Jesus Christ: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth

Reading
Revelation 1.4b–8

Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with the eyes of the man with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experiences and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes—promise, exodus, resurrection and Spirit—come alive. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Kindle ed’n, loc.394.

______________________

It was a Sunday. John was on the island of Patmos. Patmos is a Greek island, but John wasn’t there on holiday. He had been exiled to Patmos, confined there, imprisoned there. I doubt they had a cocktail hour or any all-you-can-eat buffets on Patmos.

It was a Sunday, the ‘Lord’s Day’, and John was ‘in the Spirit’. His eyes were opened to a vision in which he 

saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

But we’re getting ahead of things now. Let’s look at what John says in today’s reading. It begins,

John to the seven churches that are in Asia…

John is writing to seven representative churches in ‘Asia’, that is, what we call Asia Minor. It’s where Turkey is today. 

The people in these churches knew who John was. We don’t—it’s very unlikely to be the same ‘John’ who is credited with writing the Gospel and the letters that bear his name.

John is writing to specific people in particular situations. John rebukes them for the compromises they were making. He tells the church at Ephesus ‘you have abandoned the love you had at first’. The church at Pergamum has followed false teaching. And to the Laodicean church he writes

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

These churches were tempted to compromise, to fit in with the Empire’s way of doing things. Why? Because they were living under pressure. Even persecution. And that is the one thing they all had in common.

We find the Book of Revelation strange these days because for the most part it adopts a language of images. It’s an ‘apocalypse’. When we say the word apocalypse, we think of zombies and the destruction of the world; but ‘apocalypse’ actually means ‘revelation’. An apocalypse reveals the God who is hidden from us.

So what does John say in today’s little snippet? It begins

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.

Here we have an early form of the Trinity. God is eternal, the One ‘who is and who was and who is to come’. God is ‘I am who I am’, who spoke to Moses from the burning bush.

The Holy Spirit is ‘the seven spirits who are before [God’s] throne’. Are there seven Holy Spirits? No, John uses numbers in a particular way. Seven is the number of completion, of fullness, of wholeness. The seven spirits are the fullness of God’s Spirit. Later, there’ll be a Lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. What’s that? The sevens are there for a reason: with seven eyes, the Lamb sees everything; a horns is a sign of authority; with seven horns, the Lamb has all authority in heaven and on earth.

See the picture language?

It’s not literally a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. It’s not literally seven spirits.

So John offers his readers grace and peace from the eternal God; from the Holy Spirit; and from Jesus Christ. Jesus is

the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Let’s look at that more closely.

The faithful witness:

A witness tells what they have heard and seen. A witness testifies to what she knows is true. A Christian witness will testify even if it is hard to do so. The Greek word ‘witness’ is the same as our word for a martyr. A witness testifies even if it kills them. 

Jesus witnessed up to and including death on a cross.

The firstborn of the dead:

Jesus is not risen alone. Through the Holy Spirit, we are risen with him now in hope; we shall rise with him in reality. Dominic Crossan’s latest book is entitled Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the Original Vision of Easter. What is the original vision? It is this: We are risen also with Christ and in Christ. 

A new world is coming, and the Book of Revelation proclaims this at the very end of the book, as the New Jerusalem descends upon the renewed earth. Jesus is the firstborn of this new creation.

The final title John gives Jesus gets us to the very thing this day celebrates: Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth.

This is amazing! Around sixty years before this book was written, Imperial Rome had crucified this Jesus as an agitator. Three days later, his followers, the women first, were claiming they had seen him alive. John was exiled on Patmos for testifying about the living, risen Lord Jesus. 

But the powers that be still appear to have the upper hand. John now testifies in exile, yet still he says Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’.

Can you imagine how Caesar would have laughed at that? But answer me this: who knows who was Caesar when Revelation was written? But while many people today may be sadly ignorant about Jesus, they have heard his name. (Domitian was Caesar then, by the way. How often do you hear of him?)

Jesus ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’ has something to say to those who rule and lead people today. Briefly, it’s this:

…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Who are these ‘members of Christ’s family’? They are anyone who is hungry or thirsty, a stranger, or without clothing or in prison. (Matthew 25.35–46)

What kind of king is this? A king who gives his life for his people and sets them free to love one another. Yet not a king without authority.

Recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he cried and prayed ‘on his knees’ for kids on Nauru (SBS). Whatever our political opinions, perhaps we can have some empathy for the plight that the Prime Minister found himself in. Yet he has been and is in a position to change the lives of asylum seekers for the better. He could resolve his own professed dilemma.

And Jesus says, 

…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

What kind of king is Jesus Christ?

A king who requires a lot from us. We could also scoff at Scott Morrison’s dilemma, but we’re in a dilemma too. We are not the Prime Minister, but (for example) we do vote. We can sign petitions, give money, go to rallies, pray. And like Scott Morrison, we too can feel sad about the plight of those on Nauru or Manus but do nothing to help. 

This King of kings requires those who lead to serve ‘the least of these who are members of Christ’s family’. And, we can say, in a democracy this King of kings requires us at a minimum to vote with ‘the least’ as our priority. Will our vote help or hurt ‘the least’?

The risen Jesus appeared to John ‘clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash’, with eyes ‘like a flame of fire’, and ‘feet like burnished bronze’, a ‘voice like the sound of many waters’ and a face ‘like the sun shining with full force’. And a sword coming out of his mouth!

At first glance, it seems like the risen One really is coming to kick arse. How does this vision gel with the king who identifies with the hungry, the thirsty, stranger, naked or imprisoned?

The risen One of Revelation burns with righteous anger, yes, but anger for ‘the least’. The sword that comes from his mouth is his word, which demands justice for the poor. 

Yet the way the risen One, the King of kings, goes about this work of justice is always the same: through love which is faithful even to death.

Can we follow him? Not as a new Goliath who slays the wicked, but as a king who rules by serving others and who calls us to join him? 

Goliath seems to win so often in this day and age. But we follow the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth, the risen crucified One. Jesus has already won the victory through giving his life for us; he is King of kings even now; he calls us to his side.

 

Preached at West End Uniting Church, 25 November 2018

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Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, the risen crucified One

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