In the book of Revelation, John's vision 'proper' begins with sound rather than sight - "a loud voice like a trumpet" tells him to write what he sees in a book and send it to the "seven churches" (1:10). When John turns to see who is speaking he beholds a fantastical figure who, though identified as "one like a son of man", has a divine appearance according to Old Testament parallels with his description. This figure quite literally holds the fate of the Church in his hand (1:16) and is, of course, the risen Christ (cf. 1:18). We should not, however, forget Ezekiel's comment about seeing "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD" (Ezek 1:28). John is seeing a vision, not a video.
We soon learn that this Christ is not only the Lord of the Church but also the Judge of the churches. The material in chapters 2-3 is relatively familiar, perhaps because so many preachers are unwilling to venture any further than this. Even so, there are lessons to be learned - some of which are quite uncomfortable.
The first lesson, in a peculiarly re-assuring way, is that the Church of John's time (probably the late first-century) was as big a mess as the Church today. False teaching, division and immorality abounded. Yet we immediately see that the difference between then and now is the sense of a living Christ who is immediately present to rule his Church. Too often our own Church governance, whilst paying lip-service to her Lord through opening liturgies and acts of 'worship', quickly reverts to almost secular debate, albeit with religious passion. How embarrassing it would be, for example, to quote the words of this Christ in Revelation to our Synods!
We should equally be rebuked by our own use of the refrain, "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" compared to that found here, for in Revelation what the Spirit says is also what Christ said (cf. Heb 3:7-12, where the Spirit says what the Psalmist said). This is not to ignore all hermeneutical issues, but it is to insist that hermeneutics are rooted in the words of one who both is and was. If the present Spirit is detached from the past word then the decline into Quakerism awaits us.
Many of us will also be satisfied to see here that tolerance is not a virtue encouraged by the Lord of the Church - at least not when it concerns teaching which leads the Church into idolatry and immorality (cf. 2:14,20). However, there is perhaps a rebuke for us all in the stance which the individual Christian is encouraged to take in the face of these problems. On the one hand, there is a clear demand to repent or to continue in the right way. On the other hand, there is no encouragement to break away and form a more pure church down the road. The living Christ does indeed threaten to remove the "lampstand" of the Ephesian church (2:5), and in our own experience we see individual churches dwindle and die. But the encouragement given to the individual is to 'conquer in context' rather than to 'separate and purify' (2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21).
The abiding impression in these opening chapters of Revelation is that the Church is itself a battleground for the faith, not a refuge from the world. And inevitably this lesson is dispiriting! How are we to persevere in such a situation? The answer begins to be unfolded in the next part of John's vision.
John Richardson is Chaplain to the University of East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped (St Matthias Press, 1996)
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