What is Reality?

A sermon on Revelation 1 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 2/13/2005

What is reality?

You might think, “That’s a pretty simple question. Reality is what I see:

That’s reality. What I see.”

The astronomer Carl Sagan summed up that philosophy in words he used at the beginning of his celebrated PBS TV program, Cosmos: “The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.”

Is the cosmos reality?

The Bible tells us otherwise. Oh, the world around us is real enough. But we are to set our minds on things above, not on things of the earth (Col 3:2). We are to desire another, better country, a heavenly one (Heb 11:16) We are to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18).

The book of Revelation was written to help us remember these truths. Last week, we identified three of the major themes of this book:

Question: Can we know any of these three truths simply by looking at the things of this world? No! We cannot see any of these! These are fundamental realities that our eyes can never reveal to us!

These truths are available only through God’s revelation of truth in His Word – in His living Word, Jesus, and in His written Word, the Bible. The Bible is our authority, the source God gives us to see and understand the spiritual realities that we otherwise would never see.

Today we look at Revelation 1: What are we taught here about the fundamental nature of reality? Three answers:

We will look at those three topics in turn, and conclude by asking: Why is the nature of reality important to us?

Jesus is God

In verses1 and 2, John is said to bear “witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.” What does the word “of” mean in the phrase, “the testimony of Jesus Christ”? The Greek grammatical construction, like the English, is ambiguous. It could mean “the testimony FROM Jesus Christ” or it could mean “the testimony ABOUT Jesus Christ.” Certainly the first meaning holds here – as we noted last week, Jesus is the origin of these words. But the second meaning holds also. Even right here in this first chapter, there is much that is revealed about Jesus.

We see right away that Jesus is God. There are three reasons to say so from this text. First, look at verses 4 and 5:

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, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

John asks that grace and peace might come upon the seven churches - from whom? First, from “him who is and who was and who is to come.” Who is that? Verse 8 uses exactly the same phrase, and there identifies the speaker as “the Lord God”. So this is God the Father. Second, John asks for grace and peace to come from “the seven spirits who are before his throne.” Who is that? Remember, “7” is the number of completeness or perfection. This seems to be a reference to the Holy Spirit – the Spirit in all His completeness and perfection. Third, John asks for grace and peace to come “from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

So John is putting God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit on the same level. All three are the source of the grace and peace he asks for the churches. This is just one of many places in the New Testament where God is said to be a trinity: One Godhead, three persons, each fully and completely God. So this chapter describes Jesus as God through this Trinitarian offer of grace and peace.

A second way to see that Jesus is God is through the parallels between Revelation 1 and Daniel 7:9-10:

9 As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.  10 A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. 

Who is the Ancient of Days”? Verse 13 tells us:

13 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. 

This, there is a distinction between the Ancient of Days and “one like a son of man”. The Ancient of Days is God the Father, and “one like a son of man” is Jesus Christ. Indeed, in verse 14, the Ancient of Days gives the “one like a son of man” an everlasting Kingdom that rules over all nations.

But look more closely at verses 9-10. Although this is a description of God the Father, it is very similar to the vision John receives of Jesus in Revelation 1:14-16. Both have hair like white wool; both are shining with great brightness; the Ancient of Days has fire before him, while Jesus has “eyes like a flame of fire”.

Thus, John’s clear allusion to Daniel 7 helps us see that Jesus is indeed distinct from God the Father, but nevertheless God the Father and God the Son are together God, are together one Godhead.

A third way to see that Jesus is God is through a comparison of Revelation 1:8 with 1:17-18.  

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." Revelation 1:8

"Fear not, I am the first and the last,and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Revelation 1:17b-18

In verse 8, God the Father says that He is the Alpha and the Omega. What does this mean? Alpha is the first and Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. So this is like saying, “I am the A and the Z. Nothing is before me, and nothing is after.” Thus, it means, “I am the first and the last.”

But this is exactly what Jesus says in verse 17. He is the first and the last. Indeed, at the end of Revelation, Jesus uses exactly the same words as God the Father in 1:8:         

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Revelation 22:13 

Jesus thus claims to be first, or before anything else. And He claims to be last. That is, He knows the end of history. He is in control of all history.

Furthermore, Jesus calls Himself “the living one.” This means not only that He is alive now. That would be true of you and me. We live now. But we will die. Not so with Jesus. His very nature is to be alive. He has always been alive, and He will always live. Thus, He is “the living one.”

And yet the living one died! As Charles Wesley wrote: “Tis mystery all: The immortal dies!”

How does this relate to Jesus being God? Do you remember what God says to Moses at the burning bush?

“Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Exodus 3:14 

God’s Name, His very essence, is to be. He is alive. By calling Himself “the living one”, Jesus is saying the same about Himself. He is always alive. His very essence is to live.

He is God.  

Jesus’ Glory is the Supreme End of All Things

Look at verses 5 and 6:

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

This sentence is the highest point of chapter 1, giving the reason behind all else in the chapter.

A few weeks ago, some of you heard me give lesson 2 of the “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” course. The primary thesis of that lecture is that God’s passion for His glory is the motivating force behind all that He does. In that class we look at Scripture after Scripture, showing that the reason God gives for everything from saving the Israelites from slavery to forgiving our sin is the glory of His Name.

We see the same in the book of Revelation. This book is full of songs of praise to God, giving Him glory. This is first. Note how John shows in this brief doxology that the goal of God’s love for us, the goal of God’s freeing us from our sins, the goal of God’s exalting us, the goal of God’s enabling us to serve as priests – the goal of all this is His glory forever and ever.

Imagine you lived 100 years ago, but were transported to the present age. You walk into a room, and see a computer. You try to figure out what this thing is. Would you be able to? Not unless you know the purpose for which it was made. Without knowing the purpose, you might think it’s just a tool to teach children the alphabet.

Just so, if you are going to understand reality, you need to know its purpose.

This is the fundamental aspect of the nature of reality that Carl Sagan missed: All creation exists to bring glory to Jesus Christ.

Jesus is in Control

This third theme pops up throughout the chapter. See first verse 5:

from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

Here Jesus is presented as prophet, priest, and king. First, He is the prophet, the faithful witness. He has authority to speak truth, authority to tell us the nature of reality. And He faithfully exercises that authority.

Second, He is the priest. Not only does He speak of the nature of reality, but He acts to bring about God’s purposes for that reality. His death and resurrection are key moments in God’s plan of redemption. As priest, He is the mediator between God and man. And He will raise many more from the dead to Himself for His glory.

Third, He is king, the ruler of all kings of earth. Look at verse 7 for more on this point:

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.

This is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13 which we read earlier, where the one like a son of man comes with the clouds. And recall that in the next verse in Daniel, the Ancient of Days gives Him and everlasting kingdom, ruling all nations. Just so here. Jesus’ rule extends to all mankind.

·        No people group, no matter how large the cultural barriers, will resist His royal power;

·        No country, regardless of its military might, can defeat His forces;

·        No university, no research center, no bastion of intellectual achievement will be able to scorn him.

Jesus is in control – even of all those who pierce Him day by day through neglect and ridicule.

But Jesus is in control not only of His enemies. He is also control of His church. We see this in verses 12-20, which picture Jesus’ authority and watchcare. Here, Jesus walks among the golden lampstands with seven stars in His right hand. Verse 20: tells us that the lampstands are the churches, and the stars are the angels of the churches. Jesus is thus pictured like a priest taking care of the lampstand in the temple. What would such a priest do? Trim the burned sections off of the wicks. Fill the lampstand with oil. Polish the gold so it will shine. Overall, he ensures that the lampstand fulfills its purpose.

That is what Jesus does here. He ensures that the church fulfills its purpose through His authority and watchcare. So He commissions John to write the book of Revelation in verses 11 and 19. Indeed, in verse 17 He touches John, enabling him to get up from the floor where he fell in shock and awe. Jesus then gives him his task. As we will see in the weeks ahead, He then praises, rebukes, exhorts, and makes promises to these seven churches. Once He even threatens to remove the lampstand from a church – thereby leaving that “church” a church in name only.

Thus, Jesus is pictured here as the one in authority over the churches. He can do whatever He wants with us. He can use us for His glory, or He can remove our lampstand – leaving us as just an empty shell of a church.

Finally, look at verse 18: Jesus says, “I have the keys of death and Hades.” What does this mean?

Why does every 16 year old want his own set of keys for the car? The keys provide authority. Without the keys, you need someone else’s explicit permission to drive. With your own keys, you have the ability to use the car whenever you want.

If Jesus has the keys of death, Jesus is in control even of death.

If the cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be, death is the end of existence. But if Jesus holds the keys to death, His people need never fear. As Paul writes:

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26

So Jesus is God. Jesus’ glory is the supreme end of all things. Jesus is in control: of history, of his enemies, of his church, even of death. This is the nature of reality.

Conclusion: Why is the Nature of Reality Important?

This understanding of reality affects our lives profoundly. Let me point out three effects:

Seeing the nature of reality makes us see the rest of life differently

If understand who Jesus is and what He is doing in the world, we will see all parts of our life differently. Consider:

Second, seeing the nature of reality gives us courage to be faithful witnesses. What keeps us from being faithful witnesses? Consider these five reasons:

But: when we see that Jesus’ glory – rather than our own comfort and fame and honor and ease of life – is the purpose of our creation, then we become willing to take risks. For His glory requires that we be faithful witnesses. Yet He holds the keys to death and Hades. John was a faithful witness – and got exiled to the island of Patmos. We too may well face earthly consequences of being faithful witnesses. Be we can take heart, knowing that He is in control; He has overcome the world.

Finally, seeing the nature of reality humbles us. How does John react when he sees Jesus for who He is? Verse 17: “I fell at his feet as though dead.” When we see the true nature of reality, the true nature of Jesus Himself, we too should be greatly humbled.

The point is not primarily, “Make yourself small.” We do have to take ourselves off of our pedestals. As Paul says,

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. Romans 12:3

But lowering our exalted image of ourselves is only the first step. The key here is not seeing that we are small. The key is seeing that Jesus is big. The key is seeing that Jesus is worthy of ALL glory and praise and honor. 

My friends, this is the most important question in all of your life: How do you perceive the reality of Jesus Christ?

You must see Him as John saw Him: Risen! Alive! Ruling! Overcoming all enemies! Governing History!Loving His people! Freeing us from sin! Exalting us to reign with Him!

You must savor Him above all else – for He IS reality.

And you will not glorify Him unless His perfections delight you.

So: Do you delight in Jesus Christ above all the world has to offer?

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 2/13/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon. John Piper’s sermon of 2/6/05 is the source for the thought that humility is primarily seeing Jesus for who He is rather than making ourselves small.

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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