REVELATION 2 of 16
Last week we began a six-hour tour
of the Bible’s most artistic book:
Revelation is a notoriously strange book,
but embedded in the name itself is what the book actually is:
it is “a revelation.”
It helps us see.
Last week we asked a question…
“What if the strangeness of Revelation isn’t a problem?
“What if it’s not something
we need to decode or un-strange or move past?
“What if the strangeness of Revelation is actually there to help us see?”
That’s a little different from the way
a lot of popular Christian fiction approaches the book.
But we don’t believe that God has given us something to confuse us
or make us even more preoccupied with the future than we already are.
We believe that God has given us something
to continually remind us what God is like.
What if God gave us a book of the Bible
that is so strange, so surreal, so unexpected,
that it actually helps us see again?
To see what we’ve become blind to?
To open our eyes
to beauty, to truth, to justice, to the mystery of life—
and, above all else, to open our eyes to Jesus.
The strangeness of the Revelation
is actually there to help us see,
not to stop us from seeing.
Last week we explored the first 8 verses…
let’s shove off from the shore a little further,
and get through the end of the first chapter.
(1.9-20) 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. 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.”
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning 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. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Now—in this wild, ferocious figure—
we’re getting into something that sounds like Revelation.
Am I right?
This just “sounds like” Revelation.
It’s got vivid descriptions of colors—white and gold—
it’s got weird phrases like “the keys of Death and Hades”
and the number seven is all over the place.
And at the center of it all—
I mean, literally in the middle of it—
is a mysterious, dangerous figure.
John actually never calls the figure “Jesus,”
but it’s fairly obvious that it’s him.
John calls him “one like a son of man.”
But that, of course, is one of Jesus’s favorite titles for himself.
It’s the name of a mysterious figure from Daniel 7
who rides the clouds and rules the cosmos.
John already alluded to this figure last week in verse 7
by saying that Jesus is coming with the clouds,
but now John is actually seeing this figure.
He heard a voice behind him
telling him to write down what he sees
and send it to the seven churches.
And so he turns to see the voice (v12),
and what does he see?
He sees seven lamps on seven golden stands (v12)—
we have no idea if they’re close together or far apart
or what the lamps and the stands look like
or if they’re burning brightly or if it’s still fairly dark.
The image is just seven lamps on seven stands
and (v13) in the middle of the lamps—between them, among them—
we find this figure.
A robed figure with a golden sash
and wooly white hair
and blazing balls of fire in his eye sockets (v14)
and feet like Iron Man’s boots (v15)
and an immense voice like the roar of Niagara Falls.
Basically the kind of guy you want with you
if you get jumped in a dark alley.
“That’s a nice switchblade you’ve got here,
but before I give you my wallet,
have you met my friend Fire Eyes?
“That’s right. Back up.
“He’s got other tricks too—
do the thing with your mouth.
“That’s right! You better run!
That’s a sword coming out of his mouth (v16).”
That’s a little silly,
but I think that’s what
these pictures—what these images—
are trying to convey.
The Book of Revelation is a particular kind of writing
called first-century apocalyptic.
Just as sure as we know what to expect
when we see a science-fiction movie or a horror movie,
early readers knew what to expect when they read an apocalypse.
We have lots of examples of apocalyptic writings 1
and they all tend to be loaded with metaphor and pictures and symbolism.
John is not giving us a literal physical description of Jesus here,
the way that someone would describe a suspect to a police sketch artist.
Could you describe the face that you saw?
“His face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
A literal physical description
is not even close to what’s going on.
John is writing in a particular genre
that everyone is familiar with.
And he’s using metaphor and pictures and symbolism to say
that this figure is terrifying and powerful and other-worldly.
John himself shows us that he’s talking in symbolism
because he decodes a couple of symbols in verse 20:
Those seven lampstands
are not (of course)
Those lampstands are the churches—
the Jesus communities—that I’m writing to.
And those seven stars in his hand are not literal stars.
Those stars are like
of the churches.2
John explains a couple of his pictures
to make sure that anyone new to apocalyptic literature—that’s all of us—
knows what he’s not talking about literal lampstands or literal intergalactic balls of gas.
And it’s such a relief
that he’s explaining these pictures
that we’re tempted to start following his example.
We’re tempted to start explaining
every other picture in the entire book.
We could start right here with this mysterious figure.
John has already neatly labeled
the symbolism of the lampstands and the stars.
And we can make good guesses on the other symbols.
We could look at his golden sash
and see something of ritzy royalty and something of priestliness
in the gold and in the sash.
We could look at his snow white hair
and recognize white as a symbol of victory and purity and wisdom
that bears a striking resemblance to the God himself—the Ancient of Days—in Daniel 7.
We could see the searching penetration of eyes like fire,
the strength and stability of Iron Man feet,
the power of a voice like a waterfall,
the piercing effectiveness of his word,
the splendor and glory of a face like the sun.
And now that we’ve got verse 12-16
neatly dissected and labeled and demystified,
we’re ready to move on to the rest of the book.
Even if we’re not trying to decode the future,
there’s still a temptation to try to un-symbolize
every symbol in the book of Revelation.
In the words of one scholar,
we’re tempted to “unweave the rainbow.”3
We’re tempted to think
that dissecting details in Revelation
is the way we’ll finally understand it.
And there are some sections of the book
where some history or some context
really illuminates what’s going on.
But we can become tempted to think that
the way “to really get” or “to really understand” Revelation
is to dissect and label and understand every detail
of how it works.
And there are two huge problems here.
First, it makes the book
Because there are hundreds of details in Revelation
and thousands of opinions about those details.
Who’s got the time to do all that research
and dissect all those details?
And then there are some details in the book that—
honestly—nobody really knows what they mean.
If Revelation works by dissecting and analyzing all of its details,
then there are some parts of the book
that are never going to work.
Because there are some details
that you can never nail down.
But I think the second problem
is even bigger than the first.
But even if you could figure out all of them—
I think you still run into a second problem.
A bigger problem.
Because overanalyzing and dissecting details
can often work against what Revelation
is trying to do in us.
This isn’t just true about Scripture or Revelation,
it’s true about almost any work of art.
Let’s take music for a second.
Almost everyone recognizes that music can
captivate us and transport us and even change us
in ways that few things can.
But if you start trying to dissect music—
if you start ask how exactly does it work?—
you might get something like this…
There’s a way of talking about music—
in this case The Mission Impossible Theme—
that might be true on some level
but it’s not quite what the music was meant to do.
That video show you a list of details about the music,
and a two bass riff
and a tonal centre
and melodic patterns
and repeating melodic notes
and held notes that fall in semitones.
Those details might be true about the music,
but they’re not what the music is for.
What the music is for
is helping Tom Cruise run down
the side of the world’s tallest building.
What the music is for
is to capture us and captivate us and stir us.
Dissecting the details of the music
might be helpful on some level,
but let’s not lose sight of
what the music is for.
I don’t think many are in danger of losing sight of
what The Mission Impossible Theme song is for.
Even when we see the details dissected, we all understand that
music is meant to be experienced not analyzed.
But when it comes to the last book of the Bible,
I think we’re almost all in danger of losing sight of what it’s is for.
Revelation is not meant primarily meant
to be dissected or analyzed or labelled…
Revelation is meant to be experienced.
And the second problem—the bigger problem—with thinking
that we’ll only understand Revelation when we dissect all of its details
is that it stops us from experiencing the vision of Revelation
and it makes us arrogant.
We turn into bloated brains
that have everything figured out.
And that’s basically the opposite
of what Revelation is trying to do in us.
None of the visions of this book
are trying to drive us
to analysis or history books or flowcharts.
All of the visions of this book
are trying to be drive us to knees.
We begin to “understand” Revelation
when we’re on our knees in worship and wonder.
That’s what happens to John.
When John himself sees this vision of Jesus (v17)
he falls at Jesus’s feet as though dead.
That’s the reaction of anyone
who really begins to see God.
So as we move further into Revelation,
we’re never interested in “unweaving the rainbow.”
In just nailing down all of the details.
In all actuality,
Revelation is a rainbow
meant to unweave us.
The vision that John gives us
isn’t just meant to be analyzed—
it’s meant to be absorbed.
It’s a vision of
Jesus of Nazareth
with unlimited power.
If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie Aladdin,
there’s a moment at the end when Jafar (the bad guy)
becomes gigantic and all-powerful
and it’s absolutely terrifying.
He becomes this human being
with unlimited, unstoppable power.
That picture of a human being
who is all-powerful is something
like what John sees.
Jesus as gigantic and all-powerful.
And even though it’s Jesus not Jafar
even though it’s the perfect human being—
Jesus who feeds the hungry,
who heals the sick, who comforts the afflicted,
who forgives sins and dines with sinners—
Even though it’s
Jesus of Nazareth,
it’s still terrifying.
When you look on him,
and it makes you tremble.
We heard last week—it makes you wail.
But the words that Jesus speaks—to John, to all of us—
are words that we hardly dare believe:
verse 17: “Fear not.”
That’s what the book of Revelation is about.
That’s how the book of Revelation works.
It wants to overwhelm our senses—
our seeing, our smelling, our hearing, everything—
so that we realize how small we are and how strong God is.
How strong Jesus is.
If the deepest part of us
doesn’t tremble and wail and fall down as if dead,
it doesn’t matter how many details we can dissect,
we’re not understanding Revelation.
And do you know what happens
when we finally begin to see,
finally begin to admit our smallness,
finally begin to glimpse that Jesus is strong
finally begin to know that Jesus is right in the middle of everything?
What happens is
our lives change.
That’s what happen to John—
the first guy to see Revelation.
The Roman government
has exiled him—imprisoned him–
on the prison island of Patmos (v9).
He has been separated from those he loved—
separated from the churches and communities he loved.
He’s alone, distant,
If we feel like we’re having
a bad day or month or year,
John was probably having a worse one.
That’s what’s going on when Revelation is written.
But after this vision—
after seeing his smallness,
after seeing Jesus’s strongness,
his entire outlook on life has changed.
He’s not in this situation
because of the word of Rome.
There would be plenty to fear
if Rome were that strong,
but Rome doesn’t rule the world.
that he’s in this situation ultimately
not because of the word of Rome but
because of the word of God (v9).
The word of God
and the testimony of Jesus
rule the world.
And so even though things are hard right now—
even though life hurts right now,
even though there is tribulation and suffering,
even though life requires patient endurance right now,
God is actually at work.
Notice how in verse 9 how “the kingdom”
sits right between “the tribulation”
and ”the patient endurance.”
What an odd place for “the kingdom” to be.
And yet we’re going to see this
again and again throughout Revelation.
Despite all appearances,
despite our doubts and desperation,
despite the pain of prison and Patmos
Jesus and his kingdom are
in the middle of everything
and stronger than anything.
If we allow Revelation to show us this,
our lives and our outlooks will change
just like John’s.
The only one to fear is Jesus,
and Jesus tells you not to fear.
“Don’t fear… just follow.
I’ve already experienced everything you fear.
I’ve already died (v17) but I’m alive forever.
“Just keep following… there’s nothing to fear…
I will show you life. I will make you alive.
That’s what Jesus said to John.
That’s what Jesus says to all of us.
So may we absorb the Scriptures
even when we have to analyze them,
may Jesus reveal his living presence to each of us
to the point of making us afraid,
and may his gentle whisper banish all fear from us
as we follow him into the future.
- Examples of apocalyptic literature within the Bible include Daniel 7-12, Zech 12-14, Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24, Luke 21). A couple of other ancient examples include 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and The Apocalypse of Peter.
- The language of “angels” is an example of a detail no one can nail down. “Angel” literally just means “messenger” in Greek, but it’s typically used of a messenger from God. So these seven stars could be referring to “the messenger” leading each church (their overseer/pastor/etc) or it could be referencing a spiritual being that corresponds to an earthly reality. If that sounds wacky, Scripture makes veiled hints at these mysterious spiritual realities other places. “Angels” are assumed to correspond to groups of people (Dan 10.13) and to individuals (Matt 18.10, Acts 12.15). A gift of Scripture in general and Apocalyptic in particular is how they humble us. There are dimensions of reality to which we are completely oblivious.
- Caird, The Revelation of St. John, 25