So, in our first study in the book of Revelation we were thinking about how we should classify or categorise the book of Revelation. You know, if we found it on the floor of a library, and had to return it to a shelf, what shelf would we put it on? You find a book that begins:
Once upon a time….
Well, you know it belongs on the shelf for fairy tales. You find a book that has short lines of text which rhyme. Well, you know it belongs on the shelf for poetry. You find a book that has pictures of food and lists of ingredients and you know it’s a cookery book. And so on. Here’s a romance novel. Here’s a thriller. Here’s a whodunnit. Here’s a biography. Here’s a book about history. And so on. We’re familiar with these kinds of books; we know how to classify them and how to categorise them. Well, if you found the book of Revelation on the floor of the library, where would you put it? What kind of book is this?
John makes clear what kind of book the book of Revelation is. He tells us in verse 1 that it’s a revelation. In fact, it’s a special kind of revelation: the scholars call it ‘apocalyptic revelation’ which refers to a special kind of revelation where God uses visions and symbols and patterns to reveal heavenly secrets and secrets about his plan for the world. And if you’re at all familiar with the contents of this book, you’ll know it’s full of visions and symbols and patterns.
But in verse 3 we’re also told that this is a prophecy which means it’s a word from the Lord which is addressed to his people which we’re to listen to and take to heart and obey. So, although the book of Revelation contains all these visions and symbols and patterns about things to come in the future, it also contains promises we’re to believe; and commands which we’re to keep; and warnings which we’re to heed. God has given us this book to encourage us; and to direct us; and to warn us. He’s given it to us to show us how we’re to live as his people.
But then, the book of Revelation is also a letter. And that’s clear from verses 4 to 8 of chapter 1. The book of Revelation is a revelation from God about his plans for the world; and it’s a prophecy from God about how we’re to live as his people; but it’s written in the form of a letter. So, look at verse 4. In biblical times, the person who wrote the letter put their name on the first line; and on the second line, the writer would put the name of the person or the persons he was addressing in his letter. So, here’s John the Apostle, writing to the seven churches in Asia. And, of course, that’s the Roman province of Asia which roughly corresponds to modern day Turkey. So, John has taken this revelation from God, this prophecy from God, and he’s put it in this letter which he’s sending to these seven churches. And from verse 4 to verse 8 we have the opening of the letter which we’ll begin to study today.
Grace and peace
And the first thing to notice is that John begins with the same sort of greeting which we’re familiar with from Paul’s NT letters. Like Paul, John begins by mentioning ‘grace and peace’. It was a kind of blessing on his readers, because John was saying that he wanted his readers to know this grace and peace in their lives.
Now, ‘grace’ here refers to God’s kindness towards us and to the ways he helps us. Think of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians and to the thorn in his flesh which he was suffering. We’re not sure what it was, but he prayed for the Lord to take it away. However, instead of taking it away, God gave him the grace he needed to put up with it. In other words, God gave him the help he needed to put up with it. Well, many of the first Christians who read this letter from John, many of the members of these seven churches, were suffering. They were suffering for their faith; they were being persecuted by their neighbours. And so, they needed God’s help to be able to cope with all of this life’s troubles and sorrows. So, John refers to ‘grace’ first of all.
And then he refers to ‘peace’. And ‘peace’ here is the peace and well-being and that sense that all is well with my soul which we enjoy as a result of God’s gracious help in our lives. John’s readers were being persecuted; they were suffering for their faith. And so, John began his letter with this blessing, because he wanted his readers to know — deep down in their hearts — that sense that all is well with my soul despite all the troubles and trials of this life; all is well with my soul, because my God will graciously help me.
And, of course, just as John wanted his readers to receive God’s grace and peace, so we can pray for one another that we too might experience God’s grace and peace: his gracious help to cope with all of this life’s troubles; and that sense of peace and well-being which comes from knowing God’s gracious help in our lives.
God the Father
John goes on to make clear that this grace and peace come from God the Father and from God the Spirit and from God the Son.
He refers to God the Father first and describes him as the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. In other words, he’s the Everlasting God; who is without beginning and who is without end; and who does not change. So, everything else around us might change, but God remains the same and he continues to rule over all from his throne in heaven. He rules over everything now, just as he ruled over everything in the past; and we can be sure that he will continue to rule over everything that is to come in the future.
And what a re-assurance that is. John’s first readers were no doubt worried about what was happening in their day when it seemed the Roman Empire was against them. They perhaps worried about what the future held for them. And we too worry about all the things that are happening in the world today and especially because of the coronavirus. But we should lift our thoughts above the things of this world to heaven above, and to our Heavenly Father who is from everlasting to everlasting, who does not change, and who rules over the present and who will rule over the future, just as he ruled over the past. We don’t need to be afraid, because he is a Rock who does not change. And we ought therefore to look to this God — who does not change and who rules over all — to give us all the help we need each day so that we’re not overwhelmed by our troubles and sorrow; and instead of being afraid, we can be at peace.
God the Spirit
And then John refers to God the Holy Spirit. But he refers to him in an unusual way: he calls him ‘the seven spirits before his throne’. Now, that’s an unusual name for the Holy Spirit; so how do I know he’s referring to the Holy Spirit? Well, because he’s mentioned between God the Father and God the Son. And so, it seems likely that John is referring to each person of the Trinity. And if you’re using the NIV, you’ll see a little footnote attached to the words ‘seven spirits’ which tells us that the words John wrote can also be translated ‘sevenfold Spirit’.
Now, I mentioned the last time that seven — for the Jews — signified fullness and completion. After all — by the seventh day — God had completed his work of creating the world and could rest. So, the number seven signifies fullness and completion. But how does that apply to the Holy Spirit? Well, John tells us that the sevenfold Spirit is before God the Father’s throne in heaven; and that’s a way of saying here’s there, ready to go off and to do whatever the Father asks him to do. And, since he’s the sevenfold Spirit, then that means he’s fully equipped to do whatever needs to be done.
So, the Lord’s people need grace and peace: we need his gracious help so that we’ll not be overcome by worry and anxiety, but can enjoy peace and that sense that — despite all that is happening around me — all is well with my soul. And the Holy Spirit is fully and completely equipped to give me the grace and peace I need each day.
God the Son
And then John refers to God the Son, Jesus Christ. And he describes him in three ways: he’s the faithful witness; he’s the firstborn from the dead; he’s the ruler of the kings of the earth.
He is the faithful witness because he came into the world to make known God’s willingness to pardon all who trust in him; and he remained faithful to the end, despite all the opposition he encountered and despite the unbelief of those he came to save. He continued to remain faithful to his Father in heaven who sent him. And so, he’s able to help us to remain faithful to God and to continue to confess our faith even when people hate us for what we believe. Think of those early Christians who were told they could live, but only if they renounced their faith in the Saviour. Well, one of them — Polycarp — answered:
I have served him 86 years; and he has never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King who has save me?
He would not renounce his faith, but remained faithful to the end. And the Faithful Witness, Jesus Christ, is able to help us to remain faithful.
And the Lord Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, which means he was the first to rise from the dead. He was the first, but won’t be the last. And he won’t be the last, because, when he comes again, he will unlock the grave and he will raise up the bodies of all those who trusted in him in this life; and they will live with him in body and soul for ever and for ever. And so, we ought to look to him — the one who has defeated death and who lives for ever — we ought to look to him to help us when we face opposition and persecution and all kinds of other dangers; and we ought to trust in him to fill us with peace so that we’ll not be afraid of death or of what people may do to us.
And the Lord Jesus is also the ruler of the kings of the earth. I wonder do you see the progression in this threefold description of the Lord Jesus? He is the faithful witness who died; and he is the first to be raised from the dead; and then, after his resurrection, he ascended to heaven where he was seated at his Father’s right hand, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion. He now rules over all things. And so, if the early Christians were afraid of what the Emperor would do to them, if they were afraid of what the governors would do to them, if they were afraid of what their neighbours would do to them, they could look up to heaven and to Jesus Christ their Saviour who rules over all; and they could rejoice and not be afraid, because he rules over all things and could help them. And we too ought to look up to heaven, and to Christ the King, who rules over all things, including all the kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers and ministers and councillors and everyone else. He rules over them all; and he rules over them all for the sake of his church which he is building on the earth.
And so, there you have the opening to John’s letter which was written, not only for the benefit of those seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, but for our benefit too. John is writing to teach us to raise our thoughts above this world and all that might worry and upset us and to look to God the Father for the help we need, believing that he is the Everlasting One who has helped us in the past and he can help us today and tomorrow and for ever. And John is teaching us to rely on the Holy Spirit, the sevenfold Spirit, who is fully equipped to help us. And John is teaching us to look to Jesus Christ for the help we need, because he was faithful to the end, and can help us to be faithful; he was raised from the dead and will raise up from the dead too; and he rules over all so that we needn’t ever be afraid, because nothing can happen unless he has decreed it.
And having reminded us of these things, it’s no wonder that John turns to praise and to worship in the rest of verse 5 and into verse 6. And we’ll go on to look at those verses next time.