Revelation #21: THE END OF GRACE


Last time we saw the glorious hope we have in Jesus. We saw the joy and wonder of our future in heaven if we trust Jesus. This time, God is presenting the alternative. If we finally decide we want to continue to control our own lives, this horror will be the end result. And yet, in God’s mercy, he doesn’t yet send human beings to the abyss. He gives them a foretaste of the horror, in the hopes that they will repent, and instead find the joy we talked about last time.

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Revelation #21.  Revelation 8:1-9:21

If you remember, the second part of Revelation introduced us to the seven seals. Six of the seals were broken, but the section ended before the seventh. We began a new section with a new heavenly vision, and now,  the seventh seal is finally broken open. Remember, John has just described a multitude without number praising God. Earlier, he described other events that were loud with music and singing and praising. But when the seventh seal is broken open, there is silence for what seemed like about thirty minutes. After all of the glory and music and praise, the silence must be shocking, and awe-inspiring. Imagine even one-hundred thousand people standing silently together for thirty minutes. In my mind, the silence must be just as amazing as the praise.

This awe-inspiring silence serves to emphasize the importance of what has just happened. The final seal is open. The preparations are over. God’s judgment will begin in earnest.

After the silence, trumpets are given to each of seven angels. These seven trumpets represent the next stage in God’s plan to bring about the end of the world. However, before the angels blow their trumpets, something else happens:

3Another angel, with a gold incense burner, came and stood at the altar. He was given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up in the presence of God from the angel’s hand. 5The angel took the incense burner, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it to the earth; there were rumblings of thunder, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. 6And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. (Rev 8:3-6, HCSB)

Here, the incense mingles with the prayers of the saints, and goes up into the presence of God. By the way, in the New Testament, the word “saints” means: “Everyone who has surrendered in trust to Jesus Christ.” In other words, if you are a true Christian, you are, by the New Testament definition, a saint. This is because the word “saint” just means “holy one.” And if we surrender our lives in trust to Jesus, then the holiness of Jesus is imparted to us. So we truly are “holy ones,” if we are in Jesus. Therefore, if you are a Christian, and you see the word “saint” or “saints” in the New Testament, it is talking about you, and other Christians.

So, this passage in Revelation gives us a dramatic picture of our prayers. They aren’t in a big pile in a sorting room somewhere. Our prayers are right in the face of God. They have his attention. He breathes them in. He smells them.

There is something else too. I think we are supposed to see a connection between the prayers of the saints, and God’s work on earth. The prayers go up with the incense. Then, in that same incense burner that was used to bring the prayers to God, fire is placed, and it is hurled back to earth. This is a symbolic picture. It shows us that as the saints pray for God to bring about the end of the pain, suffering, and cruelty of the world, God responds to the prayer. His action is connected to our prayers.

The seventh seal is open. The prayers of the saints are being heard. The next stage in God’s plan to bring history to an end has begun. Let us now examine the first four trumpets.

 7The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled to the earth. So a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.

 8The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain ablaze with fire was hurled into the sea. So a third of the sea became blood, 9a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

 10The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood. So, many of the people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter.

 12The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day was without light, and the night as well. (Rev 8:7-12, HCSB)

 We need to constantly keep in mind that Revelation is written in language that is highly symbolic, and not literal. I think that if we start speculating about volcanoes and asteroids and whatnot, we will easily get distracted from the main points. With that in mind, what are we to make of these four trumpets? If we simply pay attention, we can see some patterns. In the first place, with the initial four trumpets, God is bringing about disaster upon the natural world. First, the land is affected – the trees and the grass. Next, the sea experiences disaster. The third trumpet affects fresh water. The fourth trumpet strikes the sky. From this we can deduce that before causing any harm directly to human beings, God will try to get their attention through natural disasters. I believe that this is an expression of God’s mercy.

God is willing even to damage his own creation if somehow it will help human beings to repent and turn to him. Later on, it shows explicitly that these judgments truly are meant to try and get people to repent:

21And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts. (Rev 9:21)

In fact, it is because God is merciful that he starts by striking creation, and not directly striking humans. There is another thing of which to take note. These judgments are slowly increasing in severity. During the time of the seals, God’s judgment affected only one quarter of the world (Revelation 6:8). But now, things are getting more serious; one third of the earth is affected.

However, since natural disasters will not cause people to repent, the next step is to actually hurt human beings directly. And so John sees this:

13I looked again and heard an eagle flying high overhead, crying out in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth, because of the remaining trumpet blasts that the three angels are about to sound! ” (Rev 8:13, HCSB)

God is not happy that he has to do what comes next. And yet, it is the fault of the people who refuse to acknowledge that God is trying to get their attention through natural disasters. So, you might say, God will take it to the next level, but only reluctantly.

The next trumpet is the “first woe,” and it releases some of the forces of evil against human beings. I want to make sure, once again, that we understand there is a great degree of symbolism here. First, a “fallen star” unlocks “the shaft of the abyss.” Smoke comes out of it, and out of the smoke come the most remarkable looking locusts. I think it is obvious that the abyss stands for hell, or the abode of demons. When Jesus encountered a man who was oppressed by many demons, the following exchange took place:

30“What is your name? ” Jesus asked him. “Legion,” he said — because many demons had entered him. 31And they begged Him not to banish them to the abyss. (Luke 8:30-31, HCSB, italics for emphasis)

The “abyss” then, is the home of demons. John clearly conceives of the abyss the same way in the book of Revelation. The terrible ‘beast’ rises from the abyss (Revelation 11:7), and it is back to the abyss that Satan and his demons are sent (Revelation 20:3). This is made perfectly clear in verse 11.

11They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. (Rev 9:11, ESV2011)

In the Bible, the name Abbadon means “destroyer” and it is always connected with death and hell. With that in mind, the locust-creatures that John is describing are not necessarily creatures of flesh and blood. They are most certainly demonic, and the description of them may be more about their demonic attributes than any actual physical appearance. So the fact that they are like armored horses communicates that ordinary people have no hope of standing up to them, or defeating them. John’s readers would have been well-acquainted with scorpions and their stings, so that aspect would communicate the kind of pain that these creatures can inflict; and also that though painful, it will not cause death. Because everything is so symbolic, it is possible that it is deep emotional pain, rather than physical pain. The other aspects of the description might just be to communicate that these are horrible and fantastic demonic monsters.

Let us also understand something else: none of these demonic creatures has any power except that which God permits them. Many translations say that “power was given them…” but the Greek word is actually “authority” (9:3, and 9:10). God is still in control. God himself does not strike or torture human beings, but he allows these demonic creatures to come out and to afflict people. They only have authority as permitted them by God. Also, this affliction is for five months. I am not sure that this is supposed to be taken literally. I think “five months” symbolizes that this will be for a limited period of time, and that time will have a definite ending.

With this terrible pain, God is, in a sense, allowing the people to have a taste of what is waiting for them if they continue to reject God, and refuse to repent. It is also important to see that God does not permit these creatures to kill anyone yet, but only to torment people. In addition, God will protect those who belong to him:

4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. (Rev 9:4, HCSB)

The fact that some who have God’s seal are still on earth at this point indicates that it is unlikely that the rapture will occur before this. In addition, this shows us how fluid and flexible the “timeline” of Revelation is. We saw the people sealed on earth. Then we saw them as the victorious multitude in heaven. Now they are back on earth in the middle of these terrible events. I say again, it is simply not helpful to try and apply a rigid timeline to Revelation. Such a thing is not the purpose of the book.

The sixth trumpet represents the “second woe.” Since so many people will continue to refuse to repent, they will suffer increasingly devastating consequences. All of this is in the hope that some people will come to repentance, and join the glorious multitude in heaven. So far, God has prevented demonic forces from actually killing people. But now, with the sixth trumpet:

From the four horns of the gold altar that is before God, I heard a voice 14say to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. 16The number of mounted troops was 200 million; I heard their number. (Rev 9:13-16, HCSB)

The four angels have been bound, which seems to indicate that they are demonic. They cannot get out by themselves; they must be released by the authority of God. The mounted troops are also almost certainly meant to be demonic. Some commentators see these horses as a description of modern warfare. So, they say, John would have known nothing of gun powder, and so the fire, smoke and sulfur that comes from their mouths could be John’s naïve description of tanks and artillery.

That could be the case, however, it is clear that the true forces behind the death and destruction are demonic. So, even if you wanted to say that this is a description of modern warfare, you must still admit that the cause of it is demonic forces that are released for the end times.

Some people believe that all of this describes a particular war that will be fought in the middle east, because the angels were bound at the great Euphrates (the Euphrates river is in Iraq).

I think the Euphrates is symbolic, like most of Revelation. The ancient city of Babylon was situated on the River Euphrates. In Revelation, “Babylon” is a symbolic name for the center of power for those who have rejected God, the place where the pride of human beings holds sway. So, the demonic forces which kill one third of humankind are centered in the place where humans are at the height of their arrogance and pride, the center of defiance against God – wherever that may be.

So what do we get from all this?  What can we “take home” from these chapters that will make a difference next Wednesday morning at coffee break?

Last time we saw the glorious hope we have in Jesus. We saw the joy and wonder of our future in heaven if we trust Jesus. This time, God is presenting the alternative. If we finally decide we want to continue to control our own lives, this horror will be the end result. And yet, in God’s mercy, he doesn’t yet send human beings to the abyss. He gives them a foretaste of the horror, in the hopes that they will repent, and instead find the joy we talked about last time.

It is unpopular to talk about hell these days. Some people even think that avoidance of hell is not a legitimate motivation for coming to Jesus. And yet, God is willing to give people a taste of that to help them repent. We need to be honest about it: the alternative to God is torment and horror. It is not wrong to understand that clearly. It is not wrong if that is the thing that starts you on your journey toward faith. If you truly become a person of faith, your fear of hell will eventually turn into a love for Jesus.

Also, we have a very clear picture about how God’s attitude toward unbelievers will change. Right now, we are in a period in history when God is restraining his judgment. He appeals to human beings on the basis of grace, kindness and love. But the time in which he does this could end at any moment, and then we will enter a time when he appeals to human beings on the basis of his wrath against sin. These verses in Revelation are a pictorial representation of what Paul wrote to the Romans:

4Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? 5But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. (Rom 2:4-5, HCSB)

Right now, God is approaching us with kindness. But if we don’t take advantage of this, and turn to him, it will harden our hearts, and we will instead find that we have stored up his wrath. Paul restates this again in his second letter to the Corinthians:

1Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Cor 6:1-2, ESV2011)

Now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation. Our Revelation text shows us what will happen when the favorable time ends. Now is the time to come to the Lord, now is the time to receive the seal that protects us from God’s judgment. Don’t hesitate; to do so will only make it far worse for you in the end. For those of us who already have surrendered their will to Jesus, now is the time to tell others of the love and grace of God. We are in a period of grace. Revelation 8-9 shows us what it looks like when this period ends. Now is the time to tell the world. Now is the time to tell your friends.

In addition, now is the time to continue to encourage one another, now is the time to build a foundation, and to keep building on it for a lifetime. Say “yes” to God now, in all things, so that we don’t harden our hearts.

12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Heb 3:12-15, ESV2011)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

Revelation #20 THE JOY THAT AWAITS


The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

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Revelation #20.  Revelation 7:9-17

I believe Revelation is divided into seven major sections. Each section begins with a return to the perspective of heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, and about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Next, we entered the Heavenly throne room, and got a glimpse of the Glory and Power of the Lamb and the One seated on the throne. After that came section two, in which God laid the groundwork for the coming of the end of the world as we know it. Now, we begin a new section, and so we return once more to the Heavenly view of things.

The first two heavenly visions were concerned primarily with God. Remember, at the beginning of the book, John had a vision of Jesus. All focus was on Him, and what he said. The second part of the book began with a vision of the Heavenly throne room. Neither of these visions were primarily about human beings: the focus is on God. The first thing about Heaven is God himself. The entire universe is all about God. Heaven is about the magnificence, and glory, and goodness, and power of God. God doesn’t exist to serve us. Heaven wasn’t made for us, it was made by God, for God. God in his grace has made it possible for us to enter into His presence, and to find eternal joy there. But we should not make the mistake of thinking it is all about us. It is always all about God, and the goodness of God is such that he gives us a place by his side, that he makes room for us in his presence. This third vision is focused on what it looks like, or feels like, to be in the presence of God. John is reminding us where all of this is headed. With each new section, he reiterates what we have to look forward to in the presence of God.

John begins the new vision of Heaven with this:

9After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9, HCSB)

Heaven is filled with people of every ethnic group (the Greek word translated “nation” could also be “ethnicity”). There are people there from every tribe, every language, every distinct “people group” in the world. Heaven is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, joyful celebration. Some people think of Christianity as a European religion, or as the religion of Western Culture. But that has never been true. From the very beginning, Christianity crossed social, racial and cultural boundaries, both in doctrine, and in actual practice. There are churches in India, Ethiopia, and Egypt that date back 2,000 years. Although Christianity is currently struggling with secular culture in Europe and America, it is growing dynamically in Africa and China and other parts of the world. It has been embraced all over the globe.

This is all in accordance with what Jesus and his followers taught from the very beginning. Jesus always intended the gospel to go to all nations (again, the word could mean “ethnicities”). In fact, he commanded it.

18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

The apostles obeyed, and passed on the value that this gospel is for all people, both near and far. We who are in Jesus are not foreigners to each other, but fellow citizens, fellow members of God’s household.

17When the Messiah came, He proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. (Eph 2:17-20, HCSB)

Jesus is greater than race, nationality or language. By the way, this is an affirmation of the very beginning of Revelation, where John reminds us that we belong to God’s kingdom, and we are citizens of “God’s country” in a way that takes preeminence over any earthly citizenship.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…(Revelation 1:5-6)

It also says this in the book of Galatians:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV).

I want to make sure I say this clearly. The Bible does not teach a universal “brotherhood” of all humankind. It does not say that all people are God’s special children. It says that all those who trust Jesus are the children of God, and are brothers and sisters, no matter what our cultural or ethnic background. Without Jesus, we are not in God’s family, not according to the Bible. It is Jesus who makes us into the family of God.

11He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. 12But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, 13who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13, HCSB, italics added for emphasis)

But if we are in Jesus, we are one with all others who are in Him. No human conventions should divide us. It doesn’t matter what race or gender we are. The fact that we have surrendered our lives to Jesus means that we are brothers and sisters with everyone else who has done the same. Our unity in Jesus is greater than our cultural and ethnic differences. The early church most definitely lived that out:

 1Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1, ESV2011)

Barnabas was a Jew, as was Saul. Simeon was called “Niger,” which means “black,” so he was probably an African. Lucius was from Cyrene, which is in modern day Libya, so he would have been an African of different ethnicity than Simeon. Manaen was probably an Idumean, from the area now known as Jordan.

Even today, despite racial tensions in some parts of the world, Christianity is by no means dominated by any particular ethnicity. Ethnicity is not something that ever divides true Christians. In Revelation, it is a great joy to see people of every tribe, tongue and nation in heaven. Our race, color, culture ,and language are never barriers to the unity we have as followers of our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

I feel so blessed in that I have had the chance to travel to almost twenty different countries, and to meet so many Christians of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It’s amazing and encouraging to hear eight or ten different languages spoken as you gather for worship, and then to see the unity of everyone’s love for Jesus when worship begins. It is a powerfully moving experience, and I think this passage in Revelation tells us that in Heaven it will be like that, only so much greater!

I want to add something else that I find interesting. “Secularism” is a way of looking at the world apart from religion. Secularists are often atheists, or, if not, they still tend to think of God as impersonal and uninvolved in human affairs. In the US and Europe, most people in government, higher education and the news media are secularists.

Many secular people pride themselves for being in favor of diversity in race and culture. However, secularism in itself (the way of looking at the world apart from God) does not appeal to a very diverse group of people. Most secularists are products of Western culture. It has very little appeal to people from other backgrounds. Christianity is far more culturally diverse in actual fact than secularism.

Moving on, this multitude praises God together. They are clothed in white; their clothes are made white by the blood of the lamb. Now obviously, when you dip clothes in blood, they don’t come out white. This is a symbolic picture. It means that the sacrificial death of Jesus has cleansed them from all sin, and made them holy and righteous in the eyes of God. We are supposed to remember that it is Jesus who makes us holy and righteous, not anything we ourselves do. The palm branches may signify a kind of victory celebration.

In verse 13, one of the twenty-four elders asks a question that we all naturally have: “Who are these people?” I believe (as do several other respected commentators) that these are the same people who were sealed in the last passage (7:1-8). I think the sealing of the 144,000 (which we covered last time) is a picture of what it looks like on earth. All of God’s people are sealed, but sometimes it seems like there aren’t very many of us. In our daily lives, if we haven’t traveled much, we may even feel like all Christians seem to be of the same people group. That’s how it appears on earth. On earth we must be protected from God’s wrath, and from the Devil. On earth, the true extent and glory of the Church is hidden. But now, starting in verse 9, John shows us what it looks like in Heaven. When we get there, we see that there is a huge multitude that cannot be numbered. Far from looking limited, far from looking like all God’s people come from one nation, John shows us the true spiritual reality of God’s people in heaven.

Once again, some commentators make the argument that the 144,000 are Jewish people who come to faith in Jesus after all of the Gentile believers are “raptured,” and the multitude in our passage today are those Gentile believers who were raptured before the great tribulation. However, that interpretation depends upon an elaborate system of picking and choosing obscure parts of several different books of the Bible, and weaving them together in highly specific ways to create a kind of “timeline” of the end times. It does not arise naturally from the text of Revelation, not even remotely. The Holy Spirit inspired the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, and Revelation. But He did not clearly inspire the timeline that people make up by picking and choosing from those books. That timeline is not contained within any text of scripture.

I certainly could be wrong. But every instinct I have as a scholar of the Bible tells me that picking and choosing from different books to create a distinct message that is not clear within any of the books individually is bad Bible interpretation.

In addition of course, the actual text of Revelation says that these people:

“…are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14, NIV).

The Greek makes it clear that they were in the great tribulation, and now, they have come out of it. In other words, they were not raptured before it started. In fact, some commentators feel that the “great tribulation” refers to the struggles and sufferings of the church throughout all of history, not just the end times. John, however, sees them at a time when all suffering and sorrow is behind them.

15“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (Rev 7:15, ESV2011)

Let’s be honest. If we take this at face value, it sounds a little bit boring: serving in a temple all day and all night. But we need to remember that this is figurative and symbolic. Picture it this way: Think back to a time in your life when you were with a group of people that you knew well, and loved. Everyone was at peace with each other, there was laughter, fun, good food. Imagine a time like that, one of those moments that you wished would never end; you wished it could just go on and on like that forever. That is what it means to serve God day and night in his temple.

It says that God will shelter them with his presence. There have been a few times in my own life where I have sensed the presence of God in a particularly strong way. It is overwhelming, it is joyful. This is not some dreary, boring ceremony; it is the essence of joy, it is life itself, continually poured into us, continually overflowing out of us.

It says they shall neither hunger nor thirst, and they shall be protected from the sun. Again, this is figurative language. It means, more or less, that all of our needs will be met, and that we will never suffer anymore. This is because the Lamb himself will be our shepherd. He will guide us to springs of living water, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. God himself will remove all of our grief. He will satisfy our deepest needs and longings. He will lead us from goodness to goodness.

This is what God’s people are sealed for. This is our future, if we continue to trust Jesus, if we continue to surrender our lives to him. This is God making everything right; this is him making room for us in his all-joyful, all-satisfying presence. This is what we’re waiting for, and the book of Revelation is assuring us that this is indeed coming, that God is putting into motion the things that need to happen for this to come about.

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!


sealed document

We who are in Jesus have been marked in a such a way that shows every spiritual entity in the universe – whether angels, or demons, or even the devil – that we belong to God. The seal protects us until we arrive at our destination, the New Heavens and New Earth where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. We are also protected from the judgment and wrath of God. He does not evaluate our performance, instead he evaluates the performance of Jesus on our behalf.

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Revelation #19.  Revelation 7:1-8

The first major section of Revelation was made up of the seven letters to the churches. The second section is made up of the first six seals, and then the little paragraph that we will look at today: Revelation 7:1-8. I think John deliberately leaves the seals “unfinished.” He does the same thing with the seven trumpets. I think this is meant to indicate that even though we have come to an end of one of the major sections, he is not done describing the things the Holy Spirit wants him to describe. The leaving of these things “unfinished” tells us that there is more to come. There will be some technical detail in this message. I want to encourage you to read it all the way through. If you do that with each message, when you are done you will understand the book of Revelation better than 90% of other Christians. In addition, there is a rich message of grace and joy in this passage.

So this section ends not with the opening of the seventh seal, but instead with a different kind of “sealing.” Verses 1-3 set the stage:

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, restraining the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel, who had the seal of the living God rise up from the east. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3“Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” (Rev 7:1-3, HCSB)

The idea here is that something big is about to happen on the earth. God commands the angels to pause in their work of judging the earth until the “slaves of God” are sealed. In other words, God is going to protect his people in some way from the implacable, righteous judgment of the world. God knows who belongs to him. He is not just waving his hand and saying “destroy them all.” Instead, he knows his people, and he takes precautions so that they are not included in the judgments that are about to come. This is demonstrated later on, in chapter nine:

2He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft. 3Then locusts came out of the smoke on to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. (Rev 9:2-4, HCSB)

Now, there are several questions raised by this text: What does it mean to be “sealed?” Who, exactly are the people being sealed? What is the meaning of the number 144,000?

The text says that an angel arises from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. Let’s remember what a seal was for John’s first readers; we are not talking about the animal. In ancient times there were no self-sealing envelopes. Documents were folded, or rolled, and then a large dollop of hot wax (sealing wax) was placed over the line where the edge of the document rested against the rest of it, in order to hold the scroll or letter closed. While the wax was still hot, the sender of the letter (or document) pushed the end of a special metal, wooden, or clay piece into the wax. The piece had a design or logo on the end of it, and this left an impression on the wax. When the wax dried, the impression was hardened into it, and the wax, with impression kept the document sealed.

This special piece of metal, wood or clay with the design on it was called a “seal,” since it was used to seal documents in this way. Here are some examples of what all this looks like:

sealing ring

A modern seal, on the face of a ring.

A sealed letter.

sealed document

Some examples of ancient seals.

seals ancient

Usually, individuals had their own unique seals, and your seal would be one of your most important and closely guarded possessions. Seals were often kept on rings (as you can see above), or on necklaces. So, if I sent you a letter, you could look at the blob of wax that kept it closed, and see my seal upon it, and therefore you would know that the letter came from me. Also, the seal prevented unauthorized people from opening, or tampering with the document. In short, a seal shows who “owns” a document, and protects that document from harm until it arrives where it is supposed to go.

When we apply this to the text, we understand what it means to be sealed: God is putting his own special mark on his people, to identify them as his own, and to protect them. He is saying “these people are mine.” He is also saying, “No one can tamper with my people.” This is so important that he stops his angels who are about do his work in the world until his people are sealed.

Now, this is a symbolic picture: we are not meant to understand that an angel is going to put a dollop of sealing wax on 144,000 foreheads, and then push God’s seal into the wax on each person. So, how exactly is God doing the sealing?

Thankfully, we have other parts of scripture to shed light onto this. Several times in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is described as the “seal” of our salvation.

22He has also sealed us and given us the Spirit as a down payment in our hearts. (2Cor 1: 22, HCSB)

 13When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (Eph 1:13-14, HCSB)

 29No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. 30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:29-30, HCSB)

So God seals people with his Holy Spirit. The Spirit does many things in the life of one who trusts Jesus, and one of those things is to show everything in the universe that we belong to the Father, and to protect us until we arrive in the New Heavens and the New Earth. I do want to say, for the sake of honesty, that not all commentators on Revelation agree that this sealing is the Holy Spirit. Many people think this is some other sort of “sealing,” given only for the end times. However, they all agree that the sealing is some sort of spiritual (not physical) indication that these people belong to God, and I say that the Holy Spirit does that anyway.

Now, who exactly are the people who will be sealed? In the first place, they are “slaves of our God.” The word slaves has a very negative connotation in our culture; we tend to think of the horrible practice of enslaving Africans that is a dark spot on American and British history. In the New Testament however, slavery was not racial: There were slaves of all races and colors in the ancient Roman empire. In addition, most slaves in those days (with the exception of galley [ship] slaves and slaves condemned to hard labor) had a fair degree of personal freedom. In fact, many slaves entered into that condition voluntarily, because a master was bound to provide for and protect the slaves in his household. Most slaves also had the opportunity to purchase their freedom back from their masters. The key concept when we think about being a slave of God is this: We have made God our owner. We live for His interests, not our own. This should be true of anyone who calls him/her self a Christian. So the slaves of God are Christians.

It also says that these sealed people are “144,000 from every tribe of Israel.” The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans seems to say that at some point in the future, many Jews/Israelites will repent and trust in Jesus Christ. Because of that, some people believe that these verses in Revelation describe a great movement of God among people of Jewish descent, with many of them becoming Christians. According to this idea, it is these Jewish Christians who will be sealed for protection against God’s judgment.

The idea that these are Jewish Christians has many problems however. Why would God protect only Jewish Christians from judgment, but not all other Christians? If we accept that this sealing is related to the Holy Spirit, we can’t certainly can’t say that only Israelite Christians have the Holy Spirit. Some people answer this by saying that the other Christians will be “raptured” (that is, taken up to heaven without dying) by this point in the end times. It is the rapture of Gentile believers, (they say) that will cause all these Israelites to come to faith in Jesus. If you have been paying attention, however, you will realize that there has been no mention of a “rapture” yet in Revelation, and in fact, such a thing is never clearly described in Revelation.

There are other problems with taking this text at face value – that is, taking it to mean that only the twelve tribes of Israel will be sealed against God’s judgment. For one thing, most of the tribes appear to have been destroyed. In approximately 721 BC, the Assyrian empire conquered the area held by the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, and Ephraim and Manasseh (ten tribes). These tribes were deported from the land, and they were scattered all around the Assyrian empire. People were brought in from elsewhere to occupy the territory they left. The result was that those tribes eventually lost all of their separate identity as descendants of Israel. Only the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi continued to have an ongoing sense of being Israelites. For all intents and purposes, 9 out of twelve tribes have been “lost.”

In addition, even if the other tribes still existed, John’s list is all wrong. The tribe of Dan is not even mentioned in the Revelation text. The tribe of Manasseh is mentioned, and also the tribe of Joseph, but Manasseh is part of Joseph; in other words, It should have been either “Manasseh and Ephraim” (but not Joseph); or “Joseph” (but neither Manasseh or Ephraim). Never in any other place in the Bible are they described as “Manasseh and Joseph.”

Some people say Dan is not mentioned because the antichrist is supposed to come from Dan. They base this on one obscure verse:

16“The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan; at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes. They come and devour the land and all that fills it, the city and those who dwell in it. (Jer 8:16, ESV2011)

In context, the verse is about the invasion of the Babylonians, which came from the north, through the territory historically held by Dan. But even if it was about the antichrist, it would be pretty harsh to exclude an entire tribe because of one individual.

No, a Jew like John should certainly have known better than list the twelve tribes like this. I think he did it to show us that we are not to take “from the Israelites” literally. I think he means us to understand “Israelites” as “all of God’s people,” whether descended from the twelve tribes or not. Remember, Revelation was written in a kind of code language, in case it fell into the wrong hands. Jewish people were less likely to be persecuted for their faith than Christians, so this is a neat trick to sound like it is about the Jewish faith, while, to those who know anything about the twelve tribes, it is obviously not meant to be taken at face value. Remember, also, that John seems to think of Christians as the true spiritual Jews, even if they aren’t physically Israelites:

8“Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: 9I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Rev 2:8-9, HCSB)

 9Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying — note this — I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you. (Rev 3:9, HCSB)

So John sees Christians as the true children of Israel, spiritually speaking. He is not alone in this. The New Testament clearly teaches that those who trust Jesus are the ones who inherit the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, since the time of Jesus, it is the followers of Jesus, whether of Jewish descent, or not, who are the “true Israelites.”

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29, NIV)

In the time of the New Testament, “the circumcised,” or, “circumcision” was sort of a slang for “Jewish” or “Israelite.”

15For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Gal 6:15-16, ESV)

In this context the “Israel of God” appears to mean Christians – both Jewish, and non-Jewish Christians. Many Jews took pride in the fact that they were descended from Abraham. But the New Testament says that all who trust Jesus are also spiritually descendants of Abraham:

9Is this blessing only for the circumcised, then? Or is it also for the uncircumcised? For we say, Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness. 10In what way then was it credited — while he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while he was circumcised, but uncircumcised. 11And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while still uncircumcised. This was to make him the father of all who believe but are not circumcised, so that righteousness may be credited to them also. (Rom 4:9-11, HCSB)

 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:27-29, ESV2011)

6Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, 7then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. (Gal 3:6-7, HCSB)

 This is very important to understand,  and not only for this passage. It explains how we should read the Old Testament. Christians are the true spiritual nation of Israel. The promises of God given in the Old Testament are often meant as much, or more, for Christians as they are for ethnic Jews. They are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For example, consider the promised land. The physical land in Israel was not promised to Christians who are not physically descendants of Abraham. But we do have a promised land: the New Heavens and the New Earth which God is preparing for all who trust Jesus. And the promised land in Jesus is eternal: so much better than the mere physical land. So “the twelve tribes” of Israel, here in Revelation 7, means “Christians.”

Now, let’s tackle the number: 144,000. In Revelation, the number 12 represents the people of God. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and there were twelve apostles. If you multiply 12×12, you get 144. The number “one thousand” in revelation represents “all” of something. Imagine someone saying, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” They don’t mean they have actually told you 1,000 times – it just means “a great number of times.” Or “Mine is a thousand times better than yours.” Again, the number 1,000 is not meant to be taken literally. So, in Revelation, 1,000 of something means “Lots and lots,” or, “all of it.” We put this together: we have all of God’s people from Old Testament times (represented by 12,000), and all of God’s people since the time of Jesus (represented by another 12,000) and you multiply them together, and you get 144,000. It just means that God is going to seal every single person who trusts Him.

Now, this “sealing” doesn’t mean that God’s people will never experience hardship. But it does mean that they will not be judged by God based on their own performance. They will be judged based on the performance of Jesus. The people of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, will never have to worry that God will be angry at them for their sins, or cause them to suffer for their failings. Jesus took the judgment upon himself. When God enacts the final and complete judgment of the world, all of the people of God will be protected from that judgment.

These are wonderful truths for us to understand. We who are in Jesus have been marked in a such a way that shows every spiritual entity in the universe – whether angels, or demons, or even the devil – that we belong to God. The seal protects us until we arrive at our destination, the New Heavens and New Earth where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. We are also protected from the judgment and wrath of God. He does not evaluate our performance, instead he evaluates the performance of Jesus on our behalf. In addition, even the promises of the Old Testament for the Israelites are given to us.

Take a moment to allow these things to sink in.

Revelation #18 JUDGMENT: GOOD, OR EVIL?


The judgment of God is problematic for many people in today’s culture. Read on for some thoughts about how to understand and talk about justice, and God’s judgment of the world.

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Revelation #18. The Problem of Judgment & Punishment

This next message is not directly about the text of Revelation, but rather about issues raised by the text. I think it is important that we deal openly and clearly with the messages of judgment, justice and vengeance. All over the Book of Revelation we find God judging the wicked, and, in many cases, causing them to suffer. For instance:

3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Revelation 9:3-6, HCSB).

Even the good saints who have already been martyred, seem almost bloodthirsty. When the fifth seal is opened, the Martyrs cry out:

10They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ” (Rev 6:10, HCSB)

The idea that the wicked will be punished for their sins is problematic for our culture. For one thing, the dominant view in Western culture is that no one is truly wicked (with the exception of one or two people like Hitler). On the other hand, they also believe that no one is truly good, either: they think, in general, that all people of faith are hypocrites who don’t actually practice what they preach.

Non-Christians and pseudo-Christians in Western society do have a sense of morality, a curious mix that is partially derived from the Bible, and partially from secular humanism. Very high on the moral list of secular culture is that we should not judge anyone. I think this has rubbed off on most Christians also. So, how do we handle the judgments in Revelation? How do we handle the destruction and death that is released by God’s command? What do we do with this almost black and white view of the righteous and the wicked? I think there are several points that might help us understand and accept these concepts in Revelation.

1. God is infinite, and we are not. If you’ve been following this blog in real time, you know that last time we talked extensively about how God is so much greater than we are. Trying to understand God is like trying to use a tablespoon to contain the contents of a running garden hose. The tablespoon is filled up immediately, but there is no end to the water that comes out of the hose. This is what it is like when we try to understand God. What this means is that there could be a very convincing and satisfying explanation for all of the things that trouble us, and yet we will never be able to understand it. In fact because God is infinite, and we are not, it is very likely that we won’t be able to understand much about God at all, including the way he judges the earth. In plain language, we need to accept that God has very good reasons for what he does, and that we cannot understand very many of those reasons.

2. God is God, and we are not. In other words he can do whatever he wants to do. He made this world and he can do what he likes with it. Even if we could understand the reasons for what he does, we have no right to judge him. Another very important aspect of this point is that we human beings are not the ones who do the judging. It is absolutely wrong for us to take judgment into our own hands.

If we say something different from what the Bible says, even if we think we are being more lenient, then we are putting ourselves in the place of God, and judging others.

When we tell other people what the Bible says, we are not judging others – we are simply repeating what God has already said. Even so, we must remember that final judgment belongs to God, and it is not up to us to put God’s judgment into action.

The martyrs under the altar were asking God to act, because they understood that it was not their own place. Violence is never an appropriate expression for any part of the life of a Christian. We may, in extreme situations use violence to defend ourselves from physical danger. But we may never consider ourselves the instrument of God’s judgment, and it is not our place to deliberately harm any other human being. When David had the opportunity to kill King Saul, even when Saul was pursuing him in order to kill him, David refused. He said:

12“May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD take vengeance on you for me, but my hand will never be against you. 13As the old proverb says, ‘Wickedness comes from wicked people.’ My hand will never be against you. (1Sam 24:12-13, HCSB)

This should be our attitude towards those who oppose us also. Paul wrote to the Romans:

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19, HCSB)

We Christians interpret the whole  Bible in relationship to Jesus. Therefore, even though there are texts in the Old Testament instructing the Israelites to wage “Holy War,” those texts cannot be taken literally by those who follow Jesus. Jesus himself made this very clear:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:38-45, ESV2011)

Clear enough? God will take care of these things. It isn’t our place to harm anyone.

3. These violent and overwhelming judgments tell us that sin is serious.

Imagine that a terrible sickness was discovered. It is a virus that inflames the lining of the brain. Those who get it eventually go mad, and if not restrained, many of them, in their insanity, commit cruel and horrible crimes. Driven by the disease, they rape, humiliate, torture and murder others. Eventually, everyone who gets the virus dies; the mortality rate is 100%. It is extremely contagious, and there is no cure.

Now, some of the people who get this virus manage to control it to some extent. They are able to refrain from the worst cruelties. However, that same virus that makes some people do unspeakable horrors lives inside everyone who has it. You never know when the sickness might suddenly progress and cause someone to commit a horrific crime. The potential for the most awful cruelty will always be there, in every single person who has the disease.

In addition, everyone who has it is a carrier. Everyone who has it will infect others. So even if someone has mild symptoms, that person will pass the disease on to others; and those others may end up with the very worst symptoms.

You can see that this is a terrible, horrific virus. To control it, you would have to implement a zero tolerance quarantine, and enforce it 100%. The only thing to do, is to wait for those who have it to die.

My little analogy is actually quite true. The disease exists: it is called sin. In some people, sin exhibits mild symptoms. But the same thing that makes me snap at a dear friend in selfish anger is what makes someone else commit the most horrific crimes: rape, torture, murder. The root cause is the same.

Yehiel Dinur was a Jew. During the 1930s he experienced the increasing bigotry and persecution of the Jews, fostered by Hitler. During WWII, he ended up in a concentration camp, and after unspeakable horrors, survived. Many years afterward, he was summoned to Nuremberg Germany, to testify at the War Crimes Tribunal. He was called upon to testify against Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the holocaust, who had been one of Dinur’s torturers. When he stepped into the courtroom and saw Eichmann sitting on trial, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs, and had to be escorted out of the room until he could compose himself. When he was later interviewed, the news reporter assumed that Dinur’s breakdown was due to hatred, fear, or terrible memories. Or perhaps it was just the overwhelming emotion that came as a result of knowing that this terrible man was finally brought to justice.

Dinur denied all of these. He gave this as the reason for his uncontrollable emotion: “I was afraid about myself. I am — exactly like he is.”

Dinur knew that the same horror that caused the Nazi to commit such atrocities lived also inside of him. According to the Bible, he was absolutely correct. That horror lives inside each one of us, even if some of us suppress it better than others. The sin that lives in me is just as evil as the sin that lived inside of Nazi torturers. It is that serious.

All this is to say that we cannot criticize God for taking severe measures to stop the horrible disease of sin, even when its outward symptoms are mild among some people.

4. Although judgment is coming, Jesus has provided a way out for all people. That is why the gospel must be preached before the end can come (Revelation 6:1-2): so that all those who want to can escape the final judgment. The full judgment for sin fell upon Jesus. Jesus died, and if we trust him, our sinful nature was killed along with him. As Paul writes, we were united with him in his death, which means that the terminal illness of sin has been purged from our souls and spirits.

3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. 5For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. (Rom 6:3-7, HCSB)

Anyone who trusts Jesus is counted as having already died; we were included in the punishment and death that was given to Jesus on our behalf. In addition, he creates within us a new life, a spirit that wants to do good, and not evil:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come” (Second Corinthians 5:17)

What about those who never got a chance to hear the gospel before they died? Only God knows. But we know that he is merciful and gracious. Again, it is not our place to determine what happens to such people – thank the Lord!

5. The terrible judgments are also paid out against the spiritual forces of evil. In other words, if it makes you uncomfortable to think of God judging human beings, remember that some of this judgment is also given out against evil, demonic forces. If you feel like it is hard to give your hearty agreement to the judgment of the world, even after all these things we’ve been saying, we can certainly agree with these sorts of judgments against the devil, and his evil spirits.

6. Human beings are hardwired for justice. Think about this: every day, all over the world, 12 and 13-year-old girls are being kidnapped. They are raped repeatedly until the abuse brain-washes them into submission, and then they are sold as sex slaves. How can we possibly say that this is okay? How could we possibly suggest that God gives those evil and twisted abusers a pass, because “he’s a God of love?” He wouldn’t be a loving God if he allowed that to go on without consequence. I don’t believe that anyone reading this thinks God should give these rapists/slave traders a pass. Our natural response to hearing this is to demand justice. Revelation tells us that God will put all things right, including this evil. He will finally destroy the awful disease that makes people do this. He will fully punish everyone who refuses to repent. When we open our eyes to the true evil that lives in this world, how can we wish for anything less?

When we think about judgment, there is a very useful acronym to sum all of this up. The acronym is LOVE.

Look beyond the human instrumentation to the real enemy of our souls (Eph. 6:12).

On the cross, Jesus himself bore every curse (Gal. 3:13).

Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:19).

Eventually, God will set all things right (Rev. 11:15).

(This acronym is not original with me. I found it at: (  accessed 2/6/18)

Let the Spirit speak to you today!



There is no peace in thinking that you can control life to avoid trouble and sorry. There is no peace in trying to figure out why God does or doesn’t do particular things. Although God reveals himself to people, we cannot truly understand him. In the end, understanding and illumination will only take us to the threshold of relationship with him. What we need, even more than understanding, is to trust him.

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Trust Beyond Understanding. Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; Mark 1:29-39

Whenever I preach on the Lectionary, I read all of the passages, and pray, and listen to see if the Holy Spirit is bringing up something in one or more of the readings. It’s a slightly different thing than preaching through a book of the Bible. Anyway, I trust that this time, the Spirit has been speaking, and has also been making me able to hear what he is saying.

Some of you may know all about the Church Year, and some may not. The lectionary readings are organized around the themes of the church year. Presently, we are in the church season of Epiphany. Epiphany is all about God revealing himself to human beings. It is about the Lord illuminating His Truth and His personality to all the people of the world. So there are themes of wisdom and understanding; themes about the mission of taking the gospel into all the world. But this week, which is technically the last week of Epiphany, the Holy Spirit seems to be saying something slightly different: that although God reveals himself to people, we cannot truly understand him. In the end, understanding and illumination will only take us to the threshold of relationship with him. What we need, even more than understanding, is to trust him.

I strongly encourage you to read all of the scripture passages I have listed above. Please take time to do that now.

I want to begin with the gospel reading for this week from Mark, which is familiar to many people. Jesus came to Peter’s house, and found his mother-in-law sick. Jesus healed her. Word spread rapidly, and then from all over the town, people brought sick people for Jesus to heal. He worked at it all evening. The next morning he got up early, and left, and the disciples found him in a lonely place praying. So far, all that is good and familiar. Jesus heals the sick. Right on! Jesus got up early, and went out by himself to pray. A generation of Christians insisted that this means we should have our quiet times in the mornings. But none of that is what this passage is about, in context. Listen to how it goes down:

36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mark 1:36-38, ESV2011)

I think we often miss how shocking this incident was for the disciples. Here he was, in their home-town, healing their friends and neighbors. Mark says he healed “many” (Greek: “pollous”)  but he doesn’t use the word “all” (Greek: “panta”). In other words, he wasn’t done healing people. But the next day, instead of getting up, having breakfast, and resuming the healing ministry, he slipped away before dawn, to get away from everyone. When the disciples found him, he wouldn’t go back there with them. The impression you get from reading the Greek is this: “I’ve come to preach in many places, and that is why I came away from there.” What is implied is also this: “I haven’t come mainly to heal, or make life easier for people. I’ve come to tell them about something more important than that.”

But what could be more important than physical healing? I mean, if we don’t have physical health, how can we serve God? Jesus took the same strange attitude about feeding people, also. After he fed the five thousand, they were ready to make him king. But he hid himself from them, and later told them, basically, “There’s something far more important here than food,” (John 6:26-35). Though Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry as he went along, that wasn’t the reason he came. His primary mission was something different, and that perplexed many people.

The truth is, sometimes God behaves in ways that we ourselves don’t understand. Perhaps it seems like Jesus turns away, and moves on to another place, just as you needed him. It must have seemed that way to the people in Capernaum. Maybe you need healing, but he doesn’t give it. Maybe you need financial help, and none seems to come. Maybe you have simply asked him to show you some kind of a sign, just to let you know that he sees you, but if he sent it, you certainly missed it. Maybe you are reading the scripture, and you find some passage you just can’t wrap your head around, and you can’t make sense of it even after you pray and ask for insight.

Let me make myself clear. I absolutely know (not believe, but know) that God answers prayer. I know that many, many times if you pray for help, you will find it, just as you ask for it. I know that there are many wonderful promises in God’s word, and many people fail to take hold of them by faith, and so they miss out on great things.

I could tell you story after story of how God showed up when his people prayed. But there is a kind of shallowness to a relationship when it is all about what one person does for the other. We scorn someone who “uses” another for their money. We find it contemptible if someone is in a relationship  only in order to get something from the other person. And properly speaking, God doesn’t exist to help us: rather, we exist to bring glory to him. It’s easy to start to love God’s blessings more than God himself. It’s easy to become arrogant about your faith, and cold and hurtful to those who struggle.

Ultimately, God wants to take us beyond the place where we need his blessings in order to feel good about Him. This is what the Spirit is saying today through the  reading from Isaiah:

25 “Who will you compare Me to,

or who is My equal? ” asks the Holy One.

 26 Look up and see:

who created these?

He brings out the starry host by number;

He calls all of them by name.

Because of His great power and strength,

not one of them is missing.

 27 Jacob, why do you say,

and Israel, why do you assert:

“My way is hidden from the LORD,

and my claim is ignored by my God”?

 28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

* Yahweh is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the whole earth.

He never grows faint or weary;

there is no limit to His understanding. (Isaiah 40:25-28)

These texts today tell us that God can do whatever he wants. We can’t use the Bible as some sort of legal document, and say, “God you must heal in every situation. God you must provide.” I know this is really difficult. I know it might challenge, or even offend some of you. But I encourage you to look beyond a shallow reading of scripture, and beware of arrogance. Job’s friends thought they had it figured out, and they had a very hard time with Job, who challenged there simple view of God. When they saw him suffering, they decided it must be because he wasn’t trusting the Lord, or praying in the right way, or… something. Because they were afraid. But Job noted that they saw what they did not understand, and it frightened them. God agreed with Job, and rebuked his friends for thinking that they could control Him or understand him.

For you have now become nothing;
you see my calamity and are afraid. (Job 6:21)

Job understood better than his friends. He knew that God is always in control.

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)

Somewhere along the line, our Christian culture has decided that God needs our help defending or explaining himself. We hurry to say things like: “God didn’t want this to happen.” But that is a tremendously unsettling idea. Are things happening to you that God didn’t want? Then why? Is he unable to protect us, or unable to help us?

I know all about the consequences of original sin, as well as our own personal sins. And it is true that some people are in a fix because they have made poor choices; because they haven’t listened to God. But some people have followed the Lord faithfully, and they are still in a fix. It isn’t their own doing. And even if the problem is the result of being in a fallen world (like cancer), or someone else’s sin (like a drunk driver) are we going to say that God couldn’t stop it? Is he really that weak?

There is another way. I think it is the Biblical way. We are not called to defend God’s actions, or even explain them. He does not need to justify himself to human beings. We are finite, and God is infinite. Trying to understand him is like trying to empty a garden hose into a tablespoon. The tablespoon holds almost nothing, and there is no end to the water coming out of the hose.

The texts tell us that we don’t need to explain or justify God’s actions. We cannot understand God. But what we do need to do is trust him. Our Isaiah text puts it like this:

30 Youths may faint and grow weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

 31 but those who trust in the LORD

will renew their strength;

they will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary;

they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

This doesn’t mean everything will go the way we want it to. It means that our strength and hope are found only in trusting God. The Psalmist agrees:

The Lord values those who fear Him, those who put their hope in His faithful love. (Psalm 147:11)

The great English preacher, Charles Spurgeon suffered greatly during his life. He battled very serious and dark depression. He had a kidney disease, as well as gout, and both were so intensely painful, that they often laid him up for weeks at a time. He was frequently harshly criticized, and even slandered, by others. But Spurgeon held to an unwavering belief that God was sovereign in all things, even the things that were difficult for him. He trusted that God was at work, even in his difficulties, and it made all the difference. He wrote:

“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity” (John Piper, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity).

David Brainerd, that missionary who has inspired many generations of missionaries, wrote this:

In this world I expect tribulation; and it does not now, as formerly, appear strange to me; I don’t in such seasons of difficulty flatter myself that it will be better hereafter; but rather think how much worse it might be; how much greater trials others of God’s children have endured; and how much greater are yet perhaps reserved for me. Blessed be God that he makes the comfort to me, under my sharpest trials; and scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror or melancholy; but they are attended frequently with great joy”

We will not always understand God. We cannot understand how some terrible thing could be part of his plan for us. We don’t know how he can make good out of evil. The only way to truly find peace about these things is to trust Him. Trust that he sees something that you cannot. Trust that even when it seems contrary to his very nature, he is so far beyond us that it can, and does, work for your good (Romans 8:28).

Kari and I often read from a devotional called “Streams in the desert.” While I was preparing this message this week, one of the readings went like this:

My child, I have a message for you today. Let me whisper it in your ear so any storm clouds that may arise will shine with glory, and the rough places you may have to walk will be made smooth. It is only four words, but let them sink into your inner being, and use them as a pillow to rest your weary head. “This is my doing.”

Have you ever realized that whatever concerns you concerns Me too? “For whoever touches you touches the apple of [my] eye” (Zech. 2:8). “You are precious and honored in my sight” (Isa. 43:4). Therefore it is My special delight to teach you.

I want you to learn when temptations attack you, and the enemy comes in “like a pent up flood” (Isa. 59:19)., that “this is my doing” and that your weakness needs My strength, and your safety lies in letting Me fight for you.

Are you in difficult circumstances, surrounded by people who do not understand you, never ask your opinion, and always push you aside? “This is my doing.” I am the God of circumstances. You did not come to this place by accident — you are exactly where I meant for you to be.

Have you not asked Me to make you humble? Then see that I have placed you in the perfect school where this lesson is taught. Your circumstances and the people around you are only being used to accomplish My will.

Are you having problems with money, finding it hard to make ends meet? “This is my doing,” for I am the One who keeps your finances, and I want you to learn to depend upon Me. My supply is limitless and I “will meet your needs” (Phil. 4:19). I want you to prove My promises so no one may say, “You did not trust in the Lord your God” (Deut. 1:32).

Are you experiencing a time of sorrow? “This is my doing.” I am “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isa. 53:3). I have allowed your earthly comforters to fail you, so that by turning to Me you may receive “eternal encouragement and good hope” (2 Thess. 2:16). Have you longed to do some great work for Me but instead have been set aside on a bed of sickness and pain? “This is my doing.” You were so busy I could not get your attention, and I wanted to teach you some of My deepest truths. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In fact, some of My greatest workers are those physically unable to serve, but who have learned to wield the powerful weapon of prayer.

Today I place a cup of holy oil in your hands. Use it freely, My child. Anoint with it every new circumstance, every word that hurts you, every interruption that makes you impatient, and every weakness you have. The pain will leave as you learn to see Me in all things.
–Laura A. Barter Snow


4 H-Men

You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.

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To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 17

Revelation #17.  Revelation 6:3-17

I want to clarify a few things. My best guess about the seven seals (or, rather, the first six) is that they do not represent God’s final plan to bring history to its fulfillment, but rather, they show us what it will be like in the era before the true “end times.” Some people might even say that we are already living in the days of the first five seals, and have been since the time that Revelation was written. I think that idea might be the correct one.

To recap what we covered last time: The seals begin (I think) with the gospel being carried into all the world, to every distinct linguistic/cultural group. I think this shows us that God is merciful. The terrible judgments which are coming will arrive only after every “tribe of people” has had a chance to repent and receive Jesus. This reminds me of what Peter wrote about the coming of the end of the world:

6Through these waters the world of that time perished when it was flooded. 7But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

 8Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. 9The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.

 10But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.

 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, it is clear what sort of people you should be in holy conduct and godliness 12as you wait for and earnestly desire the coming of the day of God. The heavens will be on fire and be dissolved because of it, and the elements will melt with the heat. 13But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell. (2Pet 3:6-13, HCSB)

Peter is describing what John sees in Revelation. God is patient. The White Horse of the gospel must go into the entire world, because God does not want anyone to perish. He withholds judgment, in order that more people might be saved. But once all peoples have had an opportunity to repent, judgment begins. Even that judgment, however, culminates in the promise of a New Heavens and New Earth.

We must remember that all of what follows in Revelation is enacted as part of God’s plan. This can be a challenging idea, because the plan enacted by God involves disaster, war, injustice, bloodshed and death. How can these terrible things be part of God’s plan? How could a good, loving God inflict this upon the world he claims to love?

I think the best answer is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Surely, God did not actually want Jesus to feel pain. Surely, he wasn’t happy that Jesus suffered. The Jewish leaders and the Romans committed many sins when they put Jesus on the cross: lying, selfishness, lust for power, and murder. Based upon the rest of the Bible, we know for certain that God did not want them to sin this way. And yet, it was God’s will to save those who put their trust in Jesus. It was his will to use the suffering and death of Jesus as the way to save us.

So you see you have two varieties of God’s will. There is God’s perfect, or ideal will. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. But there is also God’s practical will. Practically speaking, God allows things that are conflict with his ideal will, but only in order to ultimately accomplish that ideal will. So, although the suffering of Jesus was not his ideal will, he allowed it, practically speaking, in order that his ideal will could be accomplished, and all people could be saved through Jesus. Now, this does not mean that he endorses sin, or that he is happy to see people suffering. It simply means that he is in total control of the universe, and even when it seems that He is being thwarted, He is actually working to accomplish His purposes. John Piper puts it like this:

For example, the death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father. Isaiah writes, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.… It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:4, 10). Yet surely, as God the Father saw the agony of His beloved Son and the wickedness that brought Him to the cross, He did not delight in those things in themselves (viewed through the narrow lens). Sin in itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God.

Nevertheless, according to Hebrews 2:10, God the Father thought it was fitting to perfect the Pioneer of our salvation through suffering. God willed what He abhorred. He abhorred it in the narrow-lens view, but not in the wide-angle view of eternity. When the universality of things was considered, the death of the Son of God was seen by the Father as a magnificent way to demonstrate His righteousness (Romans 3:25–26) and bring His people to glory (Hebrews 2:10) and keep the angels praising Him forever and ever (Revelation 5:9–13).

Therefore, when I say that the sovereignty of God is the foundation of His happiness, I do not ignore or minimize the anger and grief God can express against evil. But neither do I infer from this wrath and sorrow that God is a frustrated God who cannot keep His creation under control. He has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history. The contemplation of this mosaic (with both its dark and bright tiles) fills His heart with joy.

Therefore we should keep in mind that these things unleashed by the seals are under the control of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Much of this looks like chaos; the results of most of these seals look like bad things. However, God is in control. He himself initiates the breaking of the seals. The things that are unleashed upon the world have only as much power as God permits them to have.

So, in our text, next, comes the red horse of War. For most of human history, war has existed on the earth. However, I think the red horse tells us that God will make use of war to bring people to repentance and faith in Jesus. We have a present-day example of this, happening right now.

In the middle-east, the group ISIS has created terror, war, and civil war. This has led hundreds of thousands of people to flee toward Europe. Those who have entered Europe are disillusioned with Islam, and interested in a different way to have a civil society. They have begun to flock to European Christian churches, asking about Christianity. Thousands of Muslims have become Christians as a result.

Surely, it is not God’s will that ISIS kills and persecutes people, or that Syrians fight each other in civil war. Yet, God knew that they would do so, and he has made use of the situation to bring thousands of Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ.

I believe the red horse is talking about exactly these sorts of things. War is the result of human sin. But God will allow some of it in order to fulfill his ultimate plan, a plan that includes the abolishment of war. As I said earlier, it may be that we are in the time of the first five seals right now. The wars of the twentieth century were certainly unprecedented in human history in terms of destruction and death. War will mark human history until the end.

The third horse, the black one, might be a bit confusing at first:

The horseman on it had a set of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard something like a voice among the four living creatures say, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius — but do not harm the olive oil and the wine.”

The horseman is calling out prices for food. A “quart of wheat” was about the amount needed to feed a person for one day. A denarius is the amount of money a common laborer would make in one day. These sorts of prices would mean that it takes everything a person could earn just to buy enough of the cheapest food to feed a family. Therefore, the black horse indicates a time of great economic hardship and/or famine. Oil and wine were also considered basic necessities, but these were not to be touched. Therefore, the hardship that is described here though severe, is not entirely catastrophic. People would survive, though not comfortably.

Once more, we have seen famines and food shortages all over the world throughout history. This could mean that we are in “the time of the seals,” already, or it could be that as the end approaches, the economic hardship becomes more severe and widespread throughout the world. I tend toward the first interpretation, again, trusting that God is using these things to get people to repent and listen to him.

The fourth horseman is “pale,” or sometimes “green.” I think what John is trying to describe is the color of a corpse. The name of the horseman is “Death,” but it is not death in general. The text specifies that this seal has authority to kill one quarter of the earth by means of violence (the sword); famine, plague and wild animals. Death, naturally, goes along with war and famine.

The fifth seal reveals the souls of the martyrs: those who have been killed because they trusted in Jesus, and would not deny him or give up their faith. By the way, some translations have it “the people who had been killed…” I think the best way to translate it would be “the souls who had been slaughtered…” This is one reason that I believe Christians have a kind of consciousness after death, even before the final resurrection. This is one of several places in the Bible that seems to indicate that Christians, after they die, are with the Lord spiritually, but are still waiting for their resurrected bodies.

The cry of these martyrs affirms what I’ve been saying about the seals. They want God to execute his plan for the final judgment. That means that these seals are a good thing. They are told to wait until the full number of Christians who will die for Jesus is completed. That implies that the gospel must first go out into all the world, particularly into places where it is not welcome.

The sixth seal is problematic if we are trying to impose a strict and specific time-line on Revelation, because it looks like nothing less than the end of the world. Many of the Old Testament prophets use the sort of language found here in Revelation 6:12-17 to describe “the day of Lord” which is typically seen as the end of the world (Joel 2:31, 3:15; Isaiah 13:9-10; Jeremiah 4:23-28).

Obviously, the language is very figurative. Clearly, if the sun “blacked out” for even a little while, all life on earth would cease. If the sky was “rolled up as a scroll” presumably the atmosphere would be gone, and consequently so would all terrestrial life. If every mountain was moved from its place, how is it that the people go hide in the mountains?

I want to point out also that the people are terrified by the wrath of “the one seated on the throne, and of the lamb.” In other words, it isn’t the world falling apart that scares them, it is that they are confronted with a holy and righteous God. They are confronted with God’s righteous judgment, and it terrifies them. This indicates that the people affected by this are not the people of God.

It appears then, that the sixth seal introduces the end of the world in general terms. The real point is, of course, that God is following through on his promise to the martyrs – he is judging the world and bringing things to an end. The time frame in relation to other events in Revelation is not explicitly spelled out.

So where does this leave us? First, I think we should recognize that even when it is difficult to understand what God is doing, he is actively working for His people. There will be justice. He will put things right. As I said a few weeks ago, he works all things to the good for his purposes and his people (Romans 8:28). As I read this part of Revelation, I am also reminded of Psalm 91:

1 The one who lives under the protection of the * Most High

dwells in the shadow of the * Almighty.

 2 I will say1  to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

 3 He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net,

from the destructive plague.

 4 He will cover you with His feathers;

you will take refuge under His wings.

His faithfulness will be a protective shield.

 5 You will not fear the terror of the night,

the arrow that flies by day,

 6 the plague that stalks in darkness,

or the pestilence that ravages at noon.

 7 Though a thousand fall at your side

and ten thousand at your right hand,

the pestilence will not reach you.

 8 You will only see it with your eyes

and witness the punishment of the wicked.

You need not fear the terror of night, or the arrows of war, or the plagues. God is in control of history. He is using the sinful and horrible works of humankind to bring about his purposes. In the simplest possible terms, God is putting things right. Even the sorts of things that make us think God is not paying attention are, in fact, being used to prepare the world for the end of the old, broken, sinful order and the beginning of the new, joyful, perfect order.



The seals begin with a picture of the gospel going out and “conquering.” Before the end, the gospel will be proclaimed to every tribe, language and nation. We Christians are destined to be a part of that.

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Download Revelation Part 16

evelation #16. Revelation 6:1-2

So far, most of what we have studied in the book of Revelation is reasonably clear. Going forward, we enter the parts of the book that are less clear. There are many different possible interpretations for some parts of Revelation, and it isn’t always obvious which is the best. I want to stress that compared to the rest of the Bible, this is unusual. Most of the Bible is not too difficult to understand. We may find layers of meaning, or various nuances in some passage, but the basic message of most of the Bible is not in doubt, and it is not up for debate. This is one reason that many preachers do not use the book of Revelation – it is unusually obscure. In my introduction, I have already shared the various approaches to interpreting Revelation. As we go on, I will try to briefly share the most reasonable perspectives, and then focus on the interpretation that I find most helpful. Occasionally I will also share poor interpretations that are very popular, in order to warn you against them. In fact, I will do that today.

With chapter five, we have finished with the second vision of heaven’s perspective, and we now move on to the second major section of the book of Revelation. In chapter five, John introduced the Lamb (Jesus), and the scroll sealed with seven seals. Now, the Lamb (Jesus) breaks each seal. The first four seals result in a horseman appearing, and going out into the world.

We should keep in mind that these verses, as with much of Revelation, are symbolic “word-pictures,” not literal. John did not mean us to think that an actual horse will come out of heaven, with an actual riders. The horses and riders stand for something else.

There is debate about whether the seven seals are in fact a description of the end of all things, or if they are just preliminaries: the opening battle in a long war, so to speak. I tend toward the idea that the seven seals represent, for the most part, “the beginning of the end.” In other words, I suspect that these are things that take place before the real “end times.” One reason I think this way is because of how I interpret the first seal.

The first seal reveals a white horse. Its rider has a bow, a crown and is sent forth to conquer. The horse that is next after the white one is red, and it is the horse of war. It takes peace from the earth. This gives us a bit of a problem. You would think that the first horse, “conquest” would take peace from the earth, and create war. So these first two horses appear to be almost the same thing. The distinction between conquest and war is very, very small. So what are we supposed to learn from this?

Let me begin by offering you an interpretation with which I disagree, though I think it is quite reasonable: The horse and rider represents a time of conquest. The horses that follow represent widespread war, famine and death, resulting from the ambitions of those who seek to conquer. This could very well be the right understanding of the first seal; in fact, if my preferred idea is wrong, this would be my second choice.

There is another popular interpretation that I don’t care. In this other view, the white horseman represents a single person who will seek to conquer the entire world. Some with this view take it even farther, and suggest that this person is also the antichrist. Revelation was written in Roman times, and in those days, the great threats to the Roman empire were in the east. The Parthians in the east were renowned bowmen. Therefore, the people with this interpretation believe that this conqueror/antichrist will come from Iran or Romania, or from somewhere else in the territories once controlled by the Parthians. I think that this is unlikely to be the correct interpretation. I share this with you, however, because it is very popular idea, and I want to warn you against it. This interpretation relies on many assumptions that go far beyond the actual text. Clearly, none of the other three horsemen are meant to represent actual individual people, so why should this one? There is no mention of the antichrist in the text, so why make that assumption? There is no suggestion as to where the horseman comes from, other than that it is sent by God, so why decide it should come from the ancient realms of the Parthians? The bow is flimsy evidence, at best.

My own interpretation of this text is one that some respected commentators agree with; at the same time, some respected commentators have different ideas. Obviously, I think I’m correct, and I’ll explain my reasoning, but I certainly could be wrong. If I am, I think the first idea I shared above is probably the next best (the idea that ambitions for conquest will lead to warfare, famine and death in the time just before the end times).

I did a little digging into the Greek word for “conquest” (nikao). John uses this word (in various forms) 23 times, throughout his writings. It is found in The Gospel of John, 1 John, and Revelation. Two times this word is used to convey that the power of evil was given a limited amount of time to conquer the people of God. In those instances, that is spelled out clearly. However, every other time John uses it – 20 times – it refers to the people of God overcoming the world, or the powers of evil. In the letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) every single church is given a promise in connection with “conquering.” For example, he says to the church at Ephesus:

7“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise. (Rev 2:7, HCSB)

“The victor” is a version of this same Greek word, nikao. In other words, it might be better translated: “the one who conquers.” Each of the other seven churches gets a similar promise, using this same Greek word. John also uses this word in connection with the Lamb himself:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:5, ESV2011)

Outside of Revelation, John uses this word exclusively in connection with Jesus, or his followers, conquering the world:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

 4You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1John 4:4, HCSB)

 3For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands. Now His commands are not a burden, 4because whatever has been born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1John 5:3-4, HCSB)

In addition, the first horse is white in color. The colors in Revelation are not random. They have significance. The color “white” is mentioned in Revelation 14 times, in addition to this passage. Every single other time, white is associated either with God, or with God’s people. It is the color of Jesus’ hair (1:14); it is the color of the stone promised to the faithful believers in Pergamum; it is the color of the clothing promised to the faithful in Sardis and Laodicea; it is the color of the clothing worn by: the 24 elders (4:4), the faithful martyrs (6:11) and the great multitude of the saved from every nation (7:9). Jesus rides a white horse (19:11) as do the armies of heaven, who also wear white linen (19:14). You get the idea: White symbolizes the purity and holiness of God and his people.

Therefore, I believe “the white horseman who conquers” represents the spiritual victory of God’s people over worldly values and lust, over our own sinful flesh, and over the devil. It represents God’s Word, carried by Christians, going out into very part of the world. It means that before the “end times” begin, Christians will take the gospel to every tribe, language and nation. Jesus, when he spoke with his disciples about end of the world, said this:

9“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. 11Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. 14This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come. (Matt 24:9-14, HCSB)

I think the white horseman represents verses 13 & 14 above. It represents the fact that Christians will endure, and be saved, and that the gospel will be proclaimed in all nations. The very beginning of the end is marked by the perseverance of Christians in taking the gospel to the entire world. Later on, Revelation will show us a multitude of Christians from every nation, tribe, people and language. That means that the gospel must be brought to every nation, tribe, people and language before the end can come. This also fits in with the fifth seal. I will talk about it more later, but when the fifth seal is opened, those who have been killed for being faithful to God’s word are told to rest a little longer, until everyone who is going to be martyred has, in fact, been martyred. This implies some sort of work of carrying the gospel into the world, of proclaiming it in places where it is rejected.

So, if this is the case, what is the message for us, today? First, I think it should comfort us. Nothing is going to destroy our faith. We will win the spiritual victory over the world, our own flesh, and the devil. The church will succeed in its mission to take the gospel to all peoples in the world.

Second, I think this should also wake us up to the need for every Christian to get involved in the mission of taking the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus more-or-less said that He will not return to put things right and take us into the New Heavens and New Earth until the gospel is proclaimed to all peoples (Matthew 24:14, above). We trust that God will accomplish his purposes on earth, but we also recognize that he wants to use us to do so. We are supposed to be part of the first seal!

So, does this mean we must all go overseas and become cross-cultural missionaries? Certainly, some people are called to that. But just as certainly, some are called to different ways of spreading the gospel.

One thing that every Christian can do is pray for the gospel to reach every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus, considering the size of this task, said to his disciples:

37Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. 38Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matt 9:37-38, HCSB)

So we can pray for others to be sent. When they are sent, we should continue to uphold them in prayer. We can pray for specific countries and specific groups of people. I think one of the best ways to be involved in Christian missions is for every church (or, if it is a big church, every small group) to help sponsor a missionary. This means praying, giving financially, and reading the missionary’s letters, in order to better support them. Your group may not be able to fully support a missionary, but you could at least provide some resources.

Another way to help the mission of Jesus is to create resources that can be used by others. These sermons of mine that you read have been used to help start churches in the USA, England, Finland, Brazil, Mongolia, Vietnam, India and East Africa. And those are only the places that I know about.

I’ve alluded to this already, but an additional way to help the cause of Jesus is to give financially to missionaries and leaders who are helping to spread the gospel. I think prayer should always be connected to giving, so if you give financially, be sure that you also pray for those to whom you give.

One of the most effective ways of spreading the gospel is to train Christian leaders from among the people who need to be reached. An Indian pastor, ministering in India, will usually be more effective at reaching other Indians than an American pastor. So we can pray for, and support efforts to train such leaders.

Also, you don’t have to be sent as a missionary to tell people of other cultures about Jesus. In every major metropolitan area in the United States you can find people from dozens and dozens of other countries: people of every tribe, tongue and nation. Never has it been so convenient to spread the gospel to all nations. Even in our rural town of thirty-thousand I met a Muslim man from the little country of Guyana (in the Northern part of South America). We were friends for about two years, until he had to return home. While he was here, we talked about Jesus quite a bit. That’s something you may not realize: it’s usually quite easy to talk about Jesus with people from other countries. In fact it’s usually much easier to talk about Jesus with International folks than it is with Americans. Muslims, in particular, are very open to talk about religion. If a person turned to Jesus while living in the United States, they might return home, and begin to spread the gospel in their country of origin. I think Jesus needs people in America who are simply willing to befriend people from other places, and share their lives – and their faith – with them. For those of you in the LTC network, we can provide some training, if you like, but it’s not rocket science. It simply involves befriending people.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!