First and Last

First and Last

Text: Revelation 1:4-8,17-18; Isaiah 48:12-14a

This morning we are returning to chapter one of Revelation to look at some of the preamble to the seven letters we have looked at this summer. The letters are found in chapters two and three and are letters from Jesus to the people in seven of the early churches. Because the church is people we have treated these letters as letters to us as well, listening for points of connection and identification with those early churches.

This morning I want to back up to chapter one and look at the author of these letters because the author is the one we worship and the reason we are here. Far more in-depth than just saying “God” or “Jesus,” the introduction to Revelation names God in important ways. I’d like to focus on that with you this morning. And while it may seem basic to many of you to talk about “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus?” I think this text will take each of us deeper into those questions than we are used to going.

Creator and Sustainer: Assemble and Listen (Isaiah 48:12ff)

First, I’d start with the text from Isaiah that we heard as our call to worship. Revelation will identify God (and Jesus) as eternal, as “the first and the last.” This is not new to the New Testament, but part of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures. God spoke to His people through the prophet Isaiah and said, “I am He, I am the first, I am also the last.” (v.12b)  God then connects that name with His work as Creator and Sustainer: “Surely my hand founded the earth and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand together.” (v.13)

Some folks shy away from naming God as Creator and Sustainer because there has been a movement to distinguish the members of the Trinity into roles as Creator God, Sustainer Spirit, and Redeemer Son. But that’s not what is going on here. God is involved in all those activities – in fact Father, Son, and Spirit are all involved in all three activities! From the account of Creation in Genesis to Isaiah to the New Testament and the visions in Revelation, God is declared as First and Last – outside of this world as the one who created it and holds it together. In Revelation Jesus shares that name with God and I will return to it. But for now, the Isaiah text continues with this charge from the First and Last: “Assemble, all of you, and listen!” (vv.14a) That is what we do when we gather to worship; we are here because God, the First and Last, calls us together to listen and to respond in faith. So, let us listen!

Triune God (Revelation 1:4-8)

I mentioned the Trinity because the whole Trinity is in view in Revelation 1. John writes Revelation to the seven churches and begins with a blessing of “grace to you and peace.” He sends the blessing in the name of the Triune God. It is “from Him who is and who was and who is to come.” (v.4) In verse 8 we read that this is the Lord God, the Alpha and the Omega (Greek for first and last, or A to Z) and again “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (v.8) The Lord God, the Almighty is how God the Father is often named. It is the Lord God, the Almighty, who spoke through Isaiah and said, “assemble and listen up.”

But the greeting in verse 4 is also “from the seven Spirits who are before His throne.” (v.4) This may be the most confusing part of the formulation; isn’t there just one Spirit? Yes – this is part of a vision and the number seven is used symbolically and poetically throughout Revelation. Picture if you will a waterfall and river dividing into seven streams, each of which sends water to a village. That’s the image here; God’s Spirit flows outward from God’s throne into the world and into the seven churches who are about to receive a Word from God. And because the Holy Spirit also provides union with Christ, the Spirit also brings the Church into the presence of God. It’s not meant to sub-divide God or the Spirit or represent some other new spiritual being. For the seven churches to whom this vision and letter will be shared, God’s Spirit is sent to them and bears them into the very presence of God through Jesus.

And finally, the “grace and peace” blessing is from Jesus. (v.5) I’ll say more about him, because he is named and described in a full and glorious way. But my first point here is to lift this up as one of the places in Scripture the Triune God is named and described. And again, the three persons of the Trinity are One God; Father and Son are described as “first and last.”

Jesus, Name Above All Names (vv.5-7,17-18)

Earlier in the service we sang the song, “Jesus, Name Above All Names.” Verses 5-7 read a bit like that song. I see no fewer than six names for Jesus in these verses, with even more in verses 17-18. He is named or described as follows:

Faithful Witness – In the very beginning of Revelation (v.2), the vision that John will share is described as “the testimony of Jesus Christ.” These are not presented as John’s words, but as the Words of Jesus Christ. These are not ultimately the letters to the churches from John, but the letters to the churches from Jesus. And Jesus is named as the faithful or truthful witness. We can trust what he says to be true.

Firstborn of the Dead – Jesus is named as this elsewhere in the New Testament as well. (1 Corinthians 15:20) The idea behind that name is that until Jesus was resurrected on Easter, death (as a consequence of sin) had the final word. We die and that is it. But when Jesus defeated sin and death and was raised, he became the first of many that God will raise to eternal life. He is the first; he is the “firstborn” of the dead to be raised to new life.

Ruler of the Kings of the Earth – Jesus is not only heir to David, the ancient King of Israel, but that inheritance is a foreshadowing of His eternal reign described in Revelation as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” In God’s timing every knee will bow and every tongue confess. Jesus is given all power and authority in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Releaser from Sin – I struggled to condense a number of words into a title, but in the middle of naming Jesus John kind of runs off for a moment of praise. He’s naming Jesus and then this burst of “to him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood and he has made us to be a kingdom of priests.” The first part of that is a way of describing Jesus as Savior. His work on the cross released us from the curse of sin. And it was an act of love.

Maker of a Kingdom of Priests – The second part of that outburst of praise describes the way Jesus incorporates us into God’s Kingdom. We become part of God’s family and God’s Kingdom, participating in the praise and presence of God. To all of this, the salvation and the belonging in the Kingdom, John can’t help but praise. Jesus is worthy of all praise – all “glory and dominion forever and ever.” (v.6)

Returning One – Finally we read of his future return, such that ALL will know who he is and what he has done on behalf of the world. (v.7)

Then a few verses later, John throws himself at Jesus’ feet “like a dead man” and Jesus speaks to him, telling him not to be afraid. And Jesus reveals a few more things about himself. (v.17)

First and Last – Is Jesus God? He uses the same name used for God the Father in Isaiah and earlier in Revelation 1. Jesus, too, is “first and last” (or Alpha and Omega). Jesus, too, was at creation and before creation… see John 1 for more about that.

Living One (dead and alive) – Jesus is the Living One; to clarify, he was (briefly) dead and (look!) is alive forevermore. He is the Resurrected One; He is the embodiment of God’s victory over sin and death and, as already declared, the firstborn from the dead. He was before us, but also goes ahead of us.

Has the keys of death and Hades – In fact, Jesus is not just the example of new life, but holds the power TO that new life. He has the “keys of death” – that is, the power to bring us with him. There is a powerful scene in Ephesians 4:8 (quoting Psalm 68) that describes his victory over death and his leading those captive to death to freedom and to life. It’s the same story previewed in Exodus when God uses Moses to deliver His people from slavery and death in Egypt into freedom and ultimately into the Promised Land. Now in Revelation, God is doing the same thing with humanity, but into an eternal Promised Land of His Kingdom.

Do you Know Him?

What do we do with all this? It leads me to ask, “Is this the Jesus I know?” Or to you, “Do you know him?”

Whether you are pretty new to Jesus or a long-time fan, I would confess that the Jesus I carry around in my head is much watered-down from the one described here. I remember a saving-me-from sin Jesus. I remember a teacher who urged compassion, love of neighbor, and care of the most needy. But while I’ve studied and read all of this before it is not part of my day to day understanding of Jesus. So I feel pretty safe in asking a room full of church people, “Do you know him?”

And along with that I’ll ask the other two application questions raised by these names for Jesus: Are you listening? Will you follow?

When you head out today and go about the rest of your day, when you wake up in the morning and begin a new week, when you think about your short-term goals or long-term dreams, when you decide how to interact with a neighbor or co-worker or new acquaintance at school, when you watch the evening news, when you scroll and scroll and scroll through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other parts of the Internet…

Are you listening? Will you follow? Do you know him?

Do you know Jesus who is Triune God, before Creation, part of Creation, Faithful Witness, Firstborn of the Dead, Ruler of the kings of the earth, Releaser from sin, Maker of a kingdom of priests, Returning One, First and Last, Living One, Holder of the keys of death itself?

One reaction to all that is to be terrified; as it says about his return we who have pierced and betrayed him will know and mourn. But as he said to John, “Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid. He lifts you up eye to eye and invites you to know him more and more deeply. Listen to him, for he loves you. Follow him, for he is faithful and true. Don’t be afraid. Amen.