Monday, August 26, 2013

Sermon from Sunday: Seven Churches

Numbers in the Book of Revelation: Seven Churches

Read Revelation 1:1-6
 Are you ready for the Book of Revelation?  No “s”.  The book of Revelations does not exist.  Revelation, no “s”. 
            There are so many wild notions that exist about the book of Revelation. I remember when I worked at RadioShack while I was in seminary we had just gotten a new manager of the store.  And I remember having a conversation with him about the Book of Revelation.  He said that he had studied a few years ago and that he believed that some of the visions, some of the descriptions could fit real, modern day creations.  For example, he talked about how in one of the visions locusts are described as a part of how the end of the world and he said the description sounds a lot like an Apache Helicopter.  And that meant he could’ve been predicting the end of the world for us who are living now.  And I thought well, okay I guess that’s possible.  I have since learned, no, the book of Revelation has nothing to do with Apache helicopters.  Nothing.
            My hope in this series is to help you read Revelation the way it was intended to be read.  And to understand what you are reading the way it is intended to be understood.  To pursue reading and understanding the book of Revelation you have to be okay with unanswered questions.  Because while God has definitely put enough in this book for us to understand and for us to grow in our faith and in our witness, there will definitely be things we don’t’ understand.  And we just have to accept those things and push on as best we can.  At the same time God has given us brains and resources and enough in the book of Revelation that we can know a whole lot about it.  So what do you need to know.
            First, the book of Revelation is first and foremost a letter.  Notice verse 4…"John to the Seven churches in the province of Asia.  It is a letter from John to the Churches in the province of Asia.  Before being an end times saga with weird visions and strange symbols and bowls and lanterns and dragons and other wild stuff, it is first and foremost a letter.  Written by a person while in exile on the island of Patmos…a person under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 
            I have here my neighbors mail.  I have in my hand Jeff and Connie’s mail.  Oh yeah, I just decided to be curious when I was getting my mail and thought I would walk across and get their mail as well.  We have a good relationship so I didn’t think they would mind.  So lets see what’s here.  Oh, trying to get them to switch to DirecTV.  It looks like this is a bill from the city of Hickory, must be a water bill.  Store coupons that we all get.  Ooh, what is this?  Mt. Creek Construction.  Ooh it’s from his company…lets see what it is.  Annual performance review…ya’ll want to be nosey?  You want to see how Jeff is doing his job?
That’s crazy right.  That’s absurd.  I would never go into their mailbox.  And hopefully they know that.  We trust each other not to do that.  And I think it’s federal offense to get into someone else’s mailbox.  As absurd as that sounds that’s what the book of Revelation is.  It’s a letter in which churches get to read each other’s mail.  It’s written to these seven churches on one scroll.  Here's map of Asia Minor. 

It is modern day Turkey.  Here’s where John is in exile and here is where the churches are.  So Ephesus is the first church.  They will copy the scroll to have for themselves and send the original up to Smyrna.  And on around the letter would travel.  It wasn’t just a letter, it was a letter strategically written for a purpose to these seven churches.  Churches that would then spread the message from their own cities out across the rest of Asia and Europe. 
The book of Revelation is a letter written to seven churches before 100 AD and it was one scroll.  For that reason, it was intended to be read out loud during worship services.  It was primarily heard by the people more than it was seen by them.  So the rich imagery and symbolism would have had them able to follow along with the message throughout the reading of the book.  And when I say reading, I mean the whole book.  It was probably sometimes split up into sections, but they would have been large sections, not just a few verses like we are looking at today.  So what that means is that it can be dangerous to take just one verse or two verses and make it say whatever you want it to say without considering the entire book of Revelation as a whole.
Another thing about the book of Revelation is that because it is apocalyptic literature, it is not to be taken literally.  The word “Revelation” in Greek is apokalypsis – which means an unveiling or revealing.  It is full of imagery and symbolism from the Old Testament because it was written to Christians who would have been familiar with the Old Testament and what those images meant.  Therefore, most of Revelation cannot be taken literally.  It just can’t…the 1st century readers did not take it literally…John did not write to be taken literally…neither should we take it literally.  The genre of Apocalyptic means it is written in way to be read non-literally.  So it is a letter written in the form of apocalyptic literature to tell the truth about what is happening.
            The reason this is so important is because a letter is written at a specific time, by a specific author, to a specific person or group, for a specific purpose.  John, the author of Revelation, did not have Adolf Hitler in mind when he wrote the book of Revelation.  I remember a guy told me when I was in College that he thought that Bill Gates was the Anti-Christ.  When John wrote the book of Revelation he did not have Bill Gates or any other contemporary figure in mind.  Some of the descriptions of evil in Revelation has more to do with the emperors around the time John wrote the book then they do with the rulers of today.  Most likely the Roman emperor in power was Domitian and he was not kind to Christians.  Also, John was familiar with another evil emperor who oppressed Christians named Nero…he will be important later on in this series on the Book of Revelation.  Here’s what I’m saying, so many pastors and Christians make Revelation say what they want it to say instead of looking at the context in which it was written.  Start with the context then ask what does this mean for us today. 
At the time of Domitian’s rule in Rome Christians in these areas were being persecuted.  John wrote the book of Revelation to show the Church that in the end Jesus and those who belong to Jesus would be victorious.  That what is happening now is just temporary and that the victory is already won even though it doesn’t seem that way.  Remember the word Revelation in Greek means an unveiling…John is unveiling the truth of what has happened is happening and will happen for those who hold on to their faith in Jesus Christ.  He is saying, in a time of great persecution, keep the faith because the lamb of God has already won.  The book of Revelation is a message of hope to persecuted Christians in it’s original context.  John’s purpose was not to predict the end of the world or to give us 21st Century Christians who the anti-Christ would be…no it was written to bring hope to Christians who were being put in the arena and torn apart by wild animals.  It was written to Christians who had heard the story of the emperor using Christians as human torches to light his banquet hall.  It was written to Christians who had heard about someone who would not claim that Domitian was Lord so they bound him to corpse and left him to rot alive.  That’s the context.  That’s why it was written. 
Next time you think you have it bad, think about what it would be like to face a torturous death simply because you would not claim that the national leader was lord.  See Domitian and other emperors like him, demanded that they be called lord and God.  And of course Christians and Jews too could not claim that the emperor was lord and god because only God, only Jesus held that title.  And so Domitian simply sought to get rid of them.
You would think Christianity would die during this time.  That the fear of persecution would destroy the church because people would fear for their lives.  You didin’t have to tell these Christians that the great tribulation was coming, no, they were already in the great tribulation.  Later in the letter when John writes of the great tribulation, these Christians are saying, yeah, that’s what we are going through here and now.  It wasn’t sometime in the future, it was here and now for them.    They were already suffering the worst of the worst.  And you know what, the church did not shrink and lose members, the church grew.  Throughout history, during times of the greatest persecution the church has grown exponentially.  When the persecution is the worst, the most faithful Christians rise up and spread the gospel more powerfully that at any other time in history.  Throughout history, during times of great blessing and prosperity, the church has shrunk and declined.
You all know where we are in the United States of America.  Christians are not persecuted here.  We don’t fear for our lives.  In fact, most people in the United States of America think they can make it in life on their own.  So why do we need God?  John, writing under God’s inspiration writes in Revelation chapter 3 to the church at Laodicea verses 17-19.  That sounds like the United States of America.  Now, it was written to the church at Laodicea and the warning was for the church at Laodicea, but we can see the same thing happening around us, can’t we. This is how you apply Revelation.  I’m not saying John was writing the United States of America when he was writing to Laodicea.  What I am saying is that like the churches in Laodicea, we have bought the lie that we are self-sufficient.  We have bought the lie that we can accomplish our dreams and when we do we will be happy, we will be rich.  It doesn’t work that way does it. 
The kind of richness God talks about in verse 18 is a richness of recognizing that we are the opposite of self-sufficient.  That we can’t live life on our own.  That we need a savior and a Lord.  Not a lord like Domitian that purports a lifestyle of prosperity and ownership and power by the sword, but a Lord who purports a lifestyle of faithfulness, love, generosity and power by grace and mercy.  Revelation is a letter whose warnings and promises we need for today.  We may not be persecuted like the church was at the time this was written, but we still need hope.
            The closest thing to persecution most of us experience is the testing of our faith.  It’s in those times that we realize the significance of the message of the book of Revelation  That when our faith is tested, we must realize that Jesus has overcome evil, sin and death and we have nothing to fear.  That even in the face of certain death…we have nothing to fear…because death is not the final answer.  Jesus has overcome and eternal life is the final answer.  Death just leads us into another life, into a new creation.  Revelation is about hope and faithfulness to Christians in the midst of hard times. 

It was and is a letter to 1st Century Christians that we get to read and that we get to believe and live out and whose message we get to receive.  The message is this: there is always hope…no matter how dark life is, no matter that it looks like evil is winning, no matter that a loved one dies tragically, no matter that someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer, no matter that a married couple you love is getting divorced, no matter that your mom or dad is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, no matter that you have lost your job, no matter that what there is hope.  Because God is God, Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit is powerful and God has overcome and defeated all that threatens the human race.  Let the message of the book of Revelation be what it was intended to be…a message of hope and victory for those who put their faith and trust I the slain Lamb of God.

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