These letters that John, the beloved Apostle of Jesus, wrote have hidden truths to the seven churches that carry a very poignant message for the people of God today and for Vintage. It is our responsibility to listen and act on this message.
October 19, 2023
Speaker: Greg Sanders
Passage: Revelation 1:1-4
If you haven’t been with us through a book study, we study the scriptures book by book, verse by verse. I truly believe that is the right way to study scripture. I think all scripture is God-breathed because that’s what it says. All scripture is capable of growing us, reproving us, and helping us become like Him.
When we study the scriptures systematically, we force ourselves into the lens of the scripture. We let the scriptures lead us instead of forcing ourselves into what I would call fun topics. As we do this, we let go of the ability to be pop-sensitive, and it’s less Instagrammable.
I love the discipline because it lets the scriptures govern us, and we just submit ourselves to the text. The good stuff, the bad stuff, the ugly stuff, the hard stuff, we are going to study it all. We’ll go through every word in the book of Revelation together as a family. If you want to know how long that takes, stick around till it’s over. That’s how long it’ll take. We did the book of Luke for six years. We’re a little faster now. But speed is not the concern. The concern for me is that we are students of the text, we’re taught by the scriptures, and we’re governed by the scriptures.
I would love to have a conversation about what it means to be a family and study the scriptures. It doesn’t mean we show up on Sunday and somebody’s done the work to study for us. It means that we, together, are going through the scriptures. Here’s my request: read the book of Revelation, reread the book of Revelation, read it, and go through it.
When something else in Scripture comes to mind, go study it. Let’s sit down and ask the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us in this study. Our responsibility as the family of God is to study well together. Part of that challenges us to let go of what I would call a cultural norm in America. That is when we pick a church based on whether it works for us. I don’t think that’s the biblical idea at all.
We’re going to look at seven letters to seven different churches. In the early church, Jesus talks specifically to local churches. He doesn’t say to any of them, you in Smyrna, it’s kind of a lousy church, you should go to Philadelphia. He talks specifically to them about where they live and who they are. And I think it’s important that we understand that part of going through this is to realize this is where the Lord’s planted us. If you don’t know if the Lord has planted you in this house, then you should ask the Lord. I totally respect the decision. If this isn’t the place you’re supposed to be, praise God, find it.
I want us to be rooted and grounded in a local community. The scripture says iron sharpens iron, and there’s no sharpening without commitment. What we have in the American church that concerns me is a tendency to bail out when someone tries to sharpen us. That’s why we have a bunch of dull knives running around. How many have ever tried to cut a tomato with a dull knife? It’s bad for the tomato and the cutter. We need to be sharpened. Part of that happens by being rooted and grounded in a community of faith where we build relationships and people know us well enough that they can speak to things in our lives.
That doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over time. It’s one of the things we’re going to see in the book of Revelation.
Welcome to the book of Revelation. Let’s dig in. If you have your Bibles, get them out. We’re going to be in chapter one. I would love for you to take notes, especially today. Today is going to be what I would call foundational teaching with lenses for how we’re going to look at this book. It’s important that you know the perspective to look at it.
I want to set some objectives and some lenses for our study because Revelation is a book that comes with much fanfare. If I’m honest, I think it’s one of the most misunderstood and poorly interpreted books in the scriptures, and that is not a new thing. The book of Revelation was almost removed from the canon and not allowed in the canon because of the propensity of people to get goofy when they study it.
This dates back to the first, second, third, and fourth centuries of the church. There was this tendency for everyone to look into Revelation for the secret meanings and the hidden stuff. For that reason, they almost didn’t allow it in the canon because they felt like it led people to weirdness.
I want to warn us that that’s been a historical thing and challenge us not to let it happen. In order to do that, we need to let go of preconceived understandings. What does it mean to let go of our preconceived understandings? It just means I’m going to come to this study neutral. I’m not going to say I know the answers. Am I saying what you know about the scriptures wrong? Not at all. I’m saying, how about we study the scriptures without an interpretive lens applied to it before we get there.
This means I didn’t come from a Bible college that told me which bent to study it. I’m asking you to let go of those things, regardless of which faith gatherings you’ve been in before and how it was taught. We’re going to study the text the way the text was given and find out what it says. We’re going to have the courage to ask questions and say, “I don’t know,” when we don’t know.
Here’s my promise: I won’t give you an answer if I don’t know it. I’ll just say, “I don’t know.” That doesn’t mean we will work hard. If you don’t know our study process here, we have a study team that gets together. There are about 16 of us who get together to study the scriptures together. In that room, everybody is equal. I’m not the grand pooh-bah of anything. We study the scriptures and ask what’s in it.
Then it moves from there to a communication team, which is a little bit more refined and consists of people who have had a history of communicating the scriptures. Those teachings are built, then submitted to that room. That room says, “We wouldn’t say that. That’s bad.” It’s a really fun process.
Because of that, it’s been well-vetted. Our promise as a team is we’re not going to make it up. If we don’t know, we’re not going to Google to get answers. If you want to get goofy, Google, “What does Revelation mean?”
We let go of our preconceived understandings. We study with our minds and our hearts open to the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us. I cannot stress enough that the right way to study the scriptures is to say, “Holy Spirit, You’re the guide, You’re the teacher, will You lead us? Reveal what needs to be revealed. Will You protect what needs to be protected?”
Often, the leaning of interpretation for Revelation is past or present or future. I think that’s wrong. I want to state that upfront. Revelation deals with the past, the present, and the future. Jesus makes a statement in it that I think we would be wise and we would do well to consider. He says, I was, I am, and I am to come. He reveals Himself as the one who was, is, and is to come. He’s dealing with past, present, and future.
Perhaps we look at the book and realize the book deals with past, present, and future. That might also help us. It’s wise not to assume everything’s past or everything’s present or everything’s future.
I have some objectives for us, and I would love for you to write these down. My first objective is to understand the historicity of the text. It means this is what was going on in the culture. Who was it written to? What was happening in the world at the time? Are there any intentional messages or things we need to know? We look at it from a historical perspective first and how it fits into history.
Secondly, we cannot apply anything in Revelation to our lives without first understanding how the original hearer would have heard it and how they would have applied it. It doesn’t mean we can’t extrapolate fresh meaning that the Holy Spirit has whispered. We just cannot do that until we’ve had the discipline to study the text in its origin. There’s a word for that. It’s called hermeneutics. I spent a lot of money and time in Bible college, and I went through classes called hermeneutics. It was the discipline of how we study the scriptures.
If you just grab a Bible, you can pretty much make it say anything you need it to say. If you don’t know how to study the scriptures correctly, it’s easy to get them to say things that aren’t there. Again, don’t Google, it’s really weird.
We’re going to study the historical aspect of the scriptures. We’re going to lock ourselves into a contextual idea. What it meant to them is our first lens, then we can ask, how do we apply that?
The third thing I want us to do is to consider Revelation as a very real and relevant message for the church today, not just a message about what is to come. It’s relevant for the church now. I will tell you, I believe these letters to the seven churches. In every single one of those letters, there is something that we need to pay attention to. I think there’s a poignant message for the people of God at large and the people of God at Vintage.
While we are a part of the body of Christ, we are also a local tribe, intended by the Lord to live and dwell together. Those are the objectives and lenses we will use in this study. How many have ever taken pictures and used cameras before? How many know that you can get a different image with a different lens? Filters? They help you see. If you want to see the Milky Way, some lenses will get you there, but your iPhone won’t.
I want to give us some lenses as we study. The first one is the heavenly lens. Revelation reveals the culture of heaven. If we study it this way, we are going to begin to see things about the culture of heaven. We’ll see what is going on in heaven currently that will help us know how to worship and pray differently. It’ll help us understand the authority of our King differently. Right now, while we’re here on earth, there is a culture happening in heaven. Revelation helps give us a picture of it.
The second is the earthly lens. Revelation reveals the climate of the church and how she handles what she’s facing. This unveiling will teach us and correct us and show us how we process our own difficulties and situations. What I mean by that is when Jesus speaks to the seven churches, he’s talking specifically to things they’re facing in real-world time and how they’re responding, which tells me he cares about how we face what we’re facing and how we respond.
We can look back through the things He said to them and learn from them so we can apply them to where we’re going now. I would caution us that 2024 is going to be a difficult year for the people of God. This isn’t a Beware the Ides of March. This isn’t some kind of foreboding; it’s a reality. We’re living in an incredibly charged geopolitical climate coming into an election year. We have to know, as the people of God, how to speak to stuff correctly, and how to shut up correctly.
The third lens, which for me is the most important lens we’re going to consider, is the Jesus lens. It doesn’t get talked about enough in my opinion. It’s rare that we hear instantly connected to the study of Revelation that we see Jesus in a different light. We see more of Him and know more about Him, but Revelation reveals the impact of Jesus Christ and humanity’s response to His disruption of earthly events and His absolute Lordship all the way through.
John is dealing with what happened when this man Jesus came to the earth, when he gave His life on the cross, when He rose again, what began to unfold, and how the unsaved are responding to Him. We’re going to see it through this lens.
Let’s go with historicity here. We’re going to answer five questions. Who wrote it? Where was it written? When was it written? To whom was it written? Why was it written? John, God’s servant, is how he presents himself. A disciple. According to Mark 3:17, he is credited with writing Revelations by most scholars. There are a few scholars who believe it could have been another man named John the Elder, but the lion’s share of scholarship would put this on John, the apostle John.
John has a few names that he goes by, most of them he calls himself, which I think is hilarious. He calls himself the apostle John, John the beloved, John the elder, or the disciple Jesus loved, which feels a little hubris-oriented to me. Can you imagine walking up to the rest of the disciples saying, I’m John, I’m the disciple Jesus loved. Introducing yourself in Target to somebody, Hi, I’m John, the disciple Jesus loved.
While it’s true, all of us can say that I am the disciple Jesus loves, it’s just a weird statement to say. He introduces himself this way. It’s held in historical legend or folklore that John led churches and pastored in Asia Minor. A lot of us don’t know where that’s at. Asia Minor is modern-day Turkey. Here’s another interesting fact: these churches that are written to — the seven churches that are the focus of the book of Revelation — are held within a 120-mile diameter, which is about the diameter that would hold Fort Collins and Cheyenne, Wyoming.
That’s a very small chunk of real estate this book is written to. John was removed or driven out of Asia Minor for his work in ministry and for the way he was preaching about Jesus. He was about 80 years old at the time he wrote this. Have you ever noticed when you sit down with older people, they talk differently than younger people? Not just the words and the syntax, but even what they talk about.
Younger people are often talking about what they want to do and what they think. Older people are talking about what they’ve seen, what they would avoid, and why they wouldn’t do that. There’s a far more intentional pastoral grace with most of them. There are a few broken older people out there who are just critical and negative. But for the most part, it’s interesting.
I had a principal for myself for a while when I was about 29. Every time I found a man who was over 70, I would sit down with him and ask, “Would you be willing to share with me the answer to two questions? What’s your greatest accomplishment? What’s your greatest regret?” I would interview them, and I’m sure they thought I was bizarre. All of them, except for one, said almost identical things. What’s your greatest accomplishment? My family. What’s your greatest regret? I work too much.
I can’t imagine how much I’d have worked if I hadn’t done that exercise. It cautioned me to realize that at the end of their days, all of them said the same thing. I focused on the wrong thing. John is writing from that lens to this young church. He’s seen a lot. He’s been around a bit, and he’s giving them advice. There’s this pastoral care that comes through this letter.
At the time of writing, John is on the island of Patmos. It’s modern-day Greece. Interestingly, when you’re sitting on the island of Patmos, you can see the shore of Turkey. He could see where he was writing. But he couldn’t go there because he had been banished.
Most scholars will place the time of writing somewhere in the mid-80s AD to mid-90s AD. For our narrative, we’re going to land on what is widely accepted somewhere between 85 and 95 AD. It’s probably the ballpark. This was under under the rule of Domitian. If you know anything about the rule of the Roman Emperor Domitian, he was the nastiest of the emperors, specifically towards the church.
He had a hatred for the people of God, one that he had learned about from Nero before him, and he wanted to get rid of them. He had a belief, knowing that he was nearly getting to the end of the lifecycle of the apostles. In fact, at the time of writing, most scholars believe that John was the last apostle alive. Domitian’s concept was, if I can kill John the apostle, Christianity would die because this guy’s the reason people still believe in Jesus.
So what does he do? He poisons him, and it doesn’t work. He gets frustrated, so he has John boiled alive in oil. Oil, when it’s hot and it’s boiling, doesn’t take very long to remove your skin from your body. Domitian drops John into a vat of oil. They pull him out and he’s unscathed. It didn’t work. He doesn’t have any burn marks. There are no blisters, he just has a healthy glow.
Domitian’s next best answer is, maybe if I separate him from the people he loves — I’ll send him to Patmos, I’ll put him under armed guard — he won’t be able to talk to the people he loves. Maybe I can kill off Christianity that way. So he sends him off, and, most scholars believe, John takes his nephew with him.
John begins to write these letters, and his nephew, who is allowed to travel because he isn’t John, can get these letters back and forth. Domitian dies, Trajan becomes emperor, and John comes back to Ephesus. This brings us to our purpose of writing general Revelation to share what Jesus was showing him.
For the churches he was leading, seven churches in Asia, Asia Minor, modern Turkey, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. We’re going to study all seven of these. We’re going to study where they were in the world, why what Jesus said to them was uniquely specific to their location, and the climate of events around them.
Interestingly, they weren’t the biggest churches. They weren’t the only churches. Why does that matter? It tells me something. Our King knows the goings-on of every church. He cares about it. It tells me that what happens in this house matters to Him. The way we follow Him and the way we believe matters to Him. The way we stand in our city matters to Him.
There are a bunch of different themes that are going to come up in Revelation, and I want to call one of them out. We’re going to notice that the number seven show up more times in this book than any other book in scripture. 55 different times that number will show up in this book. Seven is an interesting number in Jewish culture. It’s a number of completion. John uses seven all the way through this book for a purpose because he’s using this book to point to Jesus, and a Jewish reader would understand that seven keeps coming up because it’s this number of perfection or completion.
He’s trying to aim it at Jesus. Why? So that the reader will understand that Jesus is the focus. He’s the beginning. He’s the end. He’s the Alpha. He’s the Omega. He’s the reason. He’s what we’re supposed to be looking at.
What it does is it marks Jesus as a fullness, the totality of perfection, the agent, and the aim of creation. We’ve already talked about the throne room, we’ve talked about where the church on earth is handling herself. We’re talking about Jesus’ effect on humanity.
The last thing that we see that Revelation is going to teach us is the overarching supreme lordship of Jesus. He’s King over everything. That’s John’s point in this.
I’m going to read us some text from Revelation 1:1-2. “This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave Him concerning the events that will happen soon. An angel was sent to God’s servant, John, so that John could share the revelation with God’s other servants. John faithfully reported the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, everything he saw.”
I want to highlight at the beginning where it says, “This is a revelation from Jesus Christ.” In a lot of your Bibles, it’ll say, “This is the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It’s important that we call this out. You might think that seems like no big deal. Is it a revelation or the revelation? It’s a big deal, and here’s why. In the Greek, it doesn’t say that. That’s why it’s important. If we believe this is the revelation of Jesus Christ, all of a sudden, all other revelations of Jesus Christ pale in comparison and fall away.
If it’s a revelation of Jesus Christ, it is what it is. It is something that He is speaking to the church. We can grab onto it and hold it alongside everything else. It is a revelation. This word “revelation” is really, really important. For us, it doesn’t carry the same importance as it would for a Jewish reader. The Jewish reader would understand this word in the Greek, which is “apocalypsis.”
How many know what an apocalypse is? We think of it as foreboding. That’s not how they would have understood it. Apocalyptic literature was a literary style in Jewish culture that they understood. They knew exactly what it was for Ezekiel and Daniel, and it kept going. It was a style of literature that they knew would possess prophetic tendencies. It was going to be speaking about things in the past, present, and future. It was going to have obedience directives in it and how they were to live.
What he’s doing is the same thing he would do if I said to us, “Go get a nonfiction book.” If I tell you to go get a nonfiction book, you know that I’m talking about an actual work of literature that is talking about something real that happened versus a fictionary book, which means you can go read a book that tells a story that might or might not have happened.
All he’s doing is giving them a lens of how to read this book. For us, it should be the same. It’s a prophetic book that’s going to give us things about the past, present, and future and tell us how to live in response to those.
It says that John faithfully reported the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, everything he saw. I want to highlight this and I want to give us some understanding. John saw a vision, and here’s speaking in it. He was shown a picture much like Ezekiel seeing the valley of dry bones.
Can you imagine being Ezekiel translated to a valley of dry bones and you see skeletons start standing up and stuff’s flying on them? And they’re becoming people? How would you explain that? John is seeing things that he has no language for. He’s never seen it before. He’s trying to put language to them.
This is not an interpretive stance. I want to ask you a question. If you had never seen a helicopter, you wouldn’t have known they were possible. You’d never seen mechanized engines before. How would you describe one? How would you explain Facebook to somebody who didn’t know what it was? Through a letter? I could see them, but I couldn’t touch them. I was with them, but they weren’t present.
John’s trying to find language to explain something he doesn’t understand. So for us to consider that, we have to learn to ask questions like, “What was he trying to explain?” He was doing his best to put language to it. We’ll do our best to understand what he was saying.
Revelation 1:3 says, “God blesses the one who reads this prophecy to the church, and He blesses all who listen to it and obey what it says. For the time is near when these things will happen.”
Four things I want to give you out of that. God blesses the communication of this message. He blesses the one who reads the prophecy to the church. A simple truth, but I want us to hold on to it. We are blessed as a family and as a church to read Revelation and to teach it throughout this study. I’m going to read it over us before we study it. Why? Why not pick up a blessing?
I want to challenge you, watch for the blessing, and consider it. Invite that blessing. John Maxwell makes one of my favorite statements. He says, “Your attitude will affect your altitude.” In other words, the way you view things and the way you approach things affects where you go.
What happens if our attitude towards this book is to be blessed? This book contains blessings. I want blessings, Holy Spirit. Invite the blessing of God as we study this book. Do not fear what’s in Revelation; embrace it as a book that brings unique and specific blessings to our lives.
God blesses those who listen to this message. He blesses all who listened to it. I had never seen this before. It’s a really wide net. I love that because it reveals the heart of Jesus towards the earth. He loves to bless, not curse. Consider the fear of apocalypse and judgment that many have approached this book with, in juxtaposition to the truth that Jesus has hardwired blessing into just the act of hearing this book.
I want you to consider that your listening is bringing blessings into your life. I want to challenge you, if you have the Bible app, there’s this cool feature where you can hit the speaker button on the top, and it’ll just read it over you. Throw it in the car, dump the radio, and let Revelation wash over you as you’re driving.
God blesses the following of this message. I love what John says. He blesses all who listen to it and obey what it says. That obedience brings another layer of blessing to this. Often, we’re going to approach Revelation as a book that simply describes what is to come. It’s about future events. It’s not. It is a book that releases what is to be done now for us.
As we approach this book with this understanding, I think what we’re being set up for — and I love this because I love our King — is a triple blessing. What kind of king wants to bless and bless and bless his people? How much does that fly in the face with what we’ve been taught?
He’s looking to get us, He’s waiting for that moment we screw up. Church, that’s not who He is. “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘blessing, not cursing, of future and the hope.'” His heart for us is a blessing. We’re going to study this with that knowledge and that lens.
I want to challenge you to adopt a very Hebrew mindset to this. The idea of listening in Hebrew means to approach it with an attitude to obey. I’m going to approach the Scriptures and what I hear, I’m going to obey. This goes against our very Western mindset, which is, I’m going to listen and see if I think it matters.
While it might be Western, that doesn’t make it right. Last time I checked, we are citizens of Heaven first, which is Hebrew in its origin. Yahweh is Yahweh. Hebrews followed Yahweh. Yahweh trumps that, so come at it with an attitude to hear.
The last thing is that the time is near when these things will happen. What is contained in this book is reality, not conjecture. The best translation of that would be “the time is now” or “the time is nigh.” It means it’s upon us. Whether it has happened or will happen, we’re going to work to discern. The reality is that this book contains truth, not fiction. It’s not some toothless allegory. It’s a revelation of Jesus Christ for His church, originally to the first century, but also to us.
When we learn how to apply what it meant to them, we can apply it to us. I would argue that this is as relevant as our studies of the gospels or studies of Paul’s writings. It’s God-breathed, and it’s of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we can’t dismiss it just because we get confused about the eschatology. “Eschatology” means the study of the times, or what we think is going to happen. Let’s become students of scripture. Let’s let the Holy Spirit lead us. I’m asking you to study the Bible.
Jesus, we love You. What an appropriate phrase. As we look into this book, we see an immediate lens that You are constantly watching and caring for Your church. As we study this, would You lead us and guide us? Would You give us the wisdom and the grace to not just try to figure out what is going on but to know Your heart to be led by You? To come out the other side more in love with You, more committed to You, more rooted and grounded in You and in each other? We love You. We honor You. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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