4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
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, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” [i]
When the apostle whom Jesus loved wrote this letter, he was over 80 years old. Most likely, John was banished to Patmos because of his advanced age. Otherwise, the Roman authorities in Asia Minor demanding worship of Roman Emperor Domitian would have had him publicly executed. The last apostle had not been sitting on a throne in a great Roman basilica when he was banished to Patmos. No, he had a much humbler position.
John had been pastoring the church of Ephesus founded by Paul some 43 years earlier when he was sent into exile. Think about that: the last apostle didn’t claim headship over the whole Church. He didn’t live in Rome. He didn’t start his own megachurch. He humbly chose to take on a congregation founded by another apostle and previously pastored by Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3). John became a successor to a lesser figure. That not only shows us how the Church was transitioning out of the apostolic age, it shows us a man willing to serve in whatever capacity he was most needed (which did not include being Bishop of Rome).
We might assume that a man who had been in apostolic ministry for 65 years would have nothing left to learn. But this letter shows John asking questions and even making mistakes. More than that, it shows him being amazed at the glory of God in Christ Jesus. If such was the case for the oldest and most experienced apostle, how much more then should we glory in the knowledge Messiah Jesus reveals to us?[ii]
Imagine being a member of the congregation of Christ at Ephesus. Your pastor has been exiled to a desert island, completely cut off from you. He’s no spring chicken anymore and everyone is worried what has happened to Pastor John. But then a letter from John arrives. And as the congregation gathers to hear it read they are taken by surprise. Although John has written the letter, its content comes directly from God the Father through Jesus Christ and contains a series of images and pictures of the Lord Jesus conveying a message of Christ’s preeminence over all creatures through all of space and time.
If you have read any of the New Testament letters, you recognize the standard greeting that you see here in John’s letter. It’s very much like the standard greeting of all letters in the Roman world. The greeting grace (charis) is variation of the common greeting meaning “hello” or “welcome” (Acts 23:26); the word peace (Hebrew šālôm, expressed here by the Greek eirēnē) was used by Jewish people as a salutation.[iii] A standard social custom is transformed by NT writers into marvelous expressions of the gospel of Messiah Jesus.
By God’s one-way love (grace) alone comes peace. There’s always something a little different about the way Christians do things – even something as common as writing a greeting for a letter. It’s very often in the incidental things in life that unbelievers notice the difference of Christianity. Christ has made a glorious saving difference to the way believers live – even to the way we choose to treat one another and write to one another.[iv]
Notice also, this letter is particularly addressed to seven churches in what is now western Turkey – then known as the province of Asia. It is not quite certain why Revelation was addressed to these seven churches. There were other churches in Asia (Troas, Acts 20:5ff.; Colossae, Col 1:2; Hierapolis, Col 4:13) that were of equal importance. We do know these seven cities were located “on the great circular road that bound together the most populous, wealthy, and influential part of the Province.”3
Some teachers note that the number seven was chosen intentionally because it represents completeness or perfection. In Judaism seven had special significance because of the Sabbath (the seventh day), the sabbatical year (Exod 23:10–11), and the Year of Jubilee (the year of release after seven sabbatical years; cf. Lev 25:8–17, 29–31). It is also possible that these particular seven churches were chosen because of some specific relationship to emperor worship being enforced by local rulers.[v] Commanded worship of Roman Emperor Domitian as a god was putting these churches under great pressure and persecution was about to get much worse. Similar pressure exists today for the remaining Christians in those now-Muslim lands to worship someone or something other than the Triune Creator God revealed in John’s great letter.
This is a letter for all God’s people struggling in an oppressive world fighting sin, the flesh, and the devil. But it has seven postscripts included for seven particular congregations about to undergo serious oppression: “to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”[vi] And, no doubt, seven churches are chosen because it represents the number of fullness. There are seven seals opened, seven trumpets are sounded, seven bowls of plagues are poured out, seven benedictions are given. Part of the significance of all these “sevens” is that the message and visions of the letter are for ALL God’s people everywhere in all the last days between Christ’s first and final coming. It speaks to the situation of every believer in every generation because it’s for all believers living in every age in this present world.
This letter, as we said last week, is not a puzzle to be solved on your sofa with secrete insights invented to sell books about the modern nation states of America and Israel. It’s a vision of Jesus Christ to strengthen you in your daily life, especially in those situations where you are pressed to cave into the pressures of the world, the flesh, and the devil, or in those situations where your trust into Christ has been marginalized.
This letter carries with it a blessing from the great Triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit. Look at vv. 4-5:
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, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. [vii]
Grace is the one-way love of the Father produces the shalom of life lived as the Creator originally intended. These blessings have a three-fold source. They come, first, from him who is and who was and who is to come. This is a paraphrase of the divine name (YHWH, I AM); it comes from Exodus 3:14–15 and calls attention to the fact that all time is embraced within God’s eternal presence. Since the finite cannot conceive of the eternal in other than temporal terms, John paraphrases the divine name in such a way as to remind his readers that God is eternally existent, without beginning or end.[viii]
The blessings of God also come from the seven spirits who are before his throne.[ix] John is clearly referring to the Triune God in this greeting. Here he refers to the Holy Spirit in terms of his seven-fold power described in Isaiah 11:2,
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, / the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, / the Spirit of counsel and might, /the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. [x]
Finally, this blessing of grace and peace comes from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. [xi] He’s designated with a three-fold title. He is the faithful giver of the Father’s message to the church; he brings this revelation to John. He is the Lamb who is alive though he was slain, the One who swallowed death and destroyed it for his people (Ps. 89:27; Rev. 4; Col. 1:18).
Jesus is the one who rules the earthly rulers – an expression that looks forward to his Second Coming as judge; it also reminds us of his present, heavenly rule of absolutely EVERYTHING in the here and now. There is no president, no congress, no governor nor mayor, no foreign power, no continent, no natural disaster over which the Lord Jesus Christ does not have sovereign power.
That is a vital thing for these believers in Roman Asia to know as local and regional authorities begin their oppression of this anti-patriotic, Rome-hating, atheistic (they refuse to acknowledge the gods) people called “Christians” who swear allegiance to some crucified Jewish day-laborer from Palestine some 60 years prior. No matter how powerful these rulers seem, no matter how cruel they are, THEY are NOT in control. Messiah Jesus rules the rulers.
It only when you begin to understand the great Triune Godhead in all his glorious sovereign power – only when the Trinity is not some obscure idea – that you begin to taste the full flavor of the one-way love of the Father. Then you come to trust the Spirit’s wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge as he brings to you the fear of the Lord. Then you can settle into the shalom of God and live knowing that Messiah Jesus rules over ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING in the world – even everything in your life, especially the situations you do not like and the stories you would never have written for yourself.
If you meditate upon John’s opening greeting of this letter, you will come to see there is no situation in all the earth for which God is not more than sufficient. There is no time for which God is not adequate. There is no need for which the seven-fold Holy Spirit does not have the resources. There is NOTHING ahead for you in this week for which God is not more than adequate because he was, and is, and is to come. He is I AM, not “I was” and not “I will be.” He is fully present with you and fully sufficient for you.
You will understand that the great and glorious Triune God has communed within himself to answer the question of our deepest need. How can we rebellious, God-hating, walking dead be reconciled in life to the absolute perfection and holiness without which no one will see the Lord? How can these redeemed-but-broken and weak men and women, boys and girls, be brought through a God-hating world dominated by sin and Satan and yet be carried into God’s everlasting glory? The Triune God has decided to give all his resources to every single person he purposed to redeem – to bring them through whatever takes place wherever and whenever they are.[xii]
We have seen from whom these blessings of grace and peace come: The Triune God. Now we need to think about from where these blessings come. Our blessings come from the throne of God. The ultimate authority of this universe does not reside in Washington D.C., or Moscow, or Beijing, or London. There is a throne in heaven and the Father is seated upon it actively and sovereignly ruling all things for his glory.[xiii]
From that throne, the seven-fold Spirit brings to God’s people infinite blessings through Messiah Jesus who is the ruler of the kings of the earth. So, a letter written 1,922 years ago to struggling Christians in western Turkey comes to this little congregation of Christ in San Antonio, Texas in 2017 bringing the same blessing to us as it brought to them. It says to them and to us that our God has both the desire and the power to bless and keep his people because he is enthrone above all things.
The letter brings blessing. It comes from the throne of heaven. And it explodes into praise for the greatness of a God who saves those who hate him (one-way love). To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.[xiv]
Why is Jesus to be praised? What difference does it make for me to say that Jesus loves me? John says it makes a difference to my life because of Christ’s finished work. He has freed us from our sins, brought us into his eternal unshakable kingdom. He has made us priests who have direct access into his presence. He has dealt with the guilt of my sin. He has set me free from the reign of sin over my life. When I hated him, he loved me. When Adam was not yet formed because there was not yet any clay from which to fashion him, God knew me and purposed to love me!
If you are trusting into the perfect law-keeping life and sacrificial death of the gloriously-resurrected and ascended Jesus, there was NEVER a time or a circumstance in your life or in all of eternity past in which the great Triune God did not hold you in his heart and purpose to send out the Son to die for you and to seal you with the seven-fold Spirit to carry you through this present evil age and into glory unending!
And there is not simply praise to Jesus for what he has done, but also for what he will do. 7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so [So it shall be]. Amen. [xv]
Christ will bring about a glorious consummation of his work to make all things new and to judge the living and the dead. There is a sense in which every time the Word is faithfully preached, the seven-fold Spirit comes to convict people of their sin. It happened at Pentecost when thousands realized THEY had killed Messiah and wailed for relief and found shalom by trusting into the slain-but-living Lamb.
But here, John is looking forward to that day when those who have spent their lives rejecting Christ see him face-to-face and wail at the hopelessness of their eternal judgment. Beloved, don’t be one of those who will wail on that day. O the morning of those for whom it is too late and have all eternity to wail. Trust him now!
Did you know Satan and Benny Hinn sell the same lie? Both promise power over your finances, power over your health, power to write your own storyline, and power to know the future news cycles of the earth. Why? Because Jesus’ power and sovereign rule over all things is simply not good enough. Christ is not powerful enough to save you in the here and now of life. Their lie is not too much different from the pietist preachers who scold you about having enough passion or performing enough good works to ensure your “final justification.”
But if the most powerful being in the universe, the One who spoke the universe into existence, loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, there is NOTHING left for you to do and no future news headline you need to know to empower you. When Jesus cried out from the cross of Calvary, “It has been finished!” he was not lying. And the only question you need answered today, tomorrow, or 100 years from now is, “Do I trust into Christ?”
This message comes from a God who is able to, and does, provide eternal security. “Why should I trust Jesus?” you may ask. I’ll let Jesus answer that: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” [xvi] Trouble is coming. And the question is not who are YOU, but who is God. He is the Great I AM present in the midst of your struggling marriages, your broken relationships, in the sexual abuse you still struggle to comprehend and overcome, in your debts and poverty, in the rejection of former friends and present family, in every tragedy yet to come in your life.
Your God is the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty with whom all things are possible – even the most horrible, and deeply personal tragedies of your life. Even when a church full of broken-but-redeemed sinners just like you tries to help you in your pain and fails, the Almighty will never leave you or forsake you. When others fail to love you as they ought, he has loved you with an everlasting love – even to death on a cross and through resurrection from the grave.
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? [xvii]
The blessing of Revelation is Jesus himself. May you rest in him alone.
[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:4–8.
[ii] Richard D. Phillips, Reformed Expository Commentary: Revelation (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2017), 16-18.
[iii] Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Book of Revelation, vol. 20, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 81.
[iv] Ferguson, A Greeting to Die For: Rev. 1:4-8. Accessed 9/29/17 at: https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-052707am
[v] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 45.
[vi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:11.
[vii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:4–5.
[viii] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 45–46.
[ix] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:4.
[x] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Is 11:2.
[xi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:5.
[xii] Ferguson, op, cit.
[xiv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:5–6.
[xv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:7.
[xvi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 1:8.
[xvii] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Ro 8:31–32.