Sermon for Sunday April 28th, 2019, the First Sunday after Easter
The Lessons: Psalm 150; Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31
The Text: Revelation 1:4-8
The Topic: Jesus Christ the True and Faithful Witness
Two frogs fell into a tub of cream. The one looked at the high sides of the tub which were too difficult to crawl over and said, “It is hopeless.” So he resigned himself to death, relaxed and sank to the bottom. The other one determined to keep swimming as long as he could. “Something might happen,” he said. And it did. He kept kicking and churning, and finally he found himself on a solid platform of butter and jumped to safety.
– p. 294, Robert J. Morgan: Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
This may appear to be an implausible story, but it illustrates the reward of perseverance by one of the frogs. Faithful perseverance is a theme of the Christian way of life. On my Confirmation certificate, a verse from Revelation 2 was printed, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10c).
In this Eastertide, as we remember the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and give thanks and praise to God for this, it is appropriate that today’s Lesson appointed for the Epistle inspires Christian perseverance and faithfulness by setting before us the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the prospect of His Second Coming.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
The Book of the Revelation of St. John contains a great deal of symbolism and prophecy of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the events closely preceding it.
Like Jewish Apocalyptic literature, the Revelation of St. John, the only example of Christian apocalyptic literature that was approved as part of the New Testament Canon, contrasts the present age to the age which is to come. The purpose and power of this Apocalypse remains important to us today, since the time in which it was likely to have been written, around A.D. 95, was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96), in which the persecution of Christians was particularly intense. The Roman Empire was no longer seen by Christians as their ally against persecution by the Jews, but as itself an agent of persecution. St. John, whether he was the Apostle or another St. John, was exiled to Patmos on account of his testimony to the Lord Jesus, and church tradition has it that after the death of Domitian, he was allowed to return to Ephesus, and committed the Book of Revelation to writing (Victorinus and Eusebius).
The purpose of the Book of Revelation is to show the Church the events destined to happen in the end times, preceding and following the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Part of that purpose was the sending of prophetic messages to seven principal churches in the Roman province of Asia. Though these particular messages were for churches at a particular time near the end of the first century A.D., they are still valuable today, since they reveal churches with distinct faults and strengths that are still encountered in many churches today, and the messages of God for each of them are still relevant to churches today.
REVELATION 1:4-8: GOD’S MESSAGE AND THE POWER BEHIND IT
After briefly stating the content and purpose of the Book of Revelation, St. John identifies himself as the bearer of this message to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 1:4). The greeting is given by God – and it is a greeting of grace and peace from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come. The description of God as He who is and who was, and who is to come, reminds us of God’s revelation of himself to Moses in the burning bush on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 3). He is the God who has always existed, continues to exist, and always will exist. It is important for all Christians to know and realize that despite their trials, and all the oppression and persecution they might suffer, God is always there for them. Every government or regime will have its day, but in the course of time give way to something different. It was vital also for the receivers of this message to know that this Revelation was not man-made, not invented by any man, but came straight from God. The message of the Book of Revelation proceeds not only from God the Father, the Almighty, but also from the Holy Spirit, described here as the “seven spirits which are before the throne of God,” and from Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness, the first-begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5, KJV). Some scholars believe the seven spirits are the seven archangels of the presence of God, whereas others believe the reference is to the seven aspects or gifts of the Holy Spirit suggested in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 11:2, which lists the attributes of the Spirit of the Lord as wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and the fear of God.
The Lord Jesus Christ is described in three ways that encourage and strengthen the Church’s faith.
Firstly, Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5a). In his extreme trials, he remained faithful in his witness to his identity and to the fact that God had sent him to earth. St. Paul refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as one who remains faithful, even if we are unfaithful (2 Tim. 2:13). Again, in Rev. 3:14, in the description of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Message to Laodicea, he is described as the “Amen, the Faithful and True Witness” (NKJV). In circumstances in which Christians were finding it hard to persevere, remain faithful and be reliable witnesses, they needed to be reminded of their Lord as the faithful and true witness.
Secondly, Jesus Christ is “the firstborn from the dead” (Rev. 1:5b, NKJV). In a time when Christians suffered martyrdom, it was important to remember they were in the care and keeping of Jesus, the first one to rise from the dead, and the one who gives them eternal life. St. Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20, NKJV).
Thirdly, Christ is described as the Prince (KJV), or Ruler (NKJV) of the kings of the earth. This was a timely reminder that all earthly rulers, no matter how extensive their dominions, are subject to the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.
As is often the case in prophetic and apocalyptic literature, the speaker changes perspective – instead of relaying God’s message to the Church, he expresses the Church’s thanksgiving and praise to the Lord Jesus Christ for his redeeming labor of love in loosing us from our sins by his own sacrifice, and making us kings and priests to his God and Father. To Christ he ascribes glory and dominion forever (Rev. 1:5c-6). Especially during times of trial and persecution, the faithful must remember all that the Lord Jesus Christ has done for them by dying on the cross to reconcile them to God, and so leading them to adoption as God’s children, appointing them a kingdom, and making them priests, who will offer to God continually their prayers and praises, together with their whole lives.
CHRIST’S SECOND COMING
Suddenly, after this ascription of praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, the speaker proclaims the prophetic prediction of the Lord’s Second Coming (Rev. 1:7), and the fact that all people will see him come, and the nations of the world will mourn because of him, an event predicted by the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 12:10-14). The theme of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is sounded here as an encouragement to the faithful to stand firm, remain faithful, and endure to the end. As a guarantee of the truth of this prediction, God adds the statement:
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
(Rev. 1:8, KJV)
Alpha and Omega, being the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, this statement means that God holds all things in his control, and rules all things, and nothing is beyond his knowledge or rule. In fact, the term translated by “the Almighty” is better translated as “the Ruler of all things”.
We learn from all this that God gives his grace and peace to the whole Church, and that we must stand firm, being faithful and true witnesses as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, since He rules even the rulers of the earth, and to Him all people will one day have to give account, when He comes again to judge the living and the dead.