I suspect that if we were to draw up a list of our favourite promises of Jesus, one that would not be at the top of the list is “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Nonetheless, it is a totally realistic promise; it reminds us that God doesn’t put a fence around us Christians and protect us from hardship and suffering. We experience the same hardships as everyone else – health issues, stresses at work, family troubles, tragedies and so on – and also, depending on where we live, war, famine, injustice and oppression. And there’s also what a friend of mine calls ‘gospel suffering’ – suffering we experience because we’re followers of Jesus. In western Canada we don’t know much about this – the world tends to ignore us rather than persecute us – but for many of our sisters and brothers in the rest of the world today, it’s a stark reality.
How do you live as a Christian in difficult times? This was a vital question to the first readers of the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They lived in a time of increasingly vicious persecution of Christians at the hands of the state and of their pagan neighbours. In this situation, what do people need more than anything else? Do they need supportive therapy? Do they need an exact prophecy map giving them the details of the next few years? No; in this situation God decided that what they needed most was a ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ (v.1); a picture of Jesus in his glory, a reminder of who Jesus really is. That’s what we see in the opening verses of this book.
The Gospel of Christ has many strands, and each strand is applicable to different people in different situations. That’s why, when we share the Gospel with others, it’s so important to listen to people, to find out what particular God-shaped need they are struggling with in their lives, and to find the particular strand of the Gospel that is most appropriate for them in their need. This is what John has done in this passage in Revelation. In the New Testament Jesus is given many names and titles, but John has selected three of them that are particularly appropriate to his persecuted flock of believers in Asia Minor. You’ll find these three titles in Revelation 1:5.
‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth’.
First, Jesus is called the Faithful Witness – and there is sometimes a price to pay for being a faithful witness. One of the reasons it’s difficult to bring drug lords to trial is that witnesses are often terrified of this price. ‘If I stand up in public and speak the truth, what will happen to me and my family? What reprisals will there be?’
The Christians in Revelation knew all about this cost. Like all Christians, they knew Jesus was calling them to let it be known that they were his followers and to live their lives accordingly. Someone once asked facetiously, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” But for these Christians in Revelation, ‘conviction’ wasn’t just a metaphor; it was a literal possibility. For some of them, their businesses were suffering badly, because they refused to participate in trade guild meetings that inevitably included the offering of sacrifices to pagan gods. Many of them were being ostracized in their communities because they were not joining in the community sacrifices to the gods; they were seen as letting the side down and not doing their bit to keep the gods happy. And not too many years before, in the time of the emperor Nero, they remembered the vicious persecutions he had inflicted on Christians: he daubed them with pitch and set fire to them as human torches to light his processions; he threw them to wild beasts to be torn apart; he nailed hundreds of them up on crosses.
When John calls Jesus ‘the faithful witness’, he is reminding his hearers that Jesus went through the same thing. He was sent by his Father to bear faithful witness to the Father’s love and truth. As a result of his faithfulness, he was crucified. John is saying to his hearers “Your Lord knows what you are going through: he also spoke the truth and suffered the consequences”.
You and I do not face the danger of death for our faith, but being ‘faithful witnesses’ might well get us into trouble too. My friend John Bowen tells the story of a young businessman who was applying for a job. At a certain point in the job interview he was asked, “I see from your resume that you are a Christian. Does that mean that if we asked you to tell a lie for the good of our company, you would refuse to do so?” When he replied that it did, the interview was ended and he did not get the job. He was a faithful witness, and he was willing to suffer the consequences.
Where might God be calling you to be a ‘faithful witness’ for him? What is holding you back from answering the call? What possible consequences are you afraid of? Revelation challenges us to follow the example of Jesus: to do what God asks of us, to speak the truth as God has revealed it to us, and to put our trust in the one who was willing to lay down his life rather than compromise the message God had given to him.
Jesus is the faithful witness. Secondly, Jesus is called the firstborn from the dead.
George Burnham. Nate Saint. Janani Luwum. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oscar Romero. Jim Elliot. Eric Liddell. Sergei Kourdakov. Who are these people, and what do they all have in common? Answer: they are all 20th century Christians who lost their lives because of their faithfulness to Jesus. In the 20th century, more Christians were martyred for their faith than in all the previous nineteen centuries combined.
Our generation tries hard to avoid the reality of death. Funeral directors try hard to make bodies seem as lifelike as possible. We use euphemisms like ‘passed away’, ‘passed on’, and even ‘expired’. We look to drugs and advanced medical treatments to delay the day of our death as long as possible, and to cosmetics to give us that youthful look. In the New Testament the writer to the Hebrews speaks about ‘those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:15). I think he’s describing the world as we know it.
How is it that Jesus sets free those who are held in slavery by their fear of death? He does it by giving them a clear picture of what their future looks like. Jesus is ‘the firstborn from the dead’; in other words, he is the first to rise from the dead, and the implication is that there will be others to follow him. The New Testament teaches us that as Jesus was raised from the dead, so one day we will be raised from the dead as well. We will receive new bodies like his resurrection body, no longer subject to sickness, decay, and death, and we will live with him forever. Paul tells us that these new bodies will be related to our present ones in the same way as a seed is related to the plant that grows from it; there will be a connection, but what grows will be so much more than what we experience at present.
This was why the earliest Christians were able to face death so cheerfully. They had seen the Roman Empire crucify their Lord, but three days later they had seen him alive again from the dead. Brutal rulers had done the worst they could to Jesus, but in the end, he was the one who had the victory. Those early Christian saw that, and they remembered the Lord’s promise that “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:40). They knew this promise was true because they had seen it happen in the experience of Jesus, and so they were able to face death without fear, because they knew that one day there will be a resurrection.
Jesus is the faithful witness and the firstborn from the dead. Thirdly, Jesus is called the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Apparently when Hitler was once told that the Pope did not approve of some of the things he was doing, he replied scornfully “The Pope? How many divisions does he have?” Compared to the military might of Nazi Germany, the Pope seemed pretty powerless! And the Christians in Revelation must have felt the same way when they thought about the mighty legions of Imperial Rome and compared them to the little groups of persecuted believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor claimed the titles of ‘soter’ and ‘kyrios’ – ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’. He saved those he felt like saving, and ruled as lord with a rod of iron. What was the power of the crucified carpenter from Nazareth compared to that?
And yet today things look very different. The Emperor Nero may have executed the apostle Paul, but, as someone has said “The day would come when men would name their dogs ‘Nero’ and their sons ‘Paul’”! Today the power of Rome is remembered only by historians, but the Christian community is still living and thriving. It may seem to be in decline in North America, but around the world it is growing fast, especially in Third World countries. There can have been few people in the history of the planet earth who have had a greater effect on so many people than the crucified carpenter from Nazareth, Jesus our Saviour and Lord.
The lesson of history is that empires and rulers are only temporary. When I was a boy we talked about the British empire, ‘on which the sun never sets’, but the sun seems to have set on it now. The Soviet empire has gone; dictators like Amin and Saddam Hussein have gone, and one day the American world empire will undoubtedly meet the same fate. In the end, all rulers who set themselves up as absolute, and impose their will on others, will be answerable to the only one who is the real ruler of all: Jesus Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth.
So let’s go round this one last time:
First, Jesus is ‘the faithful witness’ – he faithfully did and said the things that God asked of him, and he suffered for it. So when we suffer because we’re his followers, we’re simply treading the path he trod, and that’s pretty good company to be in!
Second, Jesus is ‘the firstborn from the dead’. God raised him from the dead on the third day, and Jesus has promised that on the last day he will also raise us from the dead. So the grave doesn’t need to hold any terrors for us; for us, it’s the gate to victory.
Third, Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. This is the great reversal: on the one hand, the power and glory of great emperors and leaders, and on the other hand, the carpenter rabbi from Nazareth. But things are not as they seem! Jesus Christ is Lord, and he will have the last word. He won’t be answerable to the kings and rulers of the world: they’ll be answerable to him!
Which of these three titles means the most to you today, and why?