Text: Revelation 1:1-3

The Book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John around A.D. 95-96. This was during the end of the reign of Domitian. While earlier Roman Emperors were often venerated as deities, Domitian was the first to explicitly declare himself to be god. However, Christians would only worship the one living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). Therefore, they were heavily persecuted for their faith and refusal to participate in the worship of the Imperial cult.

The book of Revelation was written to encourage the persecuted Christians. God purposefully commissioned (apostellō) His angel to give this prophecy to the Apostle John so that he may communicate it to God’s people for their comfort and encouragement (v.2). As God’s faithful servant, John did not add nor subtract from God’s message, but faithfully bore record of the Word of God and the visions which he saw (c.f. Revelation 22:18-19).

The division of the prophecy is given in Revelation 1:19 – (1) The things which thou hast seen (Revelation 1:1-20); (2) The things which are (Revelation 2:1-3:22) and (3) The things which are to come (Revelation 4:1- 22:21). The letters to the Seven Churches of Asia span the first two divisions of the book. Its purpose is to set the scene for the third division where God will judge the world and restore paradise with the new heavens and the new earth. The events that take place will truly be global in nature and will affect mankind and all the creatures in the land, sea and sky. However, before this can take place, Christ as head of the church must first judge His people. God is no respecter of persons. Simply calling oneself a Christian does not give one the license to sin and corrupt the name of Christ. In fact, judgement first begins in the house of the Lord!

John then opens with a beatitude – “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” (v.3) The adjective “blessed” (makarios) refers to the happiness a true believer has due to his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is no longer an enemy of God, but a child of God whose sins are washed by the blood of the Lamb.

The blessed ones are characterised by their devotion to the Holy Scriptures:

Blessed is he that readeth. This refers to the public reading of Scriptures which was common and most needful in the days of the Apostle John (c.f. Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). While printed copies of the Scriptures are readily available today, it was not so during the 1st century church. The printing press had not been invented. Written materials were expensive and scarce. The copying of the Scriptures was also a painstaking process. Thus, most Christians had to gather frequently in assemblies, and a person will be appointed to read the Scriptures out loud for the rest to hear. (Thus, the singular third-person pronoun “he” is used in this instance, as compared to the use of third-person plural pronoun “they” later). These occassions of public reading were thus most precious for the believers who thirst after the truth.

For us today, we ought to make the reading of the Bible a top priority given the vast availability of God’s Word. A true believer will yearn for the sincere milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2), for he knows that man “shall not leave by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) He will not let the cares and busyness of this world distract him from the Scriptures. The Bible is his delight. Does this describe you?

This declaration also reminds the seven messengers (i.e. pastors, c.f. Revelation 1:20) of their duty to declare the Word of God. This includes the assessment of each church that will soon be declared by Christ in Revelation 2-3. Some of the words of Christ may contain rebuke that may be hard to hear, but those words were most needful for God’s people in that congregation. Just like the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:18, the messenger/pastor must hide nothing from the listeners but declare every whit of God’s message.

Blessed are they that heareth the words of this prophecy. This hearing is not just a cursory hearing but one that seeks to understand and internalise the message that has been spoken. As stated above, the public reading of God’s Word was precious for the early Christians. They must master the art of listening, paying close attention to every Word that is declared.

Similarly, when we read the Bible today (whether silently or out loud), it is the voice of God that is speaking to us. This is the voice that we must take heed, and this is the voice that we must obey. Hearing is only true hearing when it is accompanied by obedience (c.f. Matthew 13:1-23). His life will be transformed by the Word of Everlasting Life. He will find great joy obeying the Scriptures be-cause He loves God and He knows that the Word is for his profit. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” (1 John 5:3)

Blessed are they that keep those things that are written therein. The term “keep” (from tēreō) has the idea of keeping watch, custody or guard over something because it is precious. In this case, it refers to the Christian’s high view of God’s Word. To the believer, the Scriptures are more to be desired than fine gold, and sweeter than the honeycomb (Psalm 19:10). He understands that the Word of God is the foundation on which the Christian faith stands on. No foundation, no faith! Therefore, he is most willing to defend God’s Word when it comes under attack, earnestly contending for the faith that was once given unto the saints (Jude 3).

Sadly, attacks on God’s Word are rife in Christendom today. This can be seen in the proliferation of modern English Versions that are based upon corrupt texts and translation techniques. Then there are so-called fundamentalists who deny the preservation of God’s Word, claiming that the perfect Word of God does not exist today. It is also startling to observe the lack of verve and fervency among Christians to defend God’s Word when it is under attack. Instead, we see a constant fraternising with those who attack the Bible. Does this not speak of the weak spiritual state of churches today? 

Who then are the blessed ones? They are the ones who love the Word of God and are wholly devoted to it. They are described in the Letters to the Seven Churches as those who will hear the Word of God and overcome the world (see Revelation 2:7, 11, 17; 26; 3:5; 12; 21). Are you one of the blessed people of the Word?

Appendix: The Imperial Cult
The Letters to the Seven Churches are better understood when we con-sider the Imperial Cult that was present in the days of the Apostle John.

An imperial cult refers to an organised state religion that involves the worship of a monarch or a dynasty of emperors as deities or demigods. This is something common among the nations in history. Some examples include:

1. Egypt. Ancient Pharaohs were often regarded as incarnations of the god Horus in life, and the god Osiris in death. The reason for the Ten Plagues recorded in the book of Exodus is to prove that Jehovah is the one living and true God above all the false gods of Egypt including Pharaoh.

2. China. The Emperor was often regarded as the Son of Heaven (天子). His mandate was considered the mandate from heaven and thus sacred edicts.

3. Japan. During the Meiji period, the emperor began to be venerated as a deity and someone to be worshipped.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As the empire of Rome expanded, the people started to venerate the emperors as deities. While Julius Caesar was noted for accepting the worship of men, it was during the reign of Augustus that the imperial cult became more organised. Finally, it was Domitian who first explicitly declared himself to be worshipped as dominus et deus (i.e. our Lord and our God).

The imperial cult is ingrained in many of the daily activities of the Roman empire. Much of the good sold in the agora (market place) were offered to idols including the emperor. Business contracts and deals were often sealed with a meal that venerates the emperor and the gods. Anyone who rejected the imperial cult would be ostracised by society. They would find it hard to buy and sell. That was the dilemma that early Christians had to confront. Would they choose Christ over the comforts and necessities of life? Many had to suffer greatly for their faith.

There were numerous temples built throughout the Roman Empire for the worship of the emperors. At least three of the cities had imperial temples at the time of the writing of Revelation. They are:

1. Pergamos. Augustus ordered the temple to be built in 29 B.C. in honour of Rome and his father Julius.

2. Smyrna. Tiberius ordered the construction of the temple in the mid-20s.

3. Ephesus. There were 2-3 temples in the city, including one that was ordered by Domitian.

The Imperial Cult of Rome worked under the philosophy of “one empire, one ruler, one religion”. While this was never fully achieved under the reign of any of the past Roman Emperors, it will finally be achieved during the revived Roman Empire under the Antichrist (Revelation 13). He that hath an ear, let him hear the warnings of the Holy Scripture!

Yours affectionately,
Rev C. Chew