Revelation #21: THE END OF GRACE

Death

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.

One thought on “Revelation #21: THE END OF GRACE

  1. Pingback: Recommended Sermons on Revelation | Tricia's Journal Jots Blog

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