The 7 Churches of Revelation
This is the Word of the Lord for us today. We begin our journey through the Book of Revelation. And if you’re not there, go ahead and turn there, page 1028 if you’re using a seat Bible. And you’ll notice in the lobby, there are Revelation Journals that may be helpful for you as we move through the Book of Revelation for you to have. It’s just the print of Revelation on one side and space for you to write, journal on the other. Those are $3.
Feel free to grab one afterwards. So, there have been surveys that have revealed that the book of the Bible that people in general most want to hear preached is the Book of Revelation. And the book of the Bible from those same surveys that pastors least want to preach is the Book of Revelation. Interesting. So why might that be the case? A couple options. One is the interpretive challenges of Revelation are everywhere, from the structure to the symbols, which are so foreign to us, to the style, apocalyptic prophecy. It is not easy to understand or communicate.
Another option might be different expectations. Everybody comes to the study of the Book of Revelation with different expectations as to what they hope to find. Some people come, and they want to learn who everyone in the news is, right?
All the political leaders are either the beast or the Antichrist. The Great Red Dragon, we know what country that is after we study the Book of Revelation. Everybody tries to match together everything in the newspaper or online to what Revelation is. So that can be a little confusing.
Another approach or expectation that people have is they want a specific timetable. They want to know exactly when everything is going to happen, so I can plan my life accordingly. I know when to get serious with Jesus because I know exactly when he’s coming when I see that. And so this tendency to approach Revelation with this mindset has led many to endless speculations. One example is Edgar Whisenant’s best-selling book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. That book sold 3 million copies. Now in 1989, he wrote a follow-up. He recalculated. That book didn’t sell as many. Don’t know why.
Do you follow The Babylon Bee, Christian satire site? Last week had this feature on it. “Christian Bookstore Employee Tasked with Rotating Out Expired Prophecy Books.” So this isAimee Bryer, a fictional character, whose job is to, each morning, rotate out the old prophetic books and bring in the piping hot prophetic works as they come available. Some even approach the Book of Revelation wanting to find out exactly what Jesus looks like. Some of the verses we’ll be looking at today describe things about Jesus, and those same verses have been used to debate his ethnicity, hair type, hair color, etc. Hopefully, we will see today that the point of the Book of Revelation is not to discover the complexion of Jesus, but to bow before his sovereignty.
So many people approach this book with so many different expectations, and it is important to let the book say what the book actually says and that, in itself, is life changing. So, I want to do something I’m personally not super comfortable with. I want to cover the whole chapter of Revelation 1. And the more I got into this chapter, the more I was thinking, “What was I thinking?” But I am now beginning to see why I believe the Lord led us to do this. Because when we walk through the entire chapter, we’re going to get a vision of Jesus that we don’t get from just seeing the first half or the second half or parts. We’re going to get a whole picture that I hope will be transformative for us.
But in order to get this, we’re going to all have to lock in and be ready to work.
I would encourage you not to try to float through this message. This is not story time. We’re going to be in the text and if you could, there are Bibles near you if you don’t have one with you. It would help for you to follow the Word of God closely. The goal here is not to just figure out what everything is, but to be able to step back and say, “Who is Jesus, this One who is being revealed?” And as we do that, I want us to imagine what it would have been like for a man around 90 years old named John, who walked with Jesus, saw amazing things, but now, near the end of his life, he is arrested by the Roman authorities. He thought, most likely, he would be executed, but probably because of his age, Roman authorities at times would not execute extremely older people, so he was exiled. They sent him off to an island. So now he’s sitting on an island hungry, alone,perhaps feeling his life was over. He’s concerned about his brothers and sisters who are enduring suffering, and he’s praying one Sunday morning, a lot like this one, in the Spirit, and he sees a vision.
Notice first of all, the sending of this revelation. Verse 1:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him [Jesus] to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.”
In these first few verses and the ones following, you will see that this revelation is from God, through Jesus, by an angel, to John, for the churches. And there are hints right from the beginning what kind of genre this revelation is, what kind of literature it is. Verse 1, apocalypse. This word “revelation” of Jesus Christ is the word “apocalypse” in the original. It’s the revealing of the unseen. It’s the unveiling of that which had not been seen. It is called “revelatory literature.” Revelation is the vision of the past, present, and future from heaven’s perspective, where the values of the heaven invade the earth. It is apocalypse.
Secondly, it is prophecy. Verse 3 describes this as “the words of this prophecy” to show what “must soon take place.”
Third, it is letter. Chapter 1:4 and then chapter 2:1 and following, it is a letter from John to the churches. It includes letters to specific churches that have implications on all churches.
The sending of the revelation. Secondly, the blessing of the revelation. Verse 3, “blessed,” that is fortunate, happy. And this is, by the way, the first of seven blessings in the Book of Revelation. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”
Do you see the shift from “blessed is the one” and “blessed are those”?
What does that mean? That means from the beginning. This book was not, as many skeptics believe that the books of the Bible evolved over many decades and centuries and eventually became viewed as Scripture. This communicates from the very beginning, this letter was viewed as Scripture, the Word of God, to be read by one in the gathered community on the Lord’s Day, and there is a blessing that comes to the one who reads and those who hear and heed [keep] what is written. I want that blessing. Do you want that?
There is a blessing that comes through reading and hearing this remarkable book.
Third, the greeting of the revelation. Verse 4, from “John to the seven churches in Asia.” The seven, and he’s going to list the seven, which means these are real churches, specifically meaning there are seven of them. But the number seven throughout the book of Revelation also communicates the idea of fullness and completion; and, therefore, we can from the outset assume that this is a letter to actual churches in that day but have implications to all of us churches throughout history. Notice the “grace and peace” from this greeting is from, first of all, “him who is and who was and who is to come,” our eternal Father. Notice his being and his seeing are timeless, yet he relates to us in time.
“I am who I am,” the eternal Father describes himself.
Secondly, “and from the seven spirits who are before His throne.” Now, some think these spirits are angels. Yet 3:1 seems to distinguish angels from spirits and Revelation never equates the two. It is better for us to see the seven spirits as referring to the Holy Spirit, not that there are seven Holy Spirits, but that this actually is a quotation or a reference to Isaiah 11:2. Look at this.
Notice, the seven-fold description.
“And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
So the Spirit is described by seven descriptions communicating perfection and fullness. This blessing is from our eternal Father. It is through the fullness of the Spirit. And grace and peace is also from (verse 5) Jesus Christ. Who is he?
“The faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of kings on earth.”
Well, what does he do?
“To him who loves us, has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”
Notice that description of our Savior Jesus Christ. He loves us. He freed us. He made us kingdom priests. He has tasks for us to do, and he is coming.
He is coming. “And every eye will see him.” What a greeting! Number 4, the receiving of the revelation. Verse 9. John explains the details of this receiving. In verse 9 he introduces himself as John, your brother and a fellow sufferer, that is “partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.” So John, as we’ve noticed, has been exiled to the island of Patmos, which is in the Aegean Sea near what was back then Asia Minor, today it is Turkey. So think of Turkey, and then off the southwest coast is Patmos.
The Romans sent exiles to this island, and John was sent there, as he describes, “for the testimony of Jesus.” And he was, verse 10, “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” when he heard “a loud voice like a trumpet,” and he was told to “write what you see,” and then send it to the seven churches. And the way the churches are listed there is exactly the way along the trade route that a messenger would travel with these letters.
So what did John see? Here’s the heart of this vision. Number 5, the seeing of the revelation, verse 12. “Then I turned to see the voice.” The One who is the word was speaking. “The voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw this I saw seven golden lampstands.” If we skip over to the verse 20, you will see the seven golden lampstands refer to what? The seven churches. Verse 13, “and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man.”
Now, the “Son of man” was Jesus’ favorite self-designation in the Gospels, and this comes right from Daniel 7.
A quick note on this, you will never understand the Book of Revelation without looking back to the Old Testament. You know the future by understanding the past in the Book of Revelation. No other book in the New Testament refers to the Old Testament as much as the Book of Revelation, which is so interesting, isn’t it? Because this is a book about the future, and it is flowing right from the past.
Let me give you an example. Daniel 7:13,
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and he was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
In the context of Daniel 7, you see the rising and falling of evil kingdoms. And in the midst of this rising and falling of evil kingdoms, you have this Ancient of Days, who is now being likened to Jesus Christ, who is the Eternal One. And what is he doing here?
Jesus, in Revelation 1, Jesus the Eternal One is among the lampstands, which represents the churches. The Eternal One is caring for his people. Verse 13, look at the description. He is “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.” This is referring to the garments of a priest, Exodus 28:4. Part of the responsibility of the priest was to tend to the lampstand, the lamps, to care for the wicks, to refill the oil, to relight the flames that have gone out.
So the picture here is quite beautiful. Jesus, the Eternal One, is among his suffering church, confronting, encouraging, healing, helping. He is not aloof. And then, in this vision, there is this seven-fold description of his person.
Verse 14, “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow.” Again, right out of Daniel 7:9.
“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was white as snow and the hair of his head like pure wool. His throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.”
By the way, this image shows the inversion of our culture of values. Our culture idolizes youth, therefore, many as we begin to lose it, want to hide it, and the opposite is happening here.
There’s a magnification of this gray hair as a power, not of a weakening of strength, but actually a true strengthening. Proverbs 16:31 says that gray hair is a crown of glory, a symbol of righteousness. So, Jesus the one likened to the Ancient of Days wears a crown of glory with strength and wisdom. Secondly, “His eyes were like a flame of fire.” (Verse 14) So he is not simply caring for his church as a pastor or interceding as a priest or reigning as a king, he is also ruling as a judge, and his eyes burn away every facade.
Can you imagine standing in his court? No need for a prosecutor. No need for a defense. He sees right through and sees thoughts before you even think your thoughts. He knows things about you, you don’t even know about yourself. He knows the truth in a way that we can’t even conceive of it because all our truths get skewed by limitations and our own perversions. His eyes burn away all the dross of deception. He is (Hebrews 4:13) the ultimate judge. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Verse 15.
“His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace.” Again, images from Ezekiel and Daniel. The brightness communicating the glory of God, the bronze feet, a picture of stability and crushing strength. Verse 15. “And his voice was like the roar of many waters.” Daniel 10:4, Ezekiel 1:24. Imagine you’re at the base of the Victoria Falls or Niagara Falls, and there’s just unimaginable amounts of water pouring over and just this overwhelming roar of sound of many waters. John is desperately trying to find images to capture what he’s hearing with the depth and breadth of this voice.
Verse 16. “In his right hand he held seven stars.” Now the stars, again if you look to verse 20, are angels. And some people believe these angels because you can translate the word “angel” as messenger.
Some people believe these are the messengers or the pastors of the churches we’re about to look at.
That is very possible.
I think he’s talking about angels, and holding these angels is a picture of he is not only tending those on earth, he is ruling supreme in heaven, and you see the merging of his sovereign power over heaven and earth. Verse 16. Number six. “From his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword,” and obviously, the point there is not a literal sword hanging out of his mouth, but a fulfillment of Isaiah 11:4,
“But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
The same one who at the first moment of creation is breathing everything into existence is the same one who with a breath can wipe out his foes. That is a kind of power we can’t even imagine.
Number 7, verse 16, “and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” His appearance is blindingly powerful. No eclipse glasses can shield the eyes of that kind of glory and radiance, the seeing of the revelation.
Number 6, the falling before the revelation, verse 17.
So imagine seeing the vision of one who is as bright as the sun, whose eyes can see through you, whose voice is like the roar of many waters, whose ability to say a word and consume his foes. What do you do in the presence of one like that? Verse 17, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” And Jesus laid his right hand, that hand of authority, on John and said, “Fear not.”
And I believe these words of comfort that he offers John in his glorious presence are not only meant just for John, but for all those who tremble and wonder if life is out of control. He goes on, “I am the first and the last.” Here he is equated with the Alpha and Omega, the one who begins and is the end. He is equated with Yahweh, who in Isaiah 41:4, 44:6, 48:12 is the beginning and the end.
He is the One who initiates and culminates all of history. Verse 18, “The living one. I died and am alive forevermore. I have the keys of Death and Hades.” There is nowhere you can travel, no door you encounter, no authority you might have to be engaged with where he does not have ultimate jurisdiction. There is no place where his sovereignty does not extend over the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.
He is sovereign. Verse 19, now write. “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”
The now and the not yet.
“As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
So how do we respond? A couple of questions. One, will we reject a cozy, user-friendly vision of Jesus?
We started our service quoting Tozer when he said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” What comes into our minds when we think of Jesus is the most important thing about us.
What do we think of Jesus? And what’s significant about taking this chapter,
I know it’s overwhelming to just zoom through this chapter, but what is so significant about that journey is the Jesus of verse 5 is the Jesus of verse 14. The one who loves us and has freed us, the one who makes us a kingdom and priest and is coming again is the same Jesus who rules and reigns and can speak life or take life with a word.
We are tempted in our culture, because we love to have menus and options, to pick and choose. “Well, my Jesus is blank.” No. The Bible doesn’t give us the option to make Jesus in our own cultural image. Jesus is who he says he is, and no other book in the Bible communicates it so vividly that the Lamb who gave himself as a sacrifice in weakness is the lion who conquers foes in power.
It’s the same Jesus! The Lion who is the Lamb. And we get a glimpse of this right from the beginning of the chapter. And we would do well to shed puny views of Jesus because a weak savior can’t save.
He is not a weak Savior. Yes he came in weakness, but he was most potent in his weakness. And he is coming again. For many of us, Jesus is kind of a mixture between the flannelgraph images, you know, a spiritual teddy bear and a Buddha bobblehead all mixed together. And those images of Jesus need to go.
He is not who some say he is.
It is impossible to hear and heed the message of Revelation and maintain a view of the King of kings and the Lord of lords as we see here. And don’t miss either side, because even the vision that is so terrifying ends with “fear not.” Fear not. Secondly, will we rest in his sovereign rule in times of suffering?
One of the things that is most powerful about the Book of Revelation is it gives us a unique opportunity in the midst of the battle to come up above. Now, I’m not a video gamer, but I’ve got boys who have been and as I’ve watched them, cheered them on,what’s so interesting is some games have the ability right in the middle of the battle to either see on the side a picture of the big picture or to actually pull away long enough to see where you are. Because when you’re trapped, ambushed, surrounded, things can feel pretty hopeless. But imagine if you have the ability to get the ultimate bird’s eye view, to come up for a moment, to see your foes, to see how things are going to turn out, to see where things began, and who’s in control of all things.
That gives you a tremendous amount of confidence in the battle.
That’s the Book of Revelation. “Come up above! Come to see my perspective,” God is saying. “I am revealing.” That is apocalypse. “I am unveiling what you can’t see in the middle of the battle. And I want you to see it as I see it.”
Third, will we rejoice that he uses us even in exile? That he uses us even in exile. So John was exiled. He was an old man. He was cut off from friends and family.
Most everyone he knew well from way back was with the Lord. And when we walk through certain seasons of life, we can get a strong sense that my best days are over. I’m on the shelf. I’ve been set aside. I’m done for, put out to pasture. If John believed that in his 90s, he was wrong, correct? It’s in that moment that he experienced one of the most astounding revelations that has ministered to the church for centuries.
Listen to what N.T. Wright, research professor at the University of St. Andrews writes,
“Exile has given him time to pray, to reflect, and now to receive the most explosive vision of God’s power and love. He is still, he says, a partner with the churches in the suffering, the kingdom, and the patient endurance in Jesus: an odd combination, we might think. How can the ‘kingdom’ – which means the sovereign rule – sit together with suffering and patient endurance? That is part of the whole point of the book. Jesus himself won the victory through his suffering, and so must his people.”
Think about that. The very time when Jesus would have been viewed as the greatest of failures at his weakest point on the cross, he accomplished the greatest miracle. Could it be that some of us who, at this moment in our lives, feel the weakest, set aside, exiled, useless, shelved, done for, might be at the precipice of seeing God reveal himself to us in our weakness in a way that we would never have been ready for otherwise, or might be preparing for a season of fruitfulness that we have never yet experienced before? Rejoice that God uses us even in exile.
Now, I want to pray for us as we take in this revelation, to be very careful that we not just jet through this and jet out. So I want to pray. But then I’m going to ask some of you, I haven’t picked anyone. So if the Spirit of God is leading you, I want a couple of you to come up. I’ll bring the mic down in a moment, and just come right up. And let’s cry out to God for a true vision of Jesus as a people. Let’s cast aside our puny understandings of Jesus.
Let’s pray for this whole study in the Book of Revelation that God would truly meet with us and speak to us.
We need this right now, just like the church who first received these letters needed it.
Father, we thank you that you know what we need more than we know what we need, that you brought us together this morning on this Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, to hear and heed what you reveal to us. And we are praying that it would be much more than learning Bible trivia. It would not simply be getting our prophecy questions answered, but you would truly reveal your Son, that we would see Jesus. And as we, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. Spirit of God, this is your work. You magnify Jesus as you transform your people. So as we pray, as we sing, as we cast aside small thoughts, as we in faith latch onto big thoughts of you, we pray that you would wash away worries, that you would cleanse us of sin, that you would fix our eyes on you. We thank you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.