and it is found in three steps, and they are three R’s if you like alliteration. The first is ‘Remember’, the second is ‘Repent’, and the third is ‘Repeat the works you did at first’. Look at the first: remember. Now, somewhere along their history there had been a considerable drop off in the fervency of their love. Now, a generation earlier, when Paul the apostle wrote the epistle to the Ephesians, we see that they were commended for their love. Turn with me to Ephesians for a moment, Ephesians chapter 1 and verse 15, Paul says: ‘Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints, Cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers’. ‘I’m rejoicing because I’ve heard of the great love you have’. Now, when we go to the end of the book to chapter 6, turn with me, verse 24, he says: ‘Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity’, and I think the implication is that they did.
Now not only did Paul commend them for their love, but he commanded them to grow in their love. Look at chapter 4 please of Ephesians, verse 2: ‘With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love’, love each other in your dealings. Verse 15: ‘Speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ’, converse with one another and deal with one another in love. Verse 16: ‘From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love’, edify one another, build one another up, encourage one another in love.
What generation of a Christian are you? I know how many generations of a Christian I am, and it is so easy to slip away gradually from our love as it was at first without hardly realising that it is happening! What is the answer to that? The Lord’s corrective command to this church was: remember from whence you are fallen! Go back in your thoughts to those first days – and the Greek of ‘remember’ here is in the imperative present, that literally means ‘keep on remembering’, hold in your memory, never forget on a continual basis the love you once had for the Lord! Pray to God that it will come back again! Again Cowper grasps it:
‘Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the LORD?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus, and His word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill’.
Where Ephesus, those ruins that you saw tonight, are now there is no church as was then! Did the demise of the city of Ephesus, perhaps, affect the church? Or was the manner of Christ’s judgement the demise of this city of Ephesus, and the silting up of the harbour that you saw? Are you viewing it through Christ’s eyes or the world’s eyes? If you see it through Christ’s eyes, He removed the candlestick. He used geographical, meteorological means. He can use political means, He can use theological means. Can I ask you again, whatever assembly you belong to, and particularly the folk here in the Iron Hall: can you see the outcome of Christ in our midst? Do you look objectively at our history and our present and see Christ at work, judging in His church? Do you see conditions prevailing in local churches today as the intervention of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest Judge? Or do you look at it all from man’s perspective?
Another commendation which we missed is found in verse 6: ‘This thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate’. ‘You hate what I hate’, the Lord Jesus says, that’s a wonderful thing. Now notice please that it was the practices of the Nicolaitanes that they hated, not the persons themselves – that’s an important distinction to make. Now we can’t be positive who these Nicolaitanes were, there are really two views on this generally. The first is that the church fathers testify that this sect was connected with Nicolas, who was one of the seven leaders in the church of Jerusalem who were appointed in Acts 6:5, and they say that he started teaching falsehood and people followed him into this sect. But there are other early writings that deny that, and of course Acts 6:5 says that Nicolas was a man full of the Holy Ghost – he was a good man, so I don’t think that’s the case. It may well have been a radical movement that taught immorality and various other heresy. But there are other scholars who believe the second interpretation, that when you dissect the meaning of this name it actually means ‘conquerors of the people’, or ‘rule over the laity’ – and they see a reference there to the clerical system. In fact, Archbishop Richard C. Trench himself stated plainly: ‘Nicolaitanism is clericy’. Now it is true that not long after John wrote this book of the Revelation, Ignatius, a church father, counselled the church to look upon her bishop as they would upon Christ – and we see the beginning of something that has plagued the church of Jesus Christ for centuries.
Now if you don’t want to pinpoint one of those interpretations, I would favour the second – we certainly can see both: that the Lord hates anything that divides His people! Heresy or clericy, Jesus hates it, the Ephesians hate it, and we should hate it too. Incidentally, what the Ephesians rejected, we will see in a later week, Pergamos embraced in chapter 2 verses 15. They fully imbibed the teaching of the Nicolaitanes. There is a lesson for us as an assembly and as churches of God’s people: you don’t do things because other people do them, or other assemblies do them. Though they lacked love, they didn’t get rid of their orthodoxy – notice that? In fact, the Lord commended them for their orthodoxy.
Then fifthly and finally, the Lord makes a commitment to the overcomers among them. Now, again there’s a wee bit of controversy here concerning who these overcomers are, and there are basically two interpretations. The first is that they are all believers, all people who have put their trust and faith in the Lord Jesus, in keeping with 1 John chapter 5 verses 4-5 that says: ‘For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?’. Of course John is writing this book, as he did his first epistle – incidentally, I think that out of 27 references to overcomers in the New Testament, 23 of those are made by the apostle John, so it’s a favourite word of his. Here he shows that those who overcome are those who simply have faith in believing that Jesus is the Son of God.
But there’s a wee bit of a problem with that, simply because these promises to the overcomer seem to be conditional: ‘If you do this, you will overcome’. It seems to be upon overcoming the conditions that are prevailing in these particular churches that they would be blessed. So the second interpretation is that these overcomers are the faithful and obedient children of God, and failure to overcome means a loss of reward – not salvation of course, but of reward. Now there’s a problem I foresee with that as well, because the blessings that are given to each of these overcomers in the seven letters are all common as the heritage of every believer – you look at them when you get home. It might be up to you to make up your mind, but I think a satisfactory answer may be found in that I think these overcomers are what a true believer is expected to be in the assembly where these conditions prevailed. So in this assembly that had lost its love as it was at first, it needed to remember, to repent, to repeat the works they did it first, and they would know the Lord’s blessing as evidence that they were true believers of the Lord Jesus Christ. For each church that may well be different, but it demonstrates their genuineness in churches that ultimately were a mixed multitude, as you will see next week, and from the parable of the wheat and the tares.
Incidentally, please notice the first three of these churches, the voice of the Spirit speaks to the whole church, and the voice of the Spirit speaks before the overcomer – and so the Spirit is speaking to everyone. In the last four churches we find the Spirit speaking after the overcomer, so the Spirit is speaking to the overcomers in those four last churches – which is like an implication that for the first three churches, they had a chance, but the last four hardly have any chance, and people in it need to listen up as individuals! That’s really the message tonight. You might disagree with the odd point that I’m making tonight, and I’m sure many of you will, but here’s the important question: if you were in any one of the seven churches, would you have overcome the conditions that prevailed? You see the lesson is: we must overcome where we are. There was only one church in Ephesus, probably, and they didn’t have cars and buses and trains to, when they got upset, go to the one down the road! They had to overcome where they were! You don’t hear much of that today.
Their reward was the tree of life in the Paradise of God, the Garden of God, Eden restored, which we find in chapter 21 and 22.
This is mine” as in the book of Daniel chap 2 we read “28 But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Thy dream, and the visions of thy head upon thy bed, are these.29As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass. 30But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart. 31Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. 32This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, 33His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.34Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. 35 Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.
Here God gave Nebuchadnezzar a dream of an Image that would give us the world’s leaders from Babylon to the revised Roman empire here in Revelation chapters 1-3 God is Giving John the History of the Church from the cross to the final battle of the world Gog and Magog! Amen
“Smyrna, The Persecuted Church
Turn with me to Revelation chapter 2, to what is the shortest account of the letters given to the churches – the second, that being to Smyrna. Verse 8 of chapter 2, reading through to verse 11 – ‘Smyrna, The Persecuted Church’: “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death”.
‘Write the things which thou hast seen’, that being the vision of the risen, glorified Lord as the High Priest Judge in the midst of His churches – and we find that in chapter 1 and verse 9 and following. Then he is also told to write ‘the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter’. Now the things which shall be hereafter are from chapter 4 right to the end of the book, but the things which are are the things which were current to John in his day and age, that being chapters 2 and 3, the seven churches of Asia Minor
So we are given a complete picture of the moral and spiritual history of the church of Jesus Christ. Now that can be understood in three ways, and let me remind you of those. The first is that that history is understood literally. We have to say that these seven churches were seven literal churches that existed in Asia Minor, those conditions were present in John’s day. Not only are they understood literally, but secondly they are understood universally. What I mean by that is that they are illustrative of the good and bad conditions that will prevail in the church everywhere during every age of her existence. We did say last week that there is a marked resemblance between the seven churches here in Revelation, and the seven parables of the kingdom, mystery parables that we find in Matthew’s gospel chapter 13. Incidentally, every one of these letters has the words spoken by the Lord that, ‘Let him that hath ears to hear, hear’, and those words were spoken in the mystery parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13
So there is a literal approach, there is a universal approach, and then there is a prophetic approach – that approach simply interprets these seven churches as being a preview, chronologically, of the history of Christendom from Pentecost right to the rapture of the church – each of these seven churches representing a distinct period. For instance, last week we thought about the church at Ephesus, and we saw that that was the loveless church, but it also was the post-apostolic church. It was founded by the apostles, and it transpired the period of the late years of the first and the early years of the second century. Generally speaking it was a praiseworthy church, but we see, as church history testifies, that already that post-apostolic church was beginning to forsake her first love. Then that brings us on to the church at Smyrna, understood prophetically as the persecuted church, the church from about the first century right through to the fourth century, the church that endured the persecution of various Roman emperors. We could call this church ‘the martyr age of the church’.
Now it would seem incredible if such similarities with history were only accidental, but though that is the case, I have said in previous weeks that we should not press these analogies beyond their bounds. So tonight I want us to consider first and foremost the literal approach to this church at Smyrna, what it meant to the people, the Christians of this particular first century church that John is writing to. Then I want us to think of the fourth approach that I introduced you to last week, and that is the personal approach. This letter, as all the seven letters, has something to say to each of us as Christians. Notice verse 7a: ‘He that hath ears to hear’, in the singular, ‘Let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’. It is for us as individuals to take heed to God’s word, to Christ’s revelation to each of these churches, and apply them to our own lives.
We noted last week that each of the seven churches, they are seven letters – with minor exceptions – that are organised in a general pattern. First of all we are introduced to a characteristic of the Lord Jesus Christ from the vision that John received in chapter 1, the vision of Christ as the High Priest Judge in the midst of His churches. The particular characteristic that is introduced to each church is fitting when we consider the needs of that particular church. As far as Smyrna goes, in verse 8 you see that the Lord Jesus is introduced to them as, ‘the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive’. If you look down at verse 10, you will see that the Lord Jesus is encouraging His people in Smyrna to be ‘faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life’. The characteristic that is revealed to Smyrna is for their particular need, to stand firm in the midst of tribulation and suffering, and not deny their Lord. It is particularly applicable to these would-be martyrs
There is no criticism, and there is no corrective command because there is no criticism – which is often the fourth aspect to these letters. But rather, instead of a corrective command, we have in verse 10 counsel given after the Lord’s commendation: ‘Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life’. Then, as in each of these letters, in verse 11 we have the final factor which is a commitment that the Lord gives to the overcomers of that church, a promise that He gives: ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death’.
Secondly please note that this was not only an idyllic but an industrious city. The name ‘Smyrna’ really means ‘Myrrh’, and Smyrna as a city operated a trade in myrrh – that is, the aromatic resin. They produced from that resin from the tree a gum that was often used for embalming dead bodies. It was an industrious city that was famous for myrrh. Thirdly it is also marked for its idolatry, it was an idolatrous city. It offered worship to the emperor through an imperial cult, and this cult, and indeed a large Jewish population, made life extremely difficult for the believers of the Lord Jesus Christ in Smyrna. None of the other cities of the seven cities written to here in the Apocalypse were so stained with the blood of the martyrs like Smyrna.
Now can I just pause there for a moment, because I think there is a worthy lesson for us to note: out of all the seven churches – which, let me remind you, are generally found in the same vicinity – only Smyrna suffered like this. Why? We could equally ask the question: why is it that some people, some believers in the Lord Jesus Christ indeed, suffer more than others? Why is it that the godliest of men and women seem to suffer more than others? Well, I have no answer to that, save to say that I think the answer lies deep in the sovereignty of God – but it’s worth noticing. Smyrna suffered more than the rest of the seven.
So that is the city of Smyrna: it was idyllic with a Satanic undertone; it was industrious in the production of this aromatic resin, myrrh; and it was idolatrous in the emperor cult. Secondly I want you to note this characteristic of Christ that is revealed to the church at Smyrna. Verse 8 gives us that, the second half: ‘These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive’. The first characteristic we have of the Lord revealed to Smyrna is ‘the first and the last’ – incidentally, which is a description of God that John, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, plucked out of Isaiah’s prophecy in the Old Testament. It is a title for Jehovah that is being applied and attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ – hence, you see, He is God of God.
First of all the Holy Spirit wants Smyrna to see He is the Eternal God – and, boy, if you’re going through any form of suffering tonight as a Christian, you need to get a glimpse of Jesus Christ in His deity as the first and the last, the eternal God, and realise that the power of Christ can support anyone, at any time, in any circumstance. He is God! But secondly the Holy Spirit wanted Smyrna to see that though He is the eternal God, He went the same way as they were presently going. He went through a baptism of blood, their blessed and glorified Head was crucified – and in death He slew death, and became Master of it. Having been tested and tried, and lived and died, and rose again, He has now become a Great High Priest to those who believe in Him – and He can enter into the suffering of our infirmities because of all that
The first and the last who became dead and lives – boy, how they needed to hear that, because what the Lord Jesus was saying to them was: ‘You can have all my compassion, you can enter into all my companionship, because you are going the way that your Master went’. Are you hearing that tonight, suffering child of God? Of course, Smyrna had its own death and resurrection. Round about 580 BC the city was destroyed, and then in 290 BC it was rebuilt again completely. So there is an allusion there – the first and the last, the one who was dead and is alive – to their particular history. But Smyrna’s name, as we have seen already, means ‘myrrh’ – and that aromatic resin was associated with death, the embalming of the dead. But the process of getting that resin out of the tree was something deeply symbolic to these suffering Christians in the church of Smyrna, because to get this resin an incision had to be made in the bark of the tree, the sap had to be allowed to bleed, and then that fragrant and bitter resin had to be produced through the wounding of that tree.
Christians during those 200 years or so were martyred, butchered, burned for Jesus Christ – and the church in Smyrna particularly typifies that prophetically speaking…
Prophetically speaking we are entering into a church period where, for 200 years, the church would be crushed by the iron heel of pagan Roman. As we look down this passage, in verse 10 it is prophesied that for ten days they would be thrown in prison, and would be tested and tried, and they would need to be faithful unto death. Now you might not know this, according to the history books there were 10 separate attempts by 10 separate Roman emperors to exterminate and eradicate Christianity from the Roman empire. The tenth attempt was by an emperor by the name of Diocletian, and that tenth attempt lasted 10 years! Christians during those 200 years or so were martyred, butchered, burned for Jesus Christ – and the church in Smyrna particularly typifies that prophetically speaking. They, like the resin that they represent, would be cut, bruised, wounded, crushed for Christ – but from that process of tribulation there would be a savour, and a fragrant smell that would ascend unto God that had never gone up before
Christ was the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant of Jehovah. Incidentally, myrrh is always associated with Him. In Matthew chapter 2 we find that the wise men brought – what did they bring? Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then when we travel from Bethlehem 33 or so years, we come to Calvary and He’s hanging on the cross, dying for men’s sins, and they reach up a sponge on a spear and try to give Him wine mingled with myrrh to dull the pain. Then we find Him dead, being buried, and Nicodemus, John gospel tells us, brought an embalming ointment of myrrh to prepare His dead body for the tomb. What suffering our Lord Jesus experienced from His birth, to the cross, to the tomb itself. Right throughout the Old Testament it is used – that is, myrrh – as a type of our Lord Jesus Christ in His suffering. But there’s something I want you to note: in the Old Testament, in Isaiah chapter 60 and verse 6, we read prophetically of when our Lord Jesus Christ will come again. He will be presented at that time with gold, and with frankincense, but there is something missing! The myrrh isn’t there! Because when He comes again, Isaiah 60 verse 2 tells us, He will not be coming as the Suffering Servant of Jehovah, He will be coming as the Sovereign King of Kings and the Lord of Lords to judge, to reign, and to rule.
If you were a Christian and were seen to be a rebel to the cause of the emperor, the likelihood was that your employer would get rid of you very quickly. Christians were seen in the empire at this time as atheists, because they did not believe in the gods of Rome. They were seen as traitors who were committing treason because they would not acknowledge that the emperor was lord. So it was very easy to arouse a rabble, and to go to a Christian’s home and smash it up, and pillage his goods, and even confiscate his possessions in the name of Caesar and the empire. There’s no insurance policies, and as a Christian you would be living in one of the wealthiest cities in existence in Asia Minor, let alone the empire, and yet like these people in Smyrna you would be destitute – destitute.
Yet with all their destitution, look what the Lord says in verse 9: ‘but thou art rich’ – thou art rich. They have suffered the loss of many things, indeed all things I would say, and though they were poor in this world they were rich in faith! Indeed, as poor, they were able to make many rich because of their faith. What others thought was wealth was actually poverty, and what people saw in their lives as destitution, according to God was rich. Now we’re running ahead of ourselves, but if you turn with me to the church of Laodicea in chapter 3 and verse 17, they had the opposite said of them by the Lord Jesus – chapter 3:17: ‘Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked’. They thought they were rich, yet they were poor! The church in Smyrna was poor, destitute, and yet in Christ’s eyes they were rich!
Can I ask you a very searching question: have you got the values of Christ or the values of this world? Do I need to repeat that? Have you got the values of Christ or the values of this world? Do you value material things over spiritual? Incidentally, do you see suffering as an enriching experience in the Christian life? It’s not the popular health and wealth gospel that you’ll hear on the God Channel, but it’s the Bible’s teaching regarding suffering: it enriches the Christian’s life and testimony! That is why, often, the godliest of men and women have suffered the most. Charles Stanley said: ‘Jesus is specially the partner of His poorer servants’ – why is that? Because to be poor, to be destitute, is to go the way that the Master went.
Can I remind you of a verse that you know well, 2 Corinthians 8:9: ‘For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich’, that’s the same word that is used here of Smyrna, ‘yet for your sakes he became poor’, that is the same word for destitute used of Smyrna, ‘that ye through his poverty and destitution might be spiritually rich’. It’s the way He went. It was the way He came into this world – Joseph and Mary, heavy with child, came to the inn, and an inn was a place where you were judged regarding what you had, and they were refused entrance. He was born in a stable. Then when Mary comes to bring the offering to the Temple, after birth she brings a working man’s offering. The Lord Jesus for 30 years adorns the apron of a carpenter in His father’s shop. When He begins His ministry, He has to ask a man for a penny. He borrows a boat in which to preach. The very tomb that His cold corpse lies in after His crucifixion is not His own! The moment He died, He left nothing behind Him, even His clothes were gambled for by the soldiers. Yet being destitute, He possessed everything! He holds the world in His hand!
Is that the way we are? Do you know what our problem is? Oh yes, we ought to be thankful for what we have here in the West, but I think all of us have got too rich – we have you know. I think we would be better men and women, myself included, if we had a lot less. Churches are often judged today on how much money they have, and how much clout they can bring – that’s not how Christ judged this church: they were destitute, yet they were rich.
‘I know thy tribulation, I know thy poverty, I know’ – look at it – ‘the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan’. Now that word for ‘blasphemy’ is the word for ‘slander’: ‘I know those that slander you’, and this slander was caused by Jews who called themselves Jews but were not. Now what that simply means is the same as what Paul said in Romans chapter 2, they were Jews outwardly in external religiosity, but they were not circumcised in their heart toward God. Isn’t it amazing that these Jews, who in the Old Testament were called the congregation of Jehovah, are now being spoken of as a synagogue of Satan. Satan, incidentally, is the accuser of the brethren. Satan is the one who is inspiring these Jews to slander God’s people in Smyrna. They may have been the Judiasers of the book of Galatians, but I happen to think that these Jews primarily were a group of folk who were rabble-rousers, who were just stirring up trouble towards these Christians.
They looked upon the early Christians really as a sect of Judaism, and so they were allowed to practise as the Jews were. But you see the Jews didn’t like Christians being seen as part of Judaism, and so they created a fuss and often spread slander concerning the Christians. Now this is not a Jewish slander in the early church, but it certainly was one that went about, and that was that the love feast – when the believers broke bread and drank wine – was the practice of cannibalism, the flesh and the blood of the Lord Jesus. They slandered the church as cannibals!
Let me remind you: it doesn’t matter that it says here that the Jews were bringing this slander, as many of the pagans often did. In all this neither the Jews nor the Romans were the real problem – we’ve got to see that. This had become a synagogue of Satan, Satan was the instigator behind this persecution. The seven churches at Asia that we have before us here in chapters 2 and 3, Satan is mentioned five times as being against the church! When are we ever going to wake up to the fact that Satan is real and alive in the 21st century, and he is working against us – and, incidentally, some Christians are working along with him! Ephesians 6:12 says: ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood’, we’ve got to see beyond flesh and blood, and see that there are spiritual principalities and powers in high places that are orchestrating this persecution towards the church in John’s day and in ours. Christ says, this is the message, ‘I know thy tribulation, I know thy poverty, I know the slander of the synagogue of Satan’. Isn’t it wonderful that they could know that He knew? Child of God tonight, He knows:
Their commendation: ‘I know thy tribulation, thy poverty, and the blasphemy’. Fourthly look at the counsel to the church, verse 10: ‘Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer’. Hold on a minute now! ‘Thou shalt suffer’? Would they be forgiven in thinking: ‘Lord, hold on a minute! OK, we’ve endured a lot so far, but the things which we shall suffer – future? No more, Lord! Is it not enough, Lord?’. Do you ever feel like that? There’s no talk of deliverance here, there’s no talk of the miraculous – whilst God can do it, it’s not mentioned here – but Christ is telling them: ‘You’re going to have to go through more! You might be destitute, but there’s more to come!’. It’s frightening, isn’t it? Yet please note, we don’t find any complaining among them. I know I would be complaining, wouldn’t you? But they were Christ-like
Can I remind you of what Peter said: ‘What glory is it if, when we be buffeted for our faults, we take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, you do take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were we called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously’. Not a complaint! The Lord counsels them first to be fearless, ‘fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer’. We fear many things, don’t we? Yet they were facing things that we could understand them fearing. We need a reality check as we study this passage of Scripture tonight: these Christians were facing prison, they were facing death, and the Lord said to them literally, ‘Stop being afraid!’.
I love that little phrase in the Scriptures, and I think some of you love it too: ‘And it came to pass’. It will end, don’t fear – though this might be instigated by Satan, it is controlled by Christ! Do you hear that? Often our sufferings do come from the devil, but praise God: our Lord Jesus Christ is in control. What He was saying to these believers was simply: he might rob you of your wealth, he might rob you of your health, he might rob you of your very life – but he can’t rob you of your eternal riches! Maybe we have become so earthly minded that that doesn’t matter any more. It mattered to them because they didn’t have anything else.
Be fearless, then the second counsel was: be faithful. Incidentally, this is coming from the One who in chapter 1 verse 5 is spoken of as ‘the faithful witness’ – be faithful rather than renounce your faith Smyrnan Christians. I have really searched my heart today, I want you to search yours: could you be faithful unto death? Now let me add a caveat to that: I believe God gives grace to die whenever the time comes – that’s maybe why I don’t feel like being able to do that just now. Yet they were encouraged in anticipation. What are we: fearful or faithful? Now it might even be fearful – these people were going to die, but your fear might be even to be a witness with your mouth of Christ. We all know about spiritual lockjaw when it comes to speaking a word for the Saviour.
. Fearful or faithful, if these believers were faithful unto death, they would receive a reward – look at verse 10. They would be given a crown of life. Now the Greek word there for ‘crown’ is ‘stephanos’, not ‘diadema’ – ‘diadema’ is a kingly crown, ‘stephanos’ is the laurel wreath that was put on the head of a victorious athlete. James 1:12 speaks of the same crown: ‘Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him’. Under trial, even to the point of death, there is a reward. Now there are several crowns that are reward for believers, and I haven’t the time to go into those tonight, and I don’t even want to because I want to labour on this one: will you, will I, get a reward for enduring trial, for suffering? Now it’s not suffering with an ingrown toenail, this is suffering for the cause of Christ. You say: ‘Sure, who’s suffering for the cause of Christ today?’. I don’t have time to elaborate on this, but I believe all of us, in some shape or form, should be suffering for the cause of Christ today. Maybe it’s because we’re not taking our stand? Will we be faithful or fearful? Will I? When it comes – and it’s very close to the day – when to say that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination in the eyes of God, you’ll be put in prison for it, will I say it? Or will we just keep quiet about it? That’s what we’re talking about here. The Lord Jesus says: ‘You count the cost. Lose your life for My sake, and you’ll find it’. This is the crown of life:
James 1:12 Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.
That death for these Smyrnan Christians could have been torture, then maybe the rack, perhaps out to the stake to be burned, or to be fed to lions. Now, if you were in this church, Smyrna, would you overcome? Remember who the overcomers are: in one sense they are those who, John says, are born of God and overcome the world, and it’s our faith that gives us that victory – those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. This is a church where believers had to prove their faith by their devotion to Christ to the very point of death! If that was you, would you take the name of Christ? The Lord said that if they did, they would not be hurt by the second death – that is in the emphatic double negative: ‘You certainly will never be harmed’ – never!
We’ve been to