I Turned to See the Voice
I hated to miss lunch with you last Sunday. Rachel and I traveled to south Texas for a funeral. The pastor under whose preaching I came to know Christ—he also mentored me some—he went to be with the Lord last week. Bill Simmons—he was 67 and pastored River Hills Baptist for 37 years.
At the funeral, though, his son preached from Isaiah 6. The Lord pulls back the curtain and reveals his heavenly glory. Isaiah sees the Lord high and lifted up, seated on his throne. But something Jody highlighted was how that vision came during a turbulent time. One of Israel’s better kings had died. Isaiah 6 begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…” The earthly throne in Israel was empty, but God’s heavenly throne remained occupied—still reigning, still sovereign, still saving, still in control.
Ezekiel experienced something similar. Again, a turbulent time for God’s people. Not only was Israel in exile, but enemy nations grew arrogant in oppressing them. God again reveals his heavenly glory. Ezekiel sees the Lord enthroned on his war-chariot. Daniel and Zechariah were two other prophets during turbulent times; and God revealed his heavenly glory to them as well. In every case the point was clear. Even though their world seemed to be falling apart, even though the leaders they admired had died, even though rebel nations persecuted God’s people—God was still on his throne controlling history, caring for his people, completing all his saving purposes.
The clouds of tribulation sometimes make it hard to see that there is hope. God must break through to us and reveal his heavenly glory. We encounter that same pattern in verses 9-20. Just like the prophets of old, John lives in a very turbulent time for the church. John faces tribulation—a tribulation that includes a Dragon spreading lies, nations persecuting Christians, teaching that seeks to undermine Jesus’ authority, a moral revolution tempting churches to compromise. But in the face of that turbulence, the Lord gives his church a vision of his heavenly glory.
The heavenly glory that we witness in the passage, is the glory that Jesus Christ possesses right now; and it is a glory that we need to see as well. It is a glory that should fuel our endurance in tribulation and give us hope. Let’s read it together. Verse 9:
9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
To this point in Revelation, we’ve covered a general introduction in verses 1-3. We’ve covered a rich greeting from the Trinity in verses 4-8. Now we shift to John’s prophetic commission to write. John has an experience like other Old Testament prophets. Ezekiel and Daniel receive heavenly visions, the majesty of which causes them to faint. The Lord then strengthens the prophet to write the vision. God now commissions John in a way that aligns with those earlier prophets.
A Word for Churches in Tribulation
In the process of his commissioning, though, we learn several things about the word John receives. For starters, it is a word for churches in tribulation. Notice how John calls himself, “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus…” Those ideas are inseparable. If you are “in Jesus”—meaning, you belong to him, you follow him, you share a saving connection to him—then you are a partner in the tribulation, the kingdom, and the endurance.
You don’t get to be “in Jesus” and escape tribulation. To belong to Jesus’ kingdom does not mean an easier life. It means a much harder one. Tribulation has to do with persecution in Matthew 13:21. It’s “being hated by all” for Christ’s sake in Matthew 24:9. In Acts 20:23 it includes imprisonment. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, it includes Paul so burdened beyond his strength that he despairs of life itself. In Revelation 2:9 it includes slander from others and poverty because of one’s devotion to Christ.
Now it may be the case that the closer we get to Jesus’ coming, the more intense the tribulation will become. But the tribulation of which John speaks is that shared experience by every Christian between the cross and the second coming. An entire system of rebellion stands against Jesus and the people who represent Jesus—it’s called “the tribulation.” John is part of it. If you’re a Christian, so are you.
If you’re going to last, you need endurance. Not everyone will experience the same kind, or the same level of persecution. It seems that authorities exiled John to the Island of Patmos for preaching Christ. But he still has resources for writing a book like this one. Other Christians didn’t get exile; they got the sword or prison. Tribulation comes in different forms; but in all of it endurance is crucial.
It takes endurance to stand against the Dragon’s assault against the church. It takes endurance when people you love reject you for standing on God’s word. It takes endurance not to buckle under the cultural pressures to embrace a moral vision contrary to Christ. It takes endurance to keep loving your enemies when they do awful things.
My brother’s church supports a ministry in India. One of their beloved pastors died this week, Pastor Sundaram [picture]. Sundaram knew the Christian life required endurance. I’m told that “He lost his wife years ago. Shortly after that he lost both his son and daughter-in-law. Sundaram then took in his grandson to raise him, but then his grandson was beaten to death by his teacher at school…[Yet] In the midst of all his own suffering and sorrow, he preached Christ. And he preached Christ in the hardest places…his village and surrounding regions still practice cannibalism…”
How does endurance, like the endurance we find in believers like Sundaram—how does it come? What keeps you faithful when the shared experience in following Jesus is hardship after hardship after hardship? What is it that keeps the saints faithful till the end? What will keep you preaching Christ when all is stripped away?
A Word from the Exalted Jesus
Seeing the exalted Jesus. In the clouds of tribulation, we need a vision of the exalted Jesus to persevere. That’s the next thing we learn about the word John receives. It is a word from the exalted Jesus; and it is this vision of Jesus that fuels the church’s endurance. John was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day. The Spirit brings John into a state much like the visionary prophets of the Old Testament. He hears a loud voice like a trumpet telling him to write what he sees in a book and send it to the seven churches.
Immediately, we should expect an encounter with God. I say that because of the way John describes the voice. Exodus 19:16 and 20:18 associate a great trumpet blast with Yahweh speaking on Sinai. John hears “a loud voice like a trumpet.” John then turns to see the voice, and on turning he sees the exalted Lord in all his majesty. As John describes what he sees, it’s as if one was turning a rare diamond and layering words to try to capture all the facets of its glory. John uses a mosaic of Old Testament imagery to describe various facets of Jesus’ glory.
One facet is that he is the great King ruling God’s kingdom. He sees “one like a son of man”—that’s from Daniel 7:13. Daniel sees four beasts that represent four rebel kingdoms. Then he sees the Ancient of Days, sovereign and seated for judgment. Verse 13 then says, “Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion…” Jesus is Daniel’s “son of man.” Jesus will replace all rebel kingdoms with God’s kingdom. Jesus has dominion forever.
We discussed that more thoroughly last Sunday, so let’s move to another facet in Jesus’ glory: he is the ever-present Priest tending to the churches. John sees seven golden lampstands. According to verse 20, the seven lampstands are the seven churches. But notice verse 13: “in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.” These are garments of those serving in God’s presence—we see angels with golden sashes in 15:6.[i] But also Moses uses this language for the garments of priests in Exodus 28:4.[ii]
Also, in the tabernacle, the priests tended the lampstand. The priest ensured there was an ongoing supply of oil and that the seven lamps burned to light the way into God’s presence. The imagery depicts Jesus as a great priest tending his lampstands, tending his churches, tending his people that they might continue burning with the light of his Spirit, that they might light the way into God’s presence. He walks among the churches. He knows what each church needs for their lamp to burn brightly.
Another facet: Jesus is the glorious Messenger revealing God’s purpose. Verse 14 says, “his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace.” End of verse 15, “his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
That’s language from Daniel 10. Daniel 10:5 says, “behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze…” Think gleaming, polished armor on a warrior.
Now, it may be tempting to think Daniel has just encountered the pre-incarnate Christ. But keep reading Daniel 10, and you soon discover this heavenly figure needs help from Michael, another mighty angel. So, it’s more likely that this is a heavenly warrior in God’s army; and this heavenly warrior reflects aspects of Christ’s own glorious, warrior-like appearance.[iii] But what’s the significance?
Much like the glorious messenger in Daniel 10, Jesus comes to disclose heavenly realities. That’s what the angel did for Daniel. The angel disclosed that the conflicts on earth are connected to a greater conflict in heaven. So also in Revelation: Christ reveals that our conflicts on earth are connected to a far greater conflict in heaven. What you see with your eyes isn’t all there is. He comes as heaven’s greatest warrior to say, “This is what the battle really looks like; and this is how I have conquered.”
Let’s turn the diamond yet again: Jesus is the sovereign Lord controlling history. Notice how verse 14 begins: “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow.” That comes from Daniel 7:9—“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool…” John identifies Jesus’ glory with that of Yahweh himself. He also says that “his voice was like the roar of many waters.” That’s from Ezekiel 1:24 describing the voice of the Almighty God. The voice of the glorified Jesus is the voice of God.
But notice another description that Jesus gives himself in verse 17: “I am the first and the last.” That title appears in Isaiah 41:4, 44:6, and 48:12. Each time God distinguishes himself from the nations and their idols. The nations and their idols lack any power to determine the future.[iv] But God who is “the first and the last” not only knows the future before it takes place; he creates the future by his sovereign word.[v] Neither the nations nor their gods are really in control. Jesus is. He is sovereign.
Another facet: Jesus is the inescapable Judge whose word is all powerful. Verse 16 says that “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” Two things are coming together. “From his mouth” has to do with the words he speaks. A “sharp, two-edged sword” is an instrument of war, a weapon to conquer your enemy. Put it together, Jesus conquers his enemies by the words he speaks. The image comes from two places in Isaiah. Isaiah 11:4 says of the Messiah: “…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Isaiah 49:2, again of the Messiah: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword.”
John combines these images from Isaiah to describe how Jesus will bring judgment on his enemies. He will speak the words, and it will happen. How many times does this happen in the Old Testament? God speaks and floods the earth. God speaks and the earth opens and swallows a whole group of rebels. God speaks and Jezebel comes to her end. God speaks and Babylon takes Israel into exile. God speaks and raises up one nation to conquer another. It’s all over the Bible: God’s word falls in judgment on a people like a sword falls on an enemy in battle. Jesus’ words are like that too.
Let’s do one more facet: Jesus is the living One with all authority over death. John’s response in verse 17 is fitting: “when I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But [Jesus] laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’” I love how Jesus’ present glory never forgets his former humility.
“I died,” he says. What? Why would someone so powerful, so glorious, so eternal, so in control—why would he die? The answer came in verse 5: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” This Jesus chose to humble himself. He set aside his right to be seen as this glorious, humbling himself even to the point of death on a cross. He loves us and entered death for our sake. He entered death to free us from our sins. Having taken them away, John need not fear.
John also doesn’t have to fear because Jesus entered death to defeat its hold on all his people. Jesus took up his life again. “Behold,” he adds, “I am alive forevermore.” God vindicated his redeeming work on the cross by resurrection. Now Jesus has the keys of Death and Hades—the grave, in other words. To have the keys means you have authority over it.[vi] You control who goes in and who gets out. Some Jesus will raise to eternal life—those who follow him no longer need to fear Death and Hades. But others Jesus will raise for judgment—along with Death and Hades, those who reject Christ will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. No other King has such authority…
A Word about the Already and Not Yet
There are other facets we can’t cover today. But eventually we will, as they appear again in the seven letters. For now, verse 19 finishes out the commission. We see that this is also a word about the already and not yet. “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Some think this outlines the structure of Revelation. Better, though, is to take the latter two clauses to explain the first. John must write the things he sees, namely, those that are and those that will take place after this. Already and not yet. Last week, we talked a lot about the not yet. Verses 9-20, though, shift the focus to the already—the present glory of the exalted Jesus. John has written down for us what Jesus is like right now.
Our Need for the Exalted Jesus in Tribulation
So, what are a few takeaways from a passage like this one? What do we learn from it for our own discipleship, and how will it help us face tribulation?
For starters, count the cost; union with Jesus includes tribulation and requires endurance. Our culture likes to give us the illusion that we’re safe. If you have the locks and alarms and insurance and guns, you’re safe. It’s often the first question we’re taught to ask? Will it be safe? Is the neighborhood safe? Our culture even makes us feel entitled to comfort, entitled to a pain free life. But as one missionary to Equatorial Guinea put it, “our idol of safety…[often] infests our decision to serve.”[vii]
Following Jesus is not safe. Our union with Jesus means tribulation. This is Discipleship 101: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” You need to know that, so you won’t be surprised and think something is wrong, or think God’s not in control, or that the gospel isn’t working—when some of the freedoms you enjoy now, disappear. You need to know that, so we can teach other people to count the cost before they enter the church. The cross means death in the path of love. You need to know that, so you don’t throw in the towel at the first whiff of tribulation.
If you’re not in Christ—perhaps you’re not a Christian but thinking about becoming one—please count the cost. Be sure that you understand what he’s really calling you to. Don’t get me wrong. Come to him! He is worthy of every sacrifice you will ever make. Just be sure that you’re not signing up for “your best life now.” If you are a Christian, make sure that you’re not duped into thinking that every day with Jesus will be comfortable and convenient. It’s not—love is not convenient. To follow Jesus in the path of love, means that you will encounter a world that hates you, like it hated Jesus.
Something else: take courage, Jesus is near to his people in tribulation. John is a partner in the tribulation. He has been exiled to an island—a government has fixed certain parameters on his influence. Yet the Lord Jesus meets him there. He meets John during tribulation. He ministers to John by the Spirit. He helps John to see his glory during turbulent times. He did the same for Stephen when he was getting stoned. He did the same for Paul when everyone had abandoned him, or on another occasion when he was on a storm-tossed ship. It’s also the consistent testimony of Christians who suffer throughout the world—some of them even saying how they miss the prison because of how sweet the communion with Jesus was there.
We also see the exalted Jesus walking among the lampstands, among the churches that is. Right now, during our tribulation, Jesus is with us. Jesus walks among us and tends to our needs. Yes, I know you can’t see him with your eyes right now—that’s why we need this book. John saw him. Jesus revealed his glory to John and then told him to tell the other churches. This book helps us to see things as they really are.
On earth, it sometimes feels like he’s absent. The thoughts in our head sometimes question his care. We need God to pull back the curtain. That’s what he does here. He gives us the heavenly perspective. We need the word to help us see that right now he walks among the lampstands. Right now, he knows Redeemer Church. He knows you, your trials, your needs to make our lampstand burn bright with the Spirit. So, take courage; the glorious Christ meets us in tribulation. He walks with us in turbulent times.
Next, meditate on the exalted Jesus, your endurance counts on it. When we get to the letters, each letter will begin with a part of the vision that John sees here. There are aspects of Jesus’ glory that each church needs to see more clearly. Sometimes the vision of Jesus’ glory brings great comfort and courage. Think of the church in Smyrna, for example. Some of them will soon face imprisonment. They will be tested. Jesus then tells them, “Be faithful unto death.” But how does their letter begin? “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.” How reassuring would that aspect of Jesus’ glory be to a church who’s about to suffer and die for their faith? Jesus already entered death and came out alive. When they enter death for his sake, he will ensure they receive the crown of life. Meditating on the exalted Jesus enables them to endure.
But Jesus’ glory doesn’t only comfort. It also confronts, doesn’t it? Take the church in Thyatira. Jesus reminds them that he has “eyes like a flame of fire.” Then after warning them to repent, he threatens them with judgment and then says this in 2:23: “and all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and will give to each of you according to your works.” Jesus doesn’t mess around with sin. He doesn’t tolerate idolatry, sexual immorality. In this instance, meditating on the exalted Jesus enables the church to endure when the world wants them to compromise.
I wonder if we’re not doing the next generation a disservice when all they see in children’s books is the cartoon Jesus with a nice smile and good hair. We need to be careful with the way we think about Jesus and present him to others. The Jesus John sees shatters the versions we often imagine. Given our proclivities on this side of Adam’s fall, it’s rather easy to create a Jesus that’s safe and controllable. But the true Jesus will not be tamed by man. He is not our “homeboy”; he is King of kings.
He rose victorious over sin and death. He rules all nations. He’s ever present with the churches. He is Priest, Lord, Servant, Judge, and Warrior-King. There is no one like him. Jesus means for this vision of his exalted glory to keep us faithful. So, meditate on it. Go back to the Old Testament and trace out more of what all this imagery entails. Think about his glory often. Find music that helps you sing of this glory or write some of your own. Remind each other what he’s truly like. By meditating on the exalted Jesus, you will find endurance to resist temptation and obey with fervency.
Finally, worship Jesus in tribulation, he is God. John’s sufferings, his exile, his tribulation, do not keep him from worship. He was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day. Moreover, it’s no accident that several metaphors that once applied to Yahweh in the Old Testament now describe Jesus. It because Jesus is God, and as God he is worthy of our worship in all circumstances. This is a distinguishing mark of Christianity: we worship Jesus as God. If you asked pagans of the second and third centuries, “What distinguished Christianity from all other religions?” the pagans would answer, “The exclusive worship of Jesus.” It’s in their writings. They mocked Christians for it.
But what I want to emphasize here is that no matter what we face in tribulation, none of it will make Jesus any less glorious, any less deserving of our exclusive allegiance and adoration. He is still on the throne controlling history, caring for his people, completing all his saving purposes. Sometimes our worship of Jesus will be like we’ve experienced today—gathered together, relatively peaceful, enjoying the songs and prayers together. Other times, though, our worship of Jesus will sound like Psalm 22—alone, suffering, and feeling forgotten: “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” No matter what you may be facing, the Lord Jesus is sovereign and worthy of your praise.
[i] We find the same garments on the angel in Daniel 10:5.
[ii] Also Exod 39:22-26, 29; Lev 16:4.
[iii] Hamilton, With the Clouds of Heaven, 146. Cf. Rev 1:16 with 10:1.
[iv] Isa 41:4; 44:6-28; 46:10; 48:11-16.
[v] Isa 44:7-9, 18-19; 48:3, 6-8, 11-16; cf. 41:22-24; 42:9; 43:9b; 45:21; 46:10. I am indebted to Paul Hoskins for providing the insight into how Isaiah’s use of the title “the first and the last” contrasts Yahweh with the false gods of the nations in the manner specified here.
[vi] Cf. Isa 22:22 with Matt 16:19 and Rev 3:7.
[vii] Mike Petengill, “Missions: Not Safe but Good,” TheGospelCoalition.org (March 10, 2013); accessed January 25, 2018 at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/missions-not-safe-but-good/.