By Pastor Glenn Pease
The famous medical missionary Dr. Grenfell of Labrador once came to John Hopkins Hospital in America looking for a head nurse to go back to Labrador with him. He made this appeal: "If you want to have the time of your life, come with me and run a hospital next summer for the orphans of the Northland. There will not be a cent of money in it for you, and you will have to pay your own expenses. But I guarantee that you will feel a love for life you have never before experienced. It's having the time of anyone's life to be in the service of Christ." The nurse who responded wrote this after she came back to America: "I never knew before that life was good for anything but what one could get out of it. Now I know that the real fun lies in seeing how much one can put into life for others."
She learned that the blessed life is the life of the servant. This is one of the major truths of the Bible, and one that John stresses in this book of Revelation. The first chapter and the last chapter have the same emphasis: This is a revelation to servants, and blessedness is found in the keeping of what is revealed. Listen to Rev. 22:6-7 which shows you how the last chapter sounds so much like the beginning of the first chapter. "And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to sow His servants what must soon take place. And behold I am coming soon. Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." From beginning to end this book is for servants, and the blessing is found in doing.
In this third verse of the first chapter John spells out most fully the actions that lead to the blessed life. The three things you can do with this book that leads to blessings are: You can read it; you can hear it, and you can keep it. Readers, hearers, and keepers, are the three kinds of servants who will reap the benefits of this revelation. Before we look closer at these three actions, we need to look at the implication of this verse as a whole. This verse makes this the most unique book in all the Bible. All Scripture is profitable, therefore, there is a blessing connected with reading, hearing, and obeying any part of it, but this is the only part of Scripture where it is plainly stated.
This is the first of seven beatitudes in the book, and is the most comprehensive. Every Christian in history has this blessing as a potential for his life. There are exceptions, like the thief on the cross, who never had a chance to even see the book, and likely there are many others in history who also did not have a chance to see it. But the fact remains, Christians of every generation have had the chance to enter into this blessing. This makes the interpretation of this book, by necessity, a book that has to be a meaningful one to every generation of Christians. If it is not, this promised blessing is a farce and a mockery. If only the first Christians could understand it, then the blessing is meaningless to all the Christians since. And if only the last generation of Christians can grasp it, then this blessing has been meaningless to all the Christians through history.
There is just no alternative to this conclusion: If we are to take this blessing as a legitimate promise to all readers, hearers, and keepers, then it must be a revelation that is relevant to all Christians of all time. How can you keep what has no meaning to you? How can you be blessed by reading what makes no sense because it is not meant for you, but for Christians of some other age? There is only one way you can do justice to this third verse, and that is to recognize that it makes this book a now book for all time. The very first Christians who received it entered into the blessed life, and the very last who receive it will enter into the blessed life. The blessed life is not all out there in the future when the world is coming to an end. The whole point of a revelation of the future is to bring the blessings of the future back into the present so we can begin to enjoy them now. The best is always yet to be, but the better is always near for those who know what that best to be is.
Realized Eschatology is what the scholars call it. It simply means that the future can greatly influence the present in the lives of those who live now with eternity's values in view. They begin now to experience in some measure the blessings that God has prepared for those who love and serve Him. If a man gets a letter telling him that the girl he loves is going to say yes when he proposes next week, that knowledge of the future affects how he lives that week. He is already enjoying the future.
This verse says that the blessed life is now. The overall theme of the book is the conflict of Christ and Satan, good and evil, light and darkness. We don't have to wait until the battle is over in enjoy the fruits of victory. Christ wants to live in us and gain victories now over the forces of evil. We might even become martyrs in the conflict, but this book makes clear that if we do, it only leads us more quickly to be crowned, and to join the battle in the spiritual realm even nearer to Christ. No matter how fierce the conflict, and no matter how rough the persecution, Christians must recognize that the blessed life is now. Any interpretation of this book that robs any Christian of any age of this opening blessing is missing the mark. We are dealing with a perpetual now book, and the important thing about this revelation about the future is, how does it affect our now? How does our knowledge of God's plan and purpose for the future alter our present character and conduct? The first thing we have to do to allow the future to change the present is to enter into the three-fold blessing of this verse. The first blessing is on-
I. THE READER.
The first thing we need to observe is that this blessing is designed to fit the specific situation of the first century Christians. The reader is singular. "Blessed is he who reads." The hearers, however, are plural, for it is they that hear. We have a clear picture of the public service where one reads the Word and the congregation listens. The reading here is not the private reading in your home, but the public reading in the church. In the early church where there was only one copy of the book, no one had a copy to read at home in private. It would have been meaningless to offer a blessing to those who read the book to themselves at home, for no one could do that. The Living Bible; the RSV, and other modern translations stress the public reading by translating: "Blessed is he who reads aloud." It is not a silent private reading that being referred to here.
The implication of this is clear. This book is meant for a group experience. It is guide for the body in its decisions and strategies for doing the will of Christ in history. It is not designed as a devotional guide for personal devotions like the book of Psalms or Proverbs. It is to be a public standard for the guidance of the church as a whole. In verse 4 John addresses the seven churches of Asia, and the second and third chapters deal with Christ's view of the church. What this means then, on the practical level, is that the principles of this book are to guide us as a body. This book is to be more important to us as a local congregation of believers than our constitution. Here we have a revelation of how our Lord, the Head of the church, feels about what goes on in His church. He is to determine what theology we teach; what actions we take, and what attitudes we express toward our world.
In order to guarantee that the Lord's view of the church might never be lost, He made it a blessing for churches of all ages to have this book read and heard publicly in the worship service. This does not mean there is no value in reading the book in private. It is just that the blessing is designed to keep this book as an open and public guide to the local church all through history. The leader or reader may be a pastor or a layman who keeps this guide before the body by reading it in public, and he is blessed for doing so. The other two categories of blessing are really one, for to be a hearer and not a keeper of the Word is a curse rather than a blessing, and so we can link them together and call them-
The obvious reason why it is a blessing to hear this book read is because you thereby become informed on the mind of Christ. You are then able to live in obedience to His will. The reverse truth is also obvious. It is a curse to be in the dark and not know what your Lord's will is. To be in a battle and not know what your commander's goals and objectives are is to be and aid to the enemy, and a stumbling block to your fellow soldiers in the faith. If we are ignorant as a local church as to what Christ expects of us, we can burn up all of our energy doing things that do not accomplish His purpose. As we shall see, it is possible for a local church to be in just that kind of situation. To avoid it we must be hearers of this portion of the Word and doers.
The ear gate was the primary means of receiving the Word of God in the early church, and the preached Word is still the main means for most Christians to be exposed to the truths which Christ wants the church to hear. This means that good listening habits are important for Christians to develop. Boredom is not always the fault of the speaker. Quite often the listeners are lethargic. They do not take the message seriously enough to overcome the distractions and the tiredness that makes the mind drift and sink into a stupor where the message does not penetrate.
This verse is saying, it will be a blessing for those Christians who take this revelation serious enough to fight all obstacles to good listening so that they can hear what Christ has to say to the church. Over and over we will see the phrase in chapter two and three: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit says to the churches." In other words, you can have an ear and still not hear. It is the hearing that leads to understanding and obedience. The good listener is one who is always asking questions about what he hears. How does this apply to me and my church? What can we do to live up to this ideal of Christ? You must be looking for insights as you listen. Those who do listen will hear what the inattentive will miss and lose their blessing. Good listening enables you to find gems of truth that the speaker is not even talking about. Good listening will enable you to see things that the speaker doesn't see such as, implications that apply to you that the speaker knows nothing about.
Our understanding and interpretation of this revelation may be immature, but that is part of the process of growing. We must see on a lower level before we can see on a higher level. Our interpretation will become more clear as we respond in obedience to the highest we can grasp at the time. Child like misunderstanding will be corrected as we share what we see and hear. Our own experience will be corrected by the wider experience of the body. A little boy visiting the farm walked through a flock of chickens, and suddenly the rooster flopped his wings and let forth with a crow. The boy ran to the house and gave this interpretation of his experience: He said the rooster spanked himself and then cried. From his perspective that seemed the most logical interpretation of the event. It was not accurate, but as he listened to others explain he would grow in his understanding.
The point I am making is, the blessing of this book revolves around a group experience. The important thing is not what I learn, or what you learn, but rather, how does this revelation affect us as a church? How will we respond to what we learn about Christ's will for the local church? It is a body-life experience. We must share how we feel about what is revealed to us, for only as we do can we keep what is written.
In 1959 Hans Kraus bought a 13th century copy of Revelation for $182,000. That was a world record, and doubtless Hans will keep that copy after he reads it, but that is not the kind of keeping John has in mind. Hans may be blessed to have that 13th century copy of the book, but that is not the blessing John speaks of here. Keeping means doing, or acts of obedience because of what is written in this book. This means the goal of this book, like the goal of all Christian education, is to change conduct so that it conforms to the will of Christ. This means the book has principles that are universal for all Christians in every age.
A Mrs. R. L. Bartlett received a postcard 42 years after it had been mailed from only 6 miles away. It said, "Will be down Monday about 5:00 P.M. Do not stay at home on my account. Hope your cold is better." It was totally irrelevant when she got it, and of less value than yesterday's paper. The point is, once a message no longer fits the situation in which you live, it is a worthless message. The book of Revelation is not like the paper. Some say it is as current as the daily news. Not so! It is far more relevant than that. The daily news is only relevant for a few hours, and then it is obsolete. Revelation is relevant always to all believers in all churches, for the principles of life it reveals can be kept by all who will choose to do so at all times.
Satan will be delighted if our goal is only to satisfy our curiosity about the future. C. S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters has Satan telling one of his demons how to succeed in deceiving a Christian: "The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affection will harm us if we can keep it out of his will-the more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel." If Satan can get us to feel excited about his book so that we are content with just feeling good because we are learning more, but keep us from changing our lives in response to what we learn, he will have succeeded in robbing us of the promise blessing.
G. K. Chesterton, the great Catholic author, scolded the church of his day in poetry because of their failure to take practical action to meet the needs of the community. He wrote,
The Christian Social Union here
Was very much annoyed;
It seems there is some duty
Which we never should avoid,
And so they sing a lot of hymns
To help the unemployed.
To keep what is written in this book is to be practical. To remember the Sabbath and keep it holy was not just a motto to the people of God in the Old Testament. In order to keep it holy they had to do many things, or refrain from many things. To keep the Sabbath was primarily a matter of conduct. To keep the things revealed in this book is likewise a matter of conduct. We are not true believers of what we hear revealed until it affects our lives. Paul Johnson put it: "A belief is a faith not merely when it is accepted as true, but when it determines what one shall live for and shapes the way of living."
Adoniram Judson in 1812 sailed to Burma to carry the Gospel there. He suffered greatly as he was imprisoned for two years. Starved and beaten, yet he survived, but with his hands and feet marred by the chains. He went to the king of Burma and asked permission to preach. The king responded, "I am willing for a dozen preachers to go, but not you. Not with those hands. My people are not such fools as to take notice of your preaching, but they will take notice of them." Judson way effective, and is now a famous hero in the history of missions because he was a keeper of the things Christ revealed to His church.
This last book of the Bible starts with the same principle with which the book of Genesis starts. It is a test of obedience. Will Adam and Eve keep the will of God by obedient conduct? They did not! Now, each member, and each church in the body of Christ has the same option. Will we, or will we not, keep God's Word by obedient conduct. The promise for those who do is an entrance into the Blessed Life.