Among the Lampstands
Among the Lampstands
What would you say?
One of the first anti-Nazi books to come out of Germany, in the aftermath of World War 2, was by the novellist Hans Fallada. It was written in 1947, and was called “Every Man Dies Alone.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t translated into English until 3 years ago, but it’s based on the true story of a husband and wife, Otto and Elise Hampel, who, on receiving the news that Elise’s brother has been killed in fighting in France, they are provoked to resistance against Hitler and against Nazism.
Over the next 2 years, when it seems that all of Germany is single-minded in fighting the allies, and looking for victory over Europe and the world, Otto and Elise drop over 200 postcards across Berlin, denouncing Hitler, urging resistance,
“Work as slowly as you can!”,
“Every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!”
Hitler’s face accompanied by the words “murderer of workers”
Ultimately, though, they are betrayed, and executed in 1943, 2 years before the end of the war.
If you, knowing what you know, that ultimately, Otto and Elise Hampel’s greatest hopes for their nation would be realized:
The war finishes,
The ugly spectre of Nazism is extinguished,
Knowing that, if you were somehow transported back to the cold streets of Berlin in 1942, and if you could walk in step with Otto or Elise, as they set out one morning, to drop their postcards, certain that if they were found they would be executed, if you could walk alongside them, with your collar turned to the wind, and so no-one could overhear your conversation, what would you whisper in their ear as together you make your way down the street?
Having seen how the story finishes,
What would you want them to know for that day, and the next day, and the next?
What would you say to them, having read the last page of the story?
Wouldn’t you say, “Keep going!”?
Wouldn’t you say, “You’re on the right side! You’re on the winning side!
I know it doesn’t look like it now, when the whole of your city and your nation seems to be lining up behind the Fuhrer, but your side wins!
I know you have enemies. But your enemies will lose this war! While you will be proved right. So give it everything you’ve got!”
Isn’t that what you’d say?
What is Revelation about?
The book of Revelation is that very message.
It’s a letter from Jesus, to the church, in which Jesus says, I know that you’re suffering.
I know that you’re battling against the forces of evil in this world, but guess what?, I know how this story ends! I’ve seen the last page, in fact, I wrote the last page,
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
The word “Revelation” is a translation of the word which also gives us the word “apocalypse.” And while apocalypse today tends to have ominous connotations, it simply means uncovering, or revealing.
Jesus reveals a message to the Apostle John, for the benefit of the church, who he calls his servants, because he knows what life is like for them.
He knows the persecutions they face,
He knows what is going to happen, these things which must soon take place.
Of course it’s been more than 1900 years since Jesus sent this message. Ordinarily we’d say that doesn’t count as soon!
I’m sure that when I was a little kid, always asking “when” something was going to happen, if I was told that “soon” meant 1900 years I don’t think I would have been able to cope!
But it’s language of imminence and immediacy. It’s meant to create in us a sense of expectation and preparedness, which should be a characteristic of the church, shouldn’t it, whether it’s today or in the first century AD.
See John hasn’t set out to give us a detailed, blow-by-blow of the major events in world history.
Nostradamus, in the 16th Century, That’s what he claimed to do, pinpointing particular events.
And that’s a model that some people will try and force Revelation into. I’m sure you’ve heard people try and do that.
But what John gives us are the broad brush strokes, not the detail.
He gives us a spiritual perspective on the forces of evil that are at work in the world, and how these evil forces will affect the lives of people, and most especially, Christian people, as they wait for Jesus to return, and do away with evil forever.
I’m sure you noticed in verse 2, how John describes what he’s written down for us, He made this revelation known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
“Testify” and “testimony” are words related to the idea of witnessing. And the story of the church in the New Testament is all about people witnessing to Jesus and to the Word of God. And so on that level, There’s nothing new or unusual about Revelation at all is there?
And of course to witness to something means to speak about what you’ve seen and experienced, but even more specifically, witness in the Bible, means to testify in the face of opposition.
If you’re a witness in a court case, for example, the judge asks for your testimony, because someone else is disputing it.
And so to witness, to testify, to the Word of God, to the truth of Jesus, is to testify, in the face of opposition.
Which is what got John exiled on the Island of Patmos in the first place. Did you notice that in verse 9? What John sets out to do in writing this letter is the very thing that he’s has been doing up until now. 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.
Past, Present and Future
Yes, the language is strange, and we’ll unpack that a bit in a moment,
And yes, there’s an eye on the future, on the things which must soon take place which is less common, in other parts of the Bible, but Revelation isn’t that different to the rest of the New Testament. It’s the Word of God made known through Jesus to the Apostle John, for the benefit of the church.
Specifically, we could say, it’s the gospel of Jesus, applied to the lives of Christians who are suffering because of their faith.
And while the popular interest in Revelation is all about things yet to come, if we take the text at face value, we’d have to say that actually John is more interested in the past, than he is in the future.
See, all through Revelation, one thing dominates.
It’s not scary monsters,
It’s not Satan and his minions,
It’s not great disasters in the future.
The dominant picture in Revelation is Jesus’ triumph over sin and death and evil on the cross.
Even right here in chapter 1, Jesus’ death and resurrection casts a very long shadow, doesn’t it?
Jesus’ very identity is couched in those terms,
Verse 5, the firstborn from the dead,
who freed us from our sins by his blood
Verse 18, I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
For John, the future is determined by the past. And the things we’re told about those events in the future, well we’re really not told much about them at all, actually just enough for John to point out to us that the things God’s people are enduring, suffering and hardship, and persecution, and false teaching and error in the church, those are all the work of Satan, and therefore, since Satan has been defeated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, those things will one day come to an end.
Jesus sends a letter
And so Jesus sends this message of victory over sin and death,
The assurance that suffering and persecution and error will come to an end, in fact they have to come to an end, since sin itself has been defeated. And the way that Jesus communicates this to his church, both the church in the 1st Century AD, and just like the rest of the Scriptures, through the original recipients to the church in all ages, he does this through a letter.
I don’t know how many letters you receive these days. Most of us I’m sure, receive more email and various forms of instant messages than we get snail mail.
But in contrast to the rather cold, clinical arrival of an email into your inbox, when you receive a letter, you can tell a lot about who it’s from before you even open it can’t you?
A clear window on the front of the envelope, generally spells bad news, it’s a bill.
Government of South Australia printed on the front, typically means a speeding fine, I mean ah, rego renewal for your car.
Maybe the return address tells you who it’s from,
Or perhaps even you can tell the sender just by the hand-writing,
Or they type of paper that’s used,
Some true romantics I know, can even tell a letter from their loved one, by the smell of the perfume, that’s captured there.
It’s Jesus, but not as we know him – (maybe!)
Maybe you noticed as we read, what we’re told about who this letter is from.
The sender is Jesus, verse 18, The Living one, I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!, Only one person that that description can apply to, So there’s no doubt this is Jesus, but I wonder if this is Jesus as you know him.
Is this Jesus as we worship him today? . or have we somehow substituted some watered-down, shadow of Jesus for the real thing?
That quote I used last week springs to mind again, “If your Jesus is boring – try mine!”, well there’s nothing boring about this Jesus, is there?!
Making sense of the imagery
This image of Jesus might seem to us so random as to be meaningless, but like all the language in Revelation, the language and imagery is far from random, it’s very deliberate, and communicates very clearly. We just have to understand where John draws his imagery from.
See Revelation, is an account of what the Apostle John sees, verse 11 there, Jesus says, Write on a scroll what you see.
God’s purposes in history are uncovered before him, and he’s told “write it down.”
If you’ve ever had to give a witness statement to the police, you’ll know that it can be hard to translate what you’ve seen, into a written form that will make sense to someone else.
How do you communicate power and the emotion, and shock and awe, into words on a page?
Well John does that in a number of ways, there’s lots of repetition, to highlight things that are important. Andrew Whyte told me he once heard a preacher say that Revelation is a letter written for very old people, because everyone is always talking very loudly and they repeat themselves over and over again!
But perhaps most significant, is John’s use of images from the Old Testament. Images which his readers would already have been familiar with, and which come pre-loaded . with theological meaning and significance.
See you cannot understand or make sense of Revelation, without the Old Testament. When we come up against these strange images, graphic descriptions, the first question we need to ask ourselves is not “What do I think this might mean”, or
“What are all the possible meanings of this?”
Or even, “What do I see around me in the world today, that might be implied by this image?”,
The first question to ask is, “Where has the Holy Spirit, speaking though the human authors of Scripture used this particular image before?
What did it mean back then?
What was God communicating back then in describing something this way?”
Almost every book in the Old Testament is source material for Revelation. There are a few books that don’t get much airtime, Song of Solomon, for one.
But one of the reasons that some Christians have got so confused about the purposes of God as revealed in this letter, is because their interpretation starts in their own imaginations, or with what they see in the world around them, instead of with what God has already said and communicate about himself and his purposes.
And it does matter. Some might think, OK, who really cares where the symbolism of Jesus’ robe comes from, but the way we interpret and understand the Bible does matter.
So for example, there are lots of Christian people, who have been convinced that particular things were going to happen in their life-time, because when they wanted to make sense of the symbols and images in Revelation they turned to the newspaper headlines, and to events unfolding in the world, instead of turning to what the Holy Spirit has already communicated to us about those symbols in the Scriptures.
And the end result can be, and has been, people becoming discouraged in their faith, because things didn’t pan out like they expected, and whose fault is that? Is it God’s fault?, or is it my fault?, and we end up with disappointment and doubt, the exact opposite of the assurance and confidence which was Jesus’ whole reason for sending the letter.
And so if we turn our minds back to Revelation 1, we find this description of Jesus.
Verse 13, 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.,
14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, , and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.
16 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.
Look, if you will, on your outline, where I’ve printed some words from the book of Daniel. And here’s just one example of what I’m talking about.
Daniel’s given a vision of what we could call the “throne room” of heaven, and God himself, the Father, the Creator, who’s called the Ancient of Days. Do you see how Daniel describes what he sees?
Daniel 7:9 - 10
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued and came out from before him;
The way that Jesus is presented in Revelation 1, is in the terms used to describe, the Ancient of Days, God himself. And John dips into Daniel 10 as well, to try and paint this picture for us.
Here is Jesus, presented with the characteristics that are known to belong to God.
I don’t know if you’re a political junkie. I heard on the radio this week that the speaker of the Queensland Parliament banned TV cameras from the chamber, and all these commentators and politicians were saying what a tragedy it was, there’d be no broadcast of parliament on the nightly news until August! And all I could think of was “Those lucky Queenslanders! No parliament on TV until August!”
The in-depth political machinations are a bit beyond me, I get just about all I can absorb from the political cartoons and caricatures.
You know how the cartoonist will use just one or two particular characteristics of a person, to identify that politician in the cartoon.
With Bob Hawke it was a massive wave of silver hair,
You give any character big glasses, and huge bushy eyebrows and they instantly became John Howard.
Or you make a character short, with little glasses and a round face, and no matter what the rest of the drawing looks like, everyone knows that’s Kevin Rudd. Even though interestingly, Kevin Rudd is above average height, you can bet that the little character in the cartoon is Kevin.
That’s why John describes Jesus the way he does. He picks up these elements that his original readers, and we, if we know our Old Testaments, we know are characteristic of God, and they convey something of God’s power, and majesty, and rule, and he applies that language to Jesus, to say “these things which we know are true of God, seated on his throne in heaven, are also true of Jesus”,
Jesus is pictured as God, to remind the readers of Revelation who he is,
Who it is they have placed their trust in,
Who it is that is calling them to persevere in the faith.
Here is Jesus, presented with the attributes of God, sash and robe,
The whiteness and wool depicting purity and holiness and wisdom. We see that all through the Scriptures,
Eyes like fire which penetrate to the depths of the heart. He’s able to judge the inmost thoughts of every person.
His voice, like the sound of rushing waters. In Ezekiel 43, that description is again, applied to God himself, and it’s tied to the awesome power of the glory of God.
The word used to describe the sword pictured as coming out of Jesus’ mouth is the word used in the Old Testament to describe the swords of the Amalekites, which God used, to bring his judgment.
The word of Jesus, is a sword of judgment.
Jesus watches over the world, verse 5, and he watches over his church, verses 13 and 20, the lampstands are the church of Jesus, Jesus watches, and where necessary, will judge and punish with his word.
Let me read you another section from the book of Daniel, still picturing the throne room of heaven from which God rules over all his creation. Again, this is on your outline.
and behold, Daniel says, 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. 14And 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, which shall not pass away,, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
What’s happening? God is anointing this “Son of Man” human being, ruler over all of creation.
Look again now at Revelation 1. Jesus, is described in exactly these terms, to make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s been given authority, and dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, and that he is the one that all peoples nations and languages should serve, and that his kingdom will never be destroyed, that he reigns and his promises are sure, forever.
Is there any aspect of life not shaped by this reality?
Is there any part of my life that falls outside Jesus’ jurisdiction?
This speaks to how I spend my money.
This speaks to how I allocate my time.
Here’s our motivation for mission. Every nation. Every language.
Here’s our motivation for evangelism
This past week, the husband of one of the staff at Trinity City passed away very suddenly. I first met Steve when he was working for the mission organisation WEC International. When he spoke at churches and churches and other meetings, Steve carried with him a bright green tooth-brush, taller than he was!
See Steve borrowed a line from some Reach toothbrush ads, and he used to say that the good news of Jesus, had to get into the “hard to reach places.” And this massive fluoro thing was a reminder of that.
Of course the gospel has to get into the hard to reach places, because Jesus has dominion over everything;, peoples, nations, and languages, and his kingdom matters, more than anything else, because it will last forever.
Is that your picture of Jesus?
A few years ago, Mark Driscoll, a well-known American preacher, spoke at an event in Sydney, called “Burn Your Plastic Jesus.”
They didn’t actually burn stuff, but Driscoll spent 2 hours, dismantling, 7 false views of Jesus, and then presented Jesus as he’s found in the Bible.
If your view of Jesus doesn’t match up to this, I would urge you, to burn your plastic Jesus. Get rid of any false or flawed understanding of who Jesus is.
When Jesus says, “Send a letter about me to my church”, this is how he wants himself to be known.
Which is both a warning and an encouragement isn’t it?
If you’ve managed to somehow grab hold of a false picture of Jesus, it’s a warning, this is the king who walks among the lampstands, and reigns over the kings of the earth.
And yet it’s also a great comfort isn’t it?
To Christians who are suffering for their faith,
To Christians who suffer the pain and heartache of a world still plagued by sin and evil,
To Christians who have been hurt, by false teaching and error in the church,
What does this say to them?
What does this picture of Jesus tell them? Tell us? Tell you?
Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega,”, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Jesus is the one who brings you to God, through his death in your place.
Jesus is the one who stands among his church,
Who sees, and who judges, by his Word.
A letter to the church
And so this letter from Jesus, is to go out to his church. Verse 11
Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
These towns in the Roman province of Asia lie in a rough circle sort of shape, and they’re named here in the order that you would most likely to visit them. So this was very literally, a circular letter.
This part of the Roman Empire had the highest concentration of Christians anywhere in the world.
This was the buckle of the Bible belt.
And these 7 cities also acted as the communication hub for the rest of the province, and served as the connection to the rest of the world.
I remember once posting a letter to someone who had visited our church, and as I stood there at the Mount Barker post office, I was actually staring right at the person’s PO Box. And I thought what a waste, that it’s got to go all the way down to Adelaide, and then all the way back, just to travel 70 centimetres.
But, of course, Adelaide is the centre of communications for this part of the world, and it’s via Adelaide that we connect in to other cities and states and countries.
And so in writing to these churches, the message that John has been commissioned to share can reach other believers, facing the same kind of trials and challenges, not only in the rest of the province, Not only those scattered across the world in his day,
But throughout all of history.
And I’m sure you noticed that it’s seven churches, seven being a significant number in the imagery of Revelation. A number that often represents God.
Here are 7 churches, that represent God’s church. And in fact, as we’ll see in the messages to the individual churches in chapters 2 and 3, God’s people in each specific church, are urged to hear what the Spirit of God says to the churches. Jesus speaks to all the churches, in this letter.
The one, united, people of God is represented in chapter 1 as seven lampstands, among whom Jesus stands.
As we turn to chapter 2 and 3, we see that the whole church throughout history, is represented by each individual church in Asia.
This letter, is a letter to Christians today.
It’s a letter to us.
It’s a letter about how if you’re a Christian person, you can have great confidence, and comfort in the present and the future, because of the past.
So you’re not walking down the cold streets of Berlin, but the cold streets of Littlehampton, Mount Barker, Adelaide.
As you walk alongside your friend, your fellow Christian, collar pulled up against the wind, what do you whisper in their ear?
What message do you want them to hear?
(As you stand around having tea and coffee in a few minutes), what do you say to them?
Knowing what you do, about how the story ends, what are you going to say?