We are entering a new age. Just a few short months ago none of us could have foreseen the crisis that today affects almost everyone on the planet. The world has changed, and not for the better. While we hope that we may soon have the COVID-19 virus under control, there will be local outbreaks in the months and years to come. And already the US economy has suffered a serious shock that will require months and years of recovery. Many of us have lost jobs and economic security, and we have very good cause to fear for the financial well-being of our churches and other ministries.
Nevertheless, we still have our charge to be salt and light to the world. Christianity is not about self-preservation, but about infiltration, and growth. No matter what, God wants us to share the love of Jesus Christ with people who desperately need it.
For Christian communities that want to remain committed, yet are justifiably anxious, God included a book in the Bible that speaks with power to our worries, the book of Revelation. While many Christians think of Revelation as mostly written for a select few members of some particular age, careful reading shows that it was written for all Christians, particularly those who have good reason to be concerned about the future.
The first Christians to benefit from Revelation were, of course, Revelation’s first readers. In some important ways they felt like we do in May 2020. They had come through difficult times and envisioned more hardship coming. Their communities had suffered persecution, and they knew that more persecution could come at any time. While Christianity was generally tolerated in the Roman Empire of that day, it was technically illegal, so that local officials could (and sometimes did) abuse Christians on a whim. This made it hard to maintain sufficient courage to push on with the task of proclaiming and bringing honor to the risen Christ.
Think of this reality as you read Revelation 1:1,
“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”
Revelation is not supposed to be about mysterious things that occur in a far-off time. Instead, it means to give comfort to anxious servants of Christ by telling them about their near-term future. And just as it encouraged those early Christians, Revelation has power to encourage us in the USA in 2020.
God is not trying to hide our future; rather, God wants us to know the grand plan. The author, John (possibly the same person who wrote the Gospel of John), can confidently say that Revelation aims to reveal the future because in 1:19 Christ tells John to write everything he sees and hears. The symbols are not supposed to mystify us. Instead, they are supposed to help us understand the grand scope of history by relating the near future to what John’s audience knows already: the teaching of the scriptures (which, in that day, was primarily the Old Testament), and their Roman surroundings. The key for our modern understanding, therefore, is to clarify the meaning of the symbolic language by looking to the rest of the Bible (with the occasional nod to what we know of first-century Rome) before moving to modern-day application. Starting with twenty-first century politics and/or technology will only throw us off, since Revelation applies to all ages. Instead, we need to begin with the Bible!
We see this in the description of the first fantastic image in Revelation: the appearance of Jesus Christ. We need to read verses 10–18 slowly and carefully, as the details from these verses re-appear later in the book.
One of the first things to notice is that Christ’s physical appearance is not drawn from the New Testament, and that he doesn’t even look like the Christ familiar to us from modern movies and pictures. (Fun fact: Revelation 1 is the only passage in the Bible that describes Christ’s appearance!) Instead, we see a figure that comes from Old Testament prophets. Many of these images appear in verses 12–16, including (nut not limited to) “like a son of man” from Daniel 7:13; the voice sounding like “rushing waters” from Ezekiel 1:24 and 43:2; and the sword coming from his mouth (!) from Isaiah 49:2. Particularly fascinating is the description in verses 14 of his hair, “white like wool, as white as snow,” which comes from Daniel 7:9. I’ve never seen a Jesus movie with a white-haired Jesus, probably because we associate white hair with age and frailty. But Christ’s white hair marks his maturity and wisdom to rule.
But it is not just his appearance that seems different from the Jesus that is more familiar to us. The overall effect gives us an image of a Jesus Christ in complete control: a sword coming from his mouth and seven stars in his right hand, as he moves among seven lampstands.
This visual image of Christ gives authority and force to his words of verses 17–18:
I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Christ thus declares that he has more power than even the worst the world can do to us. Eternally existing, risen from the dead, he has overcome death and hell itself, so that even they are subject to his will.
As trinitarian Christians we usually associate this kind of power and authority (not to mention this appearance) with the first member of the godhead, God the Father. Revelation 1, however, is not trinitarian: in this chapter it is not the Father who rules, but rather Christ himself. Christ is not merely the means by whom we find salvation; he also rules over the universe and the most powerful forces in it.
Revelation 1 thus sets the stage for the rest of the book by assuring readers at the outset that no matter what the future has in store for us, and no matter how unpleasant it may become, Jesus nevertheless controls all. The future for John’s readers was unsettling; they had good reason to fear further persecution. Even capital punishment for worshiping Christ was a stark reality. But Revelation 1 assured them that Jesus had beaten death, and that he controls it. With Jesus on their side, they can be confident of victory.
As I wrote at the start, Christians in 2020 have good reason to be leery about the future. Illness and death from the coronavirus will be with us for months to come, and our economic insecurity will be enormous. But however our future plays out, we can be confident that the all-powerful Christ is in charge, in control.
Next post, we will look at our marching orders as given in Revelation 2–3.