Sermon for Compline in Lent 2022, based on the Book of Revelation (Ch 1: v 1 – 11): preached by The Reverend Hugh Bonsey, on Monday 7 March 2022 in Sherborne Abbey.
This evening we are looking at the opening verses of the Book of Revelation. It is a book which is often neglected or even misunderstood by Christians as it uses different genres, styles or categories, of literary composition.
The prophet, John of Patmos, described a vision in which he witnessed the end of existing world order – Roman rule – and the inauguration of a new heaven and earth.
In Chapter 1, the first three verses are of a prophetic nature: portraying an ‘inspired literature’. Then from verse four, John reverts to the form of a Letter. (Greg Carey).
John had two purposes in mind when he wrote to the Christians in Asia Minor: to be faithful and to repent. John presents his vision of an apocalypse: the fall of Rome and the end of the world. (Ronald Allen). Were the Christians being persecuted by Diocletian (whose infamy was worse than Nero’s) or were they colluding with the Roman authorities?
Christian communities were known to have been victims of oppression in the first century. John was a prisoner on the Island of Patmos, who smuggled his letters out to the mainland of what is now Western Turkey. So, John’s fellow Christians, a minority group of Jews and Gentiles, on the edge of the Roman Empire, were encouraged to be faithful to the Gospel and their belief in the claims of Jesus being their experience of God’s love. Yet recent scholarship shows that there was a sizeable proportion of the Christian population that acquiesced to the Roman presence, who wished to align themselves with§ the prevailing pagan atmosphere in their society. John challenged them to repent: to turn round and look at the world from a different perspective – in essence, for them to change their minds.
The Book of Revelation begins in a time-honoured fashion. Verses 1-7 mirror other contemporary letters: the identity of the writer, the addressees, a greeting and a thanksgiving. John’s letter has theological content, giving it a basis for the forthcoming messages.
Usually, a letter of the period would have the Greek word ‘chairein’ meaning ‘hello’. John begins with an acclamation of grace ‘charis’. Such a word would endow the recipients with experiences of grace and peace. This means that the freely given gift of grace is to be bestowed upon the recipients, although a sense of loyalty and belonging would be associated with such an act. The declaration of peace would echo the Jewish understanding of ‘shalom’ – a sense of completeness, wholeness and well-being – which would signify an intimate relationship between the believer and God. (Valerie Nicolet-Anderson).
In verses 1 and 8, God is described as the one ‘who is, who was and who is to come.’ This description gives John’s readers not only an assurance that God is with them in their present troubles, but also a declaration that this is the same God who has always been with his people. The third attribute of God singles him out from the established gods of Rome. Whereas the Roman gods were present and are present now in the lives of their subjects, they are described as gods who ‘shall be’: that is to say that they will be active in the present social order. In contrast, the Christian God is one who ‘is to come’. He will inaugurate a new order in the future, which will be distinct from the present world experience. A commentator has described God’s action as follows: ‘God is coming into history to complete reconstruction of the world’. (Allen).
Furthermore, in verse 8 John claims that God announces that he is ‘the Alpha and the Omega’, that is to say, ‘the beginning and the end’. God is the beginning of all things and is in complete control at the end of the world – of the universe. God is not a deity who leaves his creation; he stays with us until the end. Later in the book, in Chapter 23 v.13, John attributes this phrase to Jesus.
In verse 5, John sets out his claim that Jesus has three main characteristics:
First, Jesus is the faithful witness. We need to know that the Greek word for witness is the same word which means ‘martyr’. In the Gospel narrative, Jesus is the one who exemplifies the action of a witness by dying the death of a martyr. He is the supreme example of martyrdom, from which all other martyrs will take their lead. Jesus is the perfect and ultimate witness to the love and care of God. (Walter Taylor).
Second, Jesus is the firstborn of the dead. This does not mean that Jesus is the first person to have returned to life from the dead – we have many examples of such phenomena in both the Old and New Testaments. The Christian claim is, of course, that the resurrection of Jesus is permanent, all other resurrections were temporary. Everyone who returned to life, died at the end of their lives. By contract, Jesus lives forever, being the pioneer of a new form of existence.
Third, (and this is the truly world-shattering claim which John dares to make) Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth. This third claim is the one which singles out the Book of Revelation as being totally revolutionary. It is extraordinary that the Christian Church survived even for a few years, having such an incendiary claim written in its literature.
John wrote his letters to the ‘Seven Churches’. The number seven represented perfection in the ancient world, and we can surmise that the ‘Seven Churches’ were in fact all the Christians in Asia Minor. (Israel Kamudzandu, Taylor).
In one sense, the world then was very different to our own, with the Roman Empire ruling over everything in life. The people to whom John wrote were very different from ourselves, and we can be in danger of fantasising the images created in the text. (Wess Daniels following Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). But on the other hand, the Book of Revelation contains a vision which is relevant to us today. A scholar has quoted repeated in his commentary ‘The word of God is for us today’. (Barreto).
Although the words relating John’s vision were written two thousand years ago, the pressure of raw political and economic power still drives the nations of the world. In the Roman world, everything related to Caesar, who had absolute power – even the belief that he was the Son of God. No-one could escape Rome’s power and ownership of all allegiances. But Christians have another Son of God who is not Caesar. Indeed, to profess belief in God as in the Christian Creed, was to believe in the God claimed by Jesus, not to believe that the Roman emperor was divine. (Barbara Rossing).
Therefore, the works of Scripture were and are dynamic. In particular, the Book of Revelation challenges the political status quo of the world. The first Chapter introduces us to the identity and function of Jesus and his Heavenly Father.
Essentially, John’s readers and ourselves have two choices: either we follow Christ and live in the hope of inhabiting the New Jerusalem, the golden Heavenly City, or we live a life following the ways of the world, a life of hedonism, and then live forever in the eternal torments of the Lake of Fire.
John offers us this choice: Caesar or God. The time to choose is now.