By Sarah Wilson
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of kings on earth.
You may have noticed, that was not the usual way I start my sermons. I usually borrow from St. Paul: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” But since today we’re covering the first three chapters of Revelation, it seems only fitting to borrow from John, the author of Revelation. Those words I spoke are among the first in the whole book, and they tell us something important about what is to follow.
For all its wars and monsters, Revelation is primarily about grace and peace being given to the church from God the Father— “who is and who was and who is to come”— and grace and peace also from the seven spirits, which strangely enough also means the one and only Holy Spirit (more on this later), and grace and peace also from Jesus Christ, who is several things: a witness or martyr, the first to be raised from the dead, and the ruler of all rulers. Revelation is a word from the God who “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,” as John goes on to say.
God then says something himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Alpha and omega were the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. So that’s like saying, in English, “I am everything, from A to Z.” God the Father’s announcement of himself begins this book of Revelation. He doesn’t speak again until the very end, though his Son Jesus Christ does a lot of talking in between. God’s speech appearing only at the beginning and the end is another way of saying that he is the A and the Z, and that everything inside the universe is his.
Now after this introduction, we get some details about the circumstances of the revelation given to John. It’s a Sunday, the Lord’s day, and John is “in the Spirit.” This was a well-known Old Testament phenomenon: certain chosen prophets would get caught up in the Spirit in order to deliver a special message from God. It’s the same for John. He’s informed that he will see things, and he should write down what he sees and share all of it with a number of other churches.
But he very first thing John sees terrifies him— so much so that he falls down “as though dead.” It’s not the beast or the devil, though—it’s Jesus. This is not exactly warm, friendly Jesus gathering the little children unto himself. This is Jesus in glory, preparing to put a final end to death and evil. His eyes are like fiery flames, his feet glow like polished metal, his voice is like the roar of a waterfall, and his face shines like the sun on the hottest day of summer. No wonder John collapsed!
This is a Jesus who means business. And yet this terrifying figure says to John: Don’t be afraid! A logical response, but unnecessary. Because I, Jesus, am the first and the last. (Just like God the Father!) I died, but look! I’m alive, and I will stay alive forever. I hold the keys to death and hell. Which means you who see me in this way don’t need to fear, either.
Or do you? This shining, roaring Jesus has a message for his churches, and it’s John’s job to convey it to them. Seven churches receive seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. All of these churches are located in the western part of the country we now call Turkey, though at the time the Turks were a thousand years away from arriving. Back then they were all Greek-speaking cities under Roman control.
We don’t really know why these seven churches in these seven cities got letters, and others didn’t. One guess is that in Revelation, the number “seven” means completeness— sort of like the seven spirits really meaning the one Holy Spirit, or seven days making up one week, a tradition that comes from Genesis chapter 1. Jesus is associated with the number seven, too. These seven letters, then, are letters from Jesus that could be addressed to any and every church that finds itself in a similar situation. So even if we’re in Tokyo and not, for example, in Pergamum or Smyrna, as two of Revelation’s churches were, we’re expected to pay close attention to these letters and see how they apply to us, too.
So let’s take a look at the letters. They all have the same form. They start by saying “The words of him who—” and then in each case, the sentence finishes with a different vivid description of Jesus. In the first letter, Jesus is the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the golden lampstands. The stars, we are told, refer to the spirits of the church, and the lampstands refer to the churches themselves. This means that Jesus is really present in the church—he’s here with us now! We don’t worship a dead man far away in time, or a distant God far away in space, but the living Lord Jesus who comes to us every time we gather to worship him.
The next several descriptions of Jesus repeat the description of him we heard at the beginning of the Book of Revelation. But the last two letters add interesting new details. In the sixth letter, Jesus is “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” This reminds us of two things: first, that Jesus is the heir to the throne of Israel, who will do what even great King David could not; but second, that Jesus alone has the final say over how things will turn out for us. No one else has the power to turn us away or to condemn us, but also, no one else has the power to save us. As we’ll see at the very end of Revelation, Jesus’ goal is a new city of Jerusalem where all the gates are open all the time. No more locked doors, ever! It’s hard to imagine that level of safety, but with Jesus, we will have it.
Then, the very last description of Jesus in the last of the seven letters calls him “the Amen.” Think about that when you finish your prayers with an “amen”: Jesus is right there in the “amen,” too. “Amen” simply means: Dear God, let it be so! With Jesus, God lets it be so. Our prayers are fulfilled. Jesus himself is our Amen.
As I mentioned last week, it’s these rich and wonderful praises of Jesus that finally made Revelation count as a book of Holy Scripture. But although they begin each of the seven letters joyfully, the tone shifts quickly, and in most cases, negatively. This living Jesus who holds the Key of David knows. He knows what each church has been up to. Maybe they think God hasn’t noticed and they’ve fooled him; or maybe the churches are fooling themselves. But you can’t fool Jesus. He knows.
Now not everything he knows about every church is bad. Most of them have something good going for them. They work hard, they endure persecution, they throw out false teachers, they hold fast to Jesus’ name, they are filled with love and faith and service. So far, so good. But most of them have some serious problems, too. It turns out, right from the start, the church has been a place of problems and conflicts and confusions! Things haven’t gotten better since the early days—but on the other hand, they haven’t gotten worse either. As we go through Revelation, we’ll see that we shouldn’t be surprised at there being problems in the church just as much as in the wider world. We are not living in neutral territory. Evil and death want to seize us away from God; they want us to sin so that we turn voluntarily away from God, too. Revelation depicts, in vivid colors, how great our struggle is to remain faithful, to keep turning our lives over to Jesus; but also, it shows all the things that Jesus is doing to fight for us.
So, as we learn from these seven letters, some churches are so exhausted by the fight for their faith that their love for the gospel has grown cold. They’ve forgotten the passion they used to feel about Jesus. Other churches are tired of always being different from the society around them. They want to make it easy on themselves and compromise a little bit—eat meat sacrificed to idols, participate in mandatory Roman worship ceremonies, maybe not be quite so rigorous about what they do with their bodies sexually.
Some churches are trying too hard to be nice; they don’t want to cause trouble by pointing out when someone is teaching a false gospel, which in Revelation usually means compromising with idols and Roman worship and sexual standards. And finally, some churches look on the outside like they’re doing fine, but in reality, they’re dead. They’re not really in it for Jesus, and their spirituality is just a big show.
Now, not all of the churches are such a disaster. Many of them have been courageous in the face of pressure to compromise. They’ve continued to serve the poor and lost and hungry, and they are full of love. They have publicly committed themselves to Jesus, even when the result has been persecution. But whether they are faithful, compromised, or just about dead, Jesus is calling to them, the bad ones as much as the good ones! He’s giving the nearly dead and the compromisers a chance to repent and start fresh. He’s giving the persecuted a chance to make their faith into a great witness. Jesus says words that are sometimes hard to hear: I send trials and discipline to the people I love —not an easy or a wealthy life. But the trials are there to bring you closer to me.
Unfortunately, not every trial is a gift from God. Some trials really are nothing more than the attacks of the devil. As we imagine ourselves in the company of the seven churches, we are invited to put our struggles and suffering in a new light. We’re asked to see how they call us to repent and put our lives once again into Jesus’ hands. God chooses us once and forever when we are baptized. But we are not as steady as God! Every morning we need to place ourselves, our lives, and our loved ones in God’s hands all over again, remembering who we belong to, and how much he loves us.
At the end of each letter, Jesus makes promises about how we will be cared for when we do just that. Each of the seven churches, in fact, gets its own special promise. One will be invited to eat from the tree of life. Another will get to be a pillar in the heavenly temple. Another will get a white robe and its name written in the book of life. And so forth—all assurances of having a home in the life to come. But a lot of things will happen before that time. Some of them quite scary!
Sarah Wilson is associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church.