Revelation Commentary. Introducing chapter two.
In each of the addresses that Jesus makes to the seven churches, we see a greeting and a title relating to who Jesus is. The whole picture concerning Jesus has already been given in Revelation One and each of the statements to the churches underlines who He is. He is the King of Kings and One who says, “I know you.” He knows His people and does not look down on us in any way. He encourages us to overcome all that we face and to understand that conquering darkness and sin comes out of a deep abiding relationship with Him (1 John 3:8, 1 John 2:1-2,Ex 33:14,Mat 11:28). A story that reminds me of this victory through resting in Him whilst going through incredible hardship is that of Immaculee Ilibagiza.
Immaculee Ilibagiza is a woman who survived the Rwandan holocaust in 1994 when the Hutu majority turned and slaughtered the Tutsi minority. Over a 100-day period an estimated 70% of the Tutsi people were killed which amounted to 20% of Rwanda’s population. The killings occurred between April and July 1994 with an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 people being butchered. During this time Immaculee’s family was murdered and she was hunted by machete waving neighbours.
The Hutu pastor of a local church hid Immaculee and five other women in a small ensuite toilet and shower room in his home. The room was four feet by three feet and with a shower at one end and was too small to have a sink in it. The room was tiled and there was a small widow about six feet from the ground – the sort that only a cat could get through. A wardrobe was placed in front of the door and they were only allowed to flush the toilet when they heard the neighbour flushing theirs. If they had not done this then Hutu neighbours would have been alerted to the fact that people were in the house next door. Along with the five other women Immaculee was to remain in that toilet without leaving the room for ninety days and would lose half her body weight. On a few occasions the pastor’s house was searched by Hutu men whom she had heard butchering Tutsis outside the house and this is what she writes about one of those times:
“I heard the killers call my name. They were on the other side of the wall, and less than an inch of plaster and wood separated us…..There were many killers. I could see them in my mind: my former friends and neighbours, who had always greeted me with love and kindness, moving through the house carrying spears and machetes and calling my name. “I have killed 399 cockroaches,” said one of the killers. “Immaculee will make 400. It’s a good number to kill””
Immaculee Ilibagiza in, ‘Left to Tell,’ page xix.
During the days and weeks that Immaculee spent in the small toilet area, not knowing whether she would live and die, she spent many hours in prayer. OF that time she writes:
“I realised that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me. Everything strong and good in me – my faith, hope, and courage – was vulnerable to the dark energy. If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive. I could rely only on God to help me fight.”
One day after hearing screaming and crying as people were killed in the street outside she prayed and said she heard a voice saying, “Forgive them” and took a crucial step towards forgiving the killers. She then felt all the anger draining away from her. She had opened her heart to God and he had touched it.
Over ninety days after first entering the small ensuite toilet and shower room Immaculee was able to leave as the trouble died down. Yet just before the end of this time she had an intense dream and saw Jesus standing in front of her and heard the words, “When you leave this room, you will find that almost everyone you know and love is dead and gone. I have come to tell you not to fear. You will not be alone – I will be with you. I will be your family. Be at peace and trust in me, for I will always be at your side. Don’t mourn too long for your family, Immaculee. They are with me now, and they have joy” (Ibid 141).
As Rwanda started to come back to some sense of normality Immaculee found one of the woman who used to work in her father’s house and the woman told her of the death of her brother Damascene which she had witnessed. Damascene was caught by a crowd and beaten to his knees with machete handles, yet got to his feet and smiled at the killers. He did not beg for mercy but challenged them and said, “Go ahead, what you are waiting for? Today is my day to go to God. I can feel Him all around us. He is watching, waiting to take me home. Go head – finish your work…I pity you for killing people like its’ some child’s game. Murder is no game: If you offend God, you will pay for your fun…But I am praying for you…I pray that you see the evil you’re doing and ask for God’s forgiveness before it is too late” (Ibid 195). These were his last words.
Immaculee also came into contact with a politician who had been a friend of her father’s and who was now in charge of arresting and detaining killers. Immaculee went to the prison that he presided over and the leader of a group that had killed her mother and brother was brought out. His name was Felicien and he was, or had been, a successful Hutu businessman whose children she’d played with in primary school. He was also the man who had hunted for Immaculee, the man who had looted her father’s plantation and the one who had killed her mother and her brother. This is what Immaculee wrote about that encounter in the prison.
“His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters. Hs skin was sallow, bruised and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted. His once handsome face was hidden beneath a filthy, matted beard; and his bare feet were covered in open, running sores. I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.” She then reached out her hand and quietly said what she had come to say, “I forgive you.” Writing about this later she said, “My heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension released” Yet the politician was furious at what she had done (Ibid 262-3).
There are many times during our lives when we can feel isolated and on our own, yet we are never in a minority: we are part of a kingdom that spans eternity and we serve the One true God whom we know as “our Father” (Mat 6:9). Whilst there are many who would seek to stand in the place of God and proclaim their greatness they all have this written over their lives “and this too will pass away” with millions of graves testifying to the transient nature of man without God. Unlike them and by virtue of the grace, mercy and loving kindness of God, we will live forever. We will stand in eternity with God and with those who first received the letters to the seven churches as well as the one ordained to write them. We live, as it were, in two worlds, yet only one is going to remain.
The first century world was in many ways a difficult, turbulent world where Pax Romana dominated, often through oppression and violence – yet also coercion and stealth. In some ways the Roman Empire brought stability and security, yet in many other ways it brought bondage and suffering; an Empire filled with slavery and enslaved people.
Pax Romana: “The source of this “peace” was evident in the Roman coinage of the era which prominently featured not only the goddess Pax, but also the goddess Victoria and Mars, the god of war, thus comprising a type of triumvirate – peace through victory in war.”
Klaus Wengst in ‘Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ, p 11-12.
In complete contrast to this we have Jesus the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1, John 13:3-14 Phil 2:7-8) who is the Lord of all life (1 Tim 6:15; Rev 17:14). He is not someone who simply lives in the hereafter or the ‘over there’ (Ps 90:4; 2 Pet 3:8). He is the master of time who is present right where we live and is present right now by the power of His Spirit (Mat 28:20). He is the “I will never leave you nor forsake you one” and the only way that the enemy can gain a shred of victory is by trying to distance man from God - a ploy which began right at the beginning when Satan said: “Did God really say...” (Gen 3:1).
There is an enemy (2 Cor 11:4, 1 Pet 5:8-9; Rev 12:10) who seeks to draw the sheep away from the shepherd (Ps 23; John 10:11, 14). Yet the truth remains, he had only do this if we stray from God and live in our own strength, which is no match for darkness. This is the only way the enemy can hope to win small victories on a playing field where he has already lost.
In chapter one, we captured something of the majesty and supreme power of God. Now, in the letters to the seven churches we find this imagery being broken down into smaller parts which specifically relate to the cities or areas the seven churches are found in. Linking the imagery with specific churches would be an encouragement to those John writes to and probably have a greater impact in helping them grasp what was being said.
For example, Smyrna was a tiered city of small houses and from a distance they looked like a crown with the highest point being referred to as the ‘crown of Smyrna.’ Smyrna was also famous for its games. Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that He knows what they are going through and says that they will receive the crown of life (Rev 2:10).
God speaks in a language that can be understood (e.g John 8:12, 15:5) – yet do we want to understand. Do we focus on Father God or do we allow the created to speak louder that the creator? If we are not careful it is sometimes all too easy to allow what life has become to speak louder than the author of life. (Gen 1:1; Job 38, John 1:1), yet God is still with us.
At the cross of Jesus we do not have a stand-alone God but a living saviour (1 John 4:14; Jude 24-25) whose sacrificial death and awesome resurrection (Eph 1:20; 2:6) touches every part of history: He is the reason there is a history in the first place.
“The dominion of the Lord and his people is not simply the world hereafter but the world here and now.”
A Boesak in, ‘Comfort and Protest’ page 27
John writes to seven churches and although we have already mentioned the number seven yet note one more point before continuing.
In Genesis we read of God resting on the seventh day; in six days the world was created for man whilst on the seventh, God gave His attention to being with Man. The number seven looks back to the perfection of creation and to the ongoing perfect work of God. The seven churches represent the whole church across the ages and therefore we need to listen to what is being said because it is for today. God’s word is given to help us make sense of the world but more importantly to show us what God is like and encourage, challenge and strengthen us as sons and daughters of the living God.
As in any century and in any city or village, many of the churches in John’s day struggled with persecution or the subtle attractions of the world. However the biggest struggle was always going to be with self. Yet in all that they faced John reminds them that God is with them and they are part of His plan.