The Apostle John

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Revelation 1:4-17

It’s interesting to read in the Bible about all the various encounters different people had with Jesus. But what if you or I could meet him today in person. What would that be like?

The book of Revelation, perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, tends to intimidate readers. In the first place there is all that symbolism, all the strange scenes and bizarre figures: seals on mysterious scrolls, bowls and trumpets, angels, beasts, heavenly beings, monsters from the sea, four Horsemen, scarlet women, and all the rest. The ordinary reader may be excused for thinking it’s all just a little too weird and confusing to understand. Just what exactly is this book supposed to mean? And then there have been so many viewpoints, so many divergent interpretations, so many confident predictions of the end of the world based on the latest expert’s claim to have uncovered the secrets of Revelation. No wonder some folks are inclined to just give this book a miss.

That’s really not the right attitude to have. As the apostle John himself – the book’s writer – proclaims in his introduction, there is a special blessing promised to those who read this book (Revelation 1:3). The book of Revelation, as its name implies, is an unveiling, a disclosure. Its Greek name is “The Apocalypse,” from apokalypto, meaning to reveal or uncover. Think of a theater. The stage is our world; human history is the drama being performed. In the book of Revelation the curtain is drawn aside, the stage set is temporarily lifted, revealing all the backstage machinery. We can even see the play’s author, producer and director, the One who is dictating all the action on stage. That’s what John sees when the curtain of heaven itself is opened to reveal the triune God on the throne of the universe. And through what John wrote we too are allowed to see this ultimate reality: the invisible world where all issues are really being decided. Here God is securely in control – not just of what is happening, but of everything that is going to happen as well (1:1).

ON THE ISLAND OF PATMOS

The revelation which John received came through a series of visions. Most of the visions were set in heaven or in some mysterious future landscape. But the very first of them took place right on the island of Patmos, in the middle of John’s everyday life. It wasn’t a dream; John didn’t fall into a trance or find himself caught up to heaven. John’s first vision was actually an encounter with the risen Christ. John describes his setting and the circumstances of this awesome encounter.

I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

So here is the setting: John is worshiping the Lord, praying, on a quiet Sunday on a little island called Patmos. Patmos was a Roman penal colony off the southern coast of Asia Minor, a place to which political prisoners were exiled. John tells us he was in this place on account of “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” So John has been sent into exile for preaching the gospel. Scholars think John’s imprisonment took place in the early 90’s of the first century, during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. Domitian reinforced his position by encouraging his subjects to worship him as divine. Throughout the Roman empire people were required to visit a temple in their local city and offer a sacrifice to the emperor, ascribing to him the titles Deus et Dominus; “God and Lord.” According to early church tradition the apostle John was living in Ephesus at this time, then the leading city of the Roman province of Asia and the most important of the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the early chapters of Revelation. John had been preaching the gospel of Christ for more than 60 years; it was his life’s work. He was not about to change that now for the sake of some Roman emperor who thought he was a god. So John was sentenced to end his life on the barren rocks of a prison island. It was “because of the testimony of Jesus,” as John put it, because of his claim that not Domitian but Jesus Christ is “Lord and God.”

Being a follower of Jesus is not easy. There is always a price to pay for remaining faithful, and for some of his disciples the price is high indeed. Listen to how John describes himself again: “a brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (v. 9). He seems to think that this is the normal state of affairs in Jesus’ kingdom – that Christians can all expect to be companions in suffering. They all need to endure this for the sake of the Lord. Do you remember what Jesus told his disciples just before he died? John did; he recorded it in his Gospel: “In the world you will have trouble [tribulation], but do not worry. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This, in a nutshell, is the theme of the whole book of Revelation. Followers of the Lord Jesus can expect to face tribulation, persecution and suffering, but they will overcome all if they remain loyal to Christ.

This message is not always spoken as clearly as it should be, especially here in the prosperous, comfortable west. For one thing, to be honest we don’t experience all that much suffering or persecution as Christians. This, incidentally, is in marked contrast to Christians in many other places in the world today. Earlier this year I spent a week with a group of Christian believers from a Middle Eastern country. As we talked and prayed and shared our experiences together, I was amazed – and just a little ashamed. Most of the people in the group had been arrested, beaten, even tortured simply because they identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. They had lost jobs, been expelled from universities, were being denied basic human rights, all for the simple reason that they were loyal to Jesus. I couldn’t help but compare my easy life to their hard one. What have I ever suffered for the sake of the gospel?

In many churches where I live we habitually preach a positive message in order to attract more members. The somber news that Christianity normally involves suffering isn’t very attractive, so that part of the gospel message is muted. The famous pianist Liberace once shared the secret of his show-business success by explaining, “My whole trick is to keep the tune well out in front. If I play Tchaikovsky, I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggles.” There are a lot of preachers today who want very much to be successful. So they play a little good-news tune. “Come and enjoy health, happiness and success,” they proclaim, but they skip the spiritual struggles. That is not authentic Christianity. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

John knew all about that. He had been following Jesus faithfully for more than sixty years, ever since the Lord had called him from his father’s fishing boat on the shores of Lake Galilee. John had loved Jesus from the start. He served him well and truly for a lifetime – and look where it got him. A lonely prison in exile on Patmos.

A VISION OF THE RISEN LORD

But Patmos was really more than a prison – a place of isolation and suffering – for John. It was also a place of incredible blessing. It was the place where John encountered the living Christ. And it became the place where John would be given a revelation that would speak for all time. Notice that up to this point, John hasn’t actually seen anything. He heard a voice behind him, a loud voice like a trumpet call, and the voice gave him a job to do. John will be shown many things, the voice said, and he must write the details of those visions down in a scroll and send it out to the seven churches where he had formerly been living and working.

But then John turned around. It was at this point he saw the one who was speaking to him.

And what a sight it was!

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

There is no doubt at all about the identity of the person John saw. Many of the visions in the book of Revelation are mysterious and difficult to interpret, but not this one. The man speaking to John was none other than the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord was standing in the midst of seven lampstands, representing those seven churches. In his hand are seven stars (the “angels,” or pastors of the churches). His appearance is “like a Son of Man,” that is, not an ordinary human being but the awesome divine figure called the Son of Man in the seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Daniel. He wears a long robe, golden sash around his middle. His head and hair are pure white like snow, his eyes are a flame of fire, his feet like burnished bronze, his voice sounds with the thunder of Niagara, the sword of the word of God is in his mouth, and his face shines brighter and more glorious than the sun. Everything about him communicates the power, authority, majesty, glory, the sheer “Godness” of the Lord Christ. No wonder John fell at his feet as if he were a dead man.

Have you ever considered how much our attitudes toward Jesus are affected by our pictures of him? The most popular picture of Jesus when I was growing up showed a head with an olive-skinned complexion, long, fine hair and beard, and delicate, almost effeminate features. The face wore a calm, rather distant expression – Jesus the gentle Galilean teacher. Sometime later another image of Jesus became popular. This one showed a young, tousle-headed, smiling, friendly-looking man, a good buddy who is obviously a lot of fun to be with.

But Jesus doesn’t look anything like those pictures now (if he ever did). Since his resurrection and ascension he looks more like the awesome figure John saw on Patmos. From the blinding light on the Damascus road to the thundering visions of Revelation, the New Testament graphically conveys a sense of what the risen Christ is now. He is the King of glory. I don’t know how you tend to think about Jesus or how you picture him to yourself, but I do know this. If you and I could see him as he is at this very moment, I don’t think we would rush up to him and pat him on the back like a long-lost pal. Would we not fall on our faces before him as if dead?

But now listen to the most amazing thing of all. This same Lord Jesus Christ, so awesome, so infinitely glorious, nevertheless loves us. He comes to us in our exile. He visits us wherever our Patmos might be. He is the Lord of glory, but he is also our companion and our friend. He can transform our lives with his presence. He can turn anyplace – even a prison cell – into a house of worship. He can give us work to do for him that lends meaning to our lives. We just have to watch – and listen – for him, as John did.