ECCLESIOLOGY – THE CHURCH IN REVELATION
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
Note: In this study, when the word ‘Church’ [with an upper case ‘C’] is used, it is referring to genuine believers. With a lower case ‘c’ it is referring to a the gathering of people together as a local or broader group of people who may or may not all believe in the Lord Jesus.
It is common for Christians to think Revelation is all about ‘the end of the world’. For some, it is perceived to be largely related to the future of Israel. Both of these perspectives overlook the fact that Revelation is rich with truth about the Church and has present relevance for the Church. It is stated at both the beginning and the end of Revelation [1:1; 22:8] that God sent his angel to show his servants things that ‘must soon take place’. Given the content of Revelation, that ‘soon’ is a telescopic word encompassing the immediate years in which the Church exists – ‘the last days’, and the final consummation of all things – ‘the last day’. These ‘things’ that must ‘take place’ are things intimately involved with the Church, things that impact the Church, both negative things from the enemy and positive things from God. Revelation thus becomes both a commentary on the life of the Church in the age between the first and second comings of Christ, and a handbook by which the Church is informed, enabled and sustained in the context of the pressures and tensions of this age. The glorious and final future of the Church to which Revelation repeatedly points us, is part of that instruction and encouragement.
John’s self-introduction in 1:9 could well be a summary of the whole book: ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’.
It is not possible to write about ‘the Church’ in Revelation without also writing about ‘salvation’, and it is not possible to write about ‘salvation’ without also writing about Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is not possible to write about any of these without also writing about the eternal purpose of God, set in place before the world began, and brought into time/space reality in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Church is the culmination and consummation of that eternal purpose of God - the mystery hidden for ages, anticipated in the scriptures, the history, and the rituals of Israel, and made known and accomplished in and through Jesus Christ [Ephesians 1:9,10; 3:1-13].
When we speak of the ecclesiology of Revelation – when we speak of ‘the Church’ - we are speaking of something planned before the beginning of time, the divine purpose, the divine will, the divine decision. It is something immensely grand, immensely glorious. But the Church is also something that, like the incarnate Christ, does not always look grand and glorious. It is for the moment a hidden grandness, a hidden glory – rendered incognito by the presence of weakness and by the presence of suffering. But the greatness and the glory of the Church are there, none the less, and they shine through in Revelation with incredible and irreducible certainty and confidence.
A. VARIOUS NAMES FOR ‘THE CHURCH’
A.1 ‘the church’, ‘the churches’
When Revelation uses the terms ‘the church’ or ‘the churches’ it is referring to the people gathered together in local areas in the name of Jesus Christ. With one exception [22:16] all the references to ‘the church’ or ‘the churches’ are in chapters 1 to 3. They refer, in a primary sense to the seven local churches addressed by the seven letters from Jesus in chapter 2 and 3. In a secondary sense, these seven local churches are symbolic of all churches of all ages and in all places.
It is clear from the content of the letters addressed to these ‘seven churches’ that any individual local ‘church’ is not automatically assumed to be comprised only of people with genuine faith. Many of these ‘churches’ have in them individual people whose faith is under question. One of these ‘churches’ appears to have no one of genuine faith left among its members.
Thus, Revelation does not make the assumption that all who identify with a local ‘church’ are genuine believers in Christ. When it uses the terms ‘church’ and ‘churches’ it is speaking of the church visible, not the church invisible. Thus Revelation never uses the term ‘the church’ as a synonym for true believers. It uses a range of other terms when referring to those.
A.2 Servants of God
The Church is referred to, firstly, as God’s ‘servants’ [1:1]. This designation is repeated throughout Revelation. The present context of this servanthood is the unbelieving and at times antagonistic world. Here the servants of God are under deliberate attack by false teaching that aims to corrupt both their beliefs and their practice [2:20]. Here, the servants of God are sealed, and thereby safe and secure, against the preliminary and final judgments of God [7:3]. The servants of God are assured that God will, in those judgments, avenge their mistreatment and their martyrdom [19:2]. Beyond this present context – beyond this age of witness and mission, beyond the judgment, in the new heaven and the new earth, the Church, God’s servants, will serve him, forever free from all that inhibits and sullies their service [22:3].
The concept of ‘servant’ of God is also applied to individual believers [Moses – 15:3; the prophets – 10:7; 11:18].
In each of the above the Greek doulos is used. This word can be translated ‘slave’, but is also the most common word for ‘servant’, without any concept of bondage. In 7:15 and 22:3, where the concept of God’s people serving him is mentioned, the verb used is not douleuo - to serve a master, but latreuo – which means to render religious service, and is sometimes translated ‘worship’.
A.3 A kingdom
Collectively all true believers comprise ‘a kingdom’ – 1:6; 5:10. [Note that some translations have ‘kings’, not ‘kingdom’; the older Greek manuscripts have ‘kingdom’ not ‘kings’.] In both of these references the Church’s status as ‘a kingdom’ is something that is already in place: Jesus Christ ‘has made us to be a kingdom’ and ‘you have made them to be a kingdom’. Already, believers have been made a kingdom by Jesus Christ, as the result/purpose of his death. Revelation 12:10 affirms that this ‘kingdom’ was established by the victory of Christ over Satan [symbolised in verses 7 to 9 as a battle between ‘Michael’ and ‘the dragon’]. In 1:9 John refers to the ‘kingdom’ that is the common possession and position of all who are in Christ.
This is the ‘kingdom’ on which the teaching of both Jesus and the apostles focused [it is mentioned more than 130 times in the New Testament]. It is most commonly referred to as ‘the kingdom of God’, but in Matthew it is mostly, but not always, termed ‘the kingdom of heaven’ [possibly so as not to offend Jewish readers by use of the divine name]. The two terms are used interchangeably. As Revelation 5:10 makes clear this ‘kingdom’ is a trans-national kingdom.
The dispensational distinction between ‘the kingdom of God’ [as a kingdom for the Gentiles, entered by grace] and ‘the kingdom of heaven’ [as the Messianic rule of Christ over the Jews, intended for his first coming, but delayed until ‘the millennium’ because of their rejection of Jesus], cannot be supported from the New Testament usage of the two terms.
A.4 Priests of God and of Christ
Believers are called ‘priests’ three times in Revelation [1:6; 5:10; 20:6]. [In each of these references there is a connection with service.] Like the ‘kingdom’, this identity as ‘priests’ has already been established by Jesus Christ through his death. He has already made us priests. Like the ‘kingdom’ this priesthood is trans-national, comprised of people from all nations, tribes, languages and peoples, including both Jew and Gentile. This designation ‘priests’ assures the present, permanent access and acceptance of the redeemed in the presence of God. It also defines their dedication and their separation: they belong to God [and to Christ] and are set apart, sanctified [see ‘saints’ below] for his service.
As priests, their role and responsibility is primarily to represent God in the presence of men – keeping the light of God’s truth and God’s presence shining, declaring forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God through the death of a substitute.
Notes:  The two terms ‘kingdom and priests’ are most likely intended to be understood as one concept that communicates two aspects of belonging to God. The two words are used together in Exodus 19:6 – ‘a kingdom of priests’, where God is defining his purpose for Israel. Similarly, Peter, loosely quoting the Exodus verse, uses the term ‘a royal priesthood’ in 1Peter 2:9, in his description of the Church. The purpose of this ‘royal priesthood’ is ‘that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’.
 The three designations – servants, a kingdom, and priests – each have reference to the Church in mission in the world: the Church serves God in the context of the world; the church ‘reigns’ in the context of the world as it proclaims the message of the kingdom; in that witness and proclamation the Church mediates between God and the world.
A.5 The saints
The word ‘saints’ – hagioi – literally means ‘the holy ones’. That is, those set apart by God as his own possession, sanctified by his decree and by his action, distinct from all other ‘inhabitants of the earth’. It is applied to all who have been redeemed by the Son of God. As such they are extremely precious to God.
From Revelation we learn various aspects of this preciousness:
The prayers of the saints are stored up in his presence [5:5; 8:3,4].
On the day of wrath the saints are untouched by that wrath; rather they are rewarded [11:18].
God’s enemies target the saints with hatred and persecution [13:7,10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6: 18:24; 20:9]. For this mistreatment of ‘the saints’ [those whom God as set apart as his own] God’s wrath and judgment falls upon their persecutors [16:4-7; 18:19-24].
The saints are dressed in ‘fine linen, bright and clean’ [19:8].
It is impossible to capture in these few words just how precious the saints [the Church] are to God. It is one of the recurring emphases of Revelation. Sometimes it is so intense that it seems exaggerated or even ‘wrong’. But this sense of exaggeration and ‘wrongness’ is only because we are looking at it from a human viewpoint, rather than from God’s viewpoint and from the perspective of what it cost him to set us apart as his own, his special treasure. And perhaps, also, we find it difficult to believe that God could count us that precious. I do not believe that any of us realize just how precious those redeemed by his Son are to God.
B. SYMBOLS OF THE CHURCH
Revelation uses a number of symbols to refer to the Church.
B.1 Golden Lampstands
In Revelation 1:12.13 John saw seven golden lampstands and someone among them [see also 2:1]. Verse 20 tells us that the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
The Church is here portrayed as a light shining in the darkness of the world, bringing the light of God into the ignorance, uncertainty and blindness of human atheism, human agnosticism, human relativism and human religion. (The golden lampstand in the tabernacle/temple was positioned so that its light shone outwards – not back towards the curtain, not back towards God, but outwards, lighting up the space in front of it [Numbers 8:1-4]. It was also to be kept burning continually [Leviticus 24:1-4].)
From its secure position in the presence of God [note the positioning of the golden lampstand in the Holy Place in the tabernacle] the Church proclaims the truth of God. In this it follows the example of Christ [John 1:9; 8:12]; in this it reflects the nature of Christ [Matthew 5:14-16]; in this it shares the rejection of Christ [John 1:5; 3:19-21; Revelation 11:4-7]. But in this it also shares in the mission of Christ – that by this light men are redeemed from the darkness [John 8:12; 12:46; 17:14-18; Acts 26:18; 2Corinthians 4:4-6; Ephesians 5:8; Philippians 2:15; Colossians 1:13;1Peter 2:9-12; 1John 1:5].
Jesus does not take his Church out of the world. He left his Church in the world to shine forth his light – as lampstands, bringing the light of his truth into the dark ignorance of the world.
Note the reference to the world’s hatred or persecution of the Church in many of the verses above, or their context. The purpose of lampstands is to bear the light, to shine in the darkness. But those who love the darkness hate the light [see John 1:4-11; 3:18-20]. For this reason Jesus was rejected. For this reason his Church is rejected.
This witness and rejection of the Church under the symbol of ‘lampstands’ is further expressed in Revelation 11 [see B.4 below].
B.1.1 Seven golden lampstands
There are ‘seven’ golden lampstands, one for each of the ‘seven’ churches to whom are written ‘seven’ letters.
‘Seven’ symbolizes perfection. Despite the problems about to be identified in the letters, this symbolic number attributes ‘perfection’ to the Church. The message of Revelation is not just to the seven churches mentioned by name but to the whole Church invisible and universal – the true Church of all ages, the full and perfect number of God’s people from all generations, deemed and reckoned ‘perfect’ in Jesus Christ.
This perfection credited to all who are in Christ Jesus is taught in Ephesians 1:4, Colossians 1:22; 2:10, and Hebrews 10:10,14.
The perfection of the church is embedded not only in the word ‘seven’, but in the symbol of the ‘lampstands’. This takes us right back to Exodus 25:31-40, where instructions and reports are given regarding the crafting of the lampstand for the Tabernacle. Of this lampstand we learn:
That it had seven arms.
That it was made of pure gold.
That it was crafted [hammered out] from one piece of gold.
That it was consecrated to God, that is, deemed to be holy because it was set apart by God and for God.
The lampstand, delicately beaten out from the one piece of pure gold was the work of a master craftsman from the tribe of Judah, chosen and gifted by God for this task, and filled with the Spirit of God [Exodus 35:30-33]. Even so the Church is crafted by Jesus Christ, who is from the tribe of Judah, chosen and enabled by God for the task, and filled with the Spirit of God. We, the Church, are his workmanship – ‘pure gold’ and ‘one’.
Its position in the Tabernacle was in the Holy Place, immediately opposite the Ark of the Covenant/Mercy Seat in the Most Holy Place, with only the Curtain and the Golden Altar of Incense between them. Given that the Curtain was ripped away at the moment Jesus Christ died, the Lampstand, that is the Church, is thus in the immediate presence of God, and of his mercy.
By this symbol of the seven golden lampstands [which in fact means seven times seven lamps, multiplying the emphasis on perfection] God gives to John a message of assurance for the Church: that the Church, carefully and painstakingly created by Jesus Christ and perfect in Christ, is, even now, already, safe and secure in the presence of God.
The seven local churches named in Revelation, are not perfect. Nor are any local churches anywhere perfect. But this number ‘seven’ serves to remind us that ‘the Church’ is already perfect in Christ: already washed in the blood of the Lamb. Already, and forever, lacking nothing, complete in Christ. Such is the security of the redeemed. Such is the security of the Church.
B.2 The 144,000 who are ‘sealed’
Revelation 7:2-3 speaks of ‘the servants of God’ being sealed [against the day of wrath just described in 6:12-17; see also 9:4] with ‘the seal of the living God’. When we read verses 4-8 those who are ‘sealed’ are described as ‘144,000 from all the tribes of Israel’ and listed according to certain tribal names. On the surface this appears to limit the ‘sealed’ to a specific number and a specific race. However, when we look at the tribal names listed it is not a complete list of the tribes of Israel, either according to their territorial allocations, or according to the twelve sons of Jacob. And when we look at the number – 144,000 – we realize that this number is 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. This is an intensely symbolic number: ten symbolizes completion, and here we have the cube of ten – total completion, nothing missing. Twelve – the number of the tribes of Israel, and the number of Christ’s apostles. The ‘sealed’ are comprised of the complete number of God’s people, all true believers, from both the Old and New Testament eras.
This broad, trans-national identity of ‘the sealed’ is confirmed in 7:9. John having ‘heard’ the number of the sealed as ‘144,000 from all the tribes of Israel’ [verse 4] then ‘looked’ [verse 9] and saw not 144,000 Jews he expected but ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb’. When the ‘144,000’ are mentioned again in Revelation 14, we find that the name of both the Lamb and his Father on their foreheads and they are referred to as those ‘who had been redeemed from the earth’, ‘purchased from among men’ and so on.
That those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are ‘sealed’ is confirmed in the New Testament [2Corinthians 1:21,22; Ephesians 1:13,14; 4:30]. This sealing marks them as God’s possession and guarantees their final redemption and inheritance, excluding them from the judgment and wrath that will fall on all who are not sealed.
Note: Variations of this symbolic number occur in Revelation 21 where the Church is described under the symbol of 'the Holy City, the new Jerusalem' which comes down from heaven. In the detailed symbolic description of this 'city' its breadth and length are listed as 12,000 stadia, giving a base area of 144,000,000. The 'wall' of the 'city' is 144 cubits thick. In addition, the city is 12,000 stadia high and its walls have 12 foundations with the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb on them; there are also twelve gates, named for the twelve tribes of Israel, and manned with twelve angels. All of these references to twelve, and the multiples of 10, reinforce the perception that the 'city' – the saints, the redeemed – is comprised of all faithful believers from both the Old and New Testament eras, and that these saints, these redeemed, are utterly secure. They are all there – the total, complete number of all true believers. Not one is missing. Not one can be missing.
B.3 ‘the holy city’, ‘the new Jerusalem’, ‘the bride of the Lamb’
Revelation speaks of the Church under a trilogy of connected symbols: ‘the holy city’ [‘city of God’, ‘the city’], ‘the new Jerusalem’ and ‘the bride of the Lamb’ [‘the bride’].
The Church, under this trilogy of symbols, is described in great detail from 21:8 to 22:5. Each of these terms, ‘the Holy City’ and ‘the new Jerusalem’ and ‘the bride’ are symbolic references to the redeemed corporately.
The 'city', 'Jerusalem'
Paul uses this imagery in Galatians 4:21-31, where he teaches that believers are ‘children of promise, symbolised by Sarah and her son, and corresponding to ‘the Jerusalem that is above’, in distinction from the physical city of Jerusalem. The ‘Jerusalem that is from above’ is described as ‘free’ and ‘the mother of us all’.
Hebrews 12:22, addressing believers, states ‘You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.’ In Hebrews 11:10 we read that Abraham ‘was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ and in 11:16 we read of the faithful that ‘God … has prepared a city for them’. In this context reference is made to the ‘heavenly country’ for which all the Old Testament faithful were longing.
Jesus, in Revelation 3:12 promised him who overcomes that he would write on him ‘the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God’.
In Revelation 11:2 the ‘holy city’ is a symbol for the Church during the age of witness. This ‘holy city’ stands in contrast to the ‘city’ or ‘great city’ otherwise symbolised by ‘Babylon’ and ‘the great prostitute’, and mentioned numerous times from Revelation 14 to 19. As the ‘holy city’ the Church both witnesses to and attracts the hatred of the unbelieving world.
In Revelation 20:9 the redeemed are referred to as ‘the city he loves’ [NIV] or ‘the beloved city’ [KJV].
The 'city' is described in great symbolic detail in Revelation 21:10-22:5. It is clear from 21:2,9 and 10 that the 'city' is 'the bride'. Under this symbol of 'the Holy City, Jerusalem' the final beauty, perfection and eternal security of the Church is revealed. The permanent presence of God is emphasised [21:3,22-25; 22:1-5], giving light, life and sustenance.
Jesus in his parables used the imagery of a wedding feast, complete with the bridegroom, to teach about his kingdom.
In Revelation 19:7 we read that ‘the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready’.
In Revelation 21:2,9 and 10 the 'bride' of the Lamb comes down from heaven in the symbolic form of 'the Holy City, the new Jerusalem'.
Under this symbolic trilogy the Church is portrayed as the object of God’s extreme love. Again the preciousness of the Church to God [and to the Lamb] is made clear. And again the utter security of the redeemed, the Church, is emphasized. Also again, as long as ‘the holy city’ is in the world, the light-bearing, truth-communicating mission of the Church is taught by this symbol. The ‘city on a hill cannot be hidden’ [Matthew 5:14]; the mere fact that it exists in the midst of and despite of the surrounding unbelief and anti-belief is testimony to the light and the truth, evidence of ‘the word of God’ and ‘the testimony of Jesus’.
B. 4 ‘My two witnesses’ [‘two olive trees’, ‘two lampstands’, ‘two prophets’]
Revelation 11 is another of those sections where meaning is determined largely by a person’s millennial position. I understand each of these symbols from this chapter to be referring to the people of God – not the physical nation of Israel as a whole, and not two specific individual witnesses but true believers from every generation and every nation. In the New Testament context these ‘two witnesses’ are the Church, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles who acknowledge Jesus Christ as God, and who by that acknowledgement, by that faith, are given the free gift of full salvation.
As the ‘two witnesses’ [and ‘two lampstands’ and ‘two prophets’] of Jesus, the Church engages in the activity of global witness; but also as the two witnesses etc the Church attracts the hatred and opposition of the inhabitants of the earth, and of the arch-enemy, here symbolised as ‘the beast that comes up from the Abyss’. These three symbols put heavy focus on the Church in mission.
B.5 A ‘woman’
Revelation 12 introduces us to ‘a great and wondrous sign … a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’. The fact that this woman is called ‘a sign’ indicates that she is not a real woman, but a symbol for some greater reality.
If all we were told about ‘the woman’ is what is reported in 12:1-5 we might conclude that ‘the woman’ is Mary, the mother of Jesus, simply because she gives birth to a ‘male child’ who is targeted by ‘the dragon’. But other elements in this vision make that conclusion impossible. The woman in this vision represents the people of God. Here we are given important insight into the continuity between the Old and New Testaments – between believers then, and believers now – for as we progress through this vision it becomes obvious that ‘the woman’ is both of them. She is, in verses 2-5, the Old Testament people who believed in God, and who like Anna and Simeon [Luke 2:25-38] were waiting in faith for the birth of the promised Saviour. She is, in verses 6 and 13 to 17, the New Testament believers, both Jew and Gentile, who have acknowledged and received Jesus Christ.
By the symbol of this woman, we are given insight into the perennial antagonism of the enemy against the people of God. By this symbol we are also given insight into strong and unassailable position of the redeemed, the Church, from all generations.
 She is ‘clothed with the sun …’ This immediately tells us that she has some close association with Jesus Christ – because he is elsewhere described as being radiant like the sun, and because he is, indeed, the light of the world:
John 1:4-9; 8:12
In addition, Jesus is referred to as the ‘sun of righteousness’ who rises ‘with healing in his wings’ for those who revere God’s name [Malachi 4:2]. Both Old and New Testaments teach that those who believe are credited with ‘righteousness’, clothed with garments of righteousness:
Romans 1:17; 3:21-24; 4:1-8
We learn here that ‘the woman’ represents all from both the Old and New Testaments who are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. This is not a personal righteousness, as his is, but an imputed, given righteousness, a gift, a grace. It is this clothing, this gift of righteousness, of acquittal, that makes it impossible for the dragon’s accusations against ‘the woman’ to succeed. Because she is clothed in the righteousness of Christ those accusations cannot touch her. God has acquitted her on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, there is therefore no one who has any right to accuse and condemn. Read Romans 8:31-34. The redeemed are beyond the legal reach of the accusations of Satan which would otherwise disqualify them from life with God.
But there is another aspect to this being ‘clothed with the sun’. Both Israel and the Church are referred to as being ‘light’. Because they belong to God who is Light, and to Jesus who is Light, believers bear that light of God into and in the world.
Again, clothed in the sun, clothed in light, clothed with Christ, ‘the woman’ is secure against the prince of darkness. The darkness cannot put out the light.
 She has ‘the moon under her feet’
In the Scripture the sun and the moon are referred to together as a guarantee of God’s covenant faithfulness [Jeremiah 31:30-37]. The permanence of the moon is used to guarantee God’s covenant with David and his line [Psalm 89:35-37]. An exceptional brightness of the sun and the moon depict the ultimate salvation brought by the Lord [Isaiah 30:26]. Indeed, the Lord himself is both the sun and the moon of the redeemed, a sun that never sets, a moon that never wanes, the everlasting light of his people [Isaiah 60:19,20; compare Revelation 21:22-25].
The redeemed stand on this secure and permanent foundation: the Lord is faithful. The Lord is their light and their salvation, no one, nothing, can sever them from God [Psalm 27:1-3; Romans 8:35-39].
 ‘… and a crown of twelve stars on her head.’ The reference to ‘stars’ completes this trilogy of assurance – sun, moon and stars together bear witness to the covenant faithfulness of God [Jeremiah 31:35]. Together they also encompass and characterize the woman with light.
The saints, the redeemed, the people belonging to God, the Church, are ‘the children of light’ [Luke 16:8; John 12:36; Ephesians 5:8; 1Thessalonians 5:5]. Although this makes their position with God absolutely secure it also attracts the hatred of all who hate the light [John 3:19,20]. However, this attack of the darkness against the redeemed is pointless. It can and does hurt, but it can never succeed in extinguishing the light, or in severing the redeemed from God and from salvation.
The crown of twelve stars worn by the woman is a ‘crown’ of victory – not a crown of royalty or authority, but the victor’s wreath [the Greek word is stephanos]. The Church is already victorious, she already wears a crown of victory. Christ has already conquered, and the Church is already clothed with the light of his righteousness, stands on the light of his promise, and crowned with the light of his victory.
From this symbol of ‘the woman’ we learn that the Church [those who believe] is the target of the devil and his destructive intent. He did not want the long expected child to live, he does not want the testimony of the child to survive. His vicious hatred is focused on the Church: those who have the testimony of Jesus.
And here in this symbol of the ‘woman’ is a message to the suffering Church: not through all the generations of waiting was Satan able to destroy the faithful in Israel; never in all of those centuries was he able to abort the holy child of promise and so dissolve the purpose of God; and even though he waited vigilantly, poised in aggressive readiness, he was not able to destroy the child when he was born. The same God who in faithfulness to his purpose and to his promise preserved the faithful and preserved the child is well able to preserve his people today. The Church, ‘the woman’, lives under his sovereign protection. God is working his purpose out and no one, not even the ‘perfect’ enemy [note the dragon's seven heads and seven crowns in verse three], can prevent him. For the same period of time in which the Church is persecuted, for that same period of time in which the Church witnesses, for that same period of time God preserves the Church.
C. DESCRIPTIONS OF THE CHURCH
In addition to titles and symbols of the Church Revelation also provides a number of descriptions of the Church.
C.1 Men ‘purchased for God’
In Revelation 5:9 the Lamb is praised because with his blood he ‘purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’. Here we see the Church as the result of the costly redemptive action of Jesus Christ [1Peter 1:18,19 teaches us how costly]. The Church is comprised of the redeemed – those who by the death of Jesus Christ have been redeemed from bondage to law, sin, death and Satan. From all the inhabitants of the earth only these are ‘redeemed’ [see also Revelation 14:3,4]. All others are still under the condemnation of the ‘law of sin and death’ [Romans 8:2; John 3:18]; all others are still under the dominion of darkness [Colossians 1:13]; all others are still in bondage to the ‘fear of death’ [Hebrews 2:14,15].
Here again we are brought face to face with the preciousness of the redeemed, the Church. They are redeemed at great cost. And here again we see their utter security: they now belong to God: the Lamb purchased them for God. [Note that this ties in with the designation ‘saints’ – belonging to God, God’s special possession, set apart for him and for him alone.] This ‘purchased men for God’ teaches us that the Church is not just people who have been set free, but people who have been set free for God. The Church belongs to God.
C.2 A great multitude from every people, language, tribe and nation
This is mentioned in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9. They are so many that no one could count them. John does not even try to indicate an approximate huge number as he did with the angels [5:11]. Here are gathered all the redeemed, all the sealed, from every age, and from every nation, tribe, people and language. This is the sum total, a massive number, the complete number of the redeemed, indicated by that symbolic number of completion from both Old and New Testaments – ‘144,000’. Here is the ‘Israel of God’ [Galatians 6:16], the spiritual children of Abraham [Romans 4:16,17], the true ‘circumcision’ of the heart by the Spirit [Romans 2:29], done by Christ, not by men [Colossians 2:11-12]. Here, all are ‘one in Christ Jesus’, where there is no difference and no distinction [Romans 3:22b-30; Galatians 3:28-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Colossians 3:11]. Not one is missing.
C.3 People who rule or reign on the earth
The concept of the Church ruling over the nations or reigning on the earth is mentioned in Revelation 2:26,27 and 5:10. When this rule or reign is understood to occur depends largely on a person’s millennial view. [Given my Amillennial position I understand this rule or reign to be occurring during the present era between the first and second comings of Christ.] This rule or reign of the Church will be discussed further in the section on the Church and its Mission.
C.4 Those who are dressed in white
The white clothing of all who believe in Jesus Christ is mentioned several times in Revelation [3:4,5,18; 6:11; 7:9,13,14; 19:14]. This white clothing is the result of being ‘washed’ by the blood of the Lamb [1:5; 7:14]. It is available only from Jesus Christ [3:18]. It is God’s gracious gift, and is yet another way of referring to the multi-faceted salvation given to those who truly believe. Here the sin that sullied us has been laid on Christ – he bore it in his body on the cross [1Peter 2:24]; and here the perfect righteousness of Christ has been credited to those who believe in him. Only those so clothed have access to Christ’s kingdom [read Matthew 22:11-13].
This white clothing covers our ‘shameful nakedness’ – our sin and guilt before the holy God [3:18; compare Genesis 3:8-10,21]. It is not the result of our human effort, our human striving, our human commitment and dedication, our human merit, our human achievement, but is given to all the redeemed on the basis of the ‘blood of the Lamb’ [7:9,14]. Indeed it is an essential component of our redemption.
Because it is sheer gift, totally unmerited by us, this Christian perfection, the perfection of Christ credited to all who believe, credited to the Church, has no variation, no degrees, no levels. All are dressed in white. As we are taught in Romans 3:22-24: ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’
All who believe in Christ are ‘dressed in white’ – pure white. No ‘off-white’. No ‘ivory’. No ‘antique white’. No ‘ghost white’. No ‘old lace white’. Nor any of the one hundred and fifty different shades of white. Just pure, pure white.
C.5 Those who ‘overcome’
In the conclusions of each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 a promise is directed to ‘him who overcomes’. When we read this, we feel uncomfortable. We feel afraid, for we do not want to miss out on these promises, and in our weakness and vulnerability we fear that we will not be identified as one who ‘overcomes’.
Literally, the Greek means ‘the one conquering’ – ho nikon – from the verb nikao which means to subdue, to conquer, to vanquish, to overcome. It is used to describe Christ in his victorious death [Revelation 5:5], and in his victory over his enemies [Revelation 17:14]. It is used to refer to the victory of Christians over their enemies ‘by the blood of the Lamb’ [Revelation 11:7; 12:11].
John used this word several times in his first letter, and his statements there help us understand what Jesus means when he says ‘him who overcomes …’ to the seven churches, that is, to the Church – to all who believe in him:
‘I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one’ [1John 2:13,14].
‘You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them’ (the false prophets and the spirit of the antichrist – see verses 1-3), ‘because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’ [1John 4:4].
‘… for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God’ [1John 5:4,5].
In these verses John identifies
- what has been overcome [the evil one, the false prophets, the spirit of the antichrist, and the world],
- the subjective reason for overcoming [our faith, that is, our belief that Jesus is the Son of God],
- and the objective reasons for overcoming [the fact that Christians are ‘born of God’, and the superlative greatness of God].
Those who ‘overcome’ are clearly not an elite group from among all who believe, but rather all who believe. Those who believe in Jesus Christ are those who ‘overcome’.
In each of the seven letters ‘overcomes’ is a present participle. Jesus is not talking about a victory that was a one-off, once-for-all event with no follow through. Nor is he talking about an overcoming that is solely in the future. This overcoming of which he speaks is on-going in the present. In this it parallels the New Testament perception of ‘believing’ – believing in Jesus is not a one-off action in the past. The promises of salvation are given to those who believe, present tense. In the same way, this overcoming, this conquering, of which Jesus speaks, occurs as a continuum. Yes, it does have a decisive beginning at the point of initial repentance and faith, but it is something that continues from that point on. There are ups and downs, there are highs and lows, there are times of strength and times of weakness, but the net over-all characteristic is that those who have true faith in Jesus Christ are those who also ‘overcome’. That is an irreducible built-in aspect of genuine faith. As John states in the last quote above – ‘everyone born of God overcomes …’ True faith endures. True faith persists despite the difficulties and despite its own weakness. True faith does not permanently give up and give in under pressure. True faith overcomes.
Those who overcome are the people with true faith in Jesus Christ, people ‘born again’ by the regenerating action of God, people who trust in and are protected by ‘the blood of the Lamb’, people who have and hold ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’. It is simply not possible for those who are ‘born of God’ to fail to ‘overcome’, to fail to conquer. They overcome because they are ‘born of God’. Indeed, to have true faith in Jesus Christ is to already be 'him who overcomes' - to already be 'more than conquerors' [Romans 8:37].
Jesus Christ overcame. He could not do otherwise. Even so, the true ‘Church’, those who are born of God, those who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb, overcome. They cannot do otherwise.
Here again we see the incredible security of the redeemed that is portrayed repeatedly throughout Revelation.
C.6 A fellowship
In Revelation 1:9 John introduces himself as ‘your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’. The word translated ‘companion’ is sugkoinonos – which means ‘sharer together’ or ‘co-participant’. John is referring to three things that those who believe in Jesus Christ, those who are ‘in Jesus’, share in common.
We tend to think of Christian ‘fellowship’ as a nice little gathering together of Christians during which praise, prayer, sharing and maybe a meal are enjoyed. But what John has in mind here is the total reality shared by those who are in Christ: a life that involves a common suffering, a common kingdom, and a common ‘patient endurance’. This is the Church: this is what all members of Christ’s Church share in common.
The common suffering
Jesus Christ made it clear that those who acknowledge him experience suffering in this world.
‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you … They will treat you like this because of my name …’ [John 15:18-21].
‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ [John 16:33].
Revelation teaches repeatedly that allegiance to the name of Jesus Christ attracts the opposition of the enemy. The Church, the redeemed, the saints – this fellowship of believers – is the custodian of the Word of God and of the testimony of Jesus. The fellowship of believers holds, and is a living, visible authentication of, the truth about God, and, in particular, the truth about God revealed by the Son. It is the possession and demonstration of this truth, this word, this testimony of Jesus, that makes the unbelieving world hate the Church. It is the possession and demonstration of this truth that motivates all attempts to destroy or disempower the Church and all attempts to dilute or corrupt the truth the Church possesses and proclaims. The enemy, in seeking to get rid of the truth about God revealed in Jesus Christ, does so by seeking to destroy or corrupt the Church, through direct physical persecution, including death; by the imposition of financial sanctions against the Church in an attempt to silence its verbal testimony; by corrupting and distorting the truth that the Church has in its possession and proclaims; and by compromising the moral standards of the Church, and thereby destroying its visible testimony.
The common kingdom
As we have already seen in 1:6 and 5:10, discussed in a previous section, all who believe in Jesus Christ are already ‘a kingdom’. We have already been delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of Jesus [Colossians 1:13]. We already reign in life [Romans 5:17]. The ‘kingdom’ is already within us [Luke 17:21]. The Church already reigns with Christ on earth as it proclaims his Word, and is already seated with him in the heavenly realms.
The patient endurance
But these two aspects of the fellowship of believers seem incongruous. ‘Suffering’ and ‘kingdom’ seem to contradict each other.
Here John introduces us to the underlying tension that runs right through Revelation, and, indeed, through the whole New Testament: the tension between the already and the not yet. Here John defines the reality in which the Church of all ages lives: suffering and kingdom. Both are present realities for all believers between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. [On a broader perspective, this tension has existed since Genesis 3 for all who called upon the name of the Lord, as Hebrews 11 testifies, and as Revelation indicates in 16:6 and18:24.]
Already, all believers participate in the ‘kingdom’, but we do not yet experience freedom from temptation, sin, suffering and physical death. Because of this tension, because we are already in the kingdom but not yet experiencing the ultimate reality of the kingdom where there is no suffering of any kind, ‘patient endurance’ is also, along with the suffering and the kingdom, an essential part of the fellowship of believers [see Revelation 2:2,3; 13:10; 14:12].
These three things – suffering, kingdom and patient endurance – ‘are ours in Jesus’. Because we belong to the King, we, the Church, suffer; but also because he is indeed the King, we persevere. We cannot do otherwise.
D. JESUS CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH
Up to this point we have been looking at ‘the Church’ and titles, symbols and descriptions of the Church found in Revelation. But the Church is nothing without Jesus Christ. It has its existence only because of him; it is precious to God because of the blood of Christ that purchased it for God; it is secure forever only because of Jesus Christ.
In this section we focus on Jesus Christ from whom everything that the Church is and has is derived. A clear understanding here is essential for an understanding of the Church in Mission.
D.1 The presence of Christ with his church
Before Jesus Christ returned to his Father the very last thing he told his disciples was: ‘surely I am with you always’ [Matthew 28:20]. The reality of that promise, that truth, and of the authority of Christ stated just prior to that promise, is now the very first ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ that is given to John to pass on to the churches.
We read in Revelation 1:12,13 that John saw someone ‘like a son of man’ among ‘seven golden lampstands’ [Revelation 1:12,13]. Verse 20 explains that the ‘lampstands’ are ‘the seven churches’, which are representative of all churches of all ages. In Revelation 2:1 Jesus describes himself as walking among the lampstands.
To the suffering and pressured churches specifically addressed in Revelation, and to all churches, and to
‘the Church’, then and in all subsequent generations, the very first vision that God gives us in Revelation, the very first truth he wants us to know and to take with us as the perspective from which to understand everything else he reveals in the visions that follow, is that Jesus Christ, the glorious, divine Lord, is with us, Jesus Christ, with all his power and authority, is walking among us.
The Jesus John sees in this vision [Revelation 1:12-16] is nothing like the Jesus he saw in the flesh. The Jesus he sees here, the Jesus who walks in the midst of his church, is a Jesus radiant with his rightful glory, a Jesus whose power and authority no one could fail to recognize. Even John, who knew with great certainty that Jesus is God, and who had seen his divine glory for a few minutes on the Mount of Transfiguration [Matthew 17:1-8], is utterly overwhelmed by what he saw and heard in this first vision of Jesus in Revelation [see verse 17].
This Jesus is a being of dignity and authority – depicted by his long robe and his golden sash [verse 13].
This Jesus radiates the same brilliant overpowering glory described by Ezekiel and Daniel in their visions of God [Ezekiel 1:25-28; Daniel 7:9; Revelation 1:14-16]. Neither sin nor darkness can survive in his presence except by his grace and by his permission.
This Jesus has a voice that is both clear, penetrating and demanding [‘like a trumpet’ – verse 10], and utterly overwhelming and consuming [‘like the sound of rushing waters’ – verse 15].
This Jesus sees everything and knows everything [his eyes are ‘like blazing fire’ – verse 13]; nothing escapes his notice, nothing is or can be hidden from him.
This Jesus speaks with both creative and destructive power and authority; his word gives life to those who receive it and brings judgment to those who reject it [the sharp two-edged sword in his mouth – verse 16]. As it was at the beginning, so it will be at the end: he speaks, and it is done.
This glorious, authoritative, divine figure is the Jesus who walks in the midst of the Church. All of this was true of the incarnate Christ, but it was veiled by his humanity. Now in this vision the veil is ripped away and his power and glory are exposed.
But he is not altogether an unfamiliar figure – he is ‘like a son of man’. By this description we are immediately taken back to the incarnation, to Jesus’ preferred title – ‘the Son of Man’, and we are reminded of what he said of himself under this title – that the ‘Son of Man’ came to serve, that the ‘Son of Man’ must suffer, must give his life as a ransom for many, must die and be raised to life. The glorious and powerful Jesus revealed in this vision is also the one who became one of us sharing our human flesh and blood, the one who loves us and gave himself up for us, bearing in his own body the complete penalty for our sins, to bring us back to God.
Here in this first vision, as the foundation of all other visions, as the perspective from which the Church must view all that happens in the interim between Jesus’ first and second comings, we see Jesus the Son of Man: the one who died in our place, the Lord of power and glory. And he is still ‘Immanuel’ – God with us. The powerful Lord of Glory - here in our midst. Here in his Church.
D.2 Jesus – the Lamb, looking as if it had been slain
In this symbolic vision of Jesus as ‘the Lamb, looking as if it had been slain’ [Revelation 5:6] we see the one thing, the only thing, because of which the Church exists. Without this death of the Lamb there would be no people of God, no Church. This sacrificial, atoning, substitutionary death, through which the Church exists, was a reality ‘from the creation of the world’ [Revelation 13:8], prophetically symbolized repeatedly in Old Testament history and ritual. It is by this death those who believe in Jesus Christ are ‘dressed in white’, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. It is by this death of the Lamb that the Church escapes the judgement.
Note that this death was followed by resurrection, ascension and glorification: John sees the Lamb ‘standing in the centre of the throne’. These also, as the aftermath of his death, are essential for the existence of the Church.
It is both interesting and instructive that here in this vision situated in ‘heaven’ in the presence of God on his throne, where everything is pulsating with glory and holiness, Jesus is symbolized as the Lamb who was slain – our sacrificial, sin-bearing, substitute. He is in the presence of the holy God as our substitute, who has paid the full penalty, taken the complete judgement for our sin. In the previous vision [1:12-20] he is in the presence of man [the churches] as the Lord of glory. In the one vision he is man with God; in the other he is God with man. Both are exactly what we, the Church, need: the one to survive in the presence of the holy God; the other to survive on earth with our faith intact.
[There is more about the Lamb in the separate study on Revelation and Salvation.]
D.3 Jesus – a Witness worth believing
Jesus Christ is called ‘the faithful witness’ [Revelation 1:5]. In 3:14 Jesus refers to himself as ‘the faithful and true witness’. In both of these the Greek word is martus, from which our English word ‘martyr’ is derived.
These descriptions of Jesus Christ as the ‘faithful’ and ‘true’ witness take us right back to those three years of his public ministry where he taught the truth about God and his kingdom. During those years everything he said was what the Father told him to say –
‘For he one whom God sent speaks the words of God’ [John 3:35].
‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’ [John 6:63].
‘The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work’ [John 14:10].
‘I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world … For I gave them the words you gave me …’ [John 17:6,8].
And the things that Jesus did revealed the truth about God and his kingdom, and confirmed the integrity his word:
‘For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me’ [John 5:36].
‘The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me. … though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father’ [John 10:25,38].
‘… everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you’ [John 15:15].
By his words and his works Jesus Christ revealed God. Because of his witness we know God and we know the truth about God. The dark blindness of our spiritual ignorance, the darkness of our human religions, has been ripped away. We see God by seeing Jesus.
‘… no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ [Matthew 11:27].
‘No one has ever seen God’ but Jesus ‘has made him known’ [John 1:18].
Jesus said: ‘If you hold to my teaching … you will know the truth’ [John 8:31,32].
Jesus said: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ [John 14:9].
‘God … made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ [2Corinthians 4:6].
‘… the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true’ [1John 5:20].
He, Jesus Christ, ‘the true and faithful witness’, is a witness worth believing.
D.3 ‘The testimony of Jesus’
As stated in the previous section, Jesus Christ revealed the truth about God. Those who have truly believed Jesus Christ hold to [believe], and hold in their possession, the testimony, the witness, of Jesus about God.
In Revelation 1:2 John refers to the contents of Revelation as ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’.
Elsewhere in Revelation the phrase ‘the testimony of Jesus’ refers repeatedly to the total content of the truth taught by Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ, which Christians believe. Christians are described as those who ‘have’ ‘the testimony of Jesus’ [19:10]. Christians, out of all the people who inhabit the earth, have in their possession the word of God and the testimony of Jesus – the truth about God which Jesus came and taught by his words [John 5:24], and which Jesus, in all of his actions – from his incarnation through to his death, resurrection and ascension – demonstrated and revealed. Christians, whether they realize it or not, have, in Jesus Christ and what he taught and did, the real truth about God. This is a dominant focus of Revelation.
Revelation teaches that it is the fact that the Church has this ‘testimony of Jesus’ that makes it the target of the evil one’s attacks:
It is because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus that John is exiled on Patmos [Revelation 1:9].
Revelation 6:9 refers to the ‘souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony which they had’ [note that the Greek does not have ‘maintained’, but simply ‘had’].
Revelation 12:17 speaks of Satan’s persistent opposition against those who ‘obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus’.
It is the ‘testimony of Jesus’ that the evil one wishes to destroy; it is this that attracts his opposition to the Church.
Jesus’ witness, Jesus’ revelation of God, exposes the lies of the evil one. It penetrates and over-powers the darkness in which he has held the world in bondage. It sets people free from his authority.
In revealing the true nature of God the testimony of Jesus invalidates all other perceptions of ‘god’.
In revealing the true way of salvation testimony of Jesus invalidates all other perceptions of salvation.
In revealing the truth about God’s wrath and judgment the testimony of Jesus invalidates all other perceptions of judgment.
The testimony of Jesus exposes the wrongness and the impotence of all the religions and cults of the world, and it exposes the sins and the sinfulness of every human being. It also reveals an accountability to the sovereign God that neither Satan nor the inhabitants of the earth want to acknowledge.
It is this fact that Christians ‘have’ the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus, that, above any other facts, attracts the hatred of the world, as we have just seen, and the opposition of the enemy.
The enemy does not want the world to know the word of God. The enemy does not want the world to hear and observe the testimony of Jesus. The enemy does not want the world to see the true glory of God. The enemy wants to keep the world deceived and under his dark dominion. His opposition to God, his aggressive hatred of God, is expressed in his various attempts to shut down the truth, to remove the light, by opposing those who have in their possession ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ – by opposing the Church.
Revelation also teaches us that this ‘testimony of Jesus’ which Christians possess is one of two things that ensures their victory over the evil one [Revelation 12:11]. This affirms the teaching of Paul about the full armour of God – where every item in the armour is the truth content of the Gospel [Ephesians 6:10-17]. Jesus affirmed this when he said ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ [John 8:31,32]. His truth, his gospel, is ‘the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ [Romans 1:16]. The very truth that attracts the opposition of the enemy to the Church, is the same truth that fortresses the Church against him.
D.4 The Conqueror
Revelation reveals that Jesus is the One who has already conquered, the One who is conquering now, and the One who will conquer. [This is discussed more fully in the study on the Christology of Revelation.]
He has already conquered by his incarnation, life, death and resurrection [5:5] and is even now seated on the throne with God the Father [3:21].
He is conquering even now as the Church holds forth ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ [6:2].
When he comes again, in power and glory, wrath and judgement, he, the Lord of lords and King of kings, will execute the final expression of his victory [17:14].
Through all of its suffering because of its allegiance to Jesus Christ, this invincible Conqueror is the One who walks in the midst of the Church, and the One who stands in the presence of God on behalf of the Church. Neither on earth nor in heaven can the enemy prevail.
E. THE CHURCH IN MISSION
The first chapter of Revelation provides us with a number of images of the Church that reflect its essential nature as the Church in mission. We saw previously in Sections A.2 to A.4 that those who belong to Jesus Christ as depicted as ‘servants of God’, ‘a kingdom’ and ‘priests’. Each of these names includes reference to the missional nature of the Church. Similarly, the symbols of ‘lampstands’, ‘the holy city’ and ‘my two witnesses’ contain intrinsic reference to the Church in Mission. Added to these is the fact that the Church, out of all the people on the earth, has in its possession ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ which puts an inescapable responsibility for mission squarely on the shoulders of the Church. Only the Church has God’s truth: only the Church can make God’s truth known.
E.1 Custodians of the truth
We have seen the fact that the church has and holds God’s truth in Section D. Believers are those who have ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ [1:9; 6:9; 12:11; 19:10]. This possession of God’s truth automatically infers the responsibility of communicating that truth. The possession and communication of this truth immediately distinguishes the Church from the world, and attracts the antagonism of the world. This distinction and this antagonism are essential characteristics of the Church in mission. If there is no distinction the Church is no longer the Church. If there is no antagonism, no opposition, no rejection, the Church has ceased to hold the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus; it has defaulted as the custodian of the truth.
E.2 Serving God by engaging in mission
In its mission, the Church is primarily ‘servants’ of God [1:1]. It is God the church serves, not man. It is for God’s sake, for his glory that the Church engages in mission. Just as the primary purpose of Jesus Christ in his incarnation was to glorify God [John 17:4,6,14] so the primary mission of the Church is to glorify God by making him known. When the glory and the truth of God are demonstrated in the life of the Church, then the Church also most truly serves man as by its witness men see the light of God [Matthew 5:16; 1Corinthians 10:31; Ephesians 3:10; 1Peter 2:9,12].
E.3 The authority of the Church in mission
To those who are true believers Jesus Christ gives ‘authority over the nations’ [2:26]. Revelation 5:10 says of those purchased by Christ’s blood ‘they will reign on the earth’. About this authority we are told:
E.3.1 It is worldwide – ‘over the nations’
It is over the nations [2:26] and ‘on the earth’ [5:10]. In Matthew 24:14 Jesus stated that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached ‘in the whole world as a testimony to all nations’. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus, on the basis of his total authority, commanded his followers to make disciples of ‘all nations’. This is the ‘authority’ given to those who are true believers.
E.3.2 It is described in terms that Psalm 2:8,9 refers to the power of the Christ.
The authority of true believers is described in Revelation 2:27 with words from Psalm 2:8,9, a Messianic Psalm that looks forward to the Day when Jesus Christ will inherit and rule ‘the nations’. The symbolism of these words is conflicting – if the nations are dashed to pieces like pottery there would be nothing left to rule with an iron sceptre. So we need to look beyond the symbolism to the intended meaning.
The word translated ‘rule’ in Revelation 2:27 is poimaino, which means to ‘shepherd’ or to ‘rule as a shepherd’. The ‘iron’ sceptre indicates unbreakable strength and power. What does the Christian individually, and the Church corporately, have that can be depicted by these two concepts of shepherd and strength/power? It is Christ and his gospel.
But also in this quote from Psalm 2 is the impact of this rule and authority: the nations are dashed to pieces. What is it that the individual Christian and the Church has that causes this dashing to pieces? It is Christ and his Gospel. Jesus said of those who reject him, the capstone or cornerstone: ‘He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed’ [Matthew 21:24]. Paul and Peter quoted Isaiah 8:14 to describe what Jesus is for those who reject him: ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ [Romans 9:33; 1Peter 2:8].
Wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed by the Church, and wherever the true Church exists, its impact is judgment. This is taught by Jesus in John 16:8-11 where he spoke of the impact of the work of the indwelling Spirit through the Church as convicting the world of guilt in regards to sin, righteousness and judgment.
Wherever the true Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed by the Church with the result that people acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, there the authority of Satan, the dominion of Satan, the hold of Satan over those people and his power to deceive those people is broken. People are delivered from his authority; people are delivered from his deceptions; people are delivered from his accusations.
E.3.3 It is ‘just as’ Jesus received authority from his Father
The authority of judgment was given by the Father to the Son. The authority of life and death was given by the Father to the Son [John 5:19-30]. Now Jesus says in Revelation 2:27 ‘I will give authority … just as I have received authority from my Father.’ In addition, the ‘rule them with an iron sceptre’ of 2:27, parallels the rule of Jesus Christ described in Revelation 12:5. To his disciples, Jesus said:
‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. ... If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’ [John 20:21].
‘On this rock’ (the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ) ‘I will build my church … I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ [Matthew 16:18,19].
Because they bear his name and because they proclaim him every faithful believer is automatically one who stands in judgment upon the whole world. Their affirmation of Christ, their alignment with Christ exposes the unbelief of ‘the nations’.
When the witness of the Church leads the world to repentance and faith, forgiveness and redemption results.
When the witness of the Church is rejected the already existing guilt of the world is exposed and confirmed, and the world’s judgment is rendered inevitable.
By their possession and proclamation of the Gospel the redeemed, the overcomers, the Church, thus exercise authority over the nations – bringing the power of the Gospel to save all who believe in Christ, and exposing the unavoidable condemnation of all who reject Christ.
E.4 The Church and the ‘little scroll’ [Revelation 10]
Revelation 10 records an interactive vision. John, representing the Church, is commanded to ‘eat’ the little scroll, and told that it will be ‘sweet’ in his mouth, but will ‘turn his stomach sour’ [verse 9]. Having done so he is told ‘You must prophesy (towards) many peoples, nations, languages and kings’.
To the Church – to those who believe in Jesus Christ – the Gospel is ‘sweet’. It is the savour of salvation, of peace with God, of the lavishness of God’s grace. But having received the Gospel, the Church has new insight into the extreme horror of evil, the terrible lostness of the inhabitants of the earth, the awful reality of man’s rejection of God. With these new insights the Church begins to feel within itself the deep grief of God in response to the sin of the world and the judgement that must follow; and, as it confronts the world with the truth about God, to itself experience the rejection and hatred that is directed towards God and towards all that God holds precious.
E.5 The ‘two witnesses’ – 11:1-14 [see B.4 above]
Under the symbols of ‘two witnesses’, ‘two lampstands’, ‘two olive trees’ and ‘two prophets’ the Church in mission is portrayed in the vision in Revelation 11. From this symbolic vision of the Church in mission we learn the following truths:
The Church in its mission of proclamation is empowered by God [verse 3].
The Church pursues its mission of proclamation for the whole time between the first and second comings of Christ [symbolised by the two figures of 1,260 days and 42 months] [verse 3].
The Church in its mission is ‘dressed in sackcloth’ – the deep grief of the Church for the lost inhabitants of the earth and their impending judgement (the ‘sour’ aspect in the previous vision) [verse 3].
The Church has access to and acceptance in the presence of God [verse 4].
The Church, by its proclamation and by its prayers [see Revelation 8 and 16] expresses, confirms and evokes the preliminary and final judgements on the unbelieving world [verse 5-6; ‘fire’ is a symbol of judgement].
The Church will remain and survive until ‘they have finished their testimony’ [verse 7; compare 10:7 – ‘the mystery of God is accomplished’] immediately prior to the return of Christ in judgment.
The Church in mission attracts the vicious hatred and scorn of the enemy and of the inhabitants of the earth [verses 7-10].
The Church alone, from among all the people of the world, has in its possession the one truth by which all the peoples of the world will be judged. Its proclamation of that truth is a key factor in the outcome of the final judgment for every human being [see Matthew 16:16-19]. In this, by its possession and proclamation of God’s truth, the Church rules or reigns on the earth, in so far as by this truth it executes judgement on the inhabitants of the earth: salvation to those who believe and condemnation to those who do not.
F. THE CHURCH UNDER PRESSURE – THE SUFFERING CHURCH
In Revelation 1:9 John introduced himself as the ‘brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’. He did not at this point define or describe the suffering, apart from noting its direct connection with their allegiance to Jesus.
F.1 The Church under pressure in the seven letters
When we read the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three we find that this suffering has multiple faces. It is not, as we might assume, confined to physical persecution. Although physical persecution repels and horrifies us, and can kill us physically, it is not necessarily the most dangerous form of Christian suffering. There are pressures that, although they do not harm us physically, are part of those ‘schemes’ of the evil one in which his purpose is to deceive and destroy us spiritually, and through that spiritual deception and spiritual destruction to either corrupt, terminate or discredit the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. While physical persecution is blatant and therefore easily recognized, these other pressures are far more subtle, and because of that subtlety more able to trap us before we are aware of them.
F.1.1 The pressure of physical persecution, including death
Physical persecution, including death, is mentioned or inferred in 2:3; 2:10; 2:13. Also inferred in the word ‘hardship’ are the financial sanctions that were exercised against those who refused to participate in the idolatrous worship of many of the trade guilds.
Physical persecution is also referred to in 6:3,4; 6:9,10; 11:1-14; 12:13-17; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20,24; 19:2.
Financial sanctions against Christians are a key focus in 6:5,6 and 13:16,17.
F.1.2 The pressure of false teaching
In 2:2 we read of ‘those who claim to be apostles but are not’; they are termed ‘wicked men’ and ‘false’. In 2:6 and 15 we read of the ‘Nicolaitans’, whose practices Jesus says he ‘hates’. These false teachers seem to have some connection with ‘the teaching of Balaam’ [2:16] and ‘that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess’ and who by her teaching was misleading God’s servants [2:20]. In 2:9 we read of ‘those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’ [in 3:9, where they are called liars’]. To give in to this pressure from false teachers, to accept what they were saying, was to revert to idolatry, and to listen to and learn from Satan. Part of the pressure of false teaching was the associated pressure to relax moral standards; this is particularly evident in 2:14 and 20.
This pressure of false teaching is also described in 13:1-18, and very present in Revelation 17 and 18.
F.1.3 The pressures of familiarity and complacency and human independence
We get a hint of this subtle, but dangerous, pressure in 2:4, where Jesus rebukes the church in Ephesus for forsaking its ‘first love’. We see it more urgently in 3:1,2 where Jesus informs Sardis ‘you are dead’ and ‘about to die’ and urges them to ‘wake up’ [verse 3]. Finally, Jesus describes the church in Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’ and defines their ignorance of their real condition: ‘You say, “I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’ [3:17]. So familiar were they with the words of the gospel, so ignorant of their real condition, that they were totally unaware that no one among them really believed that gospel. There was no need here for Satan, in his purpose of ridding the world of the testimony of Jesus, to exert the pressures of physical persecution; no need for Satan’s messengers to bring in their corrupt teaching. His oldest weapon, human pride, human independence, was already hard at work, blinding people to their desperate need of Jesus Christ and his salvation.
F.2 The suffering of the Church in the rest of Revelation
The seven letters alert us to the various kinds of pressure that the enemy puts on the Church, and the suffering that goes hand in hand with those pressures. In the rest of Revelation we are brought face to face with some aspects of that suffering:
F.2.1 The souls ‘under the altar’ – 6:9-11
The opening of the first four seals gives an overview of the time between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. The attacks on the Church depicted when the second and third seals are opened raises the question of ‘what happens to those believers who have died because of these persecutions?’ The answer is given in 6:9-11: that ‘the souls’ of those who have died because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus are ‘under the altar’. This symbol depicts the secure position of these deceased martyrs: they are in the presence of God [that is where the altar is] and they are secure because of the blood of Jesus [that is what the altar symbolizes]. From this secure position in the presence of God they ask God how long it will be until he avenges their blood.
They are not rebuked for their question. Indeed their question is valid; God views their deaths very seriously, as later visions make quite clear. It is simply a matter of timing and the completion of God’s purpose.
F.2.2 ‘They have come out of the great tribulation’ – 7:9-14
It is common to apply the phrase ‘the great tribulation’ to a period of intense pressure on the Church immediately prior to the return of Christ. However, the description here of those ‘who have come out of the great tribulation’, and their blessedness described in verses 15-17, make it difficult to hold this understanding of ‘the great tribulation’. This section of Revelation is clearly speaking of all the redeemed – all who are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, all who are dressed in white, all who inherit the blessedness of the new heaven and the new earth. Not just those who were alive during that intense period just prior to Christ’s return. I therefore understand ‘the great tribulation’ mentioned in verse 14 to be a reference to the whole period of time between Genesis 3 and the return of Jesus Christ – a great period of great tribulation under which the whole world, including the natural world, has been subjected to death, destruction and decay [see Romans 8:18ff], and during which the enemy holds the inhabitants of the earth under his deceptions and his destructive intent. Those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb have all come out of this great tribulation. They alone have been rescued from his deceptions by the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of Jesus. They alone have escaped.
F.2.3 The ‘sourness’ of the ‘little scroll’ – Chapter 10
See notes in E.4 above.
F.2.4 The ‘two witnesses’ – 11:1-14 [see E.5 above]
Opposition to the Church is in clear focus in Revelation 11:1-14 in the vision of the two witnesses. We read of people who try to harm the Church [verse 5]. We read of ‘the beast … from the Abyss’ [verse 7] who attacks, overpowers and kills them. We read of the utter disrespect that is shown towards them [verse 8,9]. We read of the jubilation of the enemies of the Church when the ‘two witnesses’ are killed [verse 10]. The vicious hatred of the inhabitants of the earth towards the Church is very clear.
F.3 The enemies of the Church
Leaving aside the sin and weakness of those who comprise the Church, Revelation identifies the enemies of the Church as:
Those who say they are Jews, but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan [2:9; 3:9].
Various false teachers who infiltrate the Church and corrupt its doctrine and morals [2 and 3].
Satan, also referred to as Apollyon, Abaddon, ‘the Dragon’, ‘that ancient serpent’, the devil [many references].
‘The great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified’ [11:8].
The two beasts .
‘Babylon’ otherwise called ‘the mother of prostitutes’ and ‘the great prostitute’ [14:8; 17:1-19:3].
The inhabitants of the earth [multiple references].
The kings of the earth [several references].
F.4 The suffering Church commended
In the context of the various pressures confronting it Jesus expressed his approval of the church.
F.4.1 Jesus praised the Church for its intolerance of false teachers
In our contemporary culture ‘tolerance’ is highly valued. Indeed ‘intolerance’ is perceived by many to be the ultimate wrong. This attitude stems from the secularism and relativism of our age which believe all religions are human ideas, and which deny the existence of absolute truth. Secularism sees all religions as innately wrong and relativism sees all religions as equal options, denying the right of any religion to exalt itself above the others.
Not so the biblical worldview. The biblical worldview, the Christian worldview, affirms that there is only one true God, that there is only one way to God, and that the one way to the one God is Jesus Christ [John 14:6; 1John 5:20,21]. With these and other equally exclusive words Jesus and his apostles taught the uniqueness and the absoluteness of the Christ of the Gospel. Such words offended both Jew and Gentile, and such words attracted the intense opposition of both the Jews and the Gentiles not only to Jesus, but also toward those who acknowledge him.
When Jesus dictated the seven letters of Revelation 2 and 3 he commended some local churches for their intolerance of false teachers [2:2,6] and he rebuked others for their tolerance of false teachers [2:14-15, 20]. This intolerance of false teaching is the essential flipside of acknowledgement of Christ: whoever knows that Jesus Christ is God, and that through Jesus Christ alone humans can be reconciled to God, knows also, of necessity, that there is no other God and that there is no other salvation. The Church, of necessity knows that any other ‘god’ and any other ‘salvation’ can only be spurious – mere counterfeits of the one who is really God, and of the one salvation provided by him.
F.4.2 Jesus approved the Church’s perseverance under pressure
The multi-faceted pressure experienced by the Church is directed by the evil one to one purpose: to rid the world of the word of God and the Testimony of Jesus – to rid the world of the knowledge of the one true God. Whether by the physical death or effective silencing of Christians as a result of physical persecution, whether by deceiving Christians into believing and proclaiming a distorted or diminished ‘gospel’, whether by destroying the reputation of God and of the Word by corrupting the moral reputation of Christians, or whether by the gradual erosion and reduction of the proclaimed Word through the familiarity, complacency and human pride of people who perceive themselves as ‘Christians’ – the evil one seeks to silence the Church, and so to remove God’s truth.
To remain faithful to Christ under this pressure, to persevere, rather than giving up and giving in to this pressure to deny Christ, attracts the approval and praise of Christ [2:2,3,13,19; 3:4,8,10]. He knows what it takes to endure pressure – he was at all points pressured as we are, and did not give in or give up [Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:14-16]. Because of the joy set before him he endured it all [Hebrews 12:2,3].
G. THE UTTER SECURITY OF THE CHURCH
As evident throughout this study, many of the truths about the Church taught in Revelation contain an intrinsic reference to the utter security of the Church. Every aspect of this security is inseparably related to Jesus Christ – both his person and his death.
Whoever has really received Jesus Christ is impregnable on two separate fronts:
 The Church is already beyond the final judgment, and will not be, cannot be, touched by it. The sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ ensures this.
 Regardless of the enemies and the opposition of the enemies, and regardless of what they are permitted to do to the Church, the Church is already victorious. The Church cannot lose. The enemies cannot win. This victory of the Church derives from the victory of Jesus Christ, the one who has already conquered, the one who is already victorious.
This security of genuine believers is more fully discussed in the study on Salvation in Revelation.