(Revelation 1)

Click here to listen to this sermon.

About 20 years after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the emperor Nero came to power. His rule proceeded a difficult time for many in the empire – especially the followers of Christ. There was conflict in the Middle East as a war broke out between Judean separatists and the Roman Empire. Christians, many of whom were Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah, found themselves caught in the middle – they cherished the temple and loved their Jewish brethren but they did not want to go to war. Some of the Romans were Christians by this time also. Across the empire, the growing group of Christ-followers was blamed for the problems that arose because of Nero’s incompetence. And though Nero was incompetent and immoral, he was still the emperor. It was a difficult time for Christ’s followers, but the leaders of the church (including Peter and Paul and many of the other apostles and evangelists) led the young church through the trials and encouraged them to wait for the return of Christ.

And Nero died. He committed suicide when the Roman senate had had enough of his excesses. But the war raged on and the trouble in the Middle East and Jerusalem grew worse. Back in Rome there was a period of failed attempts to take over the empire.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the leader of the Roman army charged to quell the uprising in Jerusalem was a military leader named Vespasian. When Vespasian heard of Nero’s death he left his son Titus in charge of the campaign in Jerusalem. Vespasian returned to Rome and assumed the throne of the Empire. He restored the faltering empire to a sound footing. He instituted discipline throughout the demoralized military. He cleaned up the government and established well-disciplined leaders at various levels of imperial rule.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Titus finally ended the conflict that had threatened unrest across the Middle East. He and his troops invaded the Temple in Jerusalem. They leveled the house of God and stole its treasures. The instigators of the uprising had used the temple mount as a base of operations, now it was gone – along with the spiritual center of Judaism – it was also a demoralizing blow for many Christians.

But under the rule of Vespasian and Titus, there was relative peace and stability. The Christian movement thrived and looked back to the teachings of Jesus and came to understand that the gospel and their faith was not bound to a building in Jerusalem. They spoke of a spiritual temple and a heavenly tabernacle. And still they encouraged one another with the hope of Christ’s return – even though one generation of Christians was passing away and another taking up the leadership in cities like Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodecia. Almost all of the apostles were gone. Peter and Paul had been executed during the reign of Nero.

The relatively stable decade of rule under Vespasian continued when Titus assumed the throne. And this rule was extended another few years until Titus died of illness. And then his brother Domitian took over. Domitian was not as disciplined or confident and his father or brother. He was cruel, calculating, and paranoid. In short time he assumed total authority over the government, taking power away from the Senate. His propensity for cruelty invaded the culture of the empire. He promoted gladiatorial games as sport. He even added female combatants, and soon the gladiatorial combat became even more of a sickening spectacle than it already was. One writer of the period said that Domitian was worse than Nero in his madness and immorality for Domitian’s cruelty was precise and premeditated.

Religious devotion to the emperor of Rome had been in place since Julius Caesar, and Vespasian and Titus didn’t take it very seriously. Titus joked on his deathbed that he was becoming a god. Domitian however insisted that he be worshipped. His egoism, cruelty, and paranoia were a dangerous combination and he would not tolerate even the slightest dissent. He forced subjects throughout the empire to worship him and unlike some of his predecessors who insisted that they be called the First Among Equals, Domitian demanded that his title should be Deus et Dominus – Lord and God. For Christians, this became a very difficult and dark time. The morals of society were collapsing around them. They were persecuted once again and a ruler who insisted that they worship him over their Lord Jesus would exact cruel punishment and execution if they did not bow their knee to his authority. Some within the church suggested it would be acceptable to worship the emperor. From within and without these were difficult times. The leaders who had written Scriptures they cherished were gone. Many wondered when – or if – Jesus Christ was going to come back.

Well, not all the apostles were gone. John was the only one of the twelve still alive. He was a very old man, but greatly respected. Still, Domitian had exiled him on an island called Patmos. Thus he couldn’t communicate easily with the churches he called his little children. He was concerned for the persecuted believers; perhaps he too wondered when Jesus would return.

One Sunday morning, while John was worshipping alone in exile he had a vision. It was a vision of what would happen soon. It was a vision of the future. It was a vision of the church enduring the worst of times and of the glory of God’s rule over the cruel and oppressive rule of every corrupt government. It was a vision of the faithful rewarded. But it was more than just a dream of John, it was a visitation – a revelation – from someone that John knew. The person who presented this vision to him was the true Lord and God – the risen Jesus who was dead but is now alive! [Read Revelation 1:9f]

The one that all Christians were hoping would return had an unprecedented message of hope and encouragement in that age – one that is for all of us in every age. The foundation of revelation’s hope and encouragement to persevere is that it is spoken with the authority of the Risen Christ. He tells John to write what he sees and addresses the vision to the seven churches – which is a way of addressing the entire church since seven is a complete number. And notice how the risen Christ describes himself ...

The one who walks among the seven gold lampstands - He is present among the churches. They have worried that Christ is not with them or that he is far off. But he is standing among them all. He is ever-present. And when we gather to worship (thus the symbol of the lampstand) - he is there. He encourages us not to tolerate wickedness, but in our stand against wickedness he urges us not to lose the spirit of love. For if we abandon love, Christ’s presence is no longer with us. The lampstand in his presence will be removed.

The one who is the First and the Last, who died and is alive – Here is the ultimate message of hope for Christians who fear persecution at the hands of others. The battle was won long ago when God raised Christ from the dead. He was the first, but he is also the last. He is not a historical leader – but a living leader. He died, but he is alive. Christ has triumphed over death and we who have been baptized into Christ will share in that triumph. Don’t be afraid when we are threatened, but be faithful.

The one who has a sharp two-edged sword – Christ fights with the only weapon that can never be overcome – the truth. We often try to fight the battles with our own words and weapons, but Christ promises that he will wield the sword on our behalf. When the truth prevails it is Christ who fights against wickedness and immorality. Remain firmly rooted in the truth and trust in Christ rather than our ability to use force and power – otherwise we may become the oppressor and find ourselves on the other side of the sword.

The Son of God, whose eyes are bright like flames of fire, whose feet are like polished bronze – This is the image of the Son of Man. This is the ruler that God appoints to rule over every government on earth. He judges all things and determines what is right and what is wrong. Notice how firm his stance and how sharp his gaze. Nothing escapes his authority. We too must persevere and strive for the same spiritual integrity of Jesus Christ. Those who persevere will share in his rule and enjoy the hope that comes when his authority is established over all creation.

The one who has the sevenfold Spirit of God and the seven stars – Persecution and difficulty can make us weak and weary. We are only human, but the church is empowered by the spirit of God. And it is not a limited resource. We often get tired of “church work” and that is especially true for churches in difficult times. But the risen Christ present among us empowers us with the sevenfold spirit of God. He did so for the Christians in the late 1st century and he will do so for Christians today.

The one who has the key of David – Christ has the power to open doors. No one can shut us out of the promises that are given by God. Only Christ has that sort of authority. Who wouldn’t want honor and influence in this world? But sometimes it can be taken from us as quickly as it is given by the opinion shapers of this world, but Christ promises to give us his honors if we will trust in him and persevere. He has the key and no one can shut doors that he opens.

The one who is the Amen - - the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation – Amen is the last word. The risen Christ is last word. He was there for the creation, and he will have the last word on its future. Why trust in the things of this world? Why worry over losing the things of this world when we can trust and rely on the ruler of this world. Don’t you want to be there not only to say the Amen, but to see him?

There’s one phrase that the risen Christ speaks to the churches in every situation:

... Christ isn’t ignorant of what goes on in difficult times or in pleasant peace. Whether it is Nero, Vespasian, or Domitian on the throne of the empire, Christ knows what goes one. He is aware of our trials. He is aware of our deeds. He knows us. He knows you. Do you know him? He is making himself known to you. All is revealed.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 25 June 2006

 Link to next sermon

 Link to other sermons of Chris Benjamin