It could be today, it is today; it could be tomorrow; it is tomorrow.
Introductions and imagery from chapter one:
Thirty-seven miles off the coast of Asia Minor is what was the ‘Alcatraz’ of the ancient world - the island of Patmos. During the days of the Roman Empire, political prisoners and many who were perceived as a threat to ‘Pax Romana,’ were imprisoned on the island due to its isolated position. This island, no more than twenty-five miles in circumference, was the island that the Emperor, Domitian, banished John to. Yet someone much more powerful than all the emperors of Rome combined – the King of kings – was about to speak into John’s life. Because of this, we have the book of Revelation; a book that travelled far beyond the confines of a prison island and continues to impact people’s lives today, almost two thousand years after it was written.
John was a very small man in a very big empire, yet what we find with John, and any believer who is open to God, is that, for him, God really is the “I will never leave you nor forsake you” One (Deut 31:6; Mat 28:20, Eph 6:10). In Christ we find that, no matter our smallness or the circumstances we find ourselves in, God can still work with us and through us in amazing ways as the following story clearly reveals:
As a young seven-year-old African-American girl, Ruby was taken to a mixed race school - the first of its kind in the USA. On the day the school opened, mobs who opposed this new type of school lined its pathways and were held back by police and soldiers as they hurled insults at parents and children. Inside the school, psychologists waited to talk to any child that might be frightened or traumatised by the angry crowd. Think of how the children must have felt.
On one occasion, in those first few traumatic days, Ruby, who walked to school with her mother, was seen to stop and briefly mouth something under her breath before moving on into school. In school one of the teachers asked Ruby what the matter was and what she had been saying. Ruby replied that nothing was the matter but that she had been asking God to forgive the people who were shouting because they didn’t know what they were doing. Ruby had her heavenly Father looking after her and the Great Shepherd walking with her by His Spirit. In Ruby we see a young girl who is being blessed, despite all that went on around her.
In an incredibly powerful empire, that in many places was becoming increasingly hostile towards Christians, we find John writing to encourage the church whilst imprisoned on Patmos. Yet John is not a victim to his circumstances. He is aware, as all of us must be, that there is always a much bigger picture: God’s picture. In an empire where leaders paraded themselves as gods, or sons of gods, the eternal king was still about His business. This business can be seen in judgement but also in grace and mercy, as the following story reveals. It was written by Tertullian (AD160-225) many years after John had left these earthly realms, yet comes about because God was still present in amazing acts of grace and mercy. The following is part of a protest written to the proconsul in North Africa during persecution:
Quoted from, To Scapula (Carthage: ca. 217A).
“The clerk of one of them (the Roman Officials), who was liable to be thrown upon the ground by an evil spirit, was set free from his affliction; as was also the relative of another, and the little boy of a third. And how many men of rank (to say nothing of common people) have been delivered from devils and healed of diseases! Even Severus himself, the father of Antonine (the emperor), was graciously mindful of the Christians; for he sought out the Christian Proculus, surnamed Torpacion, the steward of Euhodias, and in gratitude for his having once cured him by anointing, he kept him in his palace till the day of his death.”
John reminds his audience that Jesus stands with His church (Rev 1: 12-14), knows all they are going through and supports them with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, Eph 2:21-22; 1 Pet 2:5). Through John, God pulls back the veil revealing the powers that are often unseen but clearly felt in a struggling world. Yet as this veil is pulled back we also see that God’s primary purpose is to encourage us. In clear and decisive ways God shows us who is in ultimate control of events, as He brings judgement to bear on His world, and in awesome grace and mercy – a grace and mercy you and I receive right now – he gives sinners the opportunity to be saved through Jesus.
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” Psalm 139:7-13
P.D. Tripp in, “Broken-Down House’, p 105.
Encouragement from John.
John encourages the church to stand strong (Rev 2-3), challenging all believers to keep their eyes on Jesus and pointing out again and again that God is always in control. John also encourages us, again and again, to see that we are in a war that has already been won, but a war in which we participate none the less. We are called to conquer by way of His victory and for the believer this conquering will include challenging the old ways by which we used to live, opening our eyes to the needs of those around us, and a total reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit. If we simply sit back and engage in a quest to get a touchy-feely Christianity that centres more on self than anything or anyone else, then we are already losing the battle. We serve a saviour who was beaten beyond recognition, deserted by friends, isolated by enemies and hung on a cross. In weakness He triumphed over all evil and as the ascended King of Kings He will bring about a day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess His glory (Phil 2:10). In his book, ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, Miroslav Volf, a native Croatian who has seen first-hand the horror and aftermath of war, writes:
“…our world is not one of chance and chaos. It is a world under the personal rule of a Redeemer who is so loving that he willingly gave his life for others, and so powerful that he is able to defeat even death…evil is in the process of being defeated. Death will eventually die. There is reason for hope even when your life has fallen down around your feet.”
Prof M. Volf in, ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, p 306
I recently caught a glimpse of how kingdom living looks in the words of a man who had just lost his wife in the terrorist atrocities in Paris on the thirteenth of November 2015. He writes:
“Assured of God’s justice and undergirded by God’s presence, Christians are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge. It cannot be denied that the prospects are good that by trying to love their enemies they may end up hanging on a cross. Yet often enough, the costly acts of nonretaliation become a seed from which the fragile fruit of Pentecostal power grows – a peace between people from different cultural spaces gathered in one place who understand each other’s languages and share in each other’s goods.”
“On Friday night, you stole away the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.” He went on to say that he would make sure that his son, Melvil, did not feel any hatred, to deny the terrorist that victory. He then wrote, “He is just 17 months old. He’ll eat his snack, like every day, and then we’re going to play like we do every day. And every day of his life, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.”
Antoine Leiris whose letter was recorded in The Times Newspaper, page 13, on Friday November 20th.
There is a spiritual battle going on and we are called to fight; but not in the ways of the world. The horror of the Paris bombings and killings will never be forgotten, nor should it, yet neither will the incredible words of Antoine Leiris which, I believe, will bring hope and healing to many.
The challenge to see with our spiritual eyes.
In Revelation we are challenged to see the bigger picture, called to recognise that we are known by Him, no matter how small we feel, and encouraged to persevere. No matter what the future may hold, the only one who can prevent us from receiving His blessing is self (Eph 4:30; 1 Thes 5:19). We are known by Him (Luke 12:7), no one can take us from His hand (John 10:29) and none of our past experiences (2 Cor 5:17), present circumstances, smallness or weaknesses are a hindrance to God.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:37-9
In a world that continually bombards us with bad news on the one hand and what we need to do in order to succeed on the other, we need to slow down, feed on God’s word and seek to be open and available to the leading of the Holy Spirit, no matter what comes our way. One testimony that has always encouraged me when I have let circumstances shout too loudly into my mind is that of Stanley Jones.
Stanley Jones was a psychiatrist and missionary in India up until his departure for heaven in January 1973. One day, at the age of eighty-seven, he woke to find he’d had a stroke and writes,
“I was a completely helpless person with my left arm and leg useless, the right side of my face numb and sagging, sight and speech badly impaired.”
He went on to say that he had always expected to slowly descend into his nineties and one day wake up in the presence of the Lord; he had not expected to wake up old and crippled and he struggled. Yet the peace and security of the Lord was with him immediately as he recognised that God could use him just as powerfully as an eight-seven year old man as he could a younger man. His hindrance and inability was no problem to God. He writes:
“By prayer, I am still communicating with the same Person. I belong to the same unshakable Kingdom and the same unchanging Person. Nothing has really changed except my means of communication with the outside world”
Dr. S. Jones in, ‘The Divine Yes’ p29, 31.
Life can be difficult and it’s ok to feel small at times; what is not ok is to think that we are alone or as if we have the full picture. John writes to encourage and uplift a small church in a big empire to see that in reality they are in a small empire, in a much bigger picture.
This is His world.
The book of Revelation is not a ‘star-wars’ or ‘good versus evil’ stand-alone book. Instead it is part of a much bigger picture, of a world created in love and for loving relationships. The Bible is about God’s world; it is also about the rebellion of man and the grace of God, the fall of man and the mercy of God, the suffering of man who reaps his own harvest and the compassion of God, who brings justice and the outrageous offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. Revelation is in a book – His book - and shows us how to live: focusing our hearts and minds on Jesus and revealing that every moment of every day, month and year, belongs to Him and is ultimately in His control.
The history of this world with its wars, slavery, genocide and fragmented lives also reveals the consequences of making our own history in total disregard to His story. Yet this world still belongs to someone and the hope we have is in the One who seeks to restore harmony in His world and continues to show concern for mankind without compromise to His holiness; He will not overlook sin yet neither does he ignore the sinner’s plight. God is involved in all that goes on; the work of the Righteous One (1 John 2:1).
“God is not only righteous because he prefers good or even because he punishes evil. He is essentially righteous because he comes to the aid of those who are suffering, who have no hope if he does not deliver them. God’s righteousness cannot be separated from his saving activity.”
T. Holland in, ‘Contours of Pauline Theology’, p158.
This is God’s world and history is His story, of which we are a part, yet it is not a story to be read and forgotten as if we were to merely say, “That’s interesting” or remain a side-line-spectator. Neither does the book of Revelation contain deep secrets that can only be understood by an initiated few as they seek to predict the future in their own strength. Instead the book of Revelation is couched, as shall be seen, in the imagery of the Old Testament and culture of the day as it encourages readers and hearers to take heart and be uplifted through seeing God’s mastery of all events across history.