“John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a monster half as crazy as one of his commentators.” — G. K. Chesterton
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about a series I’m preaching from the book of Revelation. Revelation is one of the areas in the Scriptures we tend to avoid, mainly because we don’t know what to do with so many of the confusing images, the debates about the millennium, etc. But my goal in this series is to get some of that scaffolding out of the way and for us to hear a powerfully relevant word from King Jesus. I believe this word has the power to be transformative for us, both individually and corporately.
Let’s begin with the title: Faith Under Fire. Does that resonate with you? Is faith under fire today? The first century Christians certainly faced enormous persecution in a world where Caesar was universally hailed as a divine figure. But twenty centuries later, Christians around the world continue to be ostracized and mistreated as a result of their faith. According to the World WatchList produced by Open Doors USA, in many places around the world — North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — even claiming to be a Christian brings about extreme forms of persecution today. And even in our own country, we are witnessing an accelerated erosion of religious faith, aided by the onset of secularism and a swirling debate over religious liberty. Now, as ever, faith is under fire.
But this is precisely why we need to hear the message of the book of Revelation, a timeless message of triumph. Faith is under fire today, just as it has always been under fire. But this final word in our Bibles points to the complete victory of Jesus and fits us with a victorious mindset. Though faith may be under fire, we participate in the victory of the Sovereign One who is presently seated on the throne! And this knowledge helps us to stand, for we are standing on the victory of King Jesus!
I’m excited about this study. Let’s dive right in.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw — that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is thefaithfulwitness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Revelation is a word about Jesus, but it is also a word from Jesus. Eugene Peterson says, “Jesus Christ is both the content of the revelation and the agent of the revelation.”
And Jesus has a word for us: he is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. From A to Z, it’s all about Jesus. He is the timeless one of history — he is (present tense), he was (past tense), and he is to come (future tense). All history centers on him and is centered in him.
This sense of past and present appears in verse 5 also: To him who loves us (present tense) and has freed us (past tense) from our sins by his blood…. The love of Jesus is a present reality — may we never doubt that Jesus loves his church. And there is this: he has freed us — literally the word is “loosed” us. He has loosed us from our sins. We have been untethered from them, cut off from our sins because of his blood. So here is a strong word for the church: Jesus loves us and he has loosed us.
But earlier in verse 5, we find three titles given to Jesus. These three titles reduce the Gospel message down to three essential pieces:
- Jesus is the faithful witness — he stood faithful before Satan in the temptation narrative, just as he stood faithfully when he was falsely accused by the Pharisees, Pilate. His entire life bore witness to God.
- Jesus is the firstborn from the dead — he was found to be victorious over death and sin through the glory of his resurrection.
- Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth — he has ascended to heaven and he now reigns with sovereign authority.
As we begin this series today, I want to talk about one of these titles in particular: the idea of Jesus as “faithful witness.” The Greek word for witness is martys, from which we get our English word “martyr.” When we hear that word, we think of one who has died for their faith. But it was later when that term began to carry that meaning. In the first century, it meant to bear witness.
The word is used in Acts 1:8 where Jesus says, You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He’s not commissioning them to go out and get themselves killed. Rather, these disciples are called to bear witness to Jesus in such a way that threatens the status quo. Just like Jesus, these disciples are going to be such a threat that the powers are going to attempt to remove them.
This is important because the same language is used in the next chapter to describe the fate of one of our brothers in Christ. His name is Antipas and he is mentioned in the letter to the church in Pergamum.
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live — where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city — where Satan lives.
Pergamum was a large city with a population of approximately 100,000 and it was known for several impressive temples, including the great altar to Zeus as well as a temple dedicated to Caesar. Pergamum was a center of idolatry in the first century and to declare oneself a Christian who worships the one true God and Savior Jesus Christ would certainly provoke hostility. Therefore, Jesus refers to Pergamum as the place “where Satan has his throne” and “where Satan lives.”
Yet, here is the picture of Antipas, faithfully bearing witness in the city of Satan’s throne. According to scholars, his name means “against all.” We don’t know anything else about Antipas, other than the fact that he lost his life for his testimony about Jesus. He faithfully modeled the way of Jesus — the faithful witness of chapter 1.
And we can see in this that Antipas is true to his name. He stands against all other claims of lordship. Antipas knows that the true lord isn’t Zeus or Caesar — it’s Jesus. And Jesus refers to Antipas as his faithful witness.
Now, as ever, faith is under fire — around the globe, but also here in our nation. Our culture has shifted dramatically in a very short amount of time. It is not uncommon to hear terms like “postmodern” and “post-Christian” to describe our culture. There was a time when you could safely assume that the majority of people in this country held a Judeo-Christian worldview. But that is no longer true. The most recent research indicates that over 50 million Americans self-identify as atheist, agnostic, or no particular religious conviction. And that number is growing.
But we are called to be a subversive people. We don’t live by the world’s standards or values. We live by the standards and values of the Kingdom of God. And the most subversive thing we can do to undermine the value system of the world is to love and to do all that love requires. To be faithful witnesses.
Christianity is eccentric — literally, it is living “off center” or “outside the center” of the prevailing culture. We don’t conform to public doctrine. Instead, Christianity is lived from the margins of secular culture. That’s the way it was for Antipas and the Christians in Pergamum. That’s the way it was for John, writing down these visions while he’s exiled on the island of Patmos. And increasingly, that’s the way it is for us as we find ourselves operating from the margins of our culture. But let’s not forget that Christianity has always thrived from the margins. This is simply a new opportunity for us to be faithful witnesses for Jesus Christ.
I am strengthened by this quote from Alan Hirsch: “The church, when true to its real calling…is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen.” Hirsch speaks of the latent missional potencies of the church, noting that the church was God’s vessel for changing the world in the first few centuries AD.
AD 100 — estimated that there were as few as 25,000 Christians
AD 300 — estimated that there were as many as 20,000,000 Christians.
How did this happen? How did the early church grow from a small movement to become the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries? And here are a couple of other complicating factors during this period of time:
- Christianity was an illegal religion throughout this period. At best, the Christians throughout the empire were tolerated; at worst, they were severely persecuted.
- The church did not yet have church buildings as we know them. Archaeologists have discovered chapels dating from this period, but it seems these were exceptions to the rule, and they tended to be small converted houses.
- The church did not yet have the complete New Testament. The earliest Christians had access to some universally accepted texts (Gospels, Paul’s writings, etc.), but the canon as we know it wasn’t formally ratified until later.
- The church was not yet institutionalized. There were no paid ministers, no seminaries, no seeker-sensitive services, no youth group lock-ins, no Vacation Bible School, etc.
- Joining was not easy. By the late second century, aspiring converts had to go through a significant period of instruction and discipling before they were deemed ready for baptism.
So, again, how did the early church grow so much in such a short period of time?
I believe the early church grew at such an incredible rate because of the faithful witness of those earliest Christians. They weren’t afraid to stand at the margins and bear witness to Jesus. They bore faithful witness to the one who taught love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. They bore faithful witness to the one who taught love your neighbor as yourself. They bore faithful witness to the one who was the faithful witness, the one who loved us and loosed us and gave himself up on our account.
Does Satan live in our communities today?
So here is the question: Will we live as faithful witnesses in this city?
One of the central questions Revelation poses is a question of compromise: Will the church be a faithful witness to Jesus? Will the church accommodate to her surroundings? Or will she stand, even from the margins, and declare the lordship of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is a stark reminder that we are citizens of a different country, another kingdom.
Here is a question to wrestle with this week: What does it look like for us to live as faithful witnesses in these present circumstances, in 2018?
This is the question we should be wrestling with as we see the revelation of Jesus in this text.