This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on October 17, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, we desire after you, because we believe that there is something good. We believe that you are good. We believe that you are love, and we believe that we are loved by you. We desire after you, because we love you, and it is part of our desire that our love for you does not become transactional. And if our desire for you is transactional, we pray that you would draw us away from that — that we would not treat our relationship with you as though it is a service.
Instead, Lord, we want to know you and to love you and to have a deep relationship with you, like we do with our close loved ones. We want to walk with you through life the way that we walk with people dear to us. We want to participate with you in your life and have you participate in ours.
I pray, Lord, that whatever it is that we have in our lives that blocks us from that — whatever it is that keeps us from seeing you as a relational God, whatever keeps us from seeing you as a personable God — I pray that you would remove that from us. No matter what it is, no matter how strong it seemed before, no matter how important it seems to what we understand about Christianity or about relationships, Lord — whatever it is that keeps us from knowing you fully and truly — take those things from our lives.
As we look into scripture this morning, Lord, I pray that you would do the same — that whatever it is that we find in scripture that might be blocking us from understanding you, that you would open our hearts and our minds and our eyes and ears to those things so that we can have a humble view of scripture and a humble view of who we are and our knowledge of you and our understanding of things in order to accept whatever teaching you have for us.
We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m going to be in the book of Revelation this morning, and let’s get a couple of things out of the way, just so you know where I’m coming from, because I know that Revelation is a tricky book for a lot of people. There are people who say it’s 100% metaphorical, people who say it’s partially metaphorical, mostly metaphorical, people who say it’s not metaphorical…
I tend to lean into the almost entirely metaphorical sort of position on Revelation. I think the author, John, is having a vision — which he tells us he’s having a vision — and I think that vision is very specifically for the people he’s writing to. That is to say, I don’t think that it’s a vision for us. The vision wasn’t for you and for me. The vision was for these churches in Asia Minor who he lists at the beginning in the first three chapters of the book of Revelation.
The vision is specifically for them in their context, and he calls each of them out in their context, and he uses language that is very specific to them, which we’ll look a little bit out this morning. The reason I point this out now, at the beginning, is because I want you to understand that when we’re approaching Revelation — when we’re approaching whatever it is that John is about to tell “us” — we need to understand that he’s not really speaking to our context. He’s not speaking to your life directly. He’s not writing about your church, your congregation, your community. He’s not writing about your experiences, so whatever we pull from this, we need to make sure that we understand that these things were written to specific people at specific times in specific places, and the language isn’t going to fit our life.
When he writes to the church in Smyrna, he’s not writing to the church in Las Vegas. When he’s writing to the church in Thyatira, he’s not writing to the church in Smyrna. When he’s writing to these congregations, these churches, these cities, Christians in these places, he’s not writing to Christians in the United States or Christians in England or Christians in Africa, and when we look for parallels, we need to understand that we are extrapolating things from this revelation that are resonating with our experiences in this day.
There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what all of scripture is for us, but we need to have that humility to come to scripture and say, “What is it that I can learn from this,” rather than saying, “What is this telling me directly and literally about what I have to do in my life.” Hopefully, we can understand a little bit more about why that’s important, as we go.
In Revelation chapter 1, he mentions seven congregations or seven churches, and when we think about these churches, we need to remember that he’s writing to entire places. He’s not writing like to 1310 Ministries, right? We’re a very small group, even within the context of Las Vegas. When he’s writing to the church in Ephesus, really what he’s writing to are all of the Christians gathered in Ephesus, and that might have been multiple congregations. It might have been multiple households. It might have been multiple different communities within the city.
Some of these cities were really quite large for their day. Some of them were metropolitan and had a lot of influx of merchants and politicians and lots of different faiths and religions, so he’s not just writing to one congregation in Ephesus. He’s not just writing in one congregation in Philadelphia. He’s writing to lots of Christians, all of whom might be worshiping and expressing their faith in different ways, but he lists seven: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea.
To all of these, he writes as though he’s writing from the angel of the Lord, and the reason is because he’s having this vision, and in the vision these things are being dictated to him. In chapter 2, he starts to go in to the specific writings to each of these churches. For example, in chapter 2 and verse 1: to the angel of the church in Ephesus, write this, and the angel gives him instruction to write to the angel of the church. In other words, to the messenger of the church or to the people of the church — whoever’s going to be speaking out. He says,
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.Revelation 1:1-7, NIV
This is the pattern that he uses for all the churches. There’s a little bit of variance if the church has more or less to be said about things he doesn’t like or things he does like, but that’s the general pattern. Write this to the angel of this church, these are the words of him who is speaking to you — and he gives him different titles: the one who holds the seven stars and walks among the seven lampstands, the one who is first and last, who died and came to life again; these are the words of him who has the sharp double-edged sword, and so on. Essentially: Jesus, and he uses all of these different metaphors all throughout.
Here, in the beginning, Jesus is the one who holds the seven stars and walks among the seven lampstands, but a little bit later, a couple chapters from now, Jesus is the lamb who was slain and has seven horns and seven eyes. The metaphor changes as he goes, and that’s really important to understand, because Jesus doesn’t just show up once in Revelation. Jesus shows up over and over and over again in different ways.
That’s part of why I say this is a metaphor. We’re not talking about some literal things that are happening. Jesus isn’t shapeshifting through his vision. Each vision — each section of his vision — comes with something — some sort of instruction from Jesus for these congregations, for these churches.
Notice there’s some things in here he doesn’t explain. The teachings of the Nicolaitans — he doesn’t tell us what that is. We would have to go back in history and search that for ourselves. He mentions it at least twice in these passages to the churches, and then he goes on into other things.
In one place he talks about how they have given themselves over to the teachings of Jezebel, which is a common allusion to the Old Testament. Jezebel is from a story in 1 Kings, and we talked about Jezebel recently when we talked about Elijah and his dealings with her prophets and the things that she was teaching. Obviously, he’s not writing to Jezebel from the Old Testament; she’s dead, but he probably wasn’t writing who had an actual person named Jezebel who was tempting them to sins.
The metaphors continue over and over and over again, and it’s important that we understand this. For example: to the church in Thyatira — this is where we find Jezebel, in verse 20:
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.Revelation 2:20, NIV
Except that if you’ve read the New Testament, you know that way back in the New Testament, Paul already said food sacrificed to idols is nothing. John is writing to a specific people in a specific context, and for them, food sacrificed to idols is not nothing. Whatever is happening here with this woman he calls Jezebel — whatever it is they’re being taught, whatever it is they’re being led to — it’s not nothing for them, so he rebukes them for it, that they have been tempted away to these things, even though Paul says to another people — another group of Christians — you shouldn’t be worrying about whether food is sacrificed to idols. It means nothing, because an idol is nothing.
What John does here, in this revelation, is he tells each of these churches — each of these cities and the Christians in these cities — that the things that they are doing are either good or bad in their context, for them, and he reminds each of them of something that they should be doing and the way in which that’s going to work into their participation with God and what God is doing.
All of the book of Revelation is God doing something. All of the book of Revelation is action being taken by God, whether he’s accusing this group or he’s saving that group or he’s fighting against this apparition — the dragon, the beast, Jezebel, the empire — whatever it is that he is doing, it’s God taking action from context to context. First, God is walking among the lampstands holding the seven stars explaining these things to John, and then God is the lamb of God reading the scroll, and then God is Jesus coming down with the reaping scythe, and so on and so forth — all the way throughout the end where God is coming down in his city and God and the lamb are the light of the city and he describes the city and the invitation of the Spirit and so on.
All of John’s revelation is God taking action, and the call is explicitly to these groups of Christians that they should participate in the action that God is taking. He says it best in that first letter to Ephesus, where he says in verse 4,
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.Revelation 2:4-5a, NIV
The call to repentance isn’t just a call to say, “Oh, we’ve sinned. We’re sorry.” The call to repentance is specifically: you were doing something, and now you’re not doing that thing. All of Revelation is a reminder to these people that God is still doing something and that our ability to participate in what God is doing is what causes us to be counted among the righteous.
That’s the lesson that I want to draw from all of Revelation. That’s the lesson that I think Revelation imparts to us even though it’s not written to us. Every rebuke that he gives to every church in Revelation and then all of the metaphorical examples and the things that happen throughout this vision are all about whether or not people are participating with God, because at the end of all things, God is doing work, and God does all the work, and if they participated — if these seven churches go back to their first love and do the things that they’re supposed to do — then they gain salvation through God.
But, he also rewrites their expectation of what that looks like. For example, in Revelation chapter 4 starting in verse 8, it says,
Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,Revelation 4:8-11, NIV
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
A very kind of epic, exalted view — vision — of God, here. Sitting on the throne, these mythical creatures with ox heads and men’s faces and eagles’ faces and wings and eyes circling the throne shouting holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty and these 24 elders laying their crowns before God’s throne, and then he says in chapter 5 and verse 1,
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.Revelation 5:1-4, NIV
In the midst of this epic vision, nobody there is worthy to open the scroll at the right hand of God’s throne. In verse 5, it says,
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”Revelation 5:5, NIV
And this vision of these epic creatures and this glorious throne and all of these people laying their crowns down before the throne seems like it’s going to culminate in some lion of the tribe of Judah — this Aslan figure, right? This very Chronicles of Narnia sort of massive lion is what we often picture coming down. He’s going to open this scroll. Yet, in verse 6, John looks over, and it says,
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.Revelation 5:6, NIV
Completely anti-climactic, in my opinion. You’ve got these winged, multi-faced, eye-covered creatures circling the throne, all these people bowing down and laying their crowns at the feet of the throne, and the scroll that cannot be opened, and it says one person can: the lion of the tribe of Judah, and he looks at the middle of the throne…and it’s a lamb. And it’s not just a lamb; it’s a dead lamb — a lamb that has been slain — that is now somehow alive. It’s a zombie lamb on the throne. It’s completely anti-climactic.
All throughout the book of Revelation, we find this kind of imagery. Even when the armies of the world gather from the four corners of the Earth and they gather with the dragon and the beast and they’re launching their assault and they’re besieging the city of God and you’re like this is going to be an epic battle and it’s like a Helms Deep moment from the Lord of the Rings…and it’s not. Fire rains down from the sky and consumes all the armies. The end.
Over and over, John’s vision overturns the expectation of what’s going to happen, and he writes this to these churches like, “You’re giving yourselves over to all of the pressures around you. You’re being seduced by this Jezebel. You’re being pressured by communities. You’re being led astray by these teachings of the Nicolaitans. You’re forgetting your first love. You’re fearful because you’re being persecuted.” All throughout the book of Revelation, he says these things. Yet, in the end, it’s always turned on its head. In the end, it’s always this anti-climactic “but God just wins.”
This scroll that cannot be opened! Oh, but God can open it. It’s going to be the lion! Oh, but it’s just the slain lamb of God. The armies are coming! Oh, but he just rains fire down and destroys them. The earth is destroyed! Oh, but new creation comes — the city of God descends onto the earth. It’s always just this “this is just how it ends,” and more than that, it never has anything to do with the enemies of God.
The enemies of God are given so much space in this revelation, yet in the end, they’re so inconsequential to what God is doing, and that’s something that the seven churches miss out on, too. They’re so focused on the people who are against them that they don’t realize how inconsequential these people are, and that’s why I say what I want to draw from Revelation is the way that we participate in what God is doing, because I think we tell ourselves we want to participate in what God is doing, but we pour so much of our energy into what we think is going to be that epic, climactic battle moment.
How many congregations do you know right now who are on social media and outspoken and publishing books and have these really famous preachers and teachers and almost all of their focus is on the people who oppose them. Almost all of their focus is on the people who tell them that they’re wrong, and they just want to fight the battle and do apologetics, and so little of their focus goes into what they’re actually doing to participate in the kingdom of God. So much of their focus goes into things in Revelation that aren’t relevant to what God is doing for the people that God is doing them for. They don’t know their first love; they’ve forgotten their first love. For them, Christianity is about being in the fight. To fight the good fight means to literally oppose those people who are opposed to God.
When we look at a church like Pergamum, in chapter 2 and verse 12, he says write this to the angel in Pergamum,
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.Revelation 2:12-16, NIV
This is a rebuke from Jesus to the people who have been led astray and who have been captured and held captive in their minds by the teachings of Balaam and enticed to sinfulness, but notice what he says. He doesn’t say go and fight against these people. Prove them wrong, and lay them to rest. He doesn’t say go out and take political power and make sure that these people can’t take any power. He doesn’t say go out and make sure that their churches disappear. He doesn’t say go out and make sure that their teachings disappear. He doesn’t say go out and oppose them in the streets. He simply says repent. In other words, turn away. You know that these teachings are not what God desires for you, so just turn away from them.
He doesn’t tell them to invest their time. He says, “Soon I will come to you, and I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth,” and “them” is not the Nicolaitans. “Them” is the few among you — there are some among you who hold to these teachings. This is 100% internal to the church of Pergamum. He doesn’t care about the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He doesn’t care about the teachings of Balaam who enticed Balak and so on. He doesn’t care about them. He cares about the few who have been enticed by them, and he says you should repent. Otherwise, when I come to you, Pergamum, I’m going to fight against those people, because they’re not going to be with me.
We invest so much time, as Christians in America, into this political and apologetic battle against the people who oppose us, and we think that scripture is going to help us do that. What we fail to understand is that the same scripture that helps us oppose them helps them oppose us, and then what we do is we lock ourselves into this business of simply dividing against one another. Our whole lives, our whole faith expression, is built around our ability to distinguish ourselves from somebody else using the same scripture, so it just becomes this business of division, and that’s how a lot of congregations get big.
I was just saying, the other day, it would be so much easier for me to succeed on social media if I would just pick a bold stance and I would just declare that stance over and over and over again. It would be so much easier if I would just pick an enemy and just spend all day long speaking against that enemy. I could easily ostracise one group of people and gain another group of people as followers, and then we would essentially share the success by splitting followers down the middle. Those people like you, these people like me, and we’ll just call it done. Except that’s not where our energy should be going.
All of the rebuke in Revelation is always against the congregations, themselves. Look at yourselves, Ephesus. Look at yourself, Smyrna. Look at yourself, Laodicea. Look at the things that are going on in your congregation and fix them. Look at the things going on your life, and fix them. Who cares about the other people? Who cares about the Nicolaitans? Who cares about the followers of Balaam? Who cares about them? They don’t matter, and in the same way as you go through the vision: who cares about the dragon? Who cares about the beast? Who cares about Jezebel?
Some of these folks are going to get tossed in the lake of fire for 1000 years. Some of these folks are going to eternal destruction. Some of these folks are going to be swallowed up by heavenly fire. None of them matter. They’re completely inconsequential. All the way to the end.
All the way to the end of Revelation in chapter 21 and 22. In revelation chapter 22… Well, in Revelation chapter 21 and verse 9, we see the beginning of this passage where New Jerusalem and the bride of the lamb are coming down, and he describes how magnificent they are in terms that honestly don’t mean much to me, today, because I don’t really understand the value of jasper and agate and emeralds and onyxes and rubies. I don’t really understand how significant it is that the walls are so thick or that the place is so long. That doesn’t really mean anything to me, but he describes this glory of the city and the way that the temple doesn’t exist, because God and the lamb are the temple — the way that there’s no need for the sun to shine, because they give life — the way that the gates are never closed.
He goes on in chapter 22 to describe the restoration of Eden — the yielding of the fruit. He goes on to describe in the middle of chapter 22 the angel of the Lord talking with John and the invitation to people to come and be part — in verse 14,
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.”NIV
In chapter 22, in verse 17,
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.NIV
All of this vision culminates in this city of God that becomes open and inviting to everybody who wants to be there, and he gives this warning in verse 18 in chapter 22:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.Revelation 22:18-21, NIV
And I can’t tell you how many times people have quoted this passage and said it as a condemnation to other Christians who disagreed with their interpretation of scripture, and if you can make it all the way to the end of the book of Revelation, read this last passage from 18 to 21, and say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus,” after condemning your fellow Christian, you have completely missed out on the point of this revelation.
This whole revelation is written as a rebuke and an encouragement to these churches that they should give up on their chasing after the world and turn back to participating in what God is doing. It is a reminder to them that nothing that anybody else is doing is consequential to them in any way. Yet, here we are, today, making the same mistake as them. Here we are, today, investing all of our time and energy and rooting our entire expression of our faith in Christ in our ability to oppose other Christians.
This rebuke at the end is for us in that we are Christians, and he says, “You are invited to the well of God. The Spirit and the bride say come. The one who hears says come. The one who is thirsty should come and should drink of the water of life.” Come and drink. Don’t add to that. Don’t take away from it. Don’t make people out to be bigger enemies than they are. Don’t turn your focus onto the political avenues of fighting against others and restricting others and oppressing some. Don’t find your glory in violence. Don’t lean into the image of the lion of the tribe of Judah, because when you look at the throne, all you’re going to see is a slain lamb, and only the slain lamb of God can open the scroll of eternal life.
We need to turn our entire expectation of what the judgment of God at the end of things is going to look like. We need to turn our entire expectation of the end times on its head, and we need to focus on this plank in our eyes and say, “Do we or do we not accept the invitation of the Spirit to come and participate in the work that God is doing?” And if we do, then let’s put our energy there instead of putting our energy into turning the Bible into a weapon against fellow Christians. Let the Spirit rebuke them.
The Spirit rebukes Laodicea. The Spirit rebukes Ephesus. The Spirit rebukes Thyatira. They didn’t need to rebuke each other. Let the Spirit rebuke them, and let the Spirit rebuke us and remind us what our first love was so that we can come back and repent so that we can participate and so that we can drink from the water of life and so that we can be in the city of God at the end of things.
That’s the invitation. That’s always the invitation. It will always be the invitation. If you want to repent, if you need to confess, if you want to explore and ask questions, if you have trouble looking at yourself because you’ve spent so long looking at others — anything that you need concerning this or concerning any other area of your life — reach out to us, and let us know, because we are here for you to walk with you in this and in other things.