Fear is a powerful thing. Recently I read a disturbing novel about a young missionary who traveled to Japan during the height of the brutal persecution of Christians that took place there in the early 16thcentury. Captured and thrown into prison, it is not the actual torture that causes this young man to contemplate giving up his faith, for his captors do not subject him to the unspeakably horrible suffering that he knows others have been tormented with or which he hears others experiencing outside of his cell. It is the fear of suffering that afflicts him and feeds his doubts. Eventually, he succumbs to his fear and renounces his faith.
The book of Revelation was written for believers facing the imminent threat of persecution. Some were already suffering for their faith; others knew that it was coming. Much of the persecution that Christians had faced prior to this time had been at the hands of mobs instigated by religious leaders. At times, the Roman government had actually served as an unintentional protector of Christians. But towards the end of Nero's reign, the Christians found themselves in tension with the political powers of the empire as the emperors made the decision to allow Christianity to be accused of being an illicit superstition and subject to state prosecution. This only deepened with the reign of Domitian, when Christianity came to be labelled not only an illicit religion but actual “atheism”.
When John received this revelation of Jesus, he was being punished for being a religious and political rebel. He had been deported to the island of Patmos "on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (1:9) and knew that the churches in Asia Minor for which he had oversight were also undergoing trials of varying degrees.
It is evident that Revelation was written to provide the churches with what they most needed: a revelation of who Jesus Christ is. God's priority is not so much to answer the questions that His people may have as to why they are persecuted as to give them a revelation of Himself. This is what they need most. In this final book of the Bible, Jesus is revealed as the one who is in the midst of the churches, as one who is in control of history and who will soon bring history to its conclusion. He reminds them that He, and not their persecutors, holds the keys to death and Hades (1:18). In 1:12-16, we read, “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp stands, and in the midst of the lamp stands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”
High priestly, kingly, divine, all-seeing, steadfast, awe-inspiring in power and eloquence, in control of the past, the present and the future, with power in His words and promises. And wonder of wonders, He turns His face, full of grace and glory, towards us, not to terrorize us but to free us so that we too can shine with His light.
This is the God who stands in the midst of His people in their day of trial. There is only one way to overcome: by having a clear vision of who Jesus is, rooted in His revelation of Himself. A Jesus conjured up in our own imagination, tailor-made for our own convenience or perceived needs will not do, only the Jesus who has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. Only this Jesus can raise us up and say, “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” (1: 17-18).