Many of you know the name of Lloyd C. Douglas, author of The Robe and other novels. It has been reported that when Douglas was a university student, he lived in a boarding house. Downstairs on the first floor was an elderly, retired music teacher, now infirm and unable to leave the apartment.
Douglas said that every morning they had a ritual that they would go through together. He would come down the steps, open the old man’s door and ask, “Well, what’s the good news?” The old man would pick up his tuning fork, tap it on the side of his wheelchair and say, “That’s middle C! It was middle C yesterday; it will be middle C tomorrow; it will be middle C a thousand years from now. The tenor upstairs sings flat, the piano across the hall is out of tune, but, my friend, that is middle C!”
The old man had discovered one thing upon which he could depend, one constant reality in his life, one “still point in a turning world.” For Christians, the one “still point in a turning world,” the one absolute of which there is no shadow of turning, is Jesus Christ.
The words alpha and omega denote the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so we might translate this phrase — “I am the Alpha and the Omega” — as “I am the A and the Z.”
Get the setting for the claim in mind. Jesus is speaking to John on the isle of Patmos. John, now an old man, is in exile. The church is under severe persecution. Terror and evil reign. John has probably been exiled because he refused to worship the emperor.
The Book of Revelation comes from this exile. It’s a very difficult book to understand, and many commentators have handled it altogether too casually. To even begin to read it, you have to know that it is the most poetic book in the Bible; it abounds in symbols, symbols that are completely foreign to us. It is what we call apocalyptic literature, and according to Earl F. Palmer in The Communicator’s Commentary:
The nature of apocalyptic literature is distinguished by the threefold mixture of hiddenness, of vast upheaval, and of decisive divine act. There is often a heavy pessimism on one page, which is then surprised by the sudden breakthrough of God’s mighty act on the next page. These are marks of apocalyptic writing.
The Book of Revelation may be called prophetic, though not nearly as much as apocalyptic. Again, Earl Palmer’s insights are helpful:
Prophetic writing is even more common in the Jewish and Christian tradition than is the apocalyptic. The largest part of the Old Testament prophets is prophetic writing. Such writing, which is theological, evangelistic, and ethical by nature, intends to call people to repentance.
The prophetic message emphasizes the decision-making freedom of the people before God, whereas the apocalyptic message emphasizes the freedom of God. Prophetic preaching calls out and affirms the implications of the will of God to the people here and now and, therefore, has a more present tense cutting edge; its meaning is not as mysterious and hidden as in the apocalyptic. The mark of the prophetic word is its clarity and its immediacy.
So we are looking at apocalyptic literature primarily, with hidden meaning and veiled symbols, but such literature would be familiar to the people of the first century.
As John sat alone, perhaps in a cave on the isle of Patmos, he felt helpless, removed from the heat of conflict. His heart was broken over the persecution of the church. Waiting and wondering, pictures of persons whom he had won to Christ flashed on the screen of his mind, and the pain in his heart grew sharper. Worried and uncertain, questions began to play havoc with his faith.
There were times when his reflections were pervaded with joy. He remembered the excitement of following Jesus, the excruciating pain and despair of the crucifixion, the exhilarating victory of the resurrection, the miracles that followed the infilling power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The church was imbued with the Spirit which brought power. John himself had won thousands to believe in the gospel. But now, here he was, worrying and wondering, but keeping faith alive by prayer and memory.
Then came his revelation. He was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (
Before him stood the Son of Man Himself, majestic, immense. In Over His Own Signature, Leslie D. Weatherhead imagines the scene:
The paling stars seemed at his fingertips. The woolly, fleecy clouds at the zenith seemed to crown him with a supernatural purity. His eyes were flames of fire and his feet caught the yellow glory of the sunrise and shone like burnished brass. His countenance was radiant with sunshine and his voice mingled with the crashing breakers in front of him.
John fell prostrate on the beach. His depression had vanished. He was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” as truly as if he had been in his beloved temple at Jerusalem, and his Master was as near to him. He seemed to feel a touch on his shoulder and that voice like many waters spoke the old familiar words which Jesus had used so often: “Fear not!”
Breathless now with adoration, John listened as the beloved inner Voice continued: “Fear not: I am the first and the last, and the Living One; and J was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (
That is the middle C of the Christian faith. John came back to repeat it as he closed his record of
Like all the great “I am” claims of Jesus, this one is fathomless in its meaning — maybe more so than any of the others. It is a heightened crescendo of affirmation, crowning all the other claims with a finality and a completeness that we need to consider. So we look at it humbly, knowing that if we touch just the hem of the garment of its meaning, the Lord will honor our faith and finish His work in us.
Center on the two big claims Jesus makes in the one claim: “I am the beginning and [I am] the end” or completion. Jesus is the beginning of life and love, and He is the ending or completion of history. First, Jesus is the beginning of life. John stated it clearly in his prologue to the Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the “Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We don’t stop often enough and reflect deeply enough about who this Christ is. Jesus is not just a good man, not even the best of all men, not just a mighty prophet among prophets, not just one god in a lineup of deities from whom we may choose. All things were made by Him. In Him was life. He is the beginning of the created order. He is the pre-existent Christ. He is the cosmic Christ. No glory belongs to God that does not belong to Jesus Christ.
But not only life itself — being, existing — not only is Jesus the beginning of our just being alive, he is the beginning of our new life, our being alive to God. Consider again John’s response to Christ:
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Sense the power of that. Calvary and Easter are held together in tandem: “I died, and behold I am alive for evermore.”
The cross is always basic; it brings us back to the source of our new life. The sacrifice of Golgotha is our confidence that we are forgiven, that though our sins make us scarlet, we shall be as white as snow; and as far as the East is from the West, just that far will He remove our sins from us. He died, and so we are freed of any illusion that we have to be anything or do anything in order to be loved and accepted of God.
He died, but more. “I am alive for evermore,” Jesus said. “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” The confirmation of new life is here in the resurrection: Jesus is alive for evermore, and we have His promise, “Because I live, you will live also” (
Christ is the beginning of life, but also the beginning of love. Consider John’s benediction upon the Christians to whom he was writing — “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and father, to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”
When I say Jesus is the beginning of love, I mean that until Jesus came, the love of God was never perceived fully. Oh, there were great breakthroughs in human experience. Hosea knew God’s heart and quoted God, saying, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love” (
Micah saw it, too:
Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity, and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us, he will tread our iniquities under foot.
Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
But now it is revealed fully. Let it penetrate the depths of our beings; let it be imprinted indelibly upon our consciousness — unto Him who loves us. How and to what end? By the blood of love on the cross, He has freed us from our sins and has made us a kingdom of priests with free access to the Father forever and ever. No wonder John calls for praise: “To Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.” Jesus Christ is the beginning of life and love.
Christ is the beginning of life, but also the ending or the completion — the ending or completion of history.
We have to talk now about the Second Coming. Unfortunately, in most of our so-called mainline churches, we don’t talk enough about the Second Coming. There is a vacuum in thought and conviction, and thus people are left to all sorts of confused and distorted notions.
Too many people argue about the Second Coming. Instead of arguing, let’s affirm. My conviction is with the two ancient creeds of the church, the Nicene and Apostles’. The Nicene Creed (much like the Apostles’ Creed) states that Christ “ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” Behind the creed is the gospel of the New Testament. According to D. T. Niles in A Testament of Faith:
While men can enact the cross, they cannot prevent the resurrection. He is Lord. The New Testament faith carries forward this assertion of Christ’s present sovereignty into the further assertion that He will come again. He came once in humiliation. He will come again in glory. He came the first time to initiate. He will come again to consummate.
When He came in the flesh, He came to share man’s life, to suffer for him and to die. When He comes again as risen and ascended Lord, He will come to bring the human story to its end. He will come to judge.
Let me now make a few assertions which I think are important as we think about the Second Coming.
First, no one knows when the Second Coming is going to be. Jesus Himself said that. “Watch then,” He said, “Because you do not know the day or the hour” (
Second, there is not a clear picture in the scripture for the nature of Christ’s earthly rule. Some committed Christians believe that there will be a spiritual rule of Christ on earth for a thousand years before the final judgment; others, equally committed, believe that the thousand-year rule on earth will follow His Second Coming. Still others believe that His kingdom will be established on earth, so the thousand-year reign is not an issue. Some Christians believe in a rapture and some do not, and both have scriptural support. So there is not a clear scriptural picture of Christ’s earthly rule.
Third, to reduce the message of scripture to the motif of prophecy and fulfillment is, I believe, at best an extremely limited approach to scripture, and at worst, an abomination of God’s Word.
There is some apocalyptic and so-called prophecy teaching that is totally devoid of a focus on Christ. In this teaching, the story of Jesus the Messiah becomes simply a part of the demonstration of the accuracy of biblical prophecy.
The result is that the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ in the determination of the future for which Christians hope is unclear. Therefore, speculation about the final events of history and the return of Jesus the Messiah runs rampant (See J. Christiaan Beker, Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel, p. 27 and following).
Now, having affirmed that, let me lodge two words in your mind that will help us think clearly about the Second Coming. Those words are vindication and validation.
Vindication means judgment. Christ is going to judge the living and the dead. “I have the keys of Death and Hades,” Christ said to John. This is a matter of salvation and damnation, and it must never be diminished. You and I will be judged, and Christ’s judgment of us will determine whether we die eternally, cast into outer darkness where, as the scripture says, there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth (
But there is a second word: the validation of God’s love and faithfulness. Validation is the positive expression of God’s judgment. Jesus is the source of this validation. Paul proclaims it in
The validation of which I speak is the validation of God’s faithfulness, not the restoration of a modern state of Israel, which is the dominant teaching of so many who are emphasizing prophecy and the Second Coming today. It is the validation of God’s faithfulness in the establishment of God’s kingdom.
John’s vision was that there will be a new heaven and a new earth. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Shalom will be the spirit of the kingdom because swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. There will be no more war. Neither will there be any more sorrow or pain or death or separation. All will be wholeness and life for Jesus, the Healer and Redeemer, will reign. His kingdom will know no end and His joy will be complete.
In light of this, the question is, “How then shall we live?” We are not called to try to figure out when the end will come. We are not called to try to figure out all the technicolor images and symbols which fill the pages of Daniel and Revelation. We are not called to determine who will be in and who will be out.
We are called to be at our task, the task of being faithful to the work God has given us to do, to be a part of the work of God’s kingdom, and to continue to pray, as we work, that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
There is one sure way of judging the integrity of any teaching about prophecy. Does it have a clear ethical content, a clear call to righteousness and holiness? So much so-called prophecy that we hear today is bereft of the prophetic. The emphasis is upon prediction, not performance. Not so with the Bible. The concern is not with when the Son of man is going to return, but what He will find us doing when He returns.
The message is consistent throughout every one of Jesus’ parables and stories about the final coming. The pattern is much the same in every one. An example of it is the parable of the master who put his servants in charge of his property when he went on a trip. He came back to check things out and the servants who had been faithful to their trust, who had used what they were given wisely and well, were rewarded. But the ones who had abused their master’s trust and squandered their gifts were cast out. Jesus closed that parable saying, “Happy is the servant who is found at his task when his Master comes” (
If Jesus comes today or tomorrow or next week, the question will not simply be, “Are you ready?” in the sense of “Have you believed and trusted Christ for your salvation?” That is certainly crucial: no one is taken to glory except those whose lives have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. But the returning Christ will expect validation of our cleansing and commitment. So the big question is: “What will He find us doing when He comes?”
From Jesus’ Claims — Our Promises by Maxie Dunnam. Copyright (c) 1985 by The Upper Room, 1908 Grand Avenue, PO Box 189, Nashville, TN 37202. Used by permission.
Will He find us
witnessing to his saving grace to our
neighbors, friends, and colleagues?
Will He find us
actively engaged in protesting all that
which profanes and limits life?
Will He find us
making peace in every way possible?
Will He find us
doing that which He said would be the criteria
by which we would be judged “sheep”
or “goats,” that is,
feeding the hungry,
clothing the naked,
caring for the prisoners,
visiting the sick?
There was a Negro slave who discovered the right perspective and put it in these words:
There’s a king and captain high,
And he’s coming bye and bye,
and he’ll find me hoeing cotton
when he comes.
You can hear his legions
Charging in the regions
Of the sky,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton
when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside,
Who was scorned and crucified,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton
when he comes.
When he comes! When he comes!
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels
When he comes.
They’ll be shouting out Hosanna!
To the man that men denied,
And I’ll kneel among my cotton
when he comes.
May it be so for us, for the One whom we are called to love and serve is the Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our ending. He has the keys to life and death.