By way of introduction he simply writes, “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). John lived in the penal colony named Patmos, a rocky island off the coast of modern Turkey, ancient Asia Minor. Piecing it together, we figure out that he was in exile because of his Christian faith. In 96 AD, in Jerusalem, certainly in Rome, and in the region of the seven cities mentioned in the first two chapters of the Bible’s final book, Revelation, followers of Jesus suffered for their faith.
The Roman Emperor Domitian insisted on deference from all people, even demanding that subjects of the empire acknowledge him as divine. “Domitian is Lord!” All were expected to make this proclamation, suffering greatly if they would not. Christians would not.
Some were harassed in their own communities. Their businesses were forcibly closed, or they were bullied by local constables, or they were shunned by people who did not want to suffer by being associated with them. Others ended up arrested for their insistence upon saying that Jesus and only Jesus is Lord. Of those arrested, some were executed in gruesome fashion, or for sport, thrown to lions in the arena, or forced to fight in gladiator games; all because they would not just let it go. “Jesus is Lord.” To these late first century believers, that claim was worth more than anything; more than their own lives.
“Jesus is Lord.” How much is that worth to us? Who is Jesus? A cute ornament, the centerpiece of the nativity that sits on the mantel. In the final days of the year, when we get rid of our trees, take the lights down, and bid Christmas farewell, do we put Jesus in box in the closet to be left there until we give him a nod at Easter, and then put up our nativity next Christmas? “Jesus is Lord.” Do we make that claim? Do we make it seriously? In the softness and comfort of our American context, we don’t face severe punishment for saying Jesus matters more than any relationship, possession, or loyalty. Still, we are as called as John was to acknowledge Jesus not only as Savior who assures us of Heaven but also as master who directs our lives. Do we?
John doesn’t tell the specifics of his story. Somehow, he avoided the death penalty and instead was exiled, away from his home church in Ephesus to, perhaps, hard labor on Patmost Island. He wasn’t concerned that future generations of Christians know who John is. He wanted to help his friends in the seven churches in Asia Minor stay faithful in their commitment to Jesus even as they faced the same persecution that landed him in chains. Revelation was a letter comprised of his vision of the end. He presents Jesus as the victor and Lord of all.
We’re not persecuted, but in our affluence, too many of us who claim to be Christians have reduced Jesus, emptied him of His power, neutering his authority and setting him at the margins of our lives. Moving from Thanksgiving to Christmas, how can we recover the grandeur of Jesus, the majesty of our Lord, so that this season for us is a season of worship?
“From Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” John takes himself out of the equation. His vision isn’t for him. Jesus spoke this word that John might write it and pass it on so that the individuals in the congregations that receive it might be formed as communities of disciples who will stay true to Christ no matter the cost. Jesus longs for you to read Revelation to grow into a disciple who will see Him and give yourself fully to Him. Even if you or I never face persecution, we can develop a faith that would stand up in the face it. Our discipleship takes form as we truly see Jesus.
From Jesus Christ, the faithful witness. The Greek word for witness is ‘martyr.’ Of course, we hear that and think of those who die for what they’ve said and for beliefs they refuse to renounce. With that picture in mind, we might hope our faith is strong enough that we would stay faithful, but we don’t aspire to become martyrs. We are happy to live for Jesus, but we don’t want to die for him.
Yet, martyrdom – witness – is our calling, by the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus demonstrates the perfect love of God lived out on the human stage. He was fully human, he saw people as they were, and loved them as they were. Even at the end, betrayed, arrested, flogged, and crucified, Jesus modeled perfect love, loving those who betrayed and killed him.
As our Lord gave witness to the goodness of the Kingdom of God, so too must we. We can admire the way Jesus forgave people and loved all, even his tormentors. He wants to see us go beyond admiration. He wants us to see Him, know Him, grow in our knowledge of Him, and then add our own testimony to conversations with friends and to the public discourse even when doing so sets us uncomfortably apart from the people in our lives who don’t feel that call to follow Jesus. That’s what a martyr does: testifies to what he or she knows to be true about Jesus. Will we? Do we know Jesus? Will we tell what we know? As we live our lives through the holiday season to New Year’s Day, 2019, what will be said of our witness? What will others learn about Jesus from us?
Jesus, the faithful witness is also, the Firstborn of the dead. The way we think of things, birth begins life, death ends it. God never intended death to be part of our story. Death is sin’s descendant, not God’s. Sin does not get to change God’s story, even the sins we choose. In God’s story, his children have eternal life in His loving presence. Just as Jesus showed us how to live, by his witness, in his resurrection, he clears our path. He is the first born. We follow Him into eternity when we put our trust in Christ and become his disciples.
Finally, we are told, the Witness and the Firstborn is the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth. Jesus is not a Christmas decoration or a piece of golden jewelry. He is the king. President Barak Obama; President Donald Trump; Presidents Washington and Lincoln; each one of them, just like each one of us will bow before Jesus, the king of kings and lord of lords. The Bible says that will happen, and confessing Christians believe it to the extreme. We believe on some future day, we cannot predict when but know it is coming, all this will be gone, and the Kingdom of God will remain, in glory.
Jesus the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the king of kings, loves us, has freed us from our sins by his blood, and makes us kings who serve. John had the audacity to write this while imprisoned and his followers, themselves facing death believed it. And the church has preserved this story so we can read and believe. We are beloved of God. Jesus actively loves you as you are. He sees you as a child of God.
Jesus the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the king of kings who loves us, has freed us from our sins by his blood. Sin snares us and we cannot escape. Paul’s letter to the Romans emphatically makes this point. Sin wreaks our relationship with God and destines us for an eternity apart from Him. But Jesus, through his death on the cross, takes on himself the punishment for sin. He forgives us and invites us to step from our sinfulness to his holiness. Matthew, one of the 12, stopped being a cheating tax collector and began life as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, whom he had forgiven, to go and sin no more. Jesus loves us as we are and frees us so that we are no longer slaves to sin. When we receive his love and forgiveness, we do not remain as we are. We are new creations, ready to live the life He created us to live from the start.
He loves us, he freed us, and he makes to be Kings, yet, people who serve; a kingdom of priests serving God. We worship. We study. We share His love with others. We forgive each other and those outside the church. The resurrected one is the Jesus of Revelation, the king of kings; Jesus tells us in Revelation that our destiny is to be his people in the world, drawing the world to him.
He was a baby born in a manger, but that manger’s been empty for a long time. Our anticipation in the Advent season is of the coming of the King. “Look,” Revelation says, “He is coming with the clouds. …on his account, all the tribes of the earth will wail” (1:7). And later in Revelation we are told people from all the tribes of the earth will be part of his Heavenly gathering (7:9-10).
In my house, we’ll have a nativity decoration, as will many of you. It’s part of our remembrance. It’s how we tell the story. As we tell it, I hope we can honor John who wrote Revelation while on Patmos, and along with John, all the Christians who have suffered for their testimony that Jesus is king. The Christmas story we love so much starts with Mary and Joseph, with a baby and a star, with shepherds and wise men. But that’s only the opening. That prelude draws us in to the story of the King and the relationship He invites us to have with Him. Discover life lived in step with Jesus; a life in which we are always anticipating that day when we look to the horizon and say, “Look! The King is coming with the clouds.” That story is our story, the story of eternal life with God. It is a story to be shared.