Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 3 (Rev 5:1-4)

Posted by R. Fowler White

We know the plot of Rev 1–4 pretty well. Our King Jesus dictated seven messages to prepare His church for the battlefield of this world. We’re to follow Him into battle with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom until He returns. In His seven messages, Christ tells us time and again that He knows the state of every congregation in His church. He tells us that for most of His congregations, the chief problem is that we prefer the majority culture to the church’s historic faith and practice, and so we jeopardize our Christian identity. If that is King Jesus’s diagnosis of our problem, what’s His remedy? We’ve seen the first part of His prescription in Rev 4. As we keep reading, we realize that the scene in ch. 4 continues uninterrupted into ch. 5. The Lord our God, who is worshiped in 4:8-11, is before us again in ch. 5, but this time the vision adds even more depth and breadth to our understanding of Christ’s remedy for His church.[i]

John’s vision in ch. 5 opens with him seeing a scroll in the right hand of the Lord God Almighty. As for the scroll’s appearance, it’s written within and on the back. It’s a double-sided document like the scroll handed to Ezekiel (2:10). In addition, similar to the sealed scrolls of Isaiah and Daniel, it’s a sealed document, signaling that it’s not just important but also authentic, unchanged, and unchangeable. The scroll has seven seals, suggesting that it’s filled up, complete, and comprehensive. As for the scroll’s content, it reveals God’s plan, His predetermined agenda, for the ages, covering the development of all of sacred history. The scroll’s content, though partially revealed and documented in the OT, focuses in Revelation especially on sacred history from the cross to the new creation.[ii] In other words, the scroll covers God’s plan for the rest of this age and the age to come. But we can say more: from the worship described in ch. 5, we also learn that the scroll is a last will and testament of inheritance for the heirs of God. This scroll, then, contains God’s plan for the destiny of this world and of all who are in it.

John’s vision of the scroll of inheritance notwithstanding, the scene in ch. 5 takes an unexpected turn. A powerful angel from God’s palace in heaven addresses anyone who has ears with a loud voice: Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? In other words, who is qualified, who has the ability and the authority to execute God’s plan of salvation and judgment?[iii] As John looks on, not one created being in heaven or on earth steps forward. Those creatures know what the scroll represents: they know no creature has either the autonomy to direct history to its proper conclusion or the capacity to carry out God’s plan of inheritance.[iv] Seeing that no creature qualified to open the scroll, John breaks into tears, weeps loudly, greatly, intensely. Can we even imagine such a thing: crying in heaven? He aches for God’s plan to be accomplished, yet he knows that human beings can’t depend on mere creatures, human or angelic, earthly or heavenly, to carry out God’s plan for the destiny of this world—and that knowledge moves him to sob.

How does this scene in Rev 5 move us? If it were not for the vision that John sees next, it should make us weep as John did. Why? Because the drama in God’s heavenly palace in Rev 5:1-4 reminds John and his readers that no creature can rescue them from the dangers on the battlefield of this world. No creature, even among those in heaven, is empowered to fulfill God’s purposes in salvation or judgment. There is no creature, not even one from heaven, who is qualified to secure the future of Christ’s church. Put this together with Christ’s seven messages, and it hits us how vulnerable the congregations in Asia Minor were to the world’s allure. In fact, so are ours. This world is a threatening place for Christians and congregations with our many liabilities. So where does all this leave us? Out of fear or trust of the world, some would negotiate (i.e., compromise) to ensure rights and privileges and to avoid penalties and punishments. Following John’s example and his words, however, there is a better choice: learn the lessons of the scene that comes next in Rev 5:5-7. It turned John’s sorrow into joy, his weeping into worship—and it ought to have the same impact on us.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 337.
[ii] Beale, 341.
[iii] Beale, 348.
[iv] Beale, 338.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 2 (Rev 4:8-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

If the seven letters of Rev 2–3 are any indication, it’s hard for most of the congregations of Christ’s church to resist the world’s offers of influence and affluence, especially when the alternatives are life at the margins, in the shadows, and worse. So, what exactly should churches do to resist the world’s allure? As we saw in a previous post, we resist by keeping before us the vision that King Jesus has given to us in Rev 4:1-7: a revelation of the Lord our God in the splendor of holiness, the grandeur of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace surrounded by His court. Yet Christ gives us even more to see and hear in heaven above, more to make us bold on the battlefield of this world. Christ presents to us the never-ending worship of the attendants of the Lord God Almighty. What started in 4:1-7 as a heavenly montage unfolding before John’s eyes now becomes a scene of adoration and acclamation in Rev 4:8-11.[i]

John begins by telling us about the worship of the four living creatures (4:8). With six wings they are shielded before the brilliance of God’s holy presence; they are equipped to do His bidding with alacrity. Full of eyes they are attentive and perceptive. Day and night, they never cease to praise. They break out in choral song, extolling the Creator God for His perfections. First, they honor Him, the God of heaven and earth, as Holy, holy, holy. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably superior to and separate from all His creatures, even the sinless ones. But especially when compared with His sinful creatures, there is not a trace of evil desire, of impure motive, or of unholy inclination in Him. Second, they pointedly hail the God of heaven and earth as the Lord God Almighty. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably all-powerful, omnipotent. Here is the one Being who does whatever He wills, however and whenever He wills it. Only He can do, and does do, all His holy will. Third, they also adore the God of heaven and earth as the One who was and is and is to come. He is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably beyond time and history. He has always existed; He will always exist. He never began; He will never end. He does not grow; He does not age. He sees and knows each event and all events of history as one. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the four living creatures in heaven? Surely, the world’s siren song pales by comparison.

John’s focus shifts from the four living creatures to the twenty-four elders, who are also worshiping (4:9-11). Perhaps these who represent the redeemed of both Testaments are singing antiphonally with the four living creatures; perhaps they are singing harmony. In any case, these angelic officers of the heavenly court fall down (4:9), throwing themselves to the ground as an act of devotion and humility before the ever-living Lord God Almighty. They cast their crowns before His throne, paying Him homage, submitting to His supremacy. They ascribe all worthiness, the highest worthiness, to Him as Creator. He exerts His sovereign power and will in creating and sustaining all things, and His sovereignty in creation and preservation guarantees the fulfillment of His purposes in re-creation. Do we hear the never-ending worship of the twenty-four elders in heaven? For those with ears to hear it, the heavenly anthem drowns out all music but its own, including the world’s siren song.

So, what do we do when the congregations of Christ’s church seem indifferent to the boundaries between the world and the church? When the world presents us a choice between economic security and influence, on the one hand, and society’s margins and shadows, on the other, how exactly will we resist the world’s siren song? King Jesus gives us a better song to sing: the chorus sung by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. We’ll join that everlasting song because the issue at stake for us is not merely a first amendment issue; it is a first and greatest commandment issue. So we’ll praise the Lord God Almighty for His perfections. We’ll rejoice in our eternal God and His unceasing rule in and over history. No matter the time or place, no matter the trial, our holy, eternal God is enthroned in heaven. He alone is the Creator and Preserver of all things, so we’ll resist the world’s allure and sing of Him in the splendor of holiness, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.[ii]

[i] J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation, vol. 20, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Rev 4:1.
[ii] M. Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, 2471.

Heaven’s Splendor vs. The World’s Allure, Pt. 1 (Rev 4:1-7)

Posted by R. Fowler White

The messages dictated by King Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor in Rev 2–3 are meant to prepare us readers to follow Him onto the battlefield of this world, with the mission to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom. From those messages, we learn that the battle is hard for most churches. The difficulties for the seven churches came not because they were universally poor, or totally alienated from their culture, or even subject to government-sponsored persecution. No, for the most part, those churches—five of seven, to be exact—were weak or self-satisfied, compromising with the majority culture, blurring the boundary between the historic faith and practice of Christ’s church and the beliefs and behaviors of the world, all to secure their “place at the table” and, with it, their viability. The issue at stake, in other words, was not a first amendment issue; it was a first (and greatest) commandment issue. Squeezed into the world’s mold, they were jeopardizing their Christian identity. Sound familiar?

Well, what’s the remedy when congregations are blurring the lines with the world’s beliefs and behaviors, when they’re feeble or complacent and compromising their Christian identity? Christ Jesus, the Lord and Head of His church, gives His answer in Rev 4. He gives John a fresh vision of the Divine Palace in heaven where the Sovereign Divine Ruler sits enthroned, surrounded by His court of attendants (4:2b-7). It’s a marvel of sight and sound unlike anything on earth.

John describes what his eyes can see of the invisible God Himself (4:3). God makes Himself visible to John in a splendor like that of precious light-diffusing stones that intensify the radiance emanating from His throne, the unapproachable brightness surrounding the Deity Himself.[i] Displayed in this portrait is God’s magnificent grandeur, His dazzling glory and, from the rainbow, His abundant mercy. Ineffably sublime, here is the One who is the Majesty enthroned on high!

To enhance our grasp of God’s cosmic supremacy, John’s eyes pan around to His attendants. Around the throne (4:4) are twenty-four elders seated on thrones. Reminiscent of both the twenty-four divisions of old covenant priests and also of the twelve tribal fathers of old Israel with the twelve apostles of the new Israel, these angelic officers of the heavenly court represent the entire community of the redeemed of both Testaments.[ii] Dressed in white garments and wearing golden crowns, they are upright and holy, having a majesty all their own. From the throne (4:5) come flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, evoking the sights and sounds of Mt Sinai. God appears here in His holy power, ready to reveal His judgment and His salvation. Before the throne (4:5-6) are burning seven lamps of fire, which are the seven Spirits of God. Present with God on the throne is God the Spirit in His sevenfold fullness, just as Isaiah described Him in Isa 11:2. Before the throne was also something akin to a sea of glass like crystal, waters quieted by God’s power, like those at creation, after the flood, after the Red Sea and Jordan crossings, in the bronze basin of the tabernacle and temple courtyard. Together with the precious stones, this sea of crystalline glass suggests just how resplendent God’s throne is. Also around the throne (4:6b-7) are four living creatures. Guarding and supporting God’s throne like the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa ch. 6) and like the cherubim that Ezekiel saw (Ezek chs. 1 and 10), this rank of angels embodies all the highest attributes of living creation, projecting the likenesses of a lion (the greatest and fiercest undomesticated animal), an ox (the strongest domesticated animal), a man (the ruler of all animals), and an eagle (the noblest bird).[iii]

The contrast between the grandeur of the Divine Palace in heaven and the allure of the world’s blandishments could hardly be more stark. Offers of influence and affluence from the world are hard to resist for churches, particularly the weak or complacent, when their earthly alternatives are a place at the margins, in the shadows, or worse. So, how exactly do churches resist the world’s siren song? By remembering what King Jesus gave all seven churches in Asia Minor. Along with His open letters to them, He gave them a revelation of the Lord God in the splendor of heaven’s holiness. That is the vision He gives us too. Captivated by that vision, we won’t do what most churches in Asia Minor did, even if we’re pushed to the margins and the shadows. We won’t blur the boundary between the world and the church. We won’t jeopardize our Christian identity to ensure financial peace and influence. Instead, we’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to join, in Spirit and truth, the creatures in heaven around God’s throne. We’ll heed Christ’s call from heaven to engage in the single most important activity of all time and space: the worship of our Divine Sovereign in His Heavenly Palace, surrounded by His court of attendants. Then, as heavenly-minded strangers and pilgrims in this world, we’ll “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and we’ll carry out the mission our King has given us, speaking the truth in love to bring God’s chosen captives out of Satan’s kingdom into His kingdom.

[i] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 321.
[ii] Beale, 323.
[iii] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, and D. M. Doriani, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 171.

Why John Didn’t Go Quietly Into Exile (Rev 1:12-20)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In a recent post on Rev 1:9-11, we said that the Apostle John did not go quietly into exile, and neither should we. He fulfilled his prophetic commission from Christ and wrote Revelation, inspiring our courage by highlighting not only the condition of Christ’s churches but also the position of Christ Himself. Having looked at the condition of Christ’s churches in Rev 1:9-11, John looks also at the position of Christ in Rev 1:12-20. In brief, the Apostle John bears witness that the resurrected and ascended Christ is in the glory of heaven, ruling and tending the congregations of His church. You need courage, church? Look no further than to Christ in glory.

John bears witness in Rev 1:12-16 to the glorious Christ he had heard and seen. The Apostle had heard a loud voice like a trumpet, as Moses did at Mt Sinai, and he had seen seven golden lampstands and one like a Son of Man among them. The lampstands show us the churches positioned in the heavenly temple as bearers of light, but John wants our attention drawn to Christ Jesus, as his was. Even as one like a Son of Man, the Christ John had seen is more than a mere human. He is the Messianic King with all authority in heaven and on earth, in this world and in the world to come, and He is the Head over all things to His church. Clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest, He is dressed as the High Priest of heaven in holiness, beauty, and majesty. With the hairs of His head … white, like white wool, like snow, Christ is one with the Ancient of Days in Daniel’s prophecy, crowned with purity and wisdom. With His eyes … like a flame of fire, He is the Judge who dispenses rewards and penalties with all holy justice. With His feet … like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, Christ glorified possesses incorruptible, unchanging moral spotlessness and splendor. With His voice … like the roar of many waters, He speaks with awe-inspiring power and majesty. In His right hand Christ holds seven stars, exercising complete control over even the heavenly host of angels. From His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, declaring His invincible word of judgment. With a countenance of radiant majesty, His face was like the sun shining in full strength. This is the glorious Christ whom John had heard and seen.

No wonder, like the OT prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, John was literally laid out on the floor, overwhelmed with reverence and awe (Rev 1:17a). And how did Christ respond to him (Rev 1:17b-20)? He comforted John with a touch of His hand, with words of comfort, with words about Himself, reminding John of who He is. He declared, “I am the first and the last, transcendent over time, God Eternal who governs history from beginning to end and brings world affairs to their climax in salvation and judgment.[1] And I am the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore. Not even death can frustrate My purposes. I’ve even made My own death the way to new life for My believing people. On top of that, though Death did hold Me in its grip for a short time, I now have the keys of Death and Hades. You see, not only could Death not hold Me forever, I now exercise power and control over Death and Hades, over body and soul, for joy or for anguish.”

Now we know why John didn’t go quietly into exile: he knew Jesus Christ glorified. Do we? We have to ask because the Jesus John had seen and heard was not the Jesus of so many self-identified evangelicals today. He was not the first and greatest being created by God. He was not merely a great teacher. No, the Jesus John had come to know was and is God Incarnate, resurrected and ascended, the One in whom all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. This God-man is now in glory, ruling and tending the congregations of His church as He commends and corrects them, as He exhorts and warns them. Such is His ministry to ensure that His people are fit to serve as light bearers in this dark world.[2] It was none other than this Jesus who inspired John with the courage to fulfill his prophetic commission. And it is none other than this Jesus who will inspire us with the courage to fulfill our evangelistic commission.

More and more in today’s world, we who confess the historic Christian faith and moral vision are being made to look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. If we would stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by our opponents (Phil 1:27-28), we must take courage from knowing the Jesus John saw and heard: Christ in the glory of heaven, ruling and tending the congregations of His church.

[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (1999), 213.
[2] Beale, 211.

John Did Not Go Quietly Into Exile (Rev 1:9-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you (1 John 1:1-3). All that and more is why the Apostle John wrote as he did in Revelation 1. He wrote out of his own up-close-and-personal experience of the resurrected and ascended Jesus, out of his own transformed life, and out of his participation in the early church’s phenomenal growth. In truth, he also wrote as he did because he saw in his day, as we see in ours, Christians being shoved to the margins of societal life or sent off into cultural exile. John, however, did not go quietly, and neither should we. In Revelation he speaks to us still, having written to inspire our courage by spotlighting not only the condition of Christ’s churches but also the position of Christ Himself. Consider first the condition of Christ’s churches in this world, according to Rev 1:9-11. In sum, says John, the churches are in tribulation (conflict), as he was. Transformed, however, as we are by the resurrection and ascension of Christ Jesus, John underlines crucial facts of the life that he, as our brother and partner, shares with us who are in the congregations of Christ’s church (Rev 1:9).

We share in the tribulation that is ours in Christ. Like it or not, the church of Christ Jesus is at odds and in conflict with the world. The world, at its origin and at its worst, criminalizes the church, persecutes the church. Why? Because, among other things, when we’re faithful, we don’t make the same choices that our society does, in belief or behavior. When we’re faithful, we’re different; we’re foreigners with no intention of assimilating, because we’re not, first, citizens of this world. We’re exiles in this world, at odds with it. We also share in the kingdom that is ours in Christ. We believers are not only subjects in the kingdom of King Jesus. He has freed us from our sins by His blood and has–already–made us His kingdom of priests together under Him. Our victorious reign in history is not only in the future. No, the kingdom is ours now in King Jesus. We also share in the patient endurance that is ours in Christ. The church of Christ perseveres in faith with good works despite conflict from the world. When we’re faithful, we do not compromise our witness in the face of trials; we resist the forces of evil, seen or unseen. When we’re faithful, we defeat sin in our lives, and we defy death and Satan.

Through the faith that we Christians share in the resurrected and ascended Jesus, we share a common identity, a transformed identity given to us by God. We’re siblings and partners in the conflict, kingdom, perseverance that are ours in King Jesus. Oh, yes, from time to time, the world allows us to lead peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim 2:2). But our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom does not shield us from suffering at the world’s hands. In its gut, the world scoffs at our identity. Taking the form of any branch of any government from any party, the world will seek, overtly or covertly, to interfere with the practice of the Christian faith or even to run Christ’s church. Yet this remains true: the resurrected and ascended Jesus has transformed us into siblings and partners in tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance.

Though we share a transformed identity with the Apostle John, he also underlines how he differs from us. King Jesus, John tells us, had transformed him into a prophet with a special commission to write a book to us his siblings and partners. John rehearsed the particulars of his transformation for us (Rev 1:10-11).

He had been exiled to Patmos for his testimony and ministry. He had been deemed an enemy of the state. Government officials had exiled him to Patmos, a small island in the Aegean Sea where Rome relocated those deemed a danger to its political and religious order. Barred from leaving the island, possibly sentenced to hard labor in the quarries on Patmos, this was John’s part in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance that are ours in King Jesus. Despite his exile, however, John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, on the true Emperor’s day–Sunday–the day of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. There in the state of worship and revelation, he received a special commission from King Jesus to write a book–that is, a scroll–to the seven churches of Asia Minor. That commission made John different from others in the church.

Will we be careful to heed John’s word and example? You see, despite his exile, poverty, and affliction, John had continued to worship and serve Christ Jesus and to bear witness to the gospel of salvation. John did not go quietly into exile. Those of us who share in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in King Jesus will not do so either.[1]

[1] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 61.