What did you think when you heard there was to be a reading from Revelation in the service? Many Christians switch off. Revelation is regarded as the book for the weirdoes and extremists. It is full of strange language and has been the basis for all sorts of bizarre beliefs.
But Revelation is a book worth rescuing. It is written in the way it is, because it was addressed to persecuted Christians in the late first century. For them, it made sense to communicate in an unusual style that they understood, and maybe the Roman authorities didn’t. To such Christians, the news that Jesus, crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and was reigning, was the very best of good news. Hence Revelation begins with this big vision of the risen Jesus.
What does that do for us? We cannot claim we are being persecuted for our faith, although certain aspects of legislation and public opinion have certainly moved against us, and that is making some Christians nervous, especially as the General Election approaches. It may be that we end up further out on the margins due to our faith, and if it does, this reminder of our risen Lord will sustain us as we seek to follow him.
How does it do that?
Firstly, we have confidence based on who Jesus is. According to John, Jesus is
the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (verse 5).
Taking those three descriptions in turn, we have each time something to fortify us in our witness if the going gets tough in society for us.
Jesus is ‘the faithful witness’. He was faithful in his witness to the kingdom of God. He was faithful, even to the point of death. Remember that the Greek word for ‘witness’ in the New Testament is the one from which we derive our word ‘martyr’. Jesus’ own life, then, showed that faithfully following the call of God is costly. It may even cost our lives, when we peaceably but firmly stand for God’s message. The early Christians, then, who faced persecution, knew they were walking in the way of their Master.
What, then, of when we face opposition? We too are called to be ‘faithful witnesses’. We hold resolutely to our faith, even when it is thought stupid, irrational or even morally wrong. We refuse to compromise. But we do not do so in some militant, aggressive way. We recognise that difficulties may come our way, including from those in political power. Jesus has not withdrawn his call to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him. Do you face something tough in your life because of your faith? Jesus is calling you to do what he did, to follow in his footsteps. It should not surprise us as Christians that this happens.
Is that depressing? If it is, that is where the next description of Jesus comes in. He is ‘the firstborn of the dead’. Jesus’ faithful witness led to the Cross. But it didn’t end there. He vacated the tomb when he was raised from the dead. Thus we have hope as faithful witnesses. Our witness may be costly, but evil will not have the final word. God will have that: he will vindicate his people in the resurrection and the judgment. As God raised Jesus from the dead to new life, so he will also raise us. This is our hope.
But not only is Jesus the first to be raised from death, promising the same for us in God’s great future, his title of ‘firstborn’ of the dead indicates his sovereignty. The firstborn of a king inherits the throne. Jesus is not simply back from the dead, he is reigning. So those who think they are in charge and controlling everything are mistaken. Fatally mistaken, you would have to say. The risen Lord has been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18).
And that is what leads to the third ascription: Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. Who are these pretenders who think they control the destiny of an obscure religious sect two thousand years ago? They are not the ultimate rulers they think they are. They are subject to Jesus himself. If they do not submit to his rule now, they will be brought to justice. Again, it is part of the vindication God promises to his faithful people.
But more than that, it has a particular application for us during this General Election campaign. Whenever a politician proposes policies that go against the will of God or seek to marginalise his church, let us remember who rules over the kings of the earth – Jesus does. Any time one of our political leaders comes over all messianic is a time to remember that Jesus rules over the kings of the earth. Any time they start to promise heaven and earth is also a time to remember that Jesus reigns over the rulers of the earth. And any time we as an electorate look to our politicians and expect them to bring in the kingdom of God is also an occasion to recall that Jesus is king over all creation, and every human ruler must submit to him.
So this is who Jesus is. He is the faithful witness, who shows Christians that fidelity to God may well be costly, even to the point of death. However, he is also the firstborn of the dead, showing the resurrection hope of vindication in which the faithful share. And he is the ruler of the kings of the earth, to whom even the most unjust rulers will have to answer. In these respects, when we know who Jesus is, he truly is our hope when Christians are marginalised, pressurised or even persecuted.
Secondly, we have confidence based on what Jesus does. Now I will admit that a distinction between ‘who Jesus is’ and ‘what Jesus does’ is artificial, because we know who someone is by what they do. But I use the distinction between who Jesus is and what Jesus does in this sermon to match up with the different ways in which our text uses language.
And I say ‘what Jesus does’, because I want to draw attention to a series of verbs in verses 5 and 6. Sorry if this sounds like an English lesson! Here they are:
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Verses 5b-6)
He loves us, he freed us and he made us. These three assertions also give us confidence in all manner of situations, including the times we are under pressure for our faith.
Firstly, ‘he loves us’. I remember a friend telling me that nothing gave her greater security in life than knowing that her husband wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Forty or so years later, they are still together, and the husband gave up promotions in his career to stay at an ordinary rank so he could care for his wife, who has suffered persistently from mental illness. But even in her periodically fragile state, the wife knows she is loved, and it does her the power of good.
It’s similar with Jesus. He loves us. He is committed to us. He has no intention of letting us go. His hold on us is stronger than our hold on him. He has loved us with an everlasting love, from creation through the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection to the present day and beyond. Whatever we face, he loves us and is with us.
More specifically, the second thing Jesus has done in this reading is that he has ‘freed us’ – ‘freed us from our sins by his blood’. Here is the most decisive example of Jesus’ committed love for us. What we most need is to be freed from our sins, for they bind us. His death on the Cross loosens the chain and we walk free in forgiveness. The Cross is not only the example Jesus sets of being the ‘faithful witness’ I talked about earlier, it is also the greatest sign of God’s love, because it took God substituting himself for us in Christ to break the curse of sin.
This isn’t just someone saying he loves us; this is someone proving it in the most costly of deeds. If that is how we are loved in Christ, we can be all the more sure of God’s commitment to us through thick and thin. We may not always be accepted by the world, but if Jesus does this much for us, he is not about to give up on us when life gets sticky.
The final example John gives of what Jesus does for us is that he has ‘made us’. Made us what? He has ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’. His love which extends as far as redemption through the Cross does not finish there. We are not simply forgiven and then wait around on a platform with our ticket for heaven. Christ’s redeeming love has a purpose: it is to make us into something now. Whatever the world thinks of us, Jesus has made us with a purpose, to be a kingdom of priests, serving God the Father.
What does that mean? For starters, it means that we all have a special dignity in that Jesus has given us a purpose in life. Rejection and mockery from the world is contrasted by acceptance and purposefulness from God. As a kingdom, we have a royal standing in the eyes of God. Those whom the world despises have immense status in the eyes of God. Whatever the world sometimes thinks of us and however we appear to the world, we are in fact royalty in disguise.
But what is the purpose? We are priests, John says. Each one of us represents people to God in prayer and represents God to people in word and deed. We may bring the needs of anyone to the merciful presence of God. While we might especially do that for our sisters and brothers in Christ, we have the privilege also of doing that for those outside the family of God. Debbie and I offer to pray for people in the school community going through troubles. Lots of Christians do things like that. We don’t simply pray secretly behind people’s backs, though – we ask if we may.
Furthermore, we have a particularly special trick up our sleeves: we can pray for our enemies. When oppressed, the true Christian response is not to lash out. It is to pray for them. It heaps burning coals on them, but does not bind us up as bitterness does when we refuse to forgive.
Then on the other side of the priestly rôle, we represent God to the world. We do this in our words and matching deeds. Whether the world likes us or not, we are priests to them. Whether they accept what we offer is up to them, but divinely appointed priests is what we are. So the world cannot do without us! The purpose Jesus gives us in making us all priests not only gives us personal dignity, it gives us a vital rôle to play in the world.
In conclusion, if we are struggling because we are being pushed to the margins of society, Jesus has good news for us. By what he is and by what he does, he gives us confidence, purpose and dignity. He gives us the inner resources to sustain us in the face of apathy or hostility. No wonder this little passage leads to a doxology from John: ‘to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (verse 6). May his goodness to us lead us also to doxology.