In what areas in your life do you cling to people and other kingdoms more than Jesus, the Person of Truth?
November 9, 2023
Speaker: Dustin Scott
Passage: Revelation 1:4-20
Are you ready to be back in the book of Revelation? If I’m honest with you, we will probably interpret about two-thirds of one verse today. There’s a lot here to unpack.
I want to remind us where we’re at. St. John is identified as John the Apostle by many church fathers, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and many others. For that reason, we’re going to adopt the same perspective that John of Patmos is St. John the Apostle.
He’s writing a divinely inspired letter and prophecy to the seven churches of Asia Minor, what we would know as modern-day Turkey. John’s exile on the regional island of Patmos signified the growing antagonism between the Roman imperial cult and the Christian faith. What do I mean by that?
At this time, the emperor of Rome claimed to be a divine being, a son of the gods. Christians knew that this claim was blasphemous. The emperor’s escalating claims constituted an affront to the Christian recognition of Jesus as the only supreme and sole Lord of the heavens and the earth.
We can date John’s letter reasonably to sometime between 85 and 95 AD. There’s some variation in scholarship on that, but that seems to be a fair guess. It was a time under the reign of Emperor Domitian.
In this passage, St. John is about to fall on his face as though dead in worship before the glory of Jesus. I want that to be at the forefront of our context here. The scriptures are going to unveil this threefold title for our King in this passage: that He’s the faithful witness, that He’s the firstborn of the dead, and that He’s the ruler of kings of the earth. That’s what we’re going to be unpacking this morning.
We’re going to ask, how are we, as His church, to respond to the glory of our Lord? The same way St. John did, falling on our faces in worship and obedience. Before I get going too far, we should probably read the passage. Let’s stand to read the scriptures together.
I’m going to read Revelation 1:4-19. 4. It says, “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, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests serving His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. So it is to be. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’ I, John, your brother who shares with you the persecution and the Kingdom and the endurance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’ Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning, I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands, I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and His hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire; His feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and from His mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. But He placed His right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last and the Living One. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this.”
Holy Spirit, You’re the guide, and You’re the teacher. I remember the stark and haunting warning that comes later in this book to anyone who adds or takes away. Lord, don’t allow me to add or take away from your Word this morning. Don’t let us add or take away as we study it, but reveal Your truth. We go back to verse one, that this is a revelation of You. Show us Your truth, lead us, and guide us. If anything is said this morning that doesn’t come from You let it be forgotten. We give You praise and honor and glory and dominion, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go into verse five, “From Jesus, the anointed one, the faithful witness.” I want to take us back to the culture and the context in which this passage was written. The Greek word in the New Testament for “a witness” is where we get the modern English term “martyr” from. A martyr is a believer who testifies to the truth of Jesus, even at the loss of their own life.
We know what a believer who’s witnessing God’s truth looks like. Now, what I find confusing about this passage is it does not describe us as Christ’s witness. It’s saying of Him, He is the faithful witness. What does it mean for God to be a faithful witness? I think it’s within reasonable understanding to say He could be witnessing the things that are, the things that were, and the things that are to come as eternal God. I think that’s a fine interpretation. But I think it goes deeper than that. As we explore this title, “faithful witness,” what is Jesus witnessing
within Israelite culture?
Verifiable truth and high-stakes legal cases required the eyewitness testimony of more than two persons. Earlier this week, Pastor Kelly, our Kids Pastor, was hit on the way back from church. They were rehearsing for this Sunday morning, and her car was rear-ended. Please pray for her. She’s doing well, but her neck is a little injured, so we should keep lifting her up in prayer. She’s here this morning like a faithful servant.
We know that when this accident happened, the police showed up, and what’s the first thing they did after getting everyone safe? They figured out what happened. How did they do that if there wasn’t a camera? They asked witnesses. We know complex situations have a lot of nuance and detail that can be lost.
The statement “faithful witness” alludes to Hebrew and numerology, where the number two signifies the unarguable truth corroborated by two or more valid witnesses. If you want context to that, go to Deuteronomy chapter 17:6-7. For testimony to be considered truthful or credible, you needed more than two persons who were there to see it. St. John is going to do something incredible. In this passage, he’s going to quote from the prophet Daniel.
St. John is drawing from Daniel’s vision. In Daniel’s vision, he sees two figures. One is called the Ancient One or the Ancient of Days. His hair is white as wool. He is seated on a throne that is surrounded by fire. Yet another figure enters into this vision, a messianic figure, which is one like the Son of Man, who’s given glory, dominion, and power over the rulers of the earth.
St. John is going to take these two figures from Daniel’s prophecy, and he is going to fuse them together as one in Jesus. He has hair as white as wool. He has eyes like a flame of fire. What is he accomplishing by doing that? He’s saying to us that Jesus is both of these figures. He is the Ancient of Days. He is also the messianic human figure termed the Son of Man.
What’s the first truth we can expose here? Jesus is fully God, the Ancient One, and fully man. As God and as a human being, He is one and the other at the same time. He’s taking Daniel’s vision and shifting it as He has this revelation from the Lord. Likewise, when we understand this vision and the context of the statement, “faithful witness,” the other thing that St. John is doing is telling us Jesus is the truth, which is witness to God, and He’s also the one who witnesses to the truth as the Son of Man, the Messiah.
We see this mysterious Christological and Trinitarian logic. It is placed elsewhere in the New Testament, like in John 8:18, when Jesus says, “I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” It’s also in John 15:26, “But when the Helper comes whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me.”
How are we to apply this concept, this title that He’s the faithful witness? How are we, as His followers supposed to look to Him as Lord in light of this truth? Jesus is going to tell us in John chapter 14, which according to our interpretive lens is written by the same author. Jesus says, “Here I am, the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me.” Are you guys okay if I get a little bit theological here?
If we look at some of the scriptures, we find that for all eternity, Jesus Christ, the infinite Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, gazed upon the truth revealed, residing both within Himself, the will of the Father, and the spiration of the Holy Spirit. With all those things in mind, we can intuit that Jesus is the source, foundation, and aim of all truth. I’ll put it more simply: Jesus is truth itself. You can’t find it outside of Him. That’s why He’ll say of Himself, I am the only truth, and my truth is the only way.
If Jesus is both the person of truth and the faithful witness to the truth, that means He alone gets to decide what is true and what is not as the faithful witness. All attacks upon truth in our beliefs or in our actions are ultimately a revolt and a rebellion against Him. Do you guys remember the unchanging method of the enemy in Genesis three? Did God really say that? Does he really go after anything other than truth? Why is he so after truth?
Could it be because he’s jealous and hateful towards the Eternal Word of God? I think we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that there’s a cosmic war between truth and falsity and that there is no neutral place between them. This speaks to our behavior and what we live out. Do we practice truthfulness, or do we practice falsehood? Are we honest, or do we exaggerate? Are we equitable towards others or prejudiced against others? Are we humble? Are we hypocritical? Are we transparent? Are we manipulative? Do we bear valid witness to others, or do we like to practice false testimony against others?
This also speaks to our beliefs. Do we abide by God’s truth regarding things like Christian doctrine, human identity, God’s design, relationships, and what God has to say about sexuality? Do we listen to Jesus on issues surrounding marriage, family, child raising, divorce, and separation? I’m not being glib here. I’m not saying issues aren’t complex and full of suffering and difficulty, as a person who’s even experienced these difficulties myself.
What I’m saying is we have to go back to the scriptures. We have to go back to Jesus and St. Paul and figure out what is true here. This speaks to our wealth and our generosity, our service to our fellow Christians and the poor in all of our spiritual perspectives and practices.
We live in an era and in a culture where the denial of truth is everywhere. It seems like there’s no truth in the public square. Postmodernism is a near neighbor to paganism, and I don’t think that surprises God, so we shouldn’t freak out about it. What do those people who are living in falsity out there need? They need Jesus. They need the truth. That’s our mission. The much more alarming thing is that much of the Western Church has bought into a lie that you can have a relationship with God without living in alignment with truth, and that is much more dangerous than whatever the world is doing.
There’s a haunting reality in Revelation 22:15 where many of those cast out of the New Jerusalem are referred to as those who love to live a lie. So, if truth is a person, and His name is Jesus, how do we engage in the truth? How do we receive the truth? How do we live the truth? We live in the truth by engaging in a relationship with Him. We partake of His mercy and we repent of those places where we’re living in falsehood. We hear His voice in prayer, and we obey what He says. We read and study His truths in Scripture. We consult the wisdom of His body by going to other believers and saying, “I’m struggling with this,” or, “I’m dealing with this, can you help me find God’s perspective?” We consult the wisdom of the historical church too. Most importantly, we permit Jesus to rewrite all of our broken patterns of thought, desire, and behavior.
He is so merciful and so kind. He is so ready to lead us in all truth. But we can’t embrace the King if we’re not prepared to embrace the truth. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth. If we’re set against the truth, we’re set against Him. If we’re for the truth, we’re for Him and there isn’t any middle ground between those two positions.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and a lot of historical Christian heresies, like the Aryan movement in the patristic era, have loved to manipulate this passage and go, guess what, Jesus wasn’t the first person to be raised from the dead. I guess he’s not all that special, right? Wrong.
But how are we going to interpret it? How is He first if He wasn’t the first to be resurrected? Well, I will give us the cliff notes of my hall of fame of scriptural resurrections. If we go to 1 Kings 17, Elijah raised the son of a widow from Zarephath. I love this very odd, mysterious story from Second Kings 13, where a dead guy falls into the grave of Elijah. He touches his bones, and then he suddenly comes blasting out of the hole. Isn’t that bizarre? Jesus raises several children and teenagers throughout His earthly ministry. Lazarus is famously resurrected from the dead. The Pharisees are instantly like, let’s kill them. Can you imagine coming back from the dead and the first thing someone says is let’s kill you? This is probably my absolute favorite, at the death of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. It seems like graves were exploding everywhere, and dead guys were walking around all over the place.
Can you imagine being like, “Hey, good to see you again? I thought you were dead. I went to your funeral, and you looked pretty dead. But here you are again.”
To understand this title, “firstborn of the dead,” we have to understand the cultural, historical, and scriptural context behind it. I’m going to give us two viewpoints that I think are valid. I tend to side with the second, but they’re both good.
Viewpoint one. Within Israelite culture, a firstborn son was accorded a b’korah. That means a double portion of their family’s inheritance. Understood from within the Jewish worldview, the title “firstborn” could simply mean “the preeminent” or the most important person to be raised from the dead. That could be a possible viewpoint.
Viewpoint two. If we go to the apostle Paul, he describes the bodies of our present life as perishable. The technical term here means corrupt, decaying, or unto death. I want to give us a newsflash. All of the formerly mentioned persons who were raised from the dead eventually died. The healing they received was temporary, and it didn’t prevent their eventual death.
Maybe we felt that tension before in our life as believers where it’s like, “Yeah, God has miraculously healed me. He took an ailment or a sickness out of my life. But then the haunting feeling comes back. I’m still going to die one day unless He comes back before then.”
Jesus is the only person to have yet received an immortal, imperishable body. According to Scripture, this resurrection body is quite remarkable. It does a lot of incredible things. It’s earthly and tangible. It shares food with the disciples in Luke 24. It bears scars capable of being touched, thank goodness for Thomas, in John chapter 20, verse 27.
Yet this body is also transfigured and supernatural. It’s incapable of being embraced by earthly bodies. We find that in John, where Jesus tells the female witnesses to the resurrection, “don’t embrace me because I haven’t yet gone to the Father.” That’s one of the statements that I just don’t understand the connection here. We have John 20:19, where this redeemed resurrection body passes through walls and physical barriers. The disciples have the doors locked in the house they’re hiding in, and suddenly, Jesus shows up in the middle of it and says hello.
Last but not least, Paul will say in First Corinthians 15 that this body does not consist of perishable blood and flesh, which gives Greg a lot of fodder for his theory that we’re going to look like Optimus Prime at the resurrection. But all fun aside, the resurrection was the history-shaping event in which human nature was definitively and eternally transformed in the person of Jesus. Lazarus did not dine on bread after supernaturally walking through walls. Jesus alone, at this point, has passed into an imperishable life. The most beautiful thing of all is these examples are the future that awaits us. The resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come in the new heavens and the new earth.
How do we practically apply this title, this truth, “the firstborn of the dead?” If we go back to our three lenses for Revelation — the heavenly lens, the earthly lens, and the Jesus lens — according to the heavenly lens, we as believers must believe in and worship Jesus as the conquering Messiah who physically rose from the dead.
There are a lot of religious and spiritual movements that go, “I’m okay with the resurrection as long as it’s a symbol or a metaphor for things dying and coming back to life.” But St. Paul disagrees. He says that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is worthless. The resurrection cannot just be viewed as a symbol or a metaphor. The grave was empty because Jesus walked out of it. According to the heavenly lens, Jesus has also not ceased to be human.
St. John sees Him, and He’s like a son of man. Hebrews four will say, as our Great High Priest, He continues to share in our nature while having compassion on our weaknesses and sufferings. He doesn’t just understand us as God. He understands us as fellow human beings. He stands before the Father as a human being for you.
According to the heavenly lens, Jesus is our forerunner, even in death. That means from our earthly perspective, we can trust His leadership, wherever He sends us. If He sends us into comfort, peril, suffering, mortal danger, or even death, we can trust Him because He’s gone before us. He will deliver us into resurrection life, and no temporary threat can rob us of the inheritance we have in Him.
The last title I want us to execute this morning is the title of the Ruler of kings of the earth. In Greek, it says “Archon’ of the kings of the earth. The word “Archon” that St. John uses for Jesus’ lordship is very interesting and significant because the archons of old were different than ancient kings. They were magistrates within the Greek city-states. They were charged with organizing and overseeing judicial and religious matters. They would arrange festivals, they would guide the social and political life of the city, and they would judge high-profile matters.
Jewish writers would later adopt this term to bespeak priests and officials within the temple system. We can view Archons more through the lens of their role as organizers and judges. Jewish apocalyptic literature and Gnostic mythologies are going to go nuts with this idea of Archon. If you like reading esoteric things at night to go to sleep or to stay awake like I do, you can always go check that stuff out.
This speculation was often wild-eyed and diluted. The scriptures will teach that both earthly and angelic principalities — righteous and wicked — do wield real influence on the earth. But the better news is that Christ is sovereign over all earthly and heavenly powers. Nothing happens, whether in the earthly realm or the angelic realm, without His authorization, His organization, or His allowance. He is Lord over all.
Why is this reality so important for us as the church to understand? How are we to live under His Lordship? St. Paul is going to tell the Church at Philippi that we’re citizens of heaven. Has anyone ever heard that statement before? We’re citizens of heaven. Our citizenship is in heaven. It is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
You guys have heard me yammer on about the three worlds in the Bible. The first world is the history, the culture, that context. The second world is the language. What’s going on in the original language? What genre of writing is this? The last world is the world in front of the Bible. That’s where we’re living. How are the scriptures speaking to us today? The world in front of the Bible, our American culture, makes us especially prone to misinterpreting this concept of Archon and Paul’s statement that we’re citizens of Heaven and the United States.
Does anyone remember middle school social studies class, where we learned about these boats of eager immigrants sailing past Ellis Island in search of a new homeland and the United States? St. Paul’s understanding of citizenship didn’t look anything like American culture. His background was in the Roman imperial world, where citizenship was not a universal privilege. It was a system chiefly aimed at preserving and protecting the interests of the empire. I can almost hear Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars as I say that sentence.
Philippi was a Roman colony where imperial authorities stationed retired citizens and soldiers within colonies like Philippi for two reasons. The first one is you don’t want to bring back a bunch of battle-hardened veterans to your capital city. They might overthrow the government if they’re not happy — and from time to time, that did happen. The second reason is this. The presence of Roman citizen-soldiers within the colonies and occupied territories of the Empire ensured the values, interests, and order of the Empire were being observed within these realms. That happened in Judea within the Gospels.
When Paul calls us citizens of heaven, he isn’t saying to us, hold on, wait up, the departing flight for Heaven is almost here, and we can grab our bags and take off to our new homeland. That is precisely the opposite of what he’s saying. He is arguing that God has placed you here as a Heavenly citizen within this culture as an occupying force. You’re to bear His name, you’re to carry His insignia, you are to be transformed by His nature, and you’re to advance His interests until His imperial return at the end of the age.
From the earthly lens, Christ’s status is Archon of the rulers of the earth. This idea we get from Paul that we’re citizens of Heaven protects us from two dangerous tendencies that sometimes live within the church. The first one is idolatry. We live under the same threat of idolatry and apostasy that existed in the early church. The Roman colonies were adorned with buildings, statues, and images reminding the people that the emperor claimed to be a god. He wants you to view Him as the ultimate source of peace and provision.
The early Christians knew this was blasphemy. Only Jesus is that. Within our 21st-century context, whenever we place our faith, our reverence, our hopes, and anxieties in earthly systems of government, we are at great risk of spurning Christ as the sole source of peace and provision and dangerously teetering towards making an idol in the place that only He properly lives in.
The second danger is dishonor. When we see it as our job to rebel against or usurp the authorities that God has placed over us — whether that’s in our family, our society, our workplaces, or our political structure — we’re at risk of opposing what only He has authority to organize and to judge. John is reminding his readers — these are readers who are likely facing martyrdom — without apology that all rulers, whether they be Domitian, Nero, Trajan, dare I say, Biden, Sunak, Putin, and whether these rulers realize it or not, they are under Christ. They are accountable to Him.
As we find out later in Revelation, they will be judged by Him. That isn’t our job. It’s His. I’m not calling us to be socially or politically apathetic. I don’t want to throw stones at our Anabaptist and Amish brothers who stay back from voting and participating in social functions. I think we, as citizens of Heaven, are to represent Christ’s truth from within our culture. Like Paul, we can use our citizenship as he did in Acts 22 and 25 to advance His gospel in His Kingdom.
We should seek change, we should vote, and we should participate in the earthly process that God has placed around us. As long as we’re guided by God’s voice and scriptural truth, that’s not the problem. The problem is this. Where is our trust? Are we idolatrously trusting in politicians, political parties, social movements, and our worldly systems of government to give us the peace, power, and provision that only Christ can?
This is a little bit self-indicting, but are we addicted to the news? I repent for that one. Are our emotions reeling from the happenings of national or world politics? You could ask my wife if I sometimes fail that one too. Does our American identity ever take precedence over our equality with our Christian identity? If so, it’s a friendly reminder to us and me, or perhaps a Heavenly reminder, to get our eyes off the wrong kingdoms and get them back on to Him.
He is the Archon over every authority and the supreme provider of all, not Caesar. Stop being distracted. I say over and over to myself, “Stop being distracted by earthly kingdoms. We belong to His.” St. John and St. Paul are urging us, dare I say, pleading with us to be faithful and pure. We’re to be focused on His lordship. We’re to obey and advance the interests of our King. We are to refuse the twofold distractions of idolatry and dishonor, trusting that Jesus did know what He was doing when He put us here.
Last, but not least, we’re to represent Him by upholding His values, exemplifying His character, and carrying His nature within our culture. Until He, in the words of the Nicene Creed, comes to judge both the living and the dead. If I can add, unlike these kingdoms out here, His Kingdom will have no end.
We made it through two-thirds of the verse. Would you guys stand with me? I’d love to pray over you.
Jesus, You’re the only Lord. You’re the only Savior. You’re the only wise God. Lord, would You put our focus back on You? That’s easy to say on a Sunday morning. It’s a lot more difficult to say on a Monday morning. Would you put our focus back on You?
Lord, we know that You’re the Prince of Peace. You’re the creator of all, and there’s no provision or peace that You cannot give us. Lord, as we step into these three full titles, we worship You as the faithful witness to the truth, the conquering King over the dead, and the only Ruler of the rulers of this world. God, we lift up our city and our culture. Bring the knowledge of You to those who surround us. Keep us focused on what You want us to be doing. Help us to use the tools and mechanisms of our society that You’ve given us to advance Your gospel. Most of all, purify our hearts and draw us back to our first love. You are the only wise God. You are the only truth. We honor You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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