Revelation 1: 1-3 WHAT SOON MUST TAKE PLACE - Rev. G. VanDooren (bio)
Revelation 1: 1 -3
We would like to take you for a walk through the first of the 66 books of the divine library, that is, the Revelation of Jesus Christ to the apostle John during his exile on the island Patmos.
.Everyone who takes that walk is immediately confronted with the question, 'What are we going to do with this extraordinary book?", and of course: 'What is this book going to do to us?"
Are we going to join the many Bible critics who see in this book really no more than a patch-work of all kinds of unbelievable things, put together by John, or maybe by someone else under his name, picking from left and right from Jewish and even pagan apocalyptic fantasies, woven around names like Levi, Baruch and Enoch or other, outer- biblical names?
Or are we going to follow the example of many Bible believers who find in this "revelation" a jigsaw-puzzle, built from fragments from all over the Old Testament, taken out of context, and glued together into a picture of the Rapture and the Millennium?
Or is this book really a labyrinth, better avoided by those who do not want to get lost in it, far away from the simplicity of simple faith?
Should we leave it alone?
As you well know, this last book of the Bible is certainly not left alone in our days, especially since the Gulf War. Millions of people, convinced that they respect the Bible as divinely inspired, find in this book a box of Pandora, from which they pull all kinds of fantastic information about the number 666, or 144 000, Armageddon, Gog and Magog and a restoration of Old-Israel for a thousand years.
Since that Desert Storm the publications of such interpreters have become very prolific.
Shall we listen to them, and follow their lead?
To begin with, who do we think we are? Are we going to sit above this Bible-book and cut it apart at will and at random?
Or will we bow under it, according to our Confession, Art. 5, We receive all these books [mentioned in Art. 4, the last one being The Revelation to the Apostle John] and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation and confirmation of our faith. We believe without doubt all things contained in them'?
Of course, such a simple quotation is not sufficient to enter the last book of God's Word. Yes! There you have it: God's Word. Many people, even some official translations, make the mistake of calling it 'The Revelation of John". It is, as we read it in our text, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God Gave Him. God gave it. It is a gift of God to the seven churches to which it was addressed in the first place. The seven churches each got a special letter from Jesus Christ, chapters 2 and 3. But it is a gift of God to all the churches of Jesus Christ till the end of the age.
Proof that this Revelation is a gift from God, and that it is the word of God is that this book given from heaven consists for the greater part of quotations from all the previous sixty-five books. It is painted with, and in the colours of the books of Moses, the prophets, the gospels. The LORD our God has the greatest respect for His own Word. He confirms it by building this last book of His from the building materials given in all those earlier books.
This book is not given to us to confuse us, to uncover all kinds of gruesome things that are going to happen in "these last days". No! Blessed is he who reads aloud and blessed are those who hear. It is a blessing, it is the only comfort in life and death. It is a gospel, the Gospel, the Good Tiding of Jesus Christ.
And that's how we are going to read it, now and in the coming weeks. Summarizing these opening verses, we hear them tell us, it is:
THE REVELATION OF GOD
GIVEN TO JESUS CHRIST
SHOWN TO HIS CHURCHES
The text speaks about:
1. The cover taken off
2. A rapid succession
3. A blessed congregation
In response we will sing Ps 122:3.
1. The Cover Taken off
In this sermon about the first verses, the "Introduction" you may say, some more introductory remarks have to be made.
The first one has to be that our text is really a summary of what we read in the last chapter, chapter 22. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit John follows here the custom of many authors of books: The Introduction is written last, after the completion of the book. Thus John, when he wrote this address to the seven churches, had already seen everything of this one revelation (do not use the plural "revelations"), this one revelation given to him in successive pictures. We must bear in mind that we must keep an eye and ear on the whole book, while we read the opening words.
Then there is that little but most-important word must in verse 1: What must soon take place. In the original Greek this must indicates the unfolding of a divine plan. The Lord Jesus, while on earth, lived with this must. He already used it as a boy, I must be about my Father's business, Luke 2:49, the Son of man must suffer many things. Mk 8:31, The Son of man must be delivered, must be lifted up, and so on.
This is a must not of cold, impersonal facts, creating fatalism. No, it is the word of the God of John 3:16 who so loved the world, the God of the good-pleasure for sinners. This must that guided our Saviour during his earthly life of suffering and death, now continues to guide Him in the glory of His exaltation, the glory of gathering His Church from His heavenly throne.
The revelation which God gave. Revelation, literally taking away the cover. The cover over what? The cover over what soon must take place. With John we would know nothing of what soon must take place (it is covered from our eyes) unless someone, in this case God Himself "reveals" and takes away the cover. This divine uncovering, as always, works in two directions. Not only the cover must be taken off from the things that are soon to take place We must take on our lips the prayer, so often heard from the lips of God's children, like in Psalm 119:18 Open my eyes, that I may behold this wondrous things . . .. Like in the case of Elishah's servant, the prophet prayed, Lord, open his eyes so that he may see. We need this prayer. We are in need of such an opening of our eyes, so that we may see the uncovering of things that soon must take place.
Now we should discover from the words of our text, how this Revelation came down and is coming down. It is like coming down along a ladder with a number of rungs. The top of the ladder reaches into heaven, or rather the ladder is let down from heaven, from God. That is the highest rung: the revelation which God gave, the God whose glory as Creator is sung in chapter 4.
Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for thou didst create all things, and by
thy will they existed and were created.
The top of the ladder. There is that MUST of the execution of His eternal will and counsel.
Before we go down the next rung of the ladder, it may be noted that what we are going to see is not exclusively the very last days. The book of Revelation gives us a visionary picture of the whole new dispensation that started when our Lord and Saviour sat down in the heavenly throne. But not only that. When going through Revelation, we will note every time that it refers to the time of the Old Dispensation. It speaks in the words of the plagues sent by God to Pharaoh and his Egypt. It uses the colours and pictures of the journey through the desert. It repeatedly speaks about what happened at the beginning of history when the dragon, the old serpent, stood before the woman. At the end that old serpent proves to be the last survivor of all antichristian powers in the history of this world. (chapter 20)
Thus we may say that Revelation speaks about the future, the last days, but certainly not only about the future. It tells us about what was the present for those seven churches, see only vs. 19 of this chapter: Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter. And it speaks as much about the past; in chapter 4 about creation, in ch. 12 about what happened in paradise in Egypt and in Bethlehem. Further you will hear about Egypt, Babylon, and so on . . .. Many quotations from Daniel and Ezekiel remind us of that past. As much as the blessing comes from Him who is and who was and who is to come, vs 4, so as much His book speaks about what is and what was and what is to come. Because past, present, and future are all one in the great drama proclaimed by God in paradise, the battle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.
And thus, with this in mind, we go down the ladder one rung: the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him. We must never overlook the names that are used for our Saviour. Here it is Jesus and Christ. The first name, given by the angel to Joseph and Mary, shows Him as the Son of Man. The second name as the one ordained by God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit, as we confess in Lord's Day 12. He is the one who received His mandate from God after He had become the son of Mary, and He fulfilled that mandate up till the moment that He sat down in the throne.
This already answers your questions which I hear coming. When and where and how did God give this Revelation to Jesus Christ? The answer to all these questions is given in chapter 5. And there you see again that our text, a summary of chapter 22, and written after the book was finished, includes what happened when no one could take the scroll from Him who sat upon the throne except the Lion of Judah, the Lamb of God. God gave that scroll, containing past, present and future, to His Son who gave His blood for sinners.
You may thus say that this event of the Father giving the scroll
to the Son is also described in Matthew 28: Unto Me has been given all authority in heaven and one earth, and
in 1 Corinthians 15, for He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet, vs. 25. Yes, on
the day that Psalm 24 was fulfilled:
Lift up your heads, you arch and gate;
0 ancient doors, rise up and wait..
Let Him come in, the King of glory!
From now on He has everything under control. He will break open the seals, the seven seals of the scroll that the Father has given to Him. That's a must, the must of God's eternal good-pleasure. Isn't that a wonderful comfort already, in these first lines of the book, a comfort for the seven churches at the eve of persecution, a comfort for us who see the world around us changing by the month? What may all come of out of this chaos? But everything is under control, the control of Jesus Christ. God gave this Revelation to the Son.
Then comes the next rung on the ladder; one step down. We read: and He made it (that is the Revelation) known by sending his angel. . ..
Thus the Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of the angels too, did not come personally to John, but used an angel. Here we feel again at home. The Lord did again what he had done so often. One thinks of the prophet of Zachariah who was all the time, during the visions he received in one night, led around by the angel who could also answer his questions. The same occurs with Daniel and Ezekiel. Even Moses who was with God on the mountain, obviously needed the service of angels. We hear Stephen say, in Acts 7:53: the Law was delivered, transmitted by angels.
Angels! When you hear this word in our text, you look of course beyond the text at what is said in the rest of this chapter. The Exalted Lord held in his right hand seven stars, vs. 16, and these seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches. So, in each of these churches there was an angel. The word angel means "messenger" who was sent to pass on the message from God.
When no men were available, like on the mountain of Horeb, or in the night the Saviour was born, and on the morning of His resurrection, the Lord used angels. But as soon as possible they are joined by human angels, messengers and preachers, proclaiming the news from God.
Thus, when we read in the text, by sending his angel, we cannot but also look at those seven angels of the seven churches. Yes, they need the support of angels, very much so. But we have to always remember, when we attend God's Church to hear His Word, that we have there, before us, an angel sent by God! He, the man in the pulpit, will always during the preparation and the delivery of sermons have to keep in mind that he is only a messenger, but the most important messenger .in the world, because of the message he brings. And we in the pews, we have to always remember that too. That man in the pulpit, who has his breath in his nostrils, is but a human, and a sinner, but he is an angel sent form God!
And this brought us another step down on the ladder that reaches into heaven: down from the angel to John, the man John, who was - as he tells us further on in this chapter - a prisoner of the Lord, an exile on account of the Word of God and the testimony for Jesus, vs 9. He even tells us on what day it happened to him. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day. He must have been sitting on the rocky shore of the island Patmos, and - looking over the waves that separated him from his beloved flock in Ephesus, he must have seen them, With the eye of his mind, gathered together on the Lord's Day, without him in the pulpit, without him having to bring a message from the Lord. But now the surprise! An angel, a vision wide and colorful and dramatic. And he has to write it all down: Now write what you see . . ., the vision. And after that seven times repeated: write to the angels of the seven churches. . ..
Write what you see in a book, and send it to the seven churches:, vs 11. Please notice, brothers and sisters, that the command is not: 'Write what you hear" but write what you see. And although further on in the book hearing is added to seeing, and combined with it, yet all the stress is on what John saw. This tells us that the special character of this fast book of the Bible is that it is a vision. We must add: it is a vision meant for the eyes. You must see it. And John must show it.
And by stating this we have said quite a mouth-full.
If it is a vision, we must not try to draw a picture, black on white, for example what we read in vs 16: from His mouth issued a sharp, two-edged sword. 1 once saw this pictured in a book. Literally a sword sticking out of the mouth of our lord. It looked awful, and 1 do not want to ever see it again. The words are all symbolic. The Word is the sword of the Spirit, yes, even two-edged, cutting right through heart and soul and spirit, right through the church and right through the world. 1 have come, not to bring peace, but the sword. But not a sword in the literal sense: a blade of steel with two sharp edges. That looks awful. Dr. Greydanus writes in his commentary on Revelation, We cannot make a picture of the glory in which the Lord appeared to John, and we should not try ft. Everything in Revelation is visionary, symbolical.
Thus we are now already told in the opening lines of this book that we are not to take, for example, the many numbers of Revelation literally. Many people, like the Jehovah Witnesses, actually do take the number 144,000 literally. The real mature members of this sect expect to dwell in heaven, their exact number 144,000. Not many, one would suggest. But their millions of followers, so they say, will forever dwell on the earth below, in happiness and peace.
Nor should the number 1000 be taken literally, as it occurs in chapter twenty. Many do nowadays, thus getting the name of Millennianists: thousand years on the date and on the dot.
No, that is not the way to interpret and understand the vision that John received on Patmos and that he wrote down in a book. It wants to be understood for what it is, a vision, in symbols and pictures of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the king of kings.
Two final steps down the ladder.
The book is written by John. He surely needed the guidance of the Holy Spirit for remembering all that he had seen, and then to describe every detail according to what he had seen. Now the manuscript has to be sent to Ephesus and the other six churches. It has to cross the sea, to survive thunderstorms and leakage of sea water. So ft goes down from John who received ft, to the churches for which he wrote it. Only then verse 3 can become reality. One has to read ft aloud, and the congregation has to hear ft. More about that later, but already now we may hear, Blessed is he who reads and blessed is he who hears! Blessed for ft is a great blessing and privilege to hear the good tiding by means of this last book of the Bible.
And then the last step: the book has come down to us. It has come down to us throughout the centuries by the most special providence and protection of Him from whom it came in the first place. Notwithstanding all the wars and destruction, notwithstanding all the attempts of the evil one to prevent this book from being read and heard, it has come to us upon whom the end of the ages has come. The result is that we might see the vision through the eyes of John. So that we also may be blessed by hearing the words of this fast book of God.
And so John's vision can become, has become, my vision.
2. A Rapid Succession
But wait a moment, so 1 hear everyone exclaiming, wait a moment, you are ducking the main problem we have with the book of Revelation. You, so 1 noticed, have sailed with a wide detour around that one little word with which the book ends in chapter 22, and that John already takes up in the introduction. The word is soon. What soon must take place.
A nice idea, indeed, of that ladder, but climbing down the ladder we end up in the mud. Not in the first place there was the mud of the life in the seven churches. Some of them had abandoned the first love, or thought they were rich while they were utterly poor; the mud of utter confusion caused by that word soon.
Soon? you wonder, but we write already 1992, and still we are wafting for what was supposed to have happened long ago, from John's viewpoint already in his own days. Did he not write in his epistle, little children, it is the last hour? (1 John 2:18). But was it the last hour? The world still stands!
And what about Paul? The one moment he creates the impression that the end is near, but the next time he has to admonish the believers in Thessalonica that they should not stand in idleness at the street corner, wafting for Christ's return, but rather go back to work.
And what about Jesus Himself? Did He not at the one occasion draw the picture of a speedy return? You will see the Son of man coming with the clouds. But the next time you hear, that there will be wars and rumours of wars, but yet the end will not take place until this gospel of the kingdom has been preached to all nations. And did He not include Himself in that mysterious word in Matthew 24:36, But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.? He seems to include Himself, that also He Himself, at that moment anyway, did not know the exact day and hour?
So then, beloved, is not your problem with the word soon the problem of the whole New Testament? And you may as well include the Old Testament! The one time the prophets speak about the Day of the LORD as being very near, very soon. Then it seems to lie in the far future, when the sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood.
What is it now?
All through the centuries there have been believers who tried to determine the date of Christ's return. And lately, especially since the Gulf War, there has been an avalanche of books and brochures in which people foretell that now the end is very near. The Rapture in 1993, the Millennium in the year 2000. The Lord said soon, isn't it? Well then, now He comes soon, this year, next year. Get ready, be prepared to travel soon (Omega letter, January 1992) But what is soon? There we have it again: translation, and the original Greek or Hebrew text. Yes, indeed, be thankful that at the College they teach the students to understand those original languages. Otherwise they can never become good preachers.
So, then, what does the Holy Spirit exactly say, here and in chapter 22:20, He who testifies to these things says, 'surely I am coming soon'.
First we should know that in the original the soon in the end of the book is not exactly the same as here in our text. There is a slight difference. At the end, after all that has been seen by John: judgement day, resurrection of the dead, new heaven and new earth, it is, in one brief word, soon! Amen! come Lord Jesus! But at the beginning of this dramatic vision it is said in two words, which can best be translated by "with haste". And there is already a sparkle of light. If someone says, yes, I come with haste, then that means that I have a lot to do yet, but I come as soon as possible, as soon as I have finished my work here.
A correct understanding of this soon is absolutely necessary for the understanding of this last book of the Bible; and I do not exaggerate when I add that it is necessary for understanding the whole Bible. That is true not only about the letters of John and Paul, but also the discourses of the Lord Himself in chapters like Matthew 24 and 25, when at the one moment the end of the age is the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, and then again it is a faraway event, the end of the world.
Therefore, before we can say some more about the soon in Revelation, we must have an open eye for what 1 would call the prophetic perspective in the Bible. Think of Peter on Pentecost day. He quotes Joel, In the last days 1 will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Now we would say "stop, Peter, that's enough". But he goes on, like Joel did, 1 will show wonders in heaven, blood and fire and vapour of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness. . .. You know R by heart. Then the day of the LORD comes. Did Peter quote too much? Did Joel go too far? No, but they saw in the distance, and they saw what we now call the first and the second coming of our Saviour as one event. It is indeed one event, but we now know that there are many centuries between this first and second coming.
You will find the same with all the OT prophets. Our professor showed us that every prophetic message has a threefold fulfilment; the first in his own days, the second in the coming of the Messiah, and the third, full fulfilment when He returns in glory and makes all things new. That's the "perspective", and without taking this characteristic of the whole Bible into account, you have lost the key of understanding. Even that first gospel in paradise, preached by God Himself, must, and may be understood in perspective. The serpent stood before the woman there, but again in Egypt where the baby boys had to be fed to the crocodiles. And again and again. In the murder of the innocent by Herod in Bethlehem. In the persecution of the seven churches, and most of all in the battle between the Son of man and the devil himself. Perspective, yes, because again in Revelation, ch 12, ch 20, the dragon stood before the woman, and went after the remnant of her seed.
Only against this background we will be able to understand the soon or the with haste in our text.
In the following sermons of this series we will see more about what is meant by this with haste. But already now we must have an inkling of it before we can say farewell to our text. 1 found a beautiful translation of this expression in a German commentary, which 1 translate for you: In Rapid Succession. That's it! "In rapid succession". That's what we will discover in the coming weeks. In this first sermon 1 can only give a pointer to what is coming in the main body of Revelation, chapter 4 to 20.
Although the history since Christ's Ascension is one straight fine, in this symbolic vision that John received from God that one history is shown in several "circles". In chapter 5, the Lion/Lamb receives the scroll with seven seats. Chapter 6 gives us six pictures of what will happen when these seats are broken successively. You would expect at the sixth seal that "this is the end'. People call to the mountains fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne. This is the end, isn't it? Judgement Day! But no. Stop! Interruption! Before the seventh seal is broken, stop! There comes chapter 7, the picture of the 144 000 on earth and the innumerable multitude in heaven. That's the comfort of Revelation. Whatever is happening in the world (and 1 have to leave the details for later), the church is unharmed and will be complete. And then, after the seventh seal is broken there come the trumpets, seven of them, but before you hear the seventh there is an interruption, a stop, so to speak. And there are thunderclaps, bowls and so on. But stop again! After the monsters of chapter 13 have done their harm with the mark of the beast and all that, in chapter 14 there are still the 144 000. Not 143 000, not even 143, 999, but 144 000. The devil could not tear one single true believer from Jesus Christ!
When you read through this last book of the Bible, you will fully agree With that german translation: "in rapid succession". And that's what the Spirit said to John and to the churches. "Show to my servants what must take place in rapid succession." There is a haste. And we all, living in this age, towards the end of the Bath century, are aware of this haste. It is as though history goes faster and faster. In this century more has happened than in all previous centuries taken together.
Perspective, we said, and we saw. Revelation shows us a kind of a spiral. It looks as though it runs in circles. Every time there is the same whole dispensation from the first to the second coming. But, like in a spiral, with every circle we get farther, and closer to the absolute end of this age. And every time there is such an interruption there is the gospel of no one can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
That's the message of this fast book of the 66, and it is the same as in all the 66 books, be it in visions and symbolical pictures.
You know it now. It all goes with haste, but it takes a long time. Why? Listen to the answer that Peter gives in his second letter. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow (hear that? not slow) about his promise, as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 11 Peter 3:8.
Several people nowadays have doubled .their efforts to proclaim that the time is near for the Jews to rebuild their temple because the Messiah can now come any time to restore the throne of David in Jerusalem on earth. But the Messiah Himself is maybe more interested in the more than one billion Chinese who never have had a chance yet to come to repentance. Is that the reason why, yes He comes with haste, but He has first yet to gather His church from that vast land, and from other dark parts of the world?
Anyway, the message of Revelation is clear: through all the wars and pestilence and ungodliness He will gather all the elect, the full number 144 000, and no one, nothing can stop Him.
3. A Blessed Congregation
That is why the congregation, the family of God is called blessed. Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near, vs 3.
The book, written by John, arrived in Ephesus, and in due time in the seven churches. And everywhere there were readers. At that time there were not yet printed Bibles. All the scrolls were hand-written, and therefore far too expensive to buy one for yourself, as we can do today. Therefore, as you remember, when the Saviour arrived in Nazareth, he asked for the scroll, and read the passage of the day. Then he preached to them. Just the same as what Paul wrote to Timothy, Till 1 come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching, 1 Tim.4:13. And it is still the same in the public worship services. First the reading of Holy Scripture. We could pay some more attention to that, and let the LORD speak to us, straight from the Bible, from the Law, the prophets, the Scriptures. And read it "aloud" so that everyone can hear and understand. Then comes the preaching, always in the second place. And that preaching is at the same time teaching. We have a wonderful opportunity for that in what is called the "Catechism preaching."
Blessed the man who is called to do this: reading aloud, and then preaching equally aloud.
And blessed are those who hear, blessed is the congregation.
It should be noted that both verbs, read and hear, are present participles. That means both must go on. Keep on, preaching and hearing. That is always yet the most important part of the church service. We attend the church of God, to learn His Word, so we confess in Lord's Day 38 of the Catechism.
Many demand and try a so-called renewal of the liturgy. Ours is so old, far too much the business of only one man in the pulpit. We should have musical groups, even dancing groups, and discussions, so that we may keep the young people interested, and with them the older ones too. Even among us we sometimes hear the plea for gathering in small groups, and holding hands and enjoying fellowship in that way. There is even available a special edition of the NIV, the New International Version, called the Serendipity Bible, written for small groups all over the world. Sure, if the church has to go underground because of the enemy, like in China, the LORD preserves her in homes, even catacombs. But whenever possible, He wants to see His people gathered together, so that they can sing those wonderful Psalms, like 84, 122. In the Psalm book you always hear the longing for the courts of the LORD.
Let preaching be and become living preaching. We should not be wiser than God, who wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images (and most of modern liturgy is not more than that) but by the living preaching of His Word, Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 35. That is the only means, the means of grace, by which the Holy Spirit works faith and gathers the church.
In God's Church (L.D. 38) the LORD comes down the ladder all the way to us and He speaks to us about the only comfort that He has prepared for His elect in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Blessed is the congregation - if they keep on hearing and listening, and if they keep what is written therein. A different translation has, Blessed are those who take to heart what is written therein. Take to heart the warnings and admonition, the promises and the surprises. We may, then, not know the day or the hour. We will not even try to figure out exactly, using and misusing some disconnected fragments from here and there in the Scriptures, what day or year exactly He will come again.
We know, He is always coming, and He is coming with haste, in rapid succession.
Although at the end of this series, this walk through Revelation, many of your questions will remain unanswered, we have that perspective, which we find all over the Bible and especially in this last book. Whatever we will try to find out, we will - until He comes - never get any farther than Hebrews 11:1, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things , not yet seen.
Do not worry about that. He will not come a day later than is possible and absolutely necessary. For those who look for Him, the time is always near. It could be tomorrow! But,
No one knows the day or hour,
When the Bridegroom shall appear,
Let us then be ever watchful. Ever!