Revelation can be a mysterious, strange and scary book. The imagery, language, pictures are dramatic: dragons, beasts, plagues, curses - all this is scary stuff, especially when read in the Bible - a book we come to in order to find hope and comfort. So what are we to make of it?
Revelation tells a cosmic story - the means by which God brings redemption to the world. But it also speaks to us about how we are to live in the light of this. The throne at the centre of the story is at the heart of what this means - worship of the lamb.
To enter into the message of the book, we must set it in its historical context and this means understanding genre and how that genre uses symbols and allegory to paint a picture that those with eyes to see and ears to hear will understand.
Revelation is a book to be taken seriously but perhaps not in the way we have previously considered; at least not for the approach we are taking here because for our sojourn into the book we are choosing a devotional route - a path with discipleship at its heart. When we leave Revelation it must be as those whose hearts have been drawn deeper into our worship of the lamb.
John’s apocalypse is written to churches living under the domination of the Roman Empire, and the propaganda of the might of Rome was having a significant impact upon the church which spanned from relative prosperity on the one hand to a real fear of persecution on the other. The seven Churches are addressed directly by Jesus, “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” Revelation 1:11 The Lord of the Church is directing his people with a combination of both commendation and correction. How will they stay faithful in the midst of all they face was at the heart of what is written. The challenge they faced was ultimately one of devotion. Of how, in the midst of living every day, they will maintain loyalty to he who says, ‘I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18’
The challenge was very real - and in a way we can fail to understand. Morgan writes: ‘As Christian individuals and communities in Asia Minor interacted with family members, friends, business associates, and public officials who did not share their conviction that “Jesus is Lord,” the basic early Christian confession (Rom 10:9), these believers were faced with hard questions and decisions. Should they continue to participate in social activities that have a pagan (non-Jewish, non-Christian) religious character? This would include most activities: watching or participating in athletic and rhetorical contests; buying and eating meat in the precincts of pagan temples; and frequenting trade guilds, clubs, and events in private homes, each with their meetings, drinking parties, and banquets. They would even have wondered, “Should we or can we go to pagan temples to do our banking or purchase meat? Should we acknowledge the sovereignty of the emperor when asked to do so at a public event in the precincts of his temple, or at another of the many events in his honor?”’
It was real because of the imminent threat up their life. The Church in Pergamum new this only too well since they had witnessed the martyrdom of one of their own as we see in the letter written to them. ‘Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.’ Revelation 2:13
Remaining true was a choice - one we can overlook for the simple reason the threat is not the same. We live in relative safety, the West is increasingly post Christian but we don’t live with the real fear of persecution - the values of our faith may be increasingly marginalised but that’s a very different thing. We can still peacefully practice our religion even if we have lost our voice to shape policy and practice in the nation. Our challenge is not so much persecution as it is relevance and more importantly - compromise. The current danger is not that we would die for our faith but that we would live without it. We are in practice closer to Laodicea than we are Pergamum. For the church in Laodicea a different subtle and deceptive agent was at work.
‘These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm---neither hot nor cold---I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Revelation 3:14-18.’
The relative prosperity of the town of Laodicea had led the believers into a form of security built around the acquiring of wealth - they’d concluded they were fine, their wealth providing safety that was referred for Jesus alone. Their rebuke was clear and forthright - it was time for turning back to the loyalty of the Lamb.
I think we can too easily identify with the charge laid at the door of the Laodiceans - the human heart has a propensity to stray - the book of Revelation is written to draw us back to Christ alone. It teaches us what living for the Lamb is all about and it is built around what is the central vision of the book found in chapters 4 and 5.
Morgan writes, ‘In worship, the community of faith realizes its new identity under the lordship of the Lamb and under the conscious, intentional rejection of the claims to lordship made by Babylon/Rome. As the place where the new being is repeatedly practiced, worship is also a locus of resistance against the anti-God powers, and, since the Apocalypse was read out in worship, also a place of hearing, seeing, learning, and insight.’
Rome has quickly established itself as an imperial cult under the leadership of the Caesars, a term helpfully explained in Wikipedia. ‘An imperial cult is a form of state religion in which an emperor or a dynasty of emperors (or rulers of another title) are worshipped as demigods or deities. "Cult" here is used to mean "worship", not in the modern pejorative sense.’
The Imperial cult was inseparable from that of Rome's official deities, whose cult was essential to Rome's survival and whose neglect was therefore treasonous. It's when you understand the centrality of state worship in these terms that we start to understand the implication of making a counter claim to the Empire – the traditional greeting: ‘Caesar is Lord’, is replaced by the growing group of Christians: ‘No! Jesus is Lord’. We sing the words as a song – they sung them on the way to be doused in tar and set a light. No wonder they felt such a dilemma as to what loyalty to Jesus might mean for them.
This imperial cult was especially widespread in Asia Minor and the cities where the churches of Revelation were located. Pergamum, site of “Satan’s throne” (Rev 2:13)—possibly a reference to the temple of the imperial cult at the top of the city’s imposing acropolis—was permitted in 29 B.C., by the very first emperor, Augustus, to erect a temple to him and to Rome. Cities like Ephesus and Smyrna also had significant temples of the imperial cult. Ephesus was frequently recognized as a proper guardian of the imperial cult, and the city blended its worship of Artemis with worship of the emperor. Smyrna had built a temple to the goddess Roma in 195 B.C. and then one to Emperor Tiberius in A.D. 26. There was some form of the imperial cult in all seven cities. A challenge to all the churches – one which is addressed by John – the hearing and seeing one.
And so, ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near’ (Rev 1:3). The words of Revelation come to us from John – the prophet pastor in order that those following after the Lamb might be formed and transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
That’s why the book of Revelation should be read as a devotional quest. Where do our loyalties lie -and do those loyalties change with the latest idea, concept or challenge?
For the churches identified in Revelation the challenge of loyalty came at three levels:
Morgan sets well the tone of our own study when he writes: ‘That Revelation 2–3 contains an outline of church history seems rather forced and quite far-fetched. But the idea that these seven churches somehow symbolize the range of possible Christian churches—particularly the range of common dangers the churches face—is much more plausible.’
If our journey into the prophecy draws out such qualities in greater measure then maybe its done its job – of securing the hearts and minds of the followers of Jesus today. What is for certain the challenge of loyalty is one we all face – and often on several fronts, how we handle this determines whether with any level of integrity we can say in the face of any dominant empire or force, whether of this age or the one to come: Jesus is Lord.
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 772
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 825
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 985
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 2020
 Some having taken the seven churches and read them as different ages for the church – such a reading suggests that currently the age of the church is Laodicean but this is not the approach we are taking in these studies.
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 2003
News broke earlier this month that prolific song writer and main stay in the Hillsong Worship team, Marty Sampson has lost his faith and further more, according to his since removed Instagram feed, ‘he couldn’t be happier.’ It’s challenging news from someone who penned the lyrics to ‘O Praise The Name’ with the words, ‘I cast my mind to Calvary where Jesus bled and died for me’, and serves to remind us all that faith is very far from fixed - even for those whose platforms extend the globe.
His decision to go public comes off the back of another major influence in the evangelical world Joshua Harris whose book ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ was a mainstay for youth leaders seeking to lead their kids along the path towards marriage as part of the purity culture during the 90’s. He shared via social media both his decision to split from his wife and has stepped away from his faith in Christ and apologised that he ever wrote the book after numerous people spoke of the emotional and spiritual harm it brought them.
For Marty Sampson, it was in part the silence of the church to tackle issues he believes are very real that contributed to his doubts. In his Instagram account he wrote:
Time for some real talk. I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world. It’s crazy.
This is a soapbox moment so here I go … How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet—they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.
I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God. Got so much more to say, but for me, I keeping it real. Unfollow if you want, I’ve never been about living my life for others.
All I know is what’s true to me right now, and Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point. I could go on, but I won’t. Love and forgive absolutely. Be kind absolutely. Be generous and do good to others absolutely. Some things are good no matter what you believe. Let the rain fall, the sun will come up tomorrow.
A lot has been said of the ‘falling away of Sampson’. For my part I have to start by thinking of him as being brave. I mean consider what he’s given up to live true to himself? Security, platform, opportunity, community - he may of course find these in other places, but for now that is all part of the loss.
It’s true that we do no favours in not dealing with reality. When we don’t allow space for doubt and close down all conversations as a ‘lack of faith’ we only store up problems for the future.
The high profile confession of Sampson does however raise challenges within the evangelical community to do with fundamentalism and how we understand it, and why we must speak with maturity borne of humility into areas where we don’t carry all the answers. Apologetics has its part to play but the issue is deeper. Faith should not be cited alongside reason as if to set one against the other. If the evidence is strong enough then the pendulum will swing in favour of faith - if not then unbelief. The travelling companion of faith has never been reason but mystery. As the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘Beyond all things, the mystery of godliness is great.’
The themes of Sampson’s leaving are repeated time and again for those with ears to hear: science, sexuality, the miraculous - ‘we don’t talk about these issues’ he says. Well I do think that depends where you are positioned. To be honest, I like very many others, think about these things all the time!
There is a genuine challenge here and in a church that is giving more time to music (and I’m not against this and love many of the Hillsong songs) drawing deeply on emotion, we do well to pause and think because the person we are becoming is not found in the music as much as in the silence. We can easily feel like mountains have moved, giants have been conquered and miracles made when we are surrounded by 100 decibels - but what we need is living presence when we rest our head on the pillow and stare into the dark night of the soul. And I”m not sure we always do this well.
Emotion can be beautiful and music enthusiastically played in an intentionally created environment uplifting, but if it is not borne out in every day experiences then we create a disconnect that’s going to trip people up. The gap between the emotion of what is said should happen and the realities of what is happening leads to a disingenuous situation that challenges the integrity of good people that can become the breeding ground for doubt. For all of us faith has to be owned and refined, in a life that will test it. Doubt will always be part of this and somehow we need to create Christian communities that speak about it and help support people to process it well. My prayers are with Marty and for all of us when we are confronted with our doubts that we won’t see them as simply the antithesis of faith but rather the breeding ground of it.
We carry our doubts, fears, worries and concerns - the shackles that bind and blind. But Good Friday arrives, and all are absorbed into the mystery of Christ.
This is Good Friday.
It’s called Good Friday for a reason. It’s good because the badness of the world was dealt a comprehensive blow - good because this was the day death died. Christ dealt with sin that he might conquer death - to take victory from him who held the power of death: the devil. As it says, ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’
The Apostle Paul writes, ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.’ But the law only has power over those who can't keep it. To deal with death, sin must be extracted and for sin to be extracted the law must be upheld. So here comes the one who has ‘been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.’ The law is kept so the power of sin can be broken. And finally, the sting is removed, absorbed through Christ on the cross. The absorption of sin renders death powerless. The cycle is broken: ‘The death he died, he died to sin once for all.’
What’s more, ‘we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.’ The seed of death sown through sin - over which the devil held power is dealt its final blow and all heaven cries Hallelujah. The serpent is surpassed, his scheming ways crushed by the mystery of Christ. John exclaims: The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.’
'It is finished'.
This is Good Friday.
It’s good not simply because it’s an historical event - but because it’s a living experience. Christ's death offers new life - the old has gone and the new has come. We enter this as someone passing from death to life. As those leaving slavery and walking into freedom.
In the final triumph its exclaimed, ‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’
All things are being made new. The story continues - Good Friday is not the end, only the beginning of God's intention. Death's power is broken – whilst we still live under its' shadow as we wait the fulfilment of all things. 'When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
This is Easter's cry. Hope emerging from the tomb, rising, declaring – shouting:
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is GOOD Friday.
(Bible References in order: Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:56; Hebrews 4:15; Romans 6:10; Romans 6:9; 1 John 3:8; Revelation 21:5; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57.)