I wonder if you like doing puzzles. In our family the Radio Times Christmas crossword is an annual tradition. There’s a bit of competition to see which household can complete it first. Last Christmas Liz and I were very pleased that we’d completed it before my mum and dad came to lunch on Christmas Day, which we very rarely, if ever before have done, only to discover that Mum hadn’t even bought the Radio Times and so our efforts to beat her were in vain. Maybe you’re more of a Sudoko person, or word search, or jigsaws, or maybe none of the above. Whatever your attitude to puzzles, I don’t expect that any of us have ever been in position where solving a puzzle was a matter of life and death. But, of course, in recent history there have been times where understanding and decoding a message has been exactly that, a matter of life and death. Without the work of the code breakers at Bletchley Park, breaking the German communications codes, who knows what might have been the outcome of World War Two. Sometimes solving a puzzle is a matter of life and death.
Sometimes I wonder if we read Revelation like we might look at a crossword or a jigsaw. It’s there for people who like that kind of thing, but not that important if you’re not really into puzzles. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to puzzle over what the different pictures, language and symbols might mean, how they fit together, but actually it doesn’t matter very much if we understand it or not, if we solve the puzzle.
For the first readers of this letter, it was certainly more than that. It was a matter of life and death. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus his followers had followed his commands and preached the good news of the Kingdom in the power of the Spirit far and wide. Churches had sprung up all over the place, but persecution had followed swiftly. Persecution from existing religious groups, persecution from the Roman authorities, persecution from family members. Believers were jailed, beaten, killed. Where was Jesus? Why had he not returned in glory to bring the Kingdom he’d promised? Why were people dying when he’d promised life?
As one commentator puts it, “We must not think of Revelation as a kind of intellectual puzzle sent to a relaxed church with time on its hands and an inclination for solving mysteries. It was sent to a little, persecuted, frustrated church, one which did not know what to make of the situation in which it found itself.” Now, I don’t think the church is particularly persecuted in this country. We might have lost some of our privileges, but that does not mean we are persecuted. However, we are little, I think often frustrated and it seems to me that we often don’t know what to make of the situation we find ourselves in. Given that, it seems to me that reading, exploring, and seeking to understand what Revelation has to say to us, might be quite useful.
Over the centuries since it was written there have been four main ways of reading Revelation. The first view takes what I’ve been saying about its immediate context very seriously, and understands all the images and messages of the letter as being totally linked to the church of the day and its relationship to the wider world, being dominated by the Roman empire. This view, however, leaves little room for any application of the message of the letter to future generations. The second view takes the images and prophecies away from the immediate context and attempts to link them to events in world history over the centuries. Well, I say world, but usually they are restricted to Western Europe, which is a bit odd for a letter written under the inspiration of the God of the whole of creation. This view has the merit of opening up the meaning of the book for more generations, but has the weakness that, if this were its major purpose, it would have been largely meaningless to the people it was written to. The third view goes further into the future and sees Revelation as largely unrelated to human history, apart from with regard to indications of the return of Jesus and the events of the end times. This narrows its meaning and application to only that generation alive immediately prior to Jesus’ return, and none of us know when that will be. Fourthly, there is the view that it is all symbolic, with great universal themes that any generation can draw from, but which have no particular links to or roots in actual historical events.
It seems to me that all of these perspectives have some merit, but also, if taken alone, have significant weaknesses. If we are to get all the juice out of this piece of fruit then we need to squeeze it from all four directions. It has to have meaning and significance for the people to whom it was originally written. We can see its themes and principles working out in world history through the ages. It does give hope and warning for the future yet to come and, particularly, with regard to the end of times.
Bearing this in mind, over the coming weeks we’re going to be looking at some of the different characters that appear in Revelation, and think about who they are, what that meant for the people who received the letter, their impact on history, and the implications for the future.
This evening’s character is heard speaking towards the end of our reading tonight, in verse eight.
“I am the Alpha and Omega” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
God declares these identities, these names, these characteristics. They are God’s self revelation. They have overlapping, similar meanings, but come from different traditions, and draw together in one place God’s total sovereignty over space and time.
“I am the Alpha and Omega.” This is a poetic way of using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to say I am the first and last. I am the A-Z. I was before all things, and will be there at the end of all things. It harks back to Isaiah’s prophetic description of God, “I am the first and I am the last, besides me there is no god.” It links with Jesus in verse 17 describing himself as the first and last, affirming Jesus divine nature, an affirmation further strengthened at the end Revelation, when, in chapter 22 Jesus describes himself as the Alpha and Omega. The use of letters brings in the idea of language, and the Word as described in John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the word.” Although this might sound a bit weird to us, it also links to a belief at the time in the power of magic incantations. In magical text books the recitation of the seven vowels in Greek was thought to have power, as it was believed to make up the name of the highest God. The abbreviation Alpha to Omega was often used to represent this.
“Who was and who is and who is to come.” This description of God has its roots right back in the beginning of Scripture, and in God’s appearance to Moses in Exodus 3. God’s people are enslaved in Eygpt, and God is sending Moses to deliver them. Moses asks God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them? God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. Over the years, as the Jewish people had reflected on this divine name, and its implications for God being the only one who just is – uncreated, not made, not dependant, but existing independent of all other things, they had expanded this “I am who I am” to cover all time – past, present and future, and come to understand God as the one “who was and who is and who is to come” God – independent, beyond time, always there. This also had resonances in Greek philosophy and understanding of what it meant to be divine.
The Almighty. If we describe someone as mighty, what do we mean? When I think of the word, my mind leaps to World’s Stongest Man competitions, or to David’s mighty men. I tend to think of physical strength and power. Someone who is Almighty is someone who can lift anything, do anything. But, that’s not quite what this means. If we describe Queen Elizabeth the first as a mighty ruler then we are obviously not talking about physical strength or ability. We are talking about sovereignty. And this is what the greek word, pantokrator, almighty, means, from the terms ???, “all,” and ???????, “to rule”. It is about God’s sovereign rule over all creation. It occurs nine times in Revelation, and only in one other place in the New Testament, but it’s equivalent in Hebrew, “sabaoth” appears frequently in the Old Testament.
So, what have we got here? We’ve got three names of God, each of which in different ways reinforce God’s sovereignty over the whole of time and over the whole of creation. These three names have different cultural heritages, deriving from different aspects of Greek and Hebrew culture, religion and philosophy. Brought together these titles underline the majesty and power of God in contrast to Satan and the earthly rulers in league with him.
For the first readers of this letter, this would have been mightily encouraging. They were persecuted, frustrated, and confused, but God is still God. God was there at the beginning and will be there at the end. It might look like Satan and the worldly powers and authorities are in charge and are winning, but God is still Almighty, and God’s rule and reign will prevail. They feared for their lives, for their very existence, but God’s existence, God’s being, is assured, and in that assurance is the assurance that their lives and held safe by one who cannot be snuffed out.
Does this encourage us? As we look around the world and see the uncertainties of Brexit, the rise of China, the war on terror (seventeen years since 9/11), the development of a post-Christian culture in our country, how do we feel? Frustrated, uncertain, out of control? All of these things perhaps, but will we hold on to the fact that God is sovereign, is independent, is before all things and beyond all things? Will we trust God, will we pray and work for Gods rule and reign to be recognised and lived out in the world today, will we be encouraged?
And what about the future, as we look towards the end of time? Jesus gave two very clear instructions about the end of time to his followers, to us. One: do not try and work out when it will be – only God knows. Two: Be ready and alert and live us if it will be today. I find it a tragic irony that so much ink has been spilt trying to use the writings of Revelation to disobey the first instruction and so little focussing on what it contains to help us obey the second. God is sovereign over all time, was there at the beginning creating it all, is here now, reigning over it all, and will be there at the end, sorting it out. Will we live today as if we believe that to be true?