The Reigning Son of Man
November 29, 2020 Speaker: Jeff Breeding Series: Visions of the Reigning King: Jesus Christ as Portrayed in Revelation (Advent 2020)
Passage: Revelation 1:9–1:18
The Reigning Son of Man
Introduction to Advent 2020
On this first Sunday of Advent, I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Revelation, where our text this morning will be chapter 1, vv9-20. Revelation 1, vv9-20. As you’re turning there, you might be asking yourself, “Why preach from Revelation during Advent? That seems like an odd choice. Why not a Gospel or Isaiah? Why Revelation?” That’s a good question, and the answer has to do with the word advent. The word advent simply means arrival or coming, and that’s what we’re celebrating as a church during this season. We’re looking back with joy on Christ’s first coming, his first advent some 2,000 years ago. But at the same time, we’re also looking forward with anticipation to Christ’s second coming, his second advent, when he will return to gather his church and consummate his kingdom.
And that connection is why we’re focused this year on the book of Revelation. Despite popular perception, Revelation is not a book of fanciful conjecture about the end of time. No, Revelation is primarily concerned with calling the church to be faithful to her Lord, who is returning soon to judge the living and the dead. In fact, you could say Revelation is a manual for faithfulness as we await the return of Jesus Christ. And therefore, it is a very fitting book for the celebration of Advent. It helps us see the Christ for whom we wait, and it equips to wait faithfully for his return.
Introduction to Sermon
The headlines would be unmistakable, so clear they would almost write themselves. “Recent restrictions suggest opposition to churches on the rise.” “Businesses demand customers adhere to cultural values or face exclusion from the marketplace.” “Christians increasingly out-of-step with contemporary life.” The headlines would almost write themselves. And while you might think I’m describing life in our world, I’m actually thinking of the first century – the world in which the apostle John writes this book. Those same headlines very much describe the Roman Empire as John writes from his island prison.
For example, persecution of the church was not widespread in John’s day, but there were clear signs that it was increasing. What had been sporadic oppression was increasingly less sporadic, indicating a major escalation was on the horizon. Local trade unions – the Big Business of John’s day – were insistent that everyone, including Christians, pay allegiance to their cultural gods. If you wanted to buy from the local silversmith, you had to express your allegiance to the deities of that group. How would you do that? Often, through verbal affirmation of things that were unquestioningly believed by everyone else – signaling statements like “Caesar is Lord.” Even some professing Christians were beginning to suggest that compromise with the world was the best path forward for the church. “Look, just say what they want you to say, get it over with, and let’s all move on.”
So, put the whole picture together: Localized but increasing opposition – big business demanding allegiance to declared values – even other professing churches moving closer to the official cultural viewpoint – put all of that together, and you could just as easily be describing life in the year 2020 as you could the Roman world of John’s day.
And that is precisely why we need to hear this book, brothers and sisters, especially during this Advent season. The world from which John writes – a world of opposition and tribulation – has always been the situation of the church. I want to be clear on that, so please hear me. Tribulation has been the constant companion of the church, just as John says in v9. But in our day, perhaps we are beginning to feel that reality more than we have in a long time. It seems that the last trappings of cultural Christianity are being stripped away, and what we’re left to face is a world where the confession “Jesus is Lord” is considered both treasonous and dangerous. I’m not trying to make any predictions, and I’m certainly not trying to make a backhanded comment on political trends. My concern is spiritual. It does appear we are on the precipice of a great spiritual upheaval. Every week, it seems, I hear of another church facing incredible difficulty, another Christian stretched to the breaking point, another pastor struggling against the secular tsunami blasting his congregation.
And that means we need to hear this book, particularly at Advent. Through this book, the apostle John opens our eyes to see the cosmic reality that undergirds not only our lives, but all of history. And that cosmic reality is centered on the risen and reigning Jesus Christ, whom John sees here in chapter 1. That’s why this year – of all years – Revelation fits with Advent. The entire point of Advent is to renew our hearts in waiting for and witnessing to Christ, and John’s visions help us do just that. Revelation is unique for many things, but perhaps most unique is its visionary nature. John describes in words what he sees with his eyes. It’s a very visionary book, and in these four short weeks, we’re going to focus on the visionary highpoint, you might say – what John sees concerning Jesus Christ.
And we’re doing this, brothers and sisters, with the aim of strengthening our hearts to be faithful to Christ. My logic for this series is pretty simple – the more clearly we see Jesus Christ in his glory, the better prepared we are to remain faithful to him in tribulation. Or to say it another way, perhaps a simpler way – I hope this Advent kickstarts our readiness to joyfully suffer for the sake of Christ.
And that kickstart begins today with the introductory vision of Christ in Revelation 1. Now, as will be the case for every Advent sermon, we’re not going to plumb all the depths of this text. There are countless connections with other parts of the book that we’ll have to save for another series. For these sermons, our focus is much smaller – what does John see about the Glorious Christ, and how does it equip us for faithfulness?
In today’s passage, there are three pictures of Christ that frame the rest of the book. John sees Christ at work in the church in three ways, and then, there is one grand takeaway for us at the end. So, let’s consider each picture together.
Christ is Present to Sustain His Church
The first picture comes in vv9-13, where John sees that Christ is Present to Sustain His Church. Before John sees the Lord Jesus, he first describes the present situation of the church. Notice the setting, v9 – “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Now, you’ll look for a long time and not find a better description of the church’s life than what John provides here. Notice the three descriptions that John uses – tribulation, kingdom, and patient endurance. Those phrases should be taken together as summarizing the life of the church. Who are we? We are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, but we experience that kingdom through the patient endurance of tribulation.
And this situation is not new. It was shown to us in the life of Jesus himself. How did Christ ascend to the throne of God’s kingdom? Through the endurance of tribulation. “For the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated now at the right hand of the throne of God.” So, this is the pattern of the church’s life – from Jesus to the apostles and now on to us. We are citizens of the kingdom, and yet, we enter that kingdom only through the patience endurance of tribulation.
Brothers and Sisters, this is a healthy corrective for us as we think about our lives in this present age. Sometimes, when Christians talk about tribulation, they tend to think only in terms of the future – the great Tribulation that is to come. And while Scripture does speak of a great Tribulation, the overwhelming sense in the NT is that tribulation is the normal experience of the church in every age. We are not the first believers to face hardship, and we will not be the last.
Keeping that perspective in view protects us from some wrong assumptions. Our aim is not to return to some former way of life, when things were easier for the church and everything was just plain better. The good ole’ days don’t actually exist. And at the same time, the trials we face cannot be solved with mere earthly solutions. There is no social or cultural reform we can accomplish that will make tribulation go away, never to return. What the church of John’s day experienced is what we experience because such is life on this side of Christ’s return. We’re citizens of the kingdom, and yet, we enter that kingdom through the patient endurance of tribulation.
Now, of course this raises the question – how do we exhibit this patient endurance? If that is the church’s experience down through the ages, how do we uphold that heritage of faithfulness? The answer has to do with what John sees, beginning in v10. Notice what happens. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, John hears a loud voice, like a trumpet, v10. In the OT, the prophet Ezekiel heard a similar sound right before he heard the voice of God, and Moses, in Exodus 19, was summoned to meet God at Mt. Sinai with the sound of a great trumpet blast. So, John, it seems, is about to receive divine revelation.
And indeed, that is what happens, v11. John hears a heavenly command to write down what he sees, and then John is to send this book to the seven churches of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. But then something remarkable happens. Before John writes this word, he turns to see the One who is speaking to him. Notice vv12-13 – “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to him, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man.” We’re going to consider the details of this Son of Man in just a moment, but for now, I want you to note where John sees him. The Son of Man is in the midst of the lampstands. Why is that significant? If you look down at v20, you’ll see that the seven lampstands represent the seven churches of v11. Just as the lampstand in the temple stood for the light of God’s presence among his people, so now God’s presence shines in and through his church. The lampstands represent the churches of Jesus Christ.
And that’s the key point here. Christ, who is the Son of Man, is present with his church as she endures tribulation. Christ is not absent and aloof from his people as they enter the kingdom through tribulation. No, he is wonderfully and faithfully present with his church, right in the midst of what they endure. He is carrying out his priestly ministry among his people. This is a fascinating connection to think through. In the OT, there was a lampstand in the temple, picturing, as we said, the light of God’s presence among the people. But in order for that light to shine, the priest had to maintain the lampstand. He had to keep the oil fresh and the wicks trimmed. The priest maintained the lamp. So, also Christ, as our high priest, is present among his church to keep our light shining as well. He is present in the midst of his church, correcting us, teaching us, leading us to shine the light of God’s presence in this dark world.
And what this means, brothers and sisters, is that patient endurance, which we’re called to display, does not rest solely on our efforts. Patient endurance is the work of Christ among us, in our midst. This is why John says, back in v9, that this patient endurance of tribulation is in Jesus. Do you see that little phrase, v9? That’s where endurance is found, and that’s how endurance is displayed in the church – as we humbly submit ourselves to Christ and to his Word in our midst. We need our light to continue shining for the glory of God, and praise God, that light is sustained by ministry of Christ, as he is present among us.
Christ is Mighty to Defend His Church
The second picture picks up from this point, and it continues with what John sees. I take this to be significant. Before we learn anymore what John hears, we get a detailed, vivid picture of what John sees. The seeing, it seems, adds weight to the hearing. And beginning in v13, John sees that Christ is Mighty to Defend His Church. Our focus here is in vv13-16, and as you can see in the text, these verses are rich in descriptive language. What’s more, the OT background to these verses is both deep and broad. We could spend all of Advent unpacking just these verses, but we’ll have to content ourselves with a few moments this morning.
And the overall sense of these descriptive verses is that Christ is unthinkably mighty. Like a warrior, armed and ready, Christ stands poised to defend and uphold his church. From head to toe, John sees a mighty figure. Notice some of the detail with me:
First of all, Christ is pictured as a King. The title Son of Man, as you know, was Jesus’ preferred title for himself in the Gospels, but the title has roots in the OT, in Daniel 7. In that passage, Daniel sees a figure like a son of man – that is, one bearing human form – who comes into the presence of God, and as this son of man comes before the Almighty, he receives a kingdom. God gives him dominion over all the earth. In fact, the bigger picture in Daniel 7 is that this son of man is the one who defeats the ungodly kingdoms that have risen up in opposition to God. The background is royal. The Son of Man is established by God to rule over all the earth. So, when John sees one like a Son of Man here in v13, he’s telling us that he sees the King, the Lord Jesus, the One who has dominion over all things.
But this king is also a Priest. Notice how the Son of Man is clothed – with a long robe and a golden sash around his chest. Most likely, this represents priestly attire. This is the One who intercedes for and represents the people before God. So, these two important biblical strands – King and Priest – come together in the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. He rules over his church, and he represents his church in the very presence of God.
But to perform such an important ministry, this Son of Man must be more than a man. He must be divine, God in human flesh. And indeed, that is what John sees. Notice v14, where the hairs of his head were white like wool, like snow. Again, John is drawing on Daniel 7. In the prophet’s vision, Daniel is given a glimpse of the Ancient of Days, a glimpse of God himself. And as is often the case in Scripture, God is described with human terms, even though God has no physical body. And one of those descriptions in Daniel 7 is that the Ancient of Days has hair like pure wool. So, catch what John has done. With language that would be unmistakable in his day, John says that what is true of God is true of the Son of Man. Christ shares the very glory of God, for he is God in the flesh. This is why Christ can rule as King and intercede as Priest – because in his own nature, he reconciles humanity and God together.
John then begins to describe the Son of Man’s moral character. This is key. The physical descriptions in vv14-16 are less about Jesus’ appearance, and more about his character. There’s so much depth here, but let’s hit the high points:
The Son of Man is discerning and pure – his eyes are like a flame of fire. He sees through pretense, and he discerns every situation and every heart with absolute righteousness.
The Son of Man is faithful and strong – his feet are like burnished bronze. Christ is not, like so many other leaders, plagued by feet of clay. He has no hidden moral flaws that undermine his ministry. He is tested, tried, and faithful.
The Son of Man is powerful – his voice is like the roar of many waters. In Ezekiel 43, God’s approach is described as being like the power of rushing flood. So also, the Son of Man is equipped with the power of Almighty God, for he is God in the flesh.
The Son of Man is the Righteous Judge – from his mouth, v16, comes a sharp two-edged sword. In Isaiah, the Messiah is equipped with the word of God to carry out his mission, and that word is described as a sharp sword. So also, Christ, here in Revelation 1, wields the sword of the word. It is through Christ’s Word that salvation comes to the church, and it is through his word that the nations are called to account.
And finally, the Son of Man is glorious – his face is like the sun shining in full strength. He is not reflecting glory, as Moses did on Mt. Sinai. No, the Son of Man is radiating glory, for he is himself God in full splendor.
Taken together it is clear that there is no one like this Son of Man. He is unparalleled in his perfections, and he is unsurpassed in his strength. He is mighty in the purest sense of the word – mighty as only God can be. And he stands in the midst of church, poised and ready to defend her and protect her life. This is the takeaway of the description. John piles up these vivid images because he wants us to see Christ and Christ alone is the great Champion of the church. On the battlefield of the ages, where the powers and principalities wage war against God and against his people, our Champion, our Defender is this Mighty Son of Man. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church because those very gates have been crushed under the burnished bronze feet of Jesus Christ. So, while we may not know precisely what the future holds, brothers and sisters, we do know the One who will defend us, come what may. And that means our future is secure.
Christ is Sovereign to Save His Church
In fact, that is where this opening vision concludes. John sees one more picture of Christ, in vv17-18, and here we’re reminded of how Christ uses his mighty power. The final picture is this – Christ is Sovereign to Save His Church. Upon seeing Christ, John falls flat on his face, which is to be expected when seeing such a glorious Figure. But remarkably, that is not where the scene ends. Christ, with great humility, reaches out and touches John. The Lord of the Universe puts his hand on the shoulder of his servant. If you’re wondering about the heart of Jesus Christ, here is your reminder that he is merciful beyond anything you can imagine. He is radiating with glory, exalted above the heavens, and yet, he is willing to stoop down to his servants – his people – and show them his mercy.
And in fact, that is the message Christ communicates to John. Notice v17 into v18 – “Fear not,” Christ says, “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.” Now, we’re going to come back to Christ’s command in just a moment, but at this point, I want us to note Jesus’ self-description. So far, we’ve heard John’s description of Christ – what John saw when he looked at Jesus. But now, we hear Jesus’ own words. This is Christ’s self-description, and it focuses with laser-like clarity on one attribute – sovereignty. When Christ declares who he is, the truth he emphasizes is sovereignty. And this sovereignty is revealed in two dramatic ways.
First of all, Christ is sovereign by nature. That is, he is sovereign because of who he is. Notice where Jesus says I am the first and the last. That phrase comes straight from the OT, particularly the book of Isaiah. And every time it’s used in Isaiah, it is God himself who uses it. God is the First and the Last. He existed before all things, he created all things, and therefore, he rules all things. Indeed, all things find their purpose in God. Everything that exists does so for the glory of God. God is the first and the last.
But here in Revelation 1, Jesus claims that title for himself. He is the first and the last, meaning that he is God in the flesh. He possesses, by nature, the same sovereignty that God himself displays in the OT. So, make no mistake, when it comes to divinity and sovereignty, Jesus Christ is very clear – unmistakably clear. He is not merely a good man or a wise teacher. He is not merely a super-human creature to whom God gave special powers. No, with self-conscious authority, Jesus says that he is God. He is sovereign by nature.
But Christ is not finished. He also declares that he is sovereign by work. That is, he is sovereign because of what he accomplished. Notice the clear reference to Christ’s resurrection. He is the living one. He died, having shed his blood on the cross, but now he lives forevermore. Having crushed death by death, Jesus Christ will never die again.
And as a result of his victory, he has the keys to Death and Hades. The point is that Christ has authority over these enemies. Death is the final weapon of sin, and hell is the place where death reigns. And yet, both of these enemies are in submission to Jesus Christ. Think about that, brothers and sisters. The most terrifying enemy we face is death, and the most frightening place to imagine is hell itself. But these enemies are not free to do whatever they will. These enemies are not sovereign. Christ is sovereign. To put it very plainly, death can only go as far as Christ allows it go. Hell exists because Christ sovereignly determines that it is so.
And if these are the worst enemies we can face, then we have nothing to fear. That is Jesus’ command to John. After all the glory, after all the trembling before the exalted Son of Man, the message that Christ wants John to hear is this – “Fear not.” Since Christ is sovereign over all things, he will save his church, and he will save her to the uttermost. There is no amount of suffering that can derail his purposes. There is no amount of tribulation that can hijack our lives. We can even be exiled, like John, from all we hold dear, and still, Christ reigns in glory. He stands in the midst of church. He is mighty to defend his church. And he is sovereign to save his church. And therefore, with the tenderness of a Good Shepherd and the power of God Almighty, Christ’s word to us is this – “Fear not.”
To put it positively, brothers and sisters, courage is the application for this first week of Advent. What do we need as we face turbulent days? We need courage. What do we need as tribulation rises against the Lord’s church? We need courage. And where do we find such courage, especially when our hearts are so easily afraid? We find courage in the face of the Living One, the Son of Man, the First and the Last, the One who holds the keys of Death and Hades. We take our courage from Christ. We focus on faith on him, we center our church on him, and we run hard to know him through his Word. And the fruit, brothers and sisters, is courage. What do I mean by courage?
It’s the courage to stand firm on the Scriptures, in their entirety, believing that Christ’s Word is true and sharper than any two-edged sword. It’s the courage to be out of step with the rest of the culture, believing that faithfulness to Christ is better than the fleeting applause of the world. It’s the courage to build distinctly Christian homes, where the gospel is displayed in relationships ordered according to Scripture, not according to convenience. It’s the courage to practice hospitality and generosity in a world that increasingly attempts to isolate people from one another. It’s the courage to be bold in witnessing to the gospel, even when that testimony is derided as backward and oppressive. And it’s the courage to be identified more with a Crucified and Risen Savior than with any earthly idea, movement, or philosophy. That’s what we need in our day, brothers and sisters. We need a renaissance of Christian courage, but that rebirth will happen only as we re-center our lives and churches on the Christ we see here in Revelation 1.
The One born in Bethlehem is also the Lord of History, the reigning Son of Man. He is present to sustain his church. He is mighty to defend his church. And he is sovereign to save his church. His word to us is, “Fear not,” and, therefore, our response is to pray for the courage to stand with him. Amen, come Lord Jesus.