“He’s Got the Whole World
in His Hands”
The world can be very attractive.
I knew a girl in college who was the roommate of a friend fo mine. This girl had grown up going to church, but decided not to have much to do with God when she got to college. Yet my friend, an active Christian, was her roommate, so Christians were visiting their dorm room all the time. Eventually this girl started attending our campus group, then she started dating our chapter president. For a year she was really involved. But, then, all of a sudden, as if a light had been switched off, she backed out of everything. She wanted what the world was offering: partying, drinking, sexing. The world was offering a waterpark with all of its fun. In comparison, Christianity seemed like 6-inch deep kiddie pool, and this girl wanted to get wet.
The book of Revelation is a strange book filled with odd and fantastic images. No one calls it boring, which is probably why it’s popular. With some much popularity comes a lot of strange interpretations. But what few people understand is that that aim of the apostle John in recording the revelation he received was to encourage Christians to remain strong in faith, resisting a world that swirls like a tempest trying to tear them away.
If we keep in mind that the book of Revelation is about promise and encouragement, then we’ll be able to navigate it well. So that’s what we’re going to do, beginning today in Chapter 1.
Revelation 1:1–8, ESV
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
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 kings on earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega”, says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Scholars differ a little bit on how they categorize things, but they agree that the Bible is filled several different types of writing, called literacy genres. To interpret things rightly you have to first understand what genre you’re reading, because each genre has a different style, tone, form, structure, technique, context, etc. So, here are some of the genres found in the Bible: Historic narrative, Law, Wisdom, Poetry, Prophecy, Gospels, Epistles, Apocalyptic.
John helped us by telling us the genre of his book in the beginning. In Greek the first three words are: Apokalypsis Iesous Christos, which directly translates: “The apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” There it is: Apokalypsis, “apocalypse,” which means to unveil, to pull back the curtains and reveal.
Now, all of you are very well aware of the natural world. You have contact with it through your five senses. What John is going to do is show us the preternatural world, that is, the realm beyond the natural, i.e., the realm of angels. Then he’s going to show us the supernatural realm; that is, the realm above the natural, i.e., God’s purposes and movement. Therefore, John is going to paint an interesting picture, showing how the preternatural, supernatural, and natural all intermingle. And in order to do that he’s got to use symbols and metaphors, which means we have to understand that we’re reading symbols and metaphors. This book is communicating truth, but rarely does it appear in literal fashion.
I’m reminded of when I was in seventh grade. That was the first year at school that we had to moved around from class to class. A math class here, a science class there, and I remember the social studies classroom where we studied geography. There was a a big map in the corner that had layers, transparent layers that you could flip over the map. It had about a dozen of them. One transparency layer would have the country boundaries, another player would have major rivers of the world, and another would show they or ocean currents. If you pulled all the layers down, you’d have all of this information and it would be a visual mess.
Apocalyptic literature is like that—it’s messy. The preternatural, supernatural, and natural all painted in front of you and on top of each other. That’s why biblical writers resort to using symbolism and imagery in order to explain things.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the place in which you’ve just been fed up and said, even for a moment: “This is ridiculous! I’m gonna kick over the traces; I’m going to join the rest of the world in all of its sin and stupidity, because if you can’t beat’em, you might as well join’em!” Maybe you rolled out of bed on Monday morning and channeled your inner George Carlin: “Life is tough, then you die.” If you get any of that, then maybe you’ll get what’s going on with the Christians who first read this book.
Rome let other religions exist, but only in their country of origin. Judaism, however, had rights to be practiced across the empire. Which is why Paul first preached in the synagogues across the Empire when he was on his missionary journeys. At first, Rome thought of Christianity as a Jewish sect, so Christianity kinda has a legal umbrella. But as soon as Jews rose up against Christianity, the persecution began. If you weren’t a Jew, and you refused to worship the local Roman gods, to include the emperor, you were persecuted.
In 17th chapter, we find an image of a beast with 7 heads. It’s not a literal beast, rather it’s John’s symbol for a ravenous system of power. Each head is a king. The system of government is like a ravenous beast, which is ripping the church apart, one emperor after another. In fact, it’s likely that John is writing at the time of the 6th king, Domitian.
Now, Domitian was crazy. He was psychopathic. He killed members of his family, married his niece, tortured animals and insets and people. He wasn’t the first emperor to persecute Christians— Emperor Nero burned half of Rome to make room new buildings and blamed it on the Christians—but Domitian crucified Christians and set their bodies on fire to light the streets.
How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget about your people forever?”
The greatest temptation for Christians in those days was to abandon their faith, to deny Christ in order to save themselves.
In the second-century Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” That’s really true. Those who remain faithful in the midst of tribulation reveal that God is alive within them.
In an age when everything seems relative and there doesn’t seem to be any truth, I think people are attracted to the truth. But how do you know what the truth is? When a truth is so powerful that people will suffer for it; when they won’t recant on pain of death; when they want to live for something greater than themselves; then you better take a close look, truth might be close by.
So, that’s the situation of the first reader of the Book of Revelation. What do they need? Well, rescue would be nice. But what if rescue doesn’t come, what if their suffering will grow the church? Then, what do they need? Maybe they need a reason to be faithful, and maybe they need encouragement.
That’s exactly what God is doing. In this book he gives promises (reasons) and encouragement by pulling back the curtain and letting Christians see the whole picture for a moment. Not only the natural, but the preternatural and supernatural realms too.
And that’s why this book is to be read aloud in the church… “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (Rev 1:). Because the message is for the church’s edification. The church is to hear it. The church is to be touched by it. The church is to be comforted by it.
And if that was to happen, then those who first read heard it would’ve been able to understand it from the backdrop of both the Old Testament and the situation in their day.
Now, notice how John speaks, he says, things that “must soon take place”, the “time is near,” which is better translates “a time is at hand” (Rev 1:3) The prophet Daniel also wrote in the apocalyptic genre, but said that things were “to happen in the latter days” (Dan 2:28). Daniel wrote before things happened; John was writing when things were happening. There are some future elements in this book, but a lot of it has to do with what is happening in John’s day.
I think I’ve told you before that once when I was going through some darkness my pastor told me to remember the resurrection. That didn’t really make the sun start shining, but he had a valid point. You see his point was about promise. The resurrection is a promise that eventually, because of Jesus’s resurrection, everything you are now experiencing is temporary. And that’s true. The question is will I wait for Jesus and the resurrection or demand good feelings right now in the present.
Pulling the veil back, giving the apocalypse, doesn’t make the pain go away. But it does give promise and encouragement, a reason to hold on, a reason to wait and endure. The book is saying: “Your faith is not in vain. He’s got the whole world in his hands. Be at peace.”
Do you know when the church has grown the fastest? Where persecution is the fiercest. Did you know that the evangelical church in Iran is growing at 19% a year; the church in China and Nepal is growing at 10.5–11% a year. But the church in America is shrinking at about the same rate.
There’s a story about a woman who was visiting a church and chose a set along the aisle. She was waiting for the worship service to begin, when a member of the church tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up at the member, who said, “You’re in my seat.” The visitor apologized, got up, and the member sat down. The visitor proceeded to walk down the aisle to exit the church. She was justifiably feeling unwelcome, and was heading for the doors.
It was then that an usher stopped her at the back of the sanctuary and invited her to sit with him and his family. That saved the day, she stayed for the service, and decided to return. The visiting woman went on to be a valuable member of the church for years. But it was almost wasn’t to be. Greetings matter.
As the Revelation opens, the hearer is greeted with the full embrace of God, and is squeezed right away by symbolism.
Beginning is verse 4…
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4a). That’s a reference to the Father, that’s a reference to the Ancient of Days.
Then John goes on and says: “the seven spirits who are before his throne” (Rev 1:4b). that’s a symbolic reference to the Holy Spirit. Because in the Old Testament tabernacle there was a a lamp stand that stood before the Holy of Holies with seven flames, symbolizing fullness and the eternal burning flame.
Then John says, “From Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of Kings on earth” (Rev 1:5).
But notice what is packed into that bit about Jesus… He’s “the faithful witness,” that’s a reference to his prophetic role. He’s “the firstborn of the dead,” that’s referencing Jesus’s priestly role. He’s “the ruler of kings,” that’s a reference to Jesus’s kingly role.
Ans as John is saying all of these, as he’s recounting the fullness of the God who is a Trinity and as he’s recounting the threefold office of Jesus, he can’t but get caught up in the moment and break into a song of glorification…
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priest to his God and father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1:5-6).
The song is also a recounting… John is recounting Jesus’ glory, which isn’t found in domination, but in the cross’s cancellation of debt.
Therefore, the greeting, the address, contains an implicit question: Do you belong to the domain of darkness, or the kingdom of God’s beloved Son? (Col 1:13). That’s something for us to think about.
It’s an important question, for John is singing about the one who is to come with the clouds of heaven. Jesus isn’t coming through the clouds, as if he has to part them like the sea. He’s not coming on the clouds, as if riding them like a magic carpet. He’s coming with the clouds; that is, he’s coming with the glory of God, with the shekinah glory that filled the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle such that Moses couldn’t enter it.
I don’t know if you are picking up on this, but nearly every word is dripping with Old Testament imagery. The entire book is like this. It doesn’t let up. And even the clouds of heaven are there with the tabernacle and with the prophecy of Daniel:
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:13–14).
John hasn’t said anything original yet. He’s just holding up the Old Testament before us and saying, “This is it, folks. This is it!”
That shekinah glory has a weight to it.
Year ago when I was working at the Defense Intelligence Agency I got tapped to over to the Pentagon and give a briefing to top financial officer of the agency, the No. 2 guy. The guy had an office as big as my living room. I was a young Captain at the time, but I remember staying a step behind my boss who was the civilian equivalent of a 1-star general. There was a weightiness in sitting down at the conference table with the CFO. I didn’t want to open my mouth and put my foot into it. I didn’t speak unless I was asked a direct question, and then I tried hard to be razor sharp with my information and tight with my words.
There was a weight of glory. But it couldn’t hold a match to weight that will come with Jesus.
The nations will be crushed beneath the weight of his glory. They will fall before his enormity, truthfulness, and righteousness. None will stand in his presence. None will be confused. None will say, “Ah, that’s just Jesus the poor carpenter’s son,” because he’ll come in victory with the shekinah glory of God.
The people who denied him, who ignored him, they’re going to feel crushed, small under the weight of his holiness and his presence.
When the prophet Isaiah found himself in the presence of God, when by a vision he was Brough into the throne room of God and saw the Ancient of Days sitting on the throne, and Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5), and he fell on his face because the weight of God’s glory.
That glory is Jesus’ glory—it belongs to no other! John is telling us that this apocalypse has everything to do with Jesus Christ—Jesus is center. The apocalypse isn’t primarily about the future; it is primarily about a figure, Jesus.
The fastest growing religion in the Roman Empire was Caesar worship. After his death Julius Caesar was honored and worship. But Domitian, who was Emperor when John is writing, demanded to be worshiped as a god while he was alive. He demanded the title: “My Lord and my God.”
Where have you heard that before? The apostle Thomas spoke those words to Jesus after his resurrection. Domitian said, “You will call me, ‘My Lord and my God,’” then he had idols of himself erected all over the Roman Empire, including in Jerusalem. and then he had golden idols made of himself and erected in all of the temples throughout the Roman Empire, including in Jerusalem.
The question is: Why shouldn’t Christians capitulate to the culture around them? Why shouldn’t they save their skin? Why shouldn’t they do as the Romans do?
The answer John’s apocalypse gives is: Because Jesus is glorified, that’s why?
When you find yourself in difficulty, when you’re doubting; when you’re in darkness; when you’re confused about what God is doing in your life; when you’re bewildered why he hasn’t shown up and made your dreams come true; when you you’ve no good reason to wake up in the morning; when the world seems like it is against you, look at Jesus. This is what John is doing in the book. He’s drawing everyone’s eyes to Jesus.
At the end of our passage Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). He’s putting together what has been said about him with what has been said about the Father; in other words, Jesus is Yahweh.
This wasn’t the first time Jesus made that connection. In John’s Gospel, Philip came to Jesus saying, “Just show us the Father, and it will be good enough for us.” Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
So, the message to you this morning is: “Oh dear hearts, take heart. Your faith is not in vain. He’s got the whole world in his hands. Be at peace.”