“At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated upon the throne! And He who sat there appeared as jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald.” Revelation 4:2-3
Some of the fallout from yet another awkward end-of-the-world prediction is the question of the relevancy of the book of Revelation. Many people reduce it to a sideshow by attempting to equate it to WW II, Viet Nam, the latest Middle East dust-up, 9/11, etc. This has been going on since the first century and, in my confident opinion, the book’s imagery makes abundant sense only if you stick to a first-century context.
Without question, Revelation has been a challenge even to devoted readers who are not into chart-making and date-setting. Many years ago in Baton Rouge, I visited dear little old lady whose eyesight was failing. She told me she had just finished reading the Bible through for the last time. I asked her if she would like me to read a passage for her and what her favorite book might be. She replied, “Oh, any of it would be fine, except Revelation. John must have had something bad to eat before he wrote that.”
I understand her struggle and the church’s struggle with Revelation, but I want to suggest two obvious themes in the book that clearly apply to any age and are critically needed by all Christians.
The first theme is God’s sovereignty, and the verse for this week’s GraceWaves takes us to the heart of a key part of John’s vision. The first three chapters of the book contain an introduction and a vision of the exalted Christ speaking words of commendation and judgment for the church, His body. Chapter 4 opens with an angelic invitation to ascend to heaven, and there John beholds a throne. Only the King sits upon the throne, so this is God Himself.
The description is not physically detailed but radiantly colorful, for as the hymn writer put it: “only the splendor of light hideth Thee.” God’s brilliance indescribably pulses and radiates, creating a dazzling rainbow about Him. The vision is a sensory overload for the poor servant who hears peals of thunder from the throne (v. 5). The sea of glass (v. 6) might represent the distance between God and His creatures, or more likely, I believe, the infinite peace that emanates from God Almighty.
Once you understand some of the symbols, and it’s really not that difficult, the meaning becomes clearer. The Roman Empire in all its power and glory is a paltry thing. It can shake the church, kill some leaders, exile John himself, but even its emperors changed every few years (John had seen 11). The Kingdom of Heaven knows no limits and its King never dies. The early persecuted readers of this vision would certainly have understood the enduring reminder that they are part of that Kingdom and are subjects of that all-powerful God.
Whatever you face this Monday, or whenever you read this, you are likely to face something less imposing than an empire. Whatever may shake you pales in comparison to a brilliant, glorious, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. You too are part of His Kingdom. You are His. Whatever happens to you, never forget the King is still in residence and His flag still flies. Revelation reminds us of that.
The second theme from this now apparently very straightforward book, is found sprinkled throughout. We find it in Jesus’ approving words for several churches who have demonstrated “patient endurance” (2:2, 2:19, 3:10), a word that implies a hopeful straining-forward-into-the- wind type of patience. We find the theme in His call to “be faithful” (2:10), and “hold fast my name” (2:13).
We hear the theme most clearly when the beasts appear (the Roman Empire and its prophet) and begin to do their worst: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints” (13:10, 14:12). This invitation/exhortation applies when any beasts come prowling. The temptation to fling away from faith is often strong. Part of the function of the entire Bible, part of the function of the church is to extend a consistent call for endurance. Keep believing. No matter how difficult your way becomes, keep the faith and patiently endure. We all need to hear this call regularly.
These twin themes of Revelation, God’s sovereignty and our need for patient endurance, are particularly important today. We need to recapture on a grand scale the truth of God’s majesty, for we live in a coarse and common culture. Frankly much of what passes for worship today is so consumer-driven that we risk reducing God which is, of course, idolatry. God is God, and we should bow before Him no matter how we feel.
As for the call for endurance, no exhortation may be more important for a Christian in any age. Particularly today, however, the popularity of “deliverance preaching” produces a distorted theology that simply does not correspond to reality. By proclaiming an easy faith, one in which God does our bidding, we are producing disciples for a world that simply does not exist.
Life is hard, and so is faith. But the message of Revelation both assures and challenges us. God is great, and we endure no matter how difficult the way becomes.
Dr. Terry Ellis
June 5, 2011