The Lamb is the Lord, part 5: Jesus’s Messages to Local Churches

Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash

Each of the seven churches of Asia was a lampstand (1:20). It was a stand on which an oil lamp―like the one shown above―was placed. In Scripture, the Lord Himself is associated with light. Each local church was a lampstand that ‘carried’ the light of a lamp―in other words, it ‘carried’ the presence of God. These seven churches were to be alight with God’s presence.[1] Every local church is to shine with God’s presence.

“I know . . . .”

When a patient comes to a doctor complaining of pain, the doctor may try to diagnose what’s wrong by arranging a scan to see inside the patient’s body. Jesus is taking a ‘scan’ of these seven churches. He sees beneath the surface. He sees right through to their inner spiritual condition. Two of these churches are healthy. Five are not.

Two sickly churches

Jesus said some very complimentary things about the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira.

But in both cases there was a “But” (2:14,20). All was not well―not at all. As we saw in the previous part of this series, false teachers were at work. If there was no repentance, judgment would follow (see 2:5,16,22-23).

The church in Sardis

But two churches were in an even worse state―the churches in Sardis and Laodicea.

The church in Sardis had “the reputation of being alive”; but they were actually “dead”. A little life survived; but even that was ”about to die”. Only a few hadn’t “soiled their garments”.

This church’s sleepy condition had a remarkable parallel in the city’s history. Sardis was set on a hill. The sides of this hill were steep, and provided a natural defence against invaders. In 547/546BC the Persian army, under Cyrus the Great, attacked the city. In one place, there weren’t any guards―the people defending Sardis believed this place to be so difficult to climb, they didn’t need to put guards there! The invaders got in at that very point! And so the Persian army took the city.

In 214BC the same thing happened again. This time the city was taken by the army of King Antiochus III.

If the church didn’t repent and wake up, Jesus tells them “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3). Twice the city had been captured because it had failed to keep watch. If this church failed to wake up, Jesus would come without warning, and bring judgment upon it.

The church in Laodicea

The church in Laodicea was in the worst condition of any of these churches. Jesus could find nothing to commend about it, nothing at all. He said: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (3:15-17).

This church had become thoroughly at home in the world around it. They must surely have compromised with the godless, pagan world around them. Clearly they weren’t suffering persecution. The world would have found no reason to persecute them!

Jesus was blunt with this worldly church: they made Him sick!

He would rather they were hot or cold. His words probably relate to the city’s water supply. Laodicea didn’t have a good natural water supply. So water had to be piped in. By the time it got there, the water was lukewarm and full of dissolved minerals. It wasn’t nice to drink!

Hot water is useful for bathing and is considered to be therapeutic. Cold water is life-sustaining, cooling and refreshing. Laodicea’s water was tepid and full of dissolved minerals. It made you sick!

Discipled by the world

After His resurrection, Jesus said to His followers: ”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . .” (Matthew 28:19). But the churches in Laodicea, Sardis, Pergamum and Thyatira had, to varying degrees, allowed the world to disciple them. They should have been teaching the world about Jesus and His salvation. In fact, they’d allowed the world to teach them how to live.

Loveless orthodoxy

The church at Ephesus had a different problem. This church seemed to be a shining light in a dark city. They were hard-working, patiently enduring, “bearing up” for Jesus’s sake. They hadn’t “grown weary” (2:2-3). They’d tested and rejected false apostles; they hated “the works of the Nicolaitans” (2:2-3,6).

But Jesus tells them, “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (2:4). Was this their love for Jesus or love among themselves? Probably both. The two are intimately connected (compare 1 John 4:20).

The Ephesian church had benefitted greatly from some rich teaching input. On his third missionary journey Paul spent around three years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10, and see Acts 20:31).

Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians to this church. Timothy led the church for a time. While Timothy was there, Paul wrote the letter of I Timothy to him.

John himself, it seems, lived in or near Ephesus both before and after his exile in Patmos. John may well have written his Gospel during his residence there. If so, the Ephesian church would certainly have possessed at least one copy of this Gospel.

They were undoubtedly a well-taught church. And they were eager to refute false teaching. They were on the lookout for false teaching in their midst. That, in turn, could easily have led to believers in the church mistrusting each other, and failing to love each other as they should.

Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). If the Ephesian believers didn’t love each other, how would people around them know that they were disciples of Jesus?

But the love they had abandoned was doubtless also their love for God. When asked what commandment was the most important, Jesus responded, “. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”’ (Mark 12:29-30, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5).

The Ephesian church is, like every local church, a lampstand. They were to be ablaze with the presence of God. But their relationship with Him had cooled; their love for each other had faded. And so the flame of God’s presence had burned low. Their light had dimmed. And what’s the point of a lampstand, if it doesn’t bear a light?

Jesus said, “repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, . . . .” (2:5). If they didn’t repent and rekindle their love, Jesus would remove their lampstand. Their witness to God would be extinguished; the church may even cease to exist.

Standing strong for Jesus

But the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia received no rebuke from our Lord. Despite their suffering, they’d remained faithful to Him.

 The Smyrnan church: Jesus knew their ”tribulation” and “poverty”, yet He considered them “rich” (2:9). He knew “the slander” of those who said they were Jews, but were actually “a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). The devil was about to throw some of them into prison, that they might be tested. For ‘ten days’ they would suffer “tribulation” (2:10). This would be harsh; for some it may end in death. But it would be limited. And they weren’t to fear what they were about to suffer. He assures them of victory: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

 The Philadelphian church: Jesus knew their ”works” and that they had “but little power” (3:8). But they’d kept His word; they hadn’t denied His name; they’d endured patiently. The Jewish community were causing trouble for them. But Jesus assures them of victory: “I will make those of the synagogue of Satan . . . come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (3:9). These Jews didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah; they oppressed those who did. But these Jews would realise that God had set His love on these believers! And He tells them, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon” (3:10-11). This didn’t mean they’d be spared from suffering, or even death. It meant God would protect them in their suffering. And one day, they’d stand victorious ”before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9)! So He urges them, “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (3:11).

Both churches no doubt felt embattled and vulnerable in a world that despised them and seemed poised to engulf them. But, through it all, these two churches were faithful to Jesus. And so they received our Lord’s commendation. And, if they remained faithful, they would receive His crown. This crown was a wreath of honour awarded, for example, to victors in the games or in battle. Through all the suffering they’d endured, through death and the threat of death, through all the privations and difficulties they had face, they would emerge triumphant. They’d enjoy life―eternal life, life in fellowship with the Father and with His Son. There can be no greater reward than that!

Focusing on Jesus

Jesus begins each message by telling them something about Himself. This is usually drawn from what they’d already been told in chapter 1. Jesus knows exactly what they need to see about Him. As an example, let’s look at what He tells the church in Pergamum.

To this church, Jesus calls Himself “him who has the sharp two-edged sword” (2:12, reflecting 1:16). The sword here pictures Jesus’s word of judgment. He judges this world. And He judges compromise and false teaching among the churches.

Pergamum was one of the region’s centres for the Roman system of justice. The Roman governor of the region had ‘the right of the sword’―that is, authority to judge and to execute people. Antipas (2:13) may himself have been executed by the Roman authorities. But it’s actually Jesus who has the true ‘right of the sword’. He’s the true Judge, not the governor! That’s what Jesus wants them to remember.

”To the one who conquers . . . .”

Jesus closes each message by making a wonderful promise to “the one who conquers”. Again, let’s take the church in Pergamum as an example. To this church, Jesus makes two promises. He says: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (2:17).

The “hidden manna”

What is “the hidden manna”? After the Exodus, God fed His people Israel with manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:1-36). But Jesus said, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:49-51). This hidden manna is Jesus Himself. It’s hidden because the world can’t see Him.

Jesus is the Bread of Life (see John 6:32-35,48-58). Whoever eats of Him―that is, whoever believes in Him and receives Him into their innermost being―has eternal life (John 6:54), life in fellowship with Him (see John 17:3).

We believers eat from Jesus now. And when He comes again, we’ll feast at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). That’s another picture of life in fellowship with Him―fellowship with Him for all eternity in the new creation.

What’s the ”white stone” ? This stone has been explained in several ways―one commentator lists no less than seven! Perhaps the most likely is that small stones were given as ’tickets’ for admission to events, such as feasts. Perhaps this white stone is our Lord’s ‘ticket’ or invitation to His marriage supper.

What’s the ”new name” on the stone? Perhaps it’s our new name that we’ll have in the new creation. We believers are “born again” (John 3:3,7). A newborn baby is given a name. It seems reasonable to think that our Father has chosen a new name for us. And we’ll begin to be called by that name when Jesus returns, and we begin our new lives in the new creation.

When you get an invitation to a wedding, that invitation has got your name on it. We suggested above that the white stone might be our Lord’s ‘ticket’ or invitation to His marriage supper. If so, it will have our name on it! But it won’t have our present name. It will have our new name written on it!

So it may be that this hidden manna and this white stone both relate especially to the marriage supper of the Lamb and our life in the new creation.

Why does Jesus promise this hidden manna and this white stone to this particular church? Recall what Jesus said to the church: “you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practise sexual immorality” (2:14).

Surely Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols! I am the living bread! Eat of Me! And eat of Me at my Marriage Supper when I come again! And don’t even think of practising sexual immorality. Keep yourself pure, so you can be part of my pure Bride and come to My Marriage Supper!” [2]

The promise to the Laodicean church

Finally, we can’t end without mentioning Jesus’s breathtaking promise to the church in Laodicea. He says, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (3:21-22).

Isn’t it astonishing that He gives His most amazing promise in His message to the very worst church―the church in Laodicea!

That word “throne” in 3:21 introduces us to what we see in the very next two chapters of Revelation. John sees a vision of “a throne . . . in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (4:2). One writer comments, “From Revelation 4:1 and following we will be seeing everything from the perspective of the throne.”[3] In the next two parts, we’ll look at what John saw in Heaven.

FOOTNOTES [1] Barry Webb comments, in his comments on the lampstand of Zechariah 4:1-14: “We are therefore driven to the conclusion that the lampstand represents the community – the people who are involved with Zerubbabel in the work of rebuilding the temple. It is a community ‘alight’ with the presence of the all-seeing, all-knowing God, who dwells in their midst.” The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come (The Bible Speaks Today), by Barry G. Webb, pages 92-93. Published by IVP, London in 2003. [2] See Discipleship on the Edge: an Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, page 85. [3] Quoted from Discipleship on the Edge: an Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, page 126.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts All Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Lamb is the Lord, part 4: Jesus’s Messages to Local Churches

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

A reconstructed view of the acropolis of ancient Pergamon by Friedrich Thierch.

”To the seven churches”

John addresses the Book of Revelation “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4)―the churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The map below shows where these churches were located.

In each of the seven churches, the believers gather together, eager to hear what God has written to them. And they discover that He has included a special message to their own church! You can imagine how excited they would have been―an excitement tinged, perhaps, with a little trepidation, too. What had God written to them?

But remember that the messenger would have delivered the whole Book of Revelation to each church. So the believers in each church were to hear more than just the message addressed specifically to their church. They were to hear all seven messages. And, of course, they were to hear the whole book.

Why these seven churches?

There were undoubtedly other churches in Asia at this time. So why did God send this letter to these particular churches?

The key reason is this: They represent all local churches over the whole period of Church history. The challenges and conditions those churches in Asia Minor experienced reflect those that―to varying degrees and in various ways―the whole Church worldwide would experience during this age. So we can think of the Book of Revelation as a letter to every local church.

The plan of each message

The seven messages to the churches follow a similar pattern. As an example, we’ll look at what Jesus says to the church in Pergamum (2:12-17).

1 Jesus commands John to write to “the angel” of each church. Who are these angels? Of the various suggestions that have been made, the most likely seems to be that these are actual angels (rather than humans) who exercise some kind of responsibility for a local church. Hence Jesus directs His seven messages both to these seven angels, and to their corresponding churches here on Earth. And so this message begins: “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write:”.

2 Jesus begins each message by telling them something about Himself―usually drawn from the vision of Him in the first chapter. So to this church Jesus says, ”The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword”. This recalls 1:16: “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword”.

3 Jesus tells the church what He knows about them. To this church, Jesus says, ”I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”

4 Where necessary, Jesus corrects the church, calls them to repent, and tells them how He’ll judge them if they don’t repent. In the case of this church, it was indeed necessary. He writes, ”But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practise sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”

5 He brings encouragement to faithful believers. For this church, Jesus doesn’t do this. However, to the church in Sardis―which was in a worse spiritual condition than Pergamum―Jesus writes, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (3:4).

6 He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” .

7 Jesus makes one or more wonderful promises to “the one who conquers” . The word “conquers” can also be translated as “overcomes” or “is victorious”. It’s a key word in Revelation. So, to the church in Pergamum, He writes, ”To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it”.

The Roman world

What kind of world were these churches in?

Perhaps the best way to appreciate what they were up against is by looking at the image at the top of this page. It’s an artist’s impression of the Acropolis of Pergamum, painted in 1882. It was based on archaeological investigations. The city had an acropolis―an imposing hill in the city, rather similar to the famous acropolis in Athens.

On this acropolis stood various buildings. To the left is the great altar of Zeus. Above it is the temple of the goddess Athena, with a colonnaded building behind it. Above that is the temple of Trajan, one of the Roman Emperors. This shows the importance of the imperial cult―worship of the Emperor. Pergamum was, in fact, the regional centre of this cult. That’s probably why Jesus called it the place “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13).

This painting is a view of Pergamum’s acropolis as it would have been sometime in the second century AD, a few decades after Revelation was written. However, the great altar of Zeus and the Temple of Athena were both in existence at that time.

Idolatry―worship of the Emperor and of pagan gods―was part of the fabric of the Roman world. It was all around you. And the cities were awash with sexual immorality.

But in the midst of this idolatrous and immoral world, God had His people. A visitor to these cities would have seen the temples and the altars―they couldn’t help but see them! But they wouldn’t have seen any church buildings. The New Testament tells us of believers meeting in homes and (in one instance) in a hall (Acts 19:9). To the outside world, the churches were all but invisible.

The lampstands

The churches were lampstands in that dark world. Jesus tells John, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20). The lampstand would have been a stand on which an oil lamp was placed.

In Scripture, the Lord Himself is associated with light. For example, at the end of Revelation, we read “They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (22:5). The light symbolises the presence of God. Just as the lampstand carries a lamp, each church, so to speak, is to carry the presence of God. Each church is to be alight with God’s presence,[1] shining as a light in a darkened world. They’re to be witnesses of God, and to Jesus Christ, and to His salvation.

Through tribulation

What did the pagan Roman world think of Christians? Christians were called atheists, because they didn’t worship the pagan gods. And they were called haters of the human race because they didn’t show political loyalty to the emperor and thus the Roman empire. Christians were considered to be disloyal, subversive and dangerous.

Some believers also faced opposition of another kind―from Jews.

So faithful Christians faced all kinds of difficulty:

1 They faced harassment from the authorities.

2 They faced opposition from the society around them.

3 In places, they faced harassment from Jews.

At the time Revelation was written, persecution was local and sporadic. There wasn’t any Empire-wide programme of persecuting Christians. Nonetheless, there was the possibility that you might have to suffer and even die for Christ. A man called Antipas had paid that ultimate price (2:13). John himself writes that he was “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (1:9).

Deceivers in the churches

There was another problem. This problem came from within the church.

A few decades before this church received the Book of Revelation, Paul had said this to the elders of the church in Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, . . . . I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, . . . .” (Acts 20:28-31).

And that’s exactly what happened. After Paul’s death, ”fierce wolves” came in among the churches, ”not sparing the flock”. From within the churches, people arose “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them”.

1 In Ephesus there were those “who call themselves apostles and are not” (2:2).

2 In Ephesus and Pergamum there were “Nicolaitans”.

3 In Pergamum there were some “who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practise sexual immorality” (2:14).

4 A false prophetess in Thyatira referred to as “Jezebel” was “teaching and seducing my servants to practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (2:20).

Very probably, all these deceivers were encouraging believers to compromise with the world, for example, by going to feasts where pagan gods were honoured, and participating in Emperor worship. In this way, they could make life a lot easier for themselves.

And at least some of these false teachers were also condoning “sexual immorality” . That refers to spiritual immorality―in other words, idolatry―and to immoral sexual behaviour.

Behind all this false teaching, of course, was Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).

This false teaching was like a cancer. Any church that didn’t deal with it was doomed. Ultimately, it would have destroyed the church.

Our own world

We in the Western world today don’t live in world surrounded by pagan temples and idols. (Of course, Christians in other cultures may well do.)

We do, however, have a secular, humanistic, and materialistic society. Our society imposes subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on believers to conform to the world’s beliefs and way of life. We face pressure to compromise with the world around us.

But God calls His people to be faithful to Him. The Book of Revelation, “can be seen as one great call to faithfulness even to the point of death” .[2] One writer says, “. . . when I was . . . a student, I found baptismal services incredibly sobering occasions. For the church I attended had the custom that as each baptismal candidate was baptised we sang some words of the Risen Christ to the church at Smyrna . . . : ‘Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life . . . .’”[3]

God’s resistance movement

We believers live in enemy-occupied territory. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). But John writes, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan has no right to be here―Satan and his forces are an occupying power.

During the Second World War, resistance networks were set up to fight against the Nazi forces in occupied countries. Many resistance fighters were captured and tortured to obtain information. Those who refused to co-operate suffered terribly; many were executed. Every day, these brave resistance fighters operated in the shadow of death.

We, too, live in enemy-occupied territory. And so we’re to be the Lord’s resistance fighters. We’re to challenge the culture of this world. We’re to bear witness to Jesus in our words and our lives. We’re to withstand and overcome Satan and his forces. We’re to play our part in making “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Under attack by Satan

We live in enemy-occupied territory. So how does our enemy Satan attack us? He attacks in two basic ways:

 He tries to deceive us. He “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). John describes Satan as “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).

 He attacks through persecution, or the threat of persecution. That may take many forms, including social ostracism, mockery, verbal or physical abuse.

Persecution, so often, has served to strengthen and grow the Church. One early church leader, Tertullian, who lived from around 155-220AD, wrote, “We spring up in greater numbers as often as we are mown down by you : the blood of the Christians is a source of new life.” [4]

But, through history, deception has―overall―been far more damaging to the Church.

So how do you stop yourself being deceived?

Here’s an example. If you wanted to be able to spot a fake antique, what must you do? You must spend lots of time studying and handling genuine antiques. Rule number one is this: know what the real thing looks and feels like!

And that’s how it is with spiritual deception. We need to know the real thing. We need to know the truth―the truth about God and about Jesus Christ, the truth about our identity in Christ, the truth about salvation. And that’s surely one reason why the first chapter of Revelation tells us so much about the triune God, and about who we are in Christ.

In the next part, we’ll look at the spiritual state of the seven churches. We’ll focus on how Jesus opens and closes His message to one of the churches by way of example―the church in Pergamum.

 

FOOTNOTES [1] Barry Webb writes, in his comments on the lampstand of Zechariah 4:1-14: “We are therefore driven to the conclusion that the lampstand represents the community – the people who are involved with Zerubbabel in the work of rebuilding the temple. It is a community ‘alight’ with the presence of the all-seeing, all-knowing God, who dwells in their midst.” The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come (The Bible Speaks Today), by Barry G. Webb, pages 92-93. Published by IVP, London in 2003. [2] Quoted from The Returning King: a Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern Sheridan Poythress, page 44. Published by P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in 2000. Published online here, accessed on 14 July 2021. [3] Quoted from Faithful unto Death by Paul Beasley-Murray, published online here, accessed 22 August 2022. [4] Quoted from The Apology of Tertullian for the Christians. Translated . . . by T. Herbert Bindley, M.A., Merton College, Oxford, chapter L. Published by Parker and Co., London and Oxford, in 1890. Published online here, accessed on 5 September 2022.

 

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Image on page 1 entitled ‘Acropolis of Pergamon’. Image published here and considered by the Wikimedia Foundation to be in the public domain in the United States. In other jurisdictions, re-use of this content may be restricted.

The Lamb is the Lord, part 3: Truths for our Journey

Three foundational truths

We begin our journey through the Book of Revelation.

Every hiker who sets out on a trek must be properly equipped. They need warm, weatherproof clothes, sturdy comfortable boots, adequate food and drink, and a compass. Without these, they face disaster.

In a similar way, the first chapter of Revelation equips us for our journey through this book, and for our journey through life. It does so by giving us three foundational truths:

 Who God is. We’re given the most amazing depiction of the Triune God. It especially focuses on Jesus Christ―for example, the magnificent vision of Him in 1:12-16.

 What God does. We see all that God in Christ has done for us, all He’s doing for us now, and the glorious destiny He has in store for us.

 Who we are. We see our new identity in Christ.

These are foundational truths. Accordingly, we see them right here in the first chapter of the book. God wants these truths to sink deep into our minds and hearts. They’ll strengthen us to endure tribulation and trial. They’ll shield us from Satan’s lies. They’ll protect us from compromise with the world around us.

Who God is

In 1:4-5, we read, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

And in 1:8 we read, “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’”

Here in these verses we see who the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are:

 God the Father is described as “him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4 repeated in 1:8). This echoes what we read in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’. . . . ‘Say this to the people of Israel: “I AM has sent me to you.”’” Through this Name “I AM” God revealed Himself as the living, personal God Who is present with His people and actively working to save and bless them. We might translate this Name “I am He Who is here for you”. He is with us, watching over us, enabling us to stand firm for Him through all the tribulation and trials we may experience in this world. Notice, too, that it says, not “. . . who will be” as we might have expected, but “. . . who is to come”. Here is the heartbeat of Revelation: God is coming! He’s bringing His plan of redemption to completion. He will come to save and to judge.

 And God is “the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8). Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet; omega is the last. God was before all things, and He created all things. He governs all history, and He’ll complete His wonderful plan of redemption for us and our world―as we see in Revelation 21:1-22:5.

 The Holy Spirit is referred to as “the seven spirits who are before” God’s throne. This phrase “the seven spirits” can also be translated as “the sevenfold Spirit”. The number ‘seven’ is a symbol of completion or perfection. And it seems to focus specially on what God is doing in this world (we’ll see why this is later in this series). All that we see God doing here in the Book of Revelation―redeeming His people and restoring His creation―is through the Holy Spirit.

 Jesus is ”the faithful witness” (picking up the theme of witness, which we mentioned earlier).

 And Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead” (1:5): He’s the first to rise from the dead (see also Acts 26:23 and Colossians 1:18). His resurrection demonstrates His complete victory over Satan and all the forces of evil, and over death. And we’re assured of our own victory. Later in the book, we’ll read about God’s people suffering, even being killed. But death is no defeat for us. Jesus’s resurrection guarantees that we will be resurrected from death (1 Corinthians 15:20)!

 Finally, Jesus is “the ruler of kings on earth” (1:5). Jesus is the Lord. That’s the key message of the whole book, as we’ll see.

What God does

In 1:5 we read that Jesus “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood“. On the Cross, Jesus endured the penalty for our sins. Our penalty is paid; and God has forgiven us! And Jesus has released us from bondage to sin; we believers are no longer slaves to sin.

And Jesus has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:6). One commentator translates this as: “he has made us sharers in his royal rule, and priests to minister to His God and Father”.[1]

Who we are

As ”sharers in” Jesus’s “royal rule”, and as “priests”, Jesus has given us a completely new identity.

 As priests, we worship and serve Him.

 And we share in His royal dominion. Christ is seated “in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, . . . .” (Ephesians 1:20-21, see also 1 Peter 3:22). We’re seated there with Him (Ephesians 2:6). So we share His dominion. As we read Revelation, we’ll see God’s people suffering, even being killed. But, in fact, we share His dominion over all the forces of evil that seek to harm and kill us! We need to remember this as we continue reading through this book.

A vision of Jesus

John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, . . . .’” (1:10-11). He turns to see whose voice it is. He sees Jesus.

John was one of Jesus’s disciples. He saw a foretaste of Jesus’s glory at His transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8 and parallels). And he saw the resurrected Lord. But now he sees Jesus as he had never seen Him before. He sees Jesus in all His exalted glory. John tells us: “I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’” (1:12–18).

Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended to His Father in Heaven. He’s now seated at His Father’s right hand (Acts 2:33)―the place of supreme authority. That’s how we see Jesus in this vision.

This is the very first vision we see in Revelation. Before anything else we read in this book, Jesus wants us to see Himself as He is. He wants us to see Him in His exalted glory at His Father’s right hand. Everything else we read in Revelation needs to be read in the light of this glorious vision of Christ.

Jesus appears to John here in symbolic form. The vision doesn’t reveal what He literally looks like; it reveals His identity and His character.

What does this vision show us about Jesus? We see Him here both in His divinity and His humanity. We see Him here as the Divine Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. And at the same time, we see Him here as a Man―the Messiah who came to save God’s people, to judge and destroy evil, and to establish God’s Kingdom.

It’s important to realise that Jesus, the Son of God, is still incarnate. He became incarnate at His conception in Mary’s body. He’ll remain incarnate for all eternity. Jesus Christ is, and will always be, fully Human and fully Divine. What an amazing truth: God has united Himself to our human race for ever in the Person of Jesus Christ!

Most aspects of this vision of Jesus reflect Old Testament visions of God as recorded in Ezekiel 1:25-28 and Daniel 7:9-10, of the pre-incarnate Christ in Daniel 7:13-14, and of what was likely the pre-incarnate Christ in Daniel 10:5-6.

 Jesus is “one like a son of man” (1:13). This echoes Ezekiel 1:26, Daniel 7:13 and 10:5. In Daniel 7:13-14 we read: “behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and 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, . . . .” The “one like a son of man” is a human. But He’s not simply a man. He’s the true Man―the perfect Man, the Man who is worthy to receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom”.[2] At His ascension He received everlasting dominion over all people. And He comes “with the clouds of heaven”, which symbolise the presence and power of God. The Man Jesus Christ is also divine.

 Jesus is “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest” (1:13). This reflects Daniel 10:5. These garments may well be priestly attire. The High Priest wore a robe (Exodus 28:31–35). And Jesus is among “seven golden lampstands” (1:12-13); lampstands were part of the furnishings of the Tabernacle and Temple. They were tended by the priests. So it seems we’re seeing Jesus as our great High Priest, tending the lampstands―in other words, tending His churches. Long robes and sashes across the chest were also worn by dignitaries and rulers. Perhaps these garments picture Jesus as our great High Priest and also as our King.

 “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow” (1:14). This links back to the vision of God that Daniel saw. The hair of “the Ancient of Days” was ”like pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). Jesus’s hair is described in the same way as that of “the Ancient of Days”, who is the Father. John sees Jesus, the divine Son of God, sharing one of the attributes of the Father. The white colour of His hair suggests purity. It also suggests someone of great age―and hence great wisdom and dignity.

 Jesus’s “eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace” (1:14-15). This description reflects Ezekiel 1:27-28, Daniel 7:9-10 and 10:6. The image of the burning eyes shows Jesus’s divine insight. But, this also includes His judgment. His “feet” of “burnished bronze, refined in a furnace” symbolise Christ’s mighty strength and His purity.

 Jesus’s “voice was like the roar of many waters” (1:15). This reflects Ezekiel 1:23 and Daniel 10:6. It pictures the awesome power of His voice.

 Jesus holds “seven stars” in His right hand (1:16). In Revelation 1:20, we learn that “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches”. We’ll explore who these angels are later in this series.

 From Jesus’s mouth “came a sharp two-edged sword” (1:16; it also echoes Isaiah 49:2). This image pictures Jesus’s word. His word is like a sharp sword: by His word He pronounces and carries out righteous judgment on the nations (19:15), and on false teaching and immorality within His churches (2:12,16).

 Jesus’s “face was like the sun shining in full strength” (1:16). This reflects Ezekiel 1:27-28, and Daniel 10:6, and pictures the glory of our exalted Lord. The image recalls Jesus’s transfiguration, when “his face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). In Isaiah 60:19 we read, “The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.” Again, an Old Testament image of God is applied to the exalted Christ. And in 21:23 we read that New Jerusalem “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:23, see also 22:5).

John falls “at his feet as though dead” (1:17). But Jesus lays His right hand on him and says, “Fear not” . Then He says: “I am the first and the last . . . .” (1:17). Christ is the One through Whom all things are created (Hebrews 1:2) and Who is sovereign over history. He says that He’s ”the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:18). He’s our Resurrected Lord who lives for ever.

And Jesus tells John, “I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:18). ‘Hades’ is the realm of the dead. Christ has “the keys” over Death and Hades. In other words, He has power and authority over death.

In the next part, we’ll begin looking at Jesus’s messages to the seven churches of Asia in 2:1-3:22.

FOOTNOTES [1] Quoted from The Revelation of Saint John (Black’s New Testament Commentary), by Ian Boxall, page 33. Published jointly by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Peabody, Massachusetts, and Continuum International Publishing Group, London, England, in 2006. [2] See The Preacher’s Commentary: Daniel, by Sinclair B. Ferguson, pages 144-145. Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, in 1988.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture citations marked ‘NIV’ are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition) Copyright ©1979,1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.

The Lamb is the Lord, part 2: Cosmic War

Into the Jaws of Death—U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire from Wikipedia

Into the Jaws of Death—U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire. A landing craft from the USS ‘Samuel Chase’ disembarks troops of the U.S. Army’s First Division at Omaha Beach, Normandy, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

In this part, we’ll look at the basic theme of Revelation. What is Revelation all about?

War in Heaven and on Earth

What is Revelation fundamentally about? To answer this question, let’s go to one of the key scenes in the book. In 12:7-11 we read this: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

Note these phrases: “war arose in heaven”; and “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” . The book of Revelation is about a war. There’s a spiritual battle raging in the Universe. Revelation is a war drama.

Our Commander’s call to courage

In times of war, great leaders will address their people or their troops to inspire them and strengthen their resolve for the conflict. An outstanding example is General Bernard Montgomery’s address to his officers the day after taking command of the British Eighth Army in North Africa in 1942. He said, “Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. . . . . Our mandate from the Prime Minister is to destroy the Axis forces in North Africa; . . . . It can be done, and it will be done: beyond any possibility of doubt. . . . . I ask you to give me your confidence and to have faith that what I have said will come to pass.”[1]. Montgomery’s Chief of Staff reported, “The effect of his address was electric―it was terrific. And we all went to bed that night with a new hope in our hearts, and a great confidence in the future of our Army.”[2].

In the Book of Revelation, our Commander-in-Chief, the Lord Jesus Christ, addresses His troops―that’s us! He’s showing us the spiritual battle we’re involved in. He’s showing us who our enemies are, and how they operate. He’s showing us how to fight, and how to overcome our enemies. He assures us of victory. And He captivates our hearts and minds with the final glory that will follow.

The flashpoint of conflict

Revelation is a war drama. That war began a very long time ago.

The very first enemy of God was Satan. It seems that Satan was once a very powerful angel who lived in Heaven. He was originally perfect and sinless. But there came a time when he became proud―so proud, in fact, that he wanted to be like God Himself. That was the moment when evil entered God’s creation. That was the moment when this war began.

God threw Satan out of Heaven. It seems that other angels joined his rebellion. They, too, were thrown out of Heaven. Satan set up his headquarters in another spiritual realm. With him are the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” that Paul writes about in Ephesians 6:12.

The battle for planet Earth

In the first two chapters of Genesis we read how God created the heavens and the Earth. He filled Earth with all kinds of living things. And He created the first human, Adam. God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden” (Genesis 2:15). God put Adam in the garden. And He made Eve from Adam’s side.

And so we find God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (as Genesis 3:8 suggests). And as the human race multiplied and filled the Earth, God wanted the Garden of Eden’s boundaries to be extended until the whole Earth was a paradise. God wanted the whole Earth to be His paradise where He lived among His people.

Satan, it seems, had tried to be like God in Heaven. We can assume that Satan now saw his chance to do on Earth what he’d failed to do in Heaven―to be like God. He wanted to seize control of planet Earth. He wanted humans to worship and serve him rather than God. So he hatched a plan.

In Genesis 3:1 we read that the snake “was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made” . This was no ordinary snake. It may have been Satan’s messenger. Or it may have been Satan himself in disguise.

The snake tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. And so we read that Eve “ate, and . . . also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).

How did the snake persuade Adam and Eve to disobey God? It did this by deceiving them.

 It made them think wrongly about God―that His word couldn’t be trusted, that He didn’t love them, that He didn’t want the very best for them.

 And it made Adam and Eve think wrongly about themselves. Now they believed that they could do without God and decide for themselves how to live.

It was through believing these lies―this false teaching―that sin entered this world.

Satan deceived Adam and Eve. He is “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). Where in the Bible do we see Satan’s deceptive activity most graphically? Right here in the Book of Revelation.

A shattered world

Adam and Eve rebelled against God. That had catastrophic consequences on them and on this world. Sin and evil has devastated our human race and the natural world. Earth is still a wonderful place, full of beauty. But it’s also spoiled. It’s spoiled in so many different ways.

One of them is this: Satan gained power over our human race. The apostle John tells us that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19 NIV). We see this so clearly in Revelation.

Satan’s plan succeeded―or so it seemed. He did indeed gain control over this world. But we need to remember this: Satan rules human society only by God’s permission and only within God’s limits. We see this very clearly in Revelation, too.

The Snake-Crusher

God cursed the snake. And He said to it: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers” (Genesis 3:15).

From that moment there would be war between Satan and Eve, and between their offspring―between people who follow Satan and people who follow God.

But then we read this: “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The offspring of the woman would crush Satan’s head. A descendant of Eve would crush Satan and defeat him.

So from now on, through the Bible, we see conflict. And from now on, too, we’re looking for the descendant of Eve who would crush Satan.

The moment arrived when this descendant was born. Paul tells us “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus is the Offspring of the woman. He crushed Satan’s head on the Cross. And He rose from death and ascended into heaven. He’s now enthroned at God’s right hand, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, . . . .” (Ephesians 1:20-21).

Endgame

God is now carrying out the final phase of His plan of salvation. And He’s enlisted us, His people, in His final ‘push’ to victory. Through His Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered people, God is advancing His Kingdom across the globe. God’s people are plundering Satan’s domain and making disciples in every nation.

But that advance is being stoutly resisted by Satan and the forces of evil. They’re fighting a desperate rearguard action. Victory has already been won. Jesus won it on the Cross. But we’re still at war. Every Christian―in fact, every human―is involved in this war. None of us can avoid it.

But we need to remember that this war is not between evenly-matched opponents―not in the slightest. Satan and his forces have power only by God’s permission and within God’s limits. God is always in full control.

The warriors

Who are the warriors in this great battle?

 The great Warrior of Revelation is the Triune God―Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s holy angels are also involved. And, of course, we believers are involved.

 Warring against God and His forces are Satan and his forces. Paul catalogues Satan’s spiritual forces in Ephesians 6. He writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). But though we don’t fight against “flesh and blood”, Satan and his spiritual forces can and do operate through people. In other words, we never fight against forces that are merely “flesh and blood”, merely human. And so, in Revelation we meet people under Satan’s domination. They’re described as ”all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” , who are “marked on the right hand or the forehead” with the “mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:16–17). We’ll look at this mark in session 5.

Warfare and worship

Satan wants to be treated like God here on Earth. He wants to be worshipped instead of God. And so, at its heart, the battle is about worship. Who will be worshipped and served here on Earth? Will people worship God? Or will they worship Satan and the forces of evil? One writer says, “In this war there are two sides. You are either for God or against him. You either serve God, or in one way or another you will be found worshiping Satan and his bestial agents . . . . Thus Revelation implicitly issues a challenge like Joshua: ‘choose this day whom you will serve’ (Joshua 24:15).”[3]

And this must surely explain why we see so much worship in Revelation. We see those who worship God and the Lamb: there are seven scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation (4:8-11, 5:8-14, 7:9-12, 11:16-18, 14:1-3, 15:2-4, 19:1-8). And we see those who worship the dragon and its beast (13:4-5,8,11-12). In fact, the word ‘worship’ occurs 22 times (in the ESV)―that’s more than in any other New Testament book.

To worship God is an act of war. When we worship God, and when we declare Jesus to be Lord, we wage war on Satan.

The weapons of war

How does Satan attack us? What are his weapons?

 Firstly, he tries to deceive us. Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). Paul speaks of “the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). Right at the beginning, he deceived Eve with his craftiness (2 Corinthians 11:3).

 Secondly, he attacks us through persecution and the fear of persecution. Such persecution may not be just physical. It may be verbal, psychological, and emotional.

What are our weapons against Satan and his forces?

 Firstly, God’s people conquer Satan “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11). Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins. And God has credited us with Jesus’s perfect righteousness. Satan can no longer accuse us before God.

 Secondly, we also overcome Satan and all his forces by the truth. Right at the beginning, Satan spoke lies. And it was through believing those lies that sin entered this world. And so we defeat Satan’s lies with the truth. We can think of the war with Satan as taking place in a lawcourt. Satan and his forces are in the dock. Witnesses have been called, questioned and cross-examined. Jesus Christ Himself is “the faithful and true witness” (3:14)―a witness to God’s character, to the way of salvation, to the coming judgment. John “bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (1:2). You and I are witnesses. All God’s people are witnesses. And so ‘witness’ is a key theme in Revelation, as we’ll see.

 Thirdly, God’s people are to resist the seductions of this world. John urges us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15).

 Finally, God’s people respond to persecution by staying faithful to God even through suffering and even, if need be, to death. Jesus said to the suffering church in Smyrna, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

In the next part, we’ll set off on our journey through Revelation. We’ll see three fundamental truths that will equip us as we travel through this book.

FOOTNOTES [1]Quoted from Speech to 8th Army upon assuming command Published online here, accessed 17 September 2021. [2] Quoted from Destiny in the Desert: the Road to El Alamein―the Battle that Turned the Tide by Jonathan Dimbleby (page not known). First published in Great Britain by Profile Books Ltd., London, in 2012. Accessed on Google Books on 2 June 2022. [3] Quoted from The Returning King: a Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern Sheridan Poythress, page 23. Published by P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in 2000. Published online here, accessed on 14 July 2021.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture citations marked ‘NIV’ are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition) Copyright ©1979,1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.

The Lamb is the Lord: a journey through the Book of Revelation

In the book of Revelation, God draws aside the curtains on the stage of history. Through the captivating power of drama and imagery, Jesus shows us what’s really going on here on Earth, and where human history is heading. Revelation gathers up the key themes that run through the Bible and weaves them into the glorious climax of God’s redemptive plan for us and for this world.

This post is the first of a series that will take you through this final book of the Bible. We’ll explore it’s key themes, its storyline, its symbolism and imagery. And we’ll see what God is saying to us believers through this book as we follow Jesus day by day.

This series of posts is an edited version of seven talks given at a local church. For each of these talks, a brief illustrated introduction and a longer illustrated study were handed out to the participants. These will also be uploaded onto the website as downloadable PDFs.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ

The year is probably around 90-95AD. The emperor Domitian rules the Roman Empire. That mighty empire is almost at its greatest power and extent, ruling from Spain and Portugal to the Middle East, from Britain to North Africa.

At this moment in history, Almighty God speaks―not to the leaders of that proud empire―but to an old man in exile on a little Mediterranean island. That man is John the Apostle. He’s probably in his 80s, and almost certainly the only one of Jesus’s 12 disciples still alive. John writes, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9).

John continues: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’” (1:10-11).

And what John writes to these seven churches―the book of Revelation―has come to you by special guaranteed delivery from the Lord God Almighty in Heaven. God gave it to Jesus Christ. Jesus, in turn, sent His angel, who made it known to John (1:1). John wrote it, and a courier carried his manuscript to each of seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. That manuscript was copied and recopied, gathered with other God-breathed manuscripts into the Bible, and has now―in translated and printed form―found its way into your home and hand. You now read what John wrote over 19 centuries ago.

John begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, . . . .” (1:1). The Greek word for ”revelation” is apocalupsis. Our word ‘apocalyptic’ comes from that word. We use ‘apocalyptic’ to mean something that’s catastrophic, an overwhelming disaster. But the Greek word means something rather different. It means ‘an uncovering’, ‘an unveiling’. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is unveiling things to us.

Earthrise from Wikipedia, image by NASA

Earthrise: a photograph taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on December 24, 1968.

There’s a famous photograph entitled ‘Earthrise’. It was taken on the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon in 1968. The astronauts on this mission were the very first humans who saw Earth as viewed from the Moon. It gave them―and us―a completely new perspective on our planet. Likewise, in Revelation, God gives us a new perspective on this world, and all that’s going on in it. He’s giving us His heavenly perspective.

Things that must soon take place

Revelation is “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” (1:1). The book reveals what’s happening in the final period of human history, and where history is heading.

The Bible calls this final period of history the “last days”. When are these last days? The book of Hebrews tells us. It begins: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, . . . .” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The last days began with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We’re now in the last days! In fact, John wrote, “Children, it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). We’re living in the last hour! John wrote these words in the first century AD. This last hour began many centuries ago!

These last days will end when Jesus returns. Jesus Himself tells us: “He who testifies to these things says, ’Surely I am coming soon.’” (22:20). John responds with eager anticipation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20). We all echo that cry: Come Lord Jesus!

An enigmatic book

In Revelation, there are many things that seem rather puzzling. For example:

 Who or what are the four horsemen of the apocalypse (6:1-8)?

 What’s “the mark of the beast” (for example, 16:2, 19:20)?

 Where and when is the battle of Armageddon (16:16)?

 When are the “thousand years” (20:2-7), also called the Millennium?

 Revelation is full of numbers―especially the number seven. For example, there’s the famous number “666” (13:18). What do all these numbers mean?

Firstly, we need to keep in mind that Revelation wasn’t written to theologians. It was written to ordinary men and women, many of whom had little or no education. Our Lord didn’t write the book to mystify us. He wrote it so we could understand it![1]

Seeing the wood from the trees

So how do we interpret these things? We need to start with the big picture, not the details.

What’s the most famous painting in the world? I think most people would agree that it’s the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s a portrait of an Italian noblewoman called Lisa del Giocondo.

Image from Wikipedia.

Mona Lisa: a portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).

Imagine you’re visiting the Louvre Museum. You’ve never seen the Mona Lisa before. You go to the room where it’s displayed. And there it is! The most famous painting in the world!

As you look at this painting, you’ll see that the background to the portrait is a landscape. In that landscape there’s a bridge over a river. It’s just to the right of the lady’s shoulder.

Suppose you focus on this bridge. You think to yourself, “Why did Leonardo include that bridge?”, “Why did he place it in that position?”, “Does this bridge symbolise something?”, “And, if so, what does it symbolise?”

But if you get preoccupied about details like this, you’ll miss the big picture. You’ll fail to really appreciate the main thing―the portrait of the noblewoman, and the remarkable way that Leonardo portrays her.

And that’s how it is with Revelation. If we start by puzzling over the details, we’ll be in danger of missing its key messages. For example, in 13:1-2 we read about a frightening beast which has “ten horns and seven heads” . If we begin by trying to work out why it’s got ten horns (and not, say, five) and seven heads (and not, say, four) then we’ll be in danger of missing the main thing this beast is showing us.

But if we begin just by reading through Revelation and getting engrossed in the story, then the details will begin to become clear. For example, we’ll begin to see what this beast really represents. Then we’ll be better able to explore what the ten horns and seven heads mean.

God’s cosmic drama

Reading Revelation is like watching a play at a theatre. The curtain rises. We see angels and living beings full of eyes. Catastrophes and judgments sweep the Earth. Menacing monsters appear before us. We read of a great final battle at a place called Armageddon. A drunken prostitute parades before us, riding a many-headed scarlet beast. And at the end, there’s a city like an enormous cube―a city that is, in fact, a bride!

And as each scene is played out on the stage, we find ourselves absorbed in all that’s going on. We’re awestruck by the glory and majesty of God on His throne, and of Jesus the Lamb. We’re thrilled when we see the saints rejoicing and triumphant in glory. We’re shaken by the great judgments that sweep the earth. We’re shocked and appalled by the sight of the dragon and the beast.

But we’re not merely spectators in the audience, watching the drama on the stage. We’re actually on the stage! We’re actors, each playing our God-appointed role.

God’s picture book

Revelation is full of imagery and symbolism. But Revelation isn’t the only place in the Bible where we find this. For example: David tells God, ”in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge” (Psalm 57:1). Jesus used lots of imagery in His teaching. He tells us that He is “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48), “the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5), “the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14), “the true vine” (John 15:1).

Why does the Bible use imagery?

 Firstly, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Each image and symbol in the Bible contains a wealth of meaning. You couldn’t fully explain all this truth in just words―only images can fully convey all the truth God wants to teach us.

 Secondly, imagery seizes our attention, stirs our imagination and rouses our emotions. It drives truth home to us in a way that we don’t easily forget.

So how can we understand and interpret all the imagery and symbolism in Revelation? One key is this: more than any other New Testament book, we need to read Revelation with our Old Testament open beside us.

Revelation constantly alludes back to the Old Testament. In its 405 verses there are (according to one estimate) “something like 676 allusions” [2]. The books most frequently alluded to are Isaiah, Psalms, Ezekiel, Daniel and Exodus. So the better we know the Old Testament, the better we’ll be able to understand Revelation.

Here’s an example. In chapters 13 and 17, a terrifying beast appears. In 13:1-2―as we mentioned earlier―we see a frightening beast which has “ten horns and seven heads”. The beast of chapter 17 is doubtless the same beast. We read this: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.”

Where in the Old Testament do we read about beasts like this? They remind us of beasts that the prophet Daniel saw. In Daniel 3:3-7 we read, “four great beasts came up out of the sea, . . . . The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. . . . . And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. . . . . I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, . . . . After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.” These four beasts represent four world empires―probably the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires.

In Revelation, John sees these four beasts combined into one horrific monster. The Book of Daniel helps us to identify what this beast represents. It pictures a combination of different world empires. In fact, it seems to picture all the world empires that have been dominated by Satan―in other words, every godless power that has strutted the stage of world history.

Scene changes

Revelation isn’t organised systematically. It isn’t a college textbook. It’s not a timetable of the last days. As we said earlier, it’s like a drama.

 Revelation isn’t arranged in a strict chronological sequence. Sometimes we skip forward in time and then back again. We’re probably familiar with this kind of thing in movies. These may include ‘flashbacks’―scenes that interrupt the chronological flow of the movie because they portray events occurring earlier in time. Revelation does the same kind of thing. We see flashbacks―scenes that take us back in time to earlier events. But we also see ’flashforwards’―scenes that take us forward to events in the future.

 Revelation alternates between scenes of what’s happening on Earth and scenes of what’s happening in heaven.

In the next part, we’ll try to answer these questions: What is Revelation basically all about? What’s it’s main storyline?

FOOTNOTES [1] Adapted from Blessed: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Revelation, by Nancy Guthrie, page 12. Published by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, in 2022. [2] The figure is quoted in Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentary), by Ian Paul, page 39. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, and Inter-Varsity Press, London, England, in 2018.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts All Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

‘Remaking a Broken World: the Heart of the Bible Story’ by Christopher Ash

Remaking a Broken World overviews the Bible story. The book gives us, in the author’s words, “a fresh camera angle on the Bible story” that focuses on scattering and gathering―scattering as an aspect of God’s judgment, and gathering as an aspect of God’s redemption. The back cover of the book reads, “Our world is fractured on every level. From the family to international relations, it is hard to make and maintain harmony. How can we bring peace? This book offers a surprising, compelling answer: that the ordinary local church contains the seeds of a remade world. The most significant thing we can do is to commit ourselves to our church. Christopher Ash sweeps through the whole Bible, showing how the gathering of God’s people has always been central to God’s plan for the world. Read this to see the Bible anew, refresh your passion for your church, and find hope for a broken world—which, it turns out, is already being remade.” The writing is engaging, clear, and engages constantly with the Scriptures. In addition to the introduction and conclusion, there are nine chapters; arranged into four sections:

 Section A – A Broken World: Scattered Without God

 Section B – The Assembly of Israel: Gathering Foreshadowed

 Section C – The Assembly of Jesus: Gathering Realised

 Section D – The New Creation: Gathering Consummated

Mark Meynell, authors of a number of books, and Europe and Caribbean Director for Langham Preaching (part of Langham Partnership), provides an extensive and helpful review HERE. (He reviews the previous edition of Remaking a Broken World, hence the different cover displayed on review―the book has been revised and updated since.) Meynell writes, “The genius of Ash’s approach is to see God’s purposes expressed in the dual theme of his people being scattered and gathered. He bases this around a Bible tour of 9 places: Eden, Babel, Sinai, Jerusalem, Babylon, Golgotha, Pentecost, Church, and New Creation . . . . And once it’s pointed out, you see it everywhere – there’s a thrilling section, for example, in which Ash picks up the post-exilic context of prophetic hope (pp96-102). . . . . this is a genuinely biblical melodic line. This alone makes this book an important contribution to growing library of popular level biblical theology. But it is no academic curiosity – it has huge pastoral significance, . . . . it provocatively places the very idea of the community of God, and in particular the local church, centre stage.” Meynell concludes, “All in all, this is a wonderful read – stimulating, engaging, passionate, credible. I’m going to be recommending it left right and centre.”

Remaking a Broken World is published by The Good Book Company and is very reasonably priced (at the time of writing, it was £6.79 for the paperback and £4.79 for the ebook). If you buy the ebook, you get the book in three formats―PDF, epub and mobi. Another feature is that the PDF is printable―this format doesn’t have printing disabled. So if obtaining the paperback is difficult, or if you want both an ebook and a printed copy, you can buy the ebook and then print the PDF. The publisher’s page for the book is HERE―the page includes a free excerpt that you can download.

Christopher Ash is writer in residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and a full-time preacher, speaker, and writer. He previously served as the director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course and as a minister and church planter. He and his wife, Carolyn, are members of St. Andrew the Great Church in Cambridge, and have four children and seven grandchildren. He has written numerous books.

Friday Briefing 21 (4 June 2021)

How Does the Cross of Christ Make Sense of the Kingdom of God? Jeremy Treat writes, “Countless books on the kingdom hardly mention Christ’s cross. Volumes on the cross ignore Jesus’ message of the kingdom. The polarization of these two biblical themes leads to divergent approaches: cross-centered theology that focuses on the salvation of sinners or kingdom-minded activism that seeks to change the world. . . . . It’s as if we are left with a choice between either a kingdom without a cross or a cross without a kingdom; this false dichotomy truncates the gospel and cripples the church.” But these two themes are wonderfully integrated in Scripture. Treat explains how.

Mourning the death of a dwelling place Hayden Hefner writes, “Several years ago, my wife and I purchased our first home. Several weeks from now, we will lock the front door for the last time. . . . . . . . locking the front door for the last time will feel like a sort of death. It is the fading away of a physical reminder. It is the death of a dwelling place. But, he writes, ”The death of an earthly dwelling place reminds us we have a new and better homecoming . . . .

A tale of two liturgies Matt Merker writes, “We should see the church’s worship service—the whole thing, not just the sermon—as a mass discipling activity. . . . . Since the gathering is such a powerful corporate discipling tool, we should treat liturgy with care. ”

One Thing I Did Right in Ministry: “I Started a Book Table” Tom Ascol writes, “One of the first things that I did when I became pastor of the church I now serve was to start a book table where good books at discounted prices were made available to our congregation.” Ascol explains how books have strengthened discipleship in his congregation.

How Does the Cross of Christ Make Sense of the Kingdom of God?

Jeremy Treat writes, “Unfortunately today, many Christians either cling to the cross or champion the kingdom, usually one to the exclusion of the other. Countless books on the kingdom hardly mention Christ’s cross. Volumes on the cross ignore Jesus’ message of the kingdom. The polarization of these two biblical themes leads to divergent approaches: cross-centered theology that focuses on the salvation of sinners or kingdom-minded activism that seeks to change the world. Whole churches or movements are built on one idea or the other. It’s as if we are left with a choice between either a kingdom without a cross or a cross without a kingdom; this false dichotomy truncates the gospel and cripples the church.“ Treat asks how these two central themes of Scripture came to be pitted against each other and comments, “We need a better way forward than “kingdom versus cross.” And it’s not enough to merely seek “kingdom and cross,” as if these were two competing values that need to be held in tension. The key is not balance, but integration. And that’s exactly what we find in Scripture, an unfolding narrative that weaves together atonement and kingdom like a crown of thorns, fit for a crucified king.” After briefly tracing this narrative, he concludes, “The kingdom comes in power, but the power of the gospel is Christ crucified.”

Read the whole article HERE. This article was published in the August 2019 issue of the 9Marks Journal, an issue entitled The Heart of the Gospel: Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This issue contains 23 articles, including J.I. Packer’s classic lecture entitled What did the Cross Achieve: the Logic of Penal Substitution. You can download the entire issue free of charge, either using the link on the left-hand side of the page containing Treat’s article, or from the page HERE. Dr Jeremy Treat is the author of The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (the publishers page is HERE) and Seek First: How the Kingdom of God Changes Everything (the publishers page is HERE).

Click here to go back to table of contents

Mourning the death of a dwelling place.

“Several years ago, my wife and I purchased our first home. Several weeks from now, we will lock the front door for the last time. If I’m being honest, the thought of selling our little home makes me sad. This house has been the backdrop and base camp for some of the most memorable and formative moments of our life together. . . . . . . . locking the front door for the last time will feel like a sort of death. It is the fading away of a physical reminder. It is the death of a dwelling place. He comments, “having a home is a good thing. Home is God’s idea. . . . . We were not made for walking away from home.” In his conclusion, he writes, ”The death of an earthly dwelling place reminds us we have a new and better homecoming—one not subject to peeling paint, weather damage, or financial foreclosure, but designed and built by the Lord (Hebrews 11:10).”

Read the whole article HERE.

Click here to go back to table of contents

A tale of two liturgies.

Justin Taylor shares an excerpt from Matt Merker’s book Corporate Worship: How the Church Gathers as God’s People (published by Crossway; the publisher’s page is HERE).

Matt Merker explains, “Many theologians have called the order of service a “liturgy.” The Greek term leitourgia referred to work done for the good of the public. When used in the context of a church gathering, “liturgy” refers to the “work” or ministry of exaltation and edification for which God gathers his people—or better, that God himself performs in and through his people.” He writes, “For me, liturgy refers to the order of the worship service, particularly how it reveals and reinforces the nature of the service itself. ” Merker points out: “We should see the church’s worship service—the whole thing, not just the sermon—as a mass discipling activity. . . . . Since the gathering is such a powerful corporate discipling tool, we should treat liturgy with care.” Merker shows how this works in practice by taking two contrasting orders of service, from the gatherings of two different churches. These churches have congregations of the same size, use the same musical instruments and have the same theological beliefs. But their liturgies are different, in ways that are significant. His first example is an order of service typical of many evangelical churches. The second is an example of a gathering at a Presbyterian church in Brazil. Merker then notes four weaknesses of his first example. One of these relates to prayer and the public reading of Scripture. Merker comments, “this order of service leaves two of the most essential elements of corporate worship out to dry: prayer and Scripture reading. There is no other Scripture reading in the service, aside from what the pastor might read in his sermon. And the prayers serve as transitions, not as substantive elements of worship in their own right.”

The message to take away is this: if key elements of the order of service are missing, or if the order of service is disjointed or theologically weak, the worship service is less glorifying to God, less effective in building up believers, and less able to communicate the Gospel message to unbelievers in the congregation. Through the prayers, the Scriptures being read, the preaching, the hymns and songs, through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we should, as Merker writes, “strive to fill our services with the life-giving water of the Word of God.”

Read the whole article HERE.

Click here to go back to table of contents

One Thing I Did Right in Ministry: “I Started a Book Table”.

Tom Ascol writes, “One of the first things that I did when I became pastor of the church I now serve was to start a book table where good books at discounted prices were made available to our congregation. . . . . . . . within a matter of months we had a table full of good titles for sale as a fixture in our foyer. Within a year or two, the “Book Table” became a line item in our budget and the church adopted a policy that if anyone who wanted one of the books but could not afford to pay, he or she could have it in exchange for a promise to read it. I often recommend books both publicly and in private conversations. When someone takes my recommendation I try to follow up in a few weeks to ask what they think of the book, what they are learning or if the book has raised any questions for them. That has led to some very fruitful conversations and opportunities for ministry.”

Ascol concludes, “Through the years I have seen good books supplement the ongoing preaching and teaching ministry of the church, encourage personal and spiritual growth, help with counseling, equip for ministry and help people develop a growing love for truth. . . . . So I would encourage every pastor to start a book table if one doesn’t already exist in the church he is serving. That is one thing that, by God’s grace, I did right early in my ministry.”

Read the whole article HERE.

Click here to go back to table of contents

The Lamb is the Lord, part 6: The Throne at the Centre of Everything

Art is by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. To order art prints visit her “Revelation Illustrated” site, http://www.revelationillustrated.com

An artist’s depiction of the scene in Revelation 4:1-11.

What do you see?

Tim Chester asks, “Turn on the television or open a newspaper and what do you see? . . . . How would you describe what you see in our world?”[1] When believers in those seven churches in Asia looked around them, what did they see? Tim Chester tells us: “this is what they saw: the power and pomp of the Roman Empire. . . . . They heard stories of war and slaughter followed by famine and disease. If they had had eyes to see, they may also have seen injustice and murder. They could “enjoy” the blood of gladiatorial combat. . . . .”[1]

But now, in Revelation 4 Jesus directs those first-century believers’ gaze, and our gaze, to an altogether different vision. He takes us into the courts of heaven, to the very throne-room of Almighty God.

It is in the light of this sublime, magnificent, overwhelming vision that God wanted those first-century believers to see everything else. It is in the light of this vision that He wants us to view everything around us.

A door open in Heaven

After Jesus dictates the messages to the angels of the seven churches, John writes, “I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’” (4:1). John, in the Spirit, saw “a throne . . . in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (4:2). In a vision, Jesus―whose voice it was―summoned John “to the control room at Supreme Headquarters. . . . . ”[2] This is no less than Supreme Headquarters of the Universe. It is the heavenly throne-room of the Lord God Almighty, the “council chamber of the King of Kings”.[3]

Why does Jesus show us this vision here at this point in the book?

As we journey through Revelation, we’ll see great judgments―war, famine and death, demonic oppression, terrifying signs in the heavens, and destruction and disaster on earth. We’ll encounter terrifying beasts, a gaudy, drunken prostitute, and unclean demonic spirits like frogs. Most grievous of all, we see God’s faithful people “who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9).

But before we see these things, we see this vision. God wants us to see everything in this book, everything in our troubled world, everything in these unsettled and uncertain times, everything in our own lives, in the light of the fact that God is on the Throne, reigning supreme over Heaven and Earth. One writer comments, “From Revelation 4:1 and following we will be seeing everything from the perspective of the throne.” [4]

The One seated on the Throne

God is called “one seated on the throne”. This name (with variations) occurs 12 times in Revelation. It’s the name of God most frequently used in this book.

And notice how God’s throne is the focus of everthing that John sees: “round the throne” is a rainbow (4:3); “round the throne” are 24 thrones on which 24 elders sit (4:4); “from the throne” come lightning and thunder (4:5); “before the throne” are seven burning torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God (4:5); “before the throne” is a glassy sea (4:6); “round the throne, on each side of the throne” are four living creatures (4:6). And when these creatures praise God, the elders worship God and cast their crowns “before the throne” (4:10).

John says that God had “the appearance of jasper and carnelian” (4:3). These two stones together reflect God’s radiant, majestic glory.

The rainbow

Around God’s throne, John sees “a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (4:3). This rainbow added its own vibrant colour to the vision of God’s throne-room. But this “rainbow” may well recall the rainbow that God appointed to be a sign of His covenant with Noah and his descendants (Genesis 6:18, 9:8-9), and with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16). God said, “I establish my covenant with you, that . . . never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11). Devastating floods and other natural disasters have continued to this day. But God promised that there would never be another flood that would destroy the entire world. The rainbow was the sign of that covenant promise.

That promise is still in place.

In the chapters that follow, we’ll see God bringing His righteous judgments upon this ungodly world. But in the midst of His judgment, God is merciful. He will not send another flood to destroy the Earth. He will wait as long as He can, to give many, many people opportunity to repent and receive salvation. The apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).

Echoes of Sinai

In 4:5 we read “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder”. This recalls the dramatic scenes at Mount Sinai described in Exodus 19:16–24 and 20:18-21. We read this: “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. . . . . Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” God Himself had come down to earth: the mountain trembled, a storm raged―our holy and all-powerful God was manifesting His presence. The lightning and thunder here in 4:5 depict the awesome power of the presence of our holy God.

Later in Revelation, we’ll see three sets of judgments unleashed―a set initiated by the opening of the seals on the scroll, then a set announced by trumpets, and, thirdly, a set poured out from bowls. Each of these three sets ends with a great storm that mirrors, with increasing intensity, the storm described here in 4:5. And that’s very significant, as we’ll see.

“Seven torches of fire”

In 1:4 we read about “the seven spirits who are before [God’s] throne”. These are later called “the seven spirits of God” (3:1, 4:5, 5:6). This is a name of the Holy Spirit. It can also be translated “the sevenfold Spirit of God”. Here “the seven spirits of God” appear as “seven torches of fire” (4:5) burning before God’s throne. This echoes what Zechariah saw: “a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, . . . ” (Zechariah 4:2). Later, Zechariah is told that “these seven” (presumably the lamps) “are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:10). God’s presence ranges through the Earth. And where God is present, He is there to rule. And that’s a key to what we’ll see as we travel through Revelation.

A crystal sea

In front of God’s throne “there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal” (4:6). What does the sea symbolise? One of the things that it can symbolise in the Bible is evil and chaos. Psalm 65:7 tells us that God “stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” . So this calm, glassy sea may well represent God’s sovereign authority that stills all the forces of evil and chaos. It may also simply depict God’s awesome, transcendent holiness.

Twenty-four elders

Around God’s throne “were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads” (4:4). Who are these elders? There are (as with many things in Revelation!) a number of views. Perhaps the most likely view is that they’re angels who represent God’s people.

Many people think they represent the twelve tribes of Israel together with the twelve apostles. The new Jerusalem is, in fact, inscribed with both the names of the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles, as we shall see. However, one writer comments: “throughout the New Testament, including in Revelation, Jews and Gentiles together form one single, united people of God, not a people in two halves . . . .”[5] So who might these elders be?

The clue seems to be the number 24. And, as so often, we need to go back to the Old Testament to find out more. There we read how King David organised the priests into 24 divisions (1 Chronicles 24:1-19), and the Temple musicians and gatekeepers likewise (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, 26:12-19). And it’s these 24 divisions that seem to supply the background for these 24 elders. These elders seem to act as priests in serving and worshipping God in the heavenly Temple John sees here. And these elders sit on thrones, indicating a royal status. Jesus has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:6). It may well be that these elders represent us, God’s people, in our priestly and royal roles.

Four living creatures

John sees, right next to the throne, and around it, “four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight” (4:6-7). Each living creature has six wings (4:8).

What are these remarkable creatures? Again, we need to go back to the Old Testament for clues.

 Ezekiel sees creatures like these (1:4-28, 10:1-22). They’re called “living creatures“ in 1:4-28 and “cherubim” in 10:1-22, but Ezekiel tells us that the living creatures are the cherubim (10:15,20). So it seems certain that these ”living creatures” in Revelation are the “cherubim”.

 Cherubim first appear in Genesis 3 ”at the east of the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:24).

 There were cherubim in the Tabernacle and Temple. For example, they were on the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place (Exodus 25:17-22).

The first two “living creatures” are, respectively, like a lion and an ox; the third has the face of a man, and the fourth is like a flying eagle. One writer comments, “The eagle, the most majestic of birds, is over the air. The lion, the fiercest of wild animals, is over the wilderness. The ox, the strongest of the domesticated animals, is over cultivated land. The man, ruler over the animals, is over creation.” [6]

What do these living creatures symbolise? Perhaps the most common view is that, together, they represent all of creation. This is supported by the fact there’s four of them―as we’ll see later in this series, the number ‘four’ is the number of the creation. So they may represent all creation―including humans―in the presence of God the Creator. They “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8). If these living creatures do represent creation, then they picture humans―specifically, God’s people―leading all creation in praising God.

But there’s another view that seems very possible. Perhaps they represent God’s people, but in a different way from the elders. Why might this be?

 Ezekiel gives us the most detailed description of them. He tells us that “they had a human likeness” (Ezekiel 1:5). This suggests they’re more like humans than like any of the other three animals.

 In every place where we read about them in the Bible, they’re close to God, or to His dwelling place. For example, here in Revelation, they’re “around the throne, on each side of the throne” (4:6)―they’re even closer to the throne than the elders! There can be no doubt that, of all the creatures God has created, God’s people are the ones who enjoy the closest relationship to Him. God indwells His people; they are His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22).

But why would we be given more than one picture of God’s people? Because there’s so much to see about them! Think of how many pictures of God’s people there are in the New Testament. God piles picture upon picture to reveal the wonder and glory of who we are as God’s people in Christ!

These four creatures are called “living creatures”. That name suggests that they picture God’s people as those who have life―spiritual life, new life in Christ. For example, Paul wrote, “God, . . . even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . .” (Ephesians 2:4–5).

Why are three of these living creatures here in Revelation like animals? Perhaps each of these powerful animals―the majestic lion, the strong, hardworking ox, and the soaring eagle in flight―symbolises an aspect of our new life in Christ. After all, Jesus Himself is called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5). So it’s no surprise that God might use each of these three animals to show us something about His people.

And the living creatures are “full of eyes” (4:6,8)―perhaps symbolising spiritual sight and understanding.

If the living creatures do indeed picture God’s people as those who have new life in Christ, then the elders complement this picture. They picture God’s people in their ministry as priests and kings.

“Worthy are You . . . to receive glory!”

Day and night, in a glorious, ceaseless symphony of praise, the cherubim say, ”Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (4:8). And whenever these cherubim glorify God, so do the 24 elders. They “fall down before him who is seated on the throne” and worship Him. Casting their crowns before Him, they say, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” (Revelation 4:9–11). This is the first of seven scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation.

FOOTNOTES [1] Quoted from Revelation for You by Tim Chester, page 49. Published by The Good Book Company, Epsom, UK, in 2019. [2] Quoted from The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Black’s New Testament Commentaries) by G.B. Caird, page 60. Published by Hendrickson Publishers Inc. Peabody, Massachusetts; first published by A. and C. Black (Publishers) Ltd., London, England in 1966. [3] Quoted from The Triumph of the Lamb: a Commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson, page 97. Published by P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in 2001. [4] Quoted from Discipleship on the Edge: an Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, page 126. [5] Quoted from Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) , by Ian Paul, page 123. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, and Inter-Varsity Press, London, England, in 2018. [6] Quoted from Lions, Locusts, and the Lamb: Interpreting Key Images in the Book of Revelation by Michael Kuykendall, page 34. Published by Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, in 2019.

CREDITS Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts All Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Free ebooks from DesiringGod.org

Desiring God has a wealth of resources available, including many books, available HERE. The great majority are by John Piper, but some are by other authors and editors. Most of the books are available as free ebooks in multiple formats, including PDF. The others are available for purchase (some have samples available as PDFs). All the PDFs available are printable (in other words, printing is not disabled). Here is just a small selection of the books available as free ebooks. Under each title is the link to the page where you can read more about the book, and download the ebook. Unless otherwise stated, the books are by John Piper. You can find out more about Desiring God HERE.

Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C.S. Lewis

Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry

Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?

Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice edited by Jonathan Parnell and Owen Strachan.

Don’t Waste Your Life (A Study Guide is also available from the download menu for this book.)

Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship

Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again

For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper edited by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor.

Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines by David Mathis. A Study Guide is available HERE.

Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (third edition)

Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith by John Bloom.

A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness

Providence

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis edited by John Piper and David Mathis.

Still Not Professionals: Ten Pleas for Today’s Pastors with contributions by John Piper, Daniel L. Akin, Thabiti Anyabwile, Mike Bullmore, Sam Crabtree, Raymond C. Ortlund, R. C. Sproul, Jeff Vanderstelt, and Douglas Wilson.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God

This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence

What Jesus Demands from the World

‘Christ Will Be My Hideaway’: a new song for lockdown, based on Psalm 91

Here is a new song written by Bob Kauflin and Tim Chester, with a small team of others. It’s based on Psalm 91, which begins, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”” (Psalm 91:1-2). The song’s strong theology, combined with its tuneful and singable melody, make it ideal for congregational singing. Bob Kauflin writes: “Christ Will Be My Hideaway is a congregational song for a pandemic or any time really. It’s based on Psalm 91, which is filled with encouraging, soul-strengthening promises from God that lift our eyes above our circumstances to see his providential, wise, powerful care.” The video below is a version that may be useful for online church gatherings:

Click HERE for Bob Kauflin’s blog post about this song, where you can find the lyrics, chord chart and lead sheet. Click HERE for Tim Chester’s blog post.

CREDITS the Scripture quotation is from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.