REVELATION #27. THE BATTLE FOR OUR MINDS. (12:7-13)

Battle for the mind

Whether we choose to believe it or not, we Christians are in the middle of a spiritual war. Often, following Jesus is hard, and the reason we find it so is because we have enemies in the spiritual realm. They will attack whether we believe in them or not. The primary weapon used against us is lies. Often we think these lies are our own thoughts. We need to be aware of this, and learn how to fight those lies with the truth of scripture.

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 Revelation #27. Revelation 12:13-17

I want to reiterate something I’ve said before: I approach this book with a great deal of humility. I don’t think that I have the one true understanding of Revelation. But for each message, I study the scripture carefully, without regard to what others have said about it. I pray and ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say through the scripture this time. After I have heard, I do check my interpretations against those of others. So, my main goal with each message is to hear what the Spirit wants to say in this moment. There may be many points in a text that we pass by to focus on the main thing I’m hearing for this particular time. If we come back to the text another time, we might find a different aspect to focus on. This is why we call the Bible “living and active.” The Spirit can reveal many different shades of meaning from one text, though, if the meanings are legitimate, they won’t contradict each other.

Last time, John presented us with crucial information about the spiritual war: Satan has already been defeated. He is like Hitler, fighting on from late 1944 until May 1945. No one could possibly deny by November of 1944 that Germany was going to lose the war. Even the Battle of the Bulge, which cost so many lives, and set back the Allied victory by a few months, never stood a chance of actually stopping the Allies. So it is with Satan. He can still wreak havoc in the lives of individual human beings, but he has already lost the war.

With that firmly in mind, the next few chunks of Revelation describe the spiritual war as it is before it is finally over. I think one of the purposes of it is to warn Christians. We need not fear the final outcome, but we can, and should be, aware of the schemes of the devil, which can still cost us dearly before the end finally comes.

I think that verses 13-14 are talking about exactly the same thing as verse 6.

Verse 6: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”

Verses 13-14: But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

John is going back, and repeating what happened earlier in the passage. “A time, times, and half a time,” is the same as 3 ½ (years) or 1,260 days. Once more, this is a reminder that there are periods in the battle with the devil when the church is protected and nourished in complete dependence upon God.

There are some interpreters who believe that the woman is not the church, but God’s people Israel. In this interpretation, the “1,260 days” might represent the time of their exile from the Holy Land. Or, perhaps it means a time when they will be kept apart, after which, they will convert to Jesus in large numbers. This interpretation may be correct; I want to remain humble about my own understanding of Revelation. However, this interpretation does not leave us with much help for following Jesus in our ordinary lives. It seems much more helpful to consider that there are times when God seems to set people “in the wilderness” where all we can depend upon is him alone. That might happen when you move, and you don’t know anyone around you. It could occur if you lose a special relationship with someone. It might happen through financial hardship, or health issues. In that “wilderness-place” God takes care of us, if we depend completely upon Him. The time frame reminds us that it will not last forever. Of course, we should always depend completely on God, but the wilderness seems to indicate that there is some hardship or difficulty during this period.

While the woman is taken to the wilderness, the dragon spewed water out of his mouth, hoping to destroy her. I believe that this represents, in general, what we call “spiritual warfare;” that is, the schemes of the devil and his demons to destroy Christians. I want to spend the rest of our time on that subject.

Many people think the idea of spiritual warfare is kind of weird, and that maybe we can be Christians without “getting into all that.” But consider this: Prior to September 11, 2001, very few people had heard of an organization called Al Qaeda. Millions of Americans went through their daily lives, vaguely aware that America was somewhat unpopular in places like the Middle East, but not terribly concerned about it. All that changed – at least for a while – on that fateful September morning in 2001. The terrorist hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center and parts of the Pentagon, the loss of almost 3,000 lives all woke us up to the fact that whether or not we believed it, we were at war. “9/11” jarred us loose from our daily patterns. We suddenly realized that though we hadn’t taken the Islamic radical threats seriously, they certainly meant them seriously.

Before 9/11, I think most Americans felt pretty much invulnerable. In the weeks and months following it, we felt anything but that. Belatedly, we became aware that we had enemies – enemies who were dedicated, implacable and had the ability to do us great harm.

Sometimes I think that we Christians are dangerously complacent about the fact that we have enemies: deadly implacable enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy us. We go around, vaguely aware that there is something in the Bible about the devil and demons, but it doesn’t have much relevance to our daily lives. Unfortunately, striking unfairly and without warning, the spiritual terrorist network often takes out unsuspecting, complacent folks who might otherwise have faithfully served and followed Jesus. Even if we don’t take the threat seriously, the devil and his demons are serious about getting to us.

The fact is, the Bible (mostly the New Testament) refers to, teaches on, or mentions that we are in a spiritual war over 110 times. The Bible mentions demons or refers to demonic possession almost 100 times. The devil is mentioned 33 times. The name Satan is mentioned 54 times. Now, obviously there is some overlap among some of these verses, but even so the point is clear: Spiritual Warfare is in fact a major theme in scripture. It starts in Genesis 3:15, when God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between your offspring and hers…”. It doesn’t end until Revelation chapter 20 when the Devil and all his angels (demons) are thrown into the lake of fire – and that time has not yet come in history.

If we choose to be followers of Jesus, then we have entered a spiritual combat zone. Our enemies don’t care whether or not we believe it – but we are in a battle. They strike without warning, and if we are unprepared, great damage can be done. But now, pay attention – we can do great damage to them if we are aware and make use of the tools God has given us.

Consider what the Bible has to say about this: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We are urged to participate in that war: We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a Jesus-follower because…it’s just hard. But why is it hard? There is a definite reason: Because we have enemies who make it hard for us. These enemies are not flesh and blood. Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of demons. Satan and all his demons are our enemies. At times they use other people, but we ought to keep in mind that those people are usually used unwittingly. The real enemy is the devil and his cohorts.

Two questions seem important to address: (1) How does the enemy wage war against us? How do we know when we are being attacked? And (2) How do we wage war against the enemy?

I don’t have time or space to lay out all of the different possible ways you can be attacked by the devil and his ilk. But here is the most common one:

The devil most often attacks us through lies. I believe this is why John pictures it as something spewed out of the mouth of the dragon. And the place where these lies take hold is in our thoughts. Demons have a way of planting thoughts in our heads, and then trying to get us to agree with them. They might do this through the insensitive words of others. Or, You might hear: “Tom, you are so stupid! What basis do you have for thinking you can help these people?” (but only if your name is Tom…). Or you might hear, “look at that hot babe! (or, guy!) You want her (or him)!” The devil wants you to agree with these kinds of thoughts. The minute you do, he’ll condemn you for it, and use it to beat you up all day long. Often we think it is us talking to ourselves, because the devil wants to trick us into thinking we have sinned before we actually have. He is, after all, “the accuser of the believers” (Revelation 12:10).

The point is that our sinful flesh (or a demon) is saying something that is not true, something that God does not say. The moment we accept that thought and agree with it, we have given the devil a foothold from which he can abuse us. He can use it to bring about scandal, problems in your relationships, to make you feel worthless and to paralyze you from really being a disciple. We may have a weakness in certain areas because of our backgrounds and experiences. The enemy will exploit that if he can!

To refute these attacks, we must learn to recognize the difference between God’s voice and every other voice. The scripture says God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31-34). These same verses (and others) also tell us that, because of Jesus, God does not condemn us. We know also that God does not sin. So, if a thought condemns us, separates us from God, results in something clearly negative, or leads us into sin, we know it is not the voice of God. The best way for us to tell the difference between God’s voice and every other voice is to read the Bible regularly.

Now, it is true that the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin as he needs to (John 16:8). But when the Lord convicts us, it doesn’t condemn us — it motivates us to take action. When the Holy Spirit brings conviction, you find you want to repent, to make things right. It’s a good clean feeling, even if not completely pleasant – like a dip in a mountain stream that is really too cold – but also is beautiful and refreshing. On the other hand, when the enemy tries to tempt you with false condemnation, you will feel condemned, guilty and completely unmotivated. You will simply want to wallow helplessly in the guilt. That is not the voice of God. Once we recognize that the thought is not from God,

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

You might simply pray something like this:

Jesus be with me as I battle the enemy. In the name of Jesus, I come against that (the thought or idea). I reject it utterly and refuse to believe it. I take the thought captive and demolish it, in the name of Jesus.

It helps at this point if you know scripture well enough to bring to mind a verse or passage in the Bible that will directly contradict the attack in your mind.

But do we have the power to just throw Satan (or a demon) out like that? Yes! We covered it last time. Here are some other scriptures:

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20)

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

What all this means is that the devil has already been defeated. His fate is sealed. We don’t have to be afraid – we can defeat the evil one, because the Holy Spirit is in us, and he has already done it (Colossians 2:15). We talked about that extensively last week. The outcome of this spiritual battle has already been decided, and disciples of Jesus Christ are on the winning side. But the fighting isn’t over yet. We are still in the battle, and we need to keep our weapons loaded and ourselves alert.

In the 1970’s, the United States withdrew from Vietnam in disgrace. Vietnam is known as the only war which our country has ever lost. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that the war would never have been lost on military grounds. Our military at the time was far superior to anything the North Vietnamese could muster against us. And so the North Vietnamese used terrorist-style tactics, hit-and-run attacks and guerilla warfare. But our military, hampered by political considerations and public opinion, conducted very few major campaigns and did very little to make use of our tremendous advantages in equipment, resources and firepower. The reason we lost the war is because our country did not have the political will to commit to winning the war. The country didn’t really believe in the war, and so, naturally, we were defeated.

Too many Christians don’t really believe in this spiritual war. We don’t understand, we aren’t committed, and so the cost of fighting doesn’t seem worth it. We may feel sort of silly, or like it takes too much energy to do battle in our minds like that. Or, like the war on terror, we don’t recognize that many of the things we experience regularly are a war. As disciples, we must recognize that we are still fighting a war, and though the outcome isn’t in doubt, the enemy will still take out as many individuals as he can.

Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is helpful, as we consider how to conduct ourselves in this spiritual war:

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21 (ESV)

We need to be wise about spiritual warfare, “because the days are evil.” We need to understand God’s will – we need to know what the Bible says, so we can refute the competing messages we are getting every day. We should avoid dulling our senses, or coping, by abusing substances. We should, whenever possible, not give the devil any foothold through sin. We need each other in this battle: fellow Christians can encourage each other, and speak the words of scripture to one another. Finally, praise and thanksgiving are powerful weapons against the devil and his demons. Truly giving thanks to God helps us take hold of his promises, and causes Satan to flee.

REVELATION #26. THE VICTORY IS ALREADY WON.

Falling Dragon

Maybe you find yourself in a situation like that of the first Christians to read Revelation. You’ve tried to follow Jesus. You’ve been faithful, but sometimes it seems like it isn’t working out. Life is still hard, and sometimes it costs you to be true to Jesus. You look around and see others who don’t care about Jesus, and they seem to be doing great. It’s easy to be discouraged. We need to remember that there is a war going on. In war, we expect opposition. Our enemy hates us. But take heart. The Enemy is already defeated. He is just lashing out in bitterness as he is destroyed. If you have truly given yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus, there is no permanent harm the devil can do to you.

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Revelation #26.  Revelation 12:7-12

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!

But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (ESV. Revelation 12:7-12)

Let’s do a quick check-in with the original recipients of the book of Revelation. Many of them were persecuted. Many of them had lost property and homes. Some of them had seen friends and/or family members imprisoned, and even, in some cases, killed for their faith in Jesus. In other places, faithful Christians were watching as some members of their church compromised with the culture. People who call themselves Christians were going to idol feasts, justifying it because they needed to do so in order to continue on in their careers. Other Christians were beginning to believe things that neither Jesus nor the apostles had ever taught. Still others were falling into sexual immorality, and other types of sins. All of this would have been extremely traumatic for the faithful followers of Jesus. In various ways, John’s vision (the book of Revelation) provided comfort to them. In this fourth section in the book of Revelation, John is offering yet one more perspective of hope for those who remained faithful to Jesus. He is describing what they are going through as part of an ongoing spiritual war. The first Christians, as they read this next section in Revelation, would have been reassured: what they are going through is not random. There’s a reason for it: the devil is at war with God and his people.

In the first part of this section, John provided the set up for the spiritual war. In the third and fourth parts, he is going to warn his readers by showing them that at times it will indeed look like the devil is winning. However, this can also be assuring, since it means that their negative experiences have an explanation. But before he does that, we have our passage for today. In this passage, he’s making sure that we understand (before we get to the more difficult bits ahead) that the outcome of the war is not in doubt. God has already won; the devil is no match for God Almighty, and he has been thrown out of heaven.

John tells us very clearly that the dragon is “…that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” So, he is telling us in a picturesque way about the rebellion of Satan, and his fall from heaven. Other, more clear parts of scripture tell us that Satan has been active in the world since the time of Adam & Eve. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that what John is describing is something that happened long ago. There are some other clear parts of scripture that speak of a spiritual battle:

10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. 12 For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. 13 This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. (HCSB Ephesians 6:10-13)

Our passage in Revelation tells of the devil and many “fallen angels” coming to earth; later in the passage it describes him trying to make war against Christians. The apostle Paul tells us, in a very clear passage, that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil.”

It sounds crude and primitive, but the true Christian faith has always believed that there is a real being whom we call the devil, and there are evil/fallen angels whom we call demons. When you think about it, it isn’t that strange. We believe that humans are not merely physical, but also spiritual. 99% of the world’s population throughout history, and even still today, believes that also. I mean it should be obvious. Take love, for instance. There are certain physical actions and sensations that go along with love. But the main experience of love cannot be examined physically under a microscope, or subjected to tests by the scientific method. Even if someday the chemicals involved in love were discovered, that would not encompass the metaphysical thing – the spiritual thing – that we call love. Though we are grounded in the physical realm, the experience of being human is primarily a spiritual experience. We are more than our bodies.

If we believe there are good things in the spiritual realm, why couldn’t there also be bad things? The Bible’s explanation of these things (which includes the devil and demons) makes sense out of the actual experiences of human beings.

In addition, the Bible’s teaching about spiritual warfare keeps Christians from thinking that other human beings are enemies.  As Paul writes, our real enemies are not flesh and blood.

Next time we will consider the spiritual war in greater depth, because the next few verses describe the dragon making war on those who follow Jesus. But before we get into that, I want to make sure we get the message of this passage. The basic message of our verses is this: The devil has already been defeated, and his days are numbered. God has already won.

Some religions (and philosophies) are dualistic. That means they believe that good and evil are equally balanced. In a dualistic system, evil might win just as easily as good. One is as strong as the other. But Christianity is not dualistic. We believe that God is the only uncreated, eternally existing being. Everything else has a cause, a reason for existing. But even atheists understand that at some point, there must be one thing that is the originator of all other causes, something which has no cause itself. Logic demands it. We Christians believe that God is that ultimate being.

This means that there is no entity in all of existence that can be a true rival to God.

As far as I can recall, we learn the names of only two angels in the Bible: Gabriel, and Michael. Gabriel seems to be primarily a messenger for God: he delivered the news of John the Baptist to Zechariah, and the news of Jesus to Mary. Michael, on the other hand, is described by Jude as an “archangel,” which implies that he was a leader among other angels. There is also an obscure incident in the book of Daniel. Daniel is praying, and doesn’t get an answer for three weeks. Then, an angel comes to him, and says that he was held up, because he had to contend with “the prince of Persia” (Daniel 10:10-14). Most people think this is describing warfare between God’s angels and demons. Next, the angel tells Daniel that he was helped in this battle by Michael, who is apparently a prince among angels. And that is all I know about that. I think it is probably best not to spend too much time on such things, because the Bible itself doesn’t mention them often. To me, it seems like a little glimpse into things that we won’t understand until Jesus returns. The main thing I want you to understand is this: God did not even need to fight Satan himself: he had Michael do it. Not only is the devil not as powerful as God, he isn’t even as powerful as God’s best angels.

One time, Jesus sent out 72 of his followers to do ministry. Among other things, he gave them the authority to drive out demons. When they went out, they found out that the demons left when they commanded them in the name of Jesus.

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (ESV, Luke 10:17-20. Bold added for emphasis)

The power of Satan was decisively broken by God. In terms of straight-up power, Satan has very little. What I mean is this: the devil cannot simply overpower any being that serves as God’s agent. Jesus here declares that his followers have authority to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy. I don’t think he means literal snakes and scorpions. He means that he has given his followers power to defeat the devil and his demons.

This power is only given to those who trust Jesus, however. Once, there were some people who heard about the power of Christians to drive out demons. These people were not Christians themselves. Here is a brief summary of their story:

13Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:13-16, ESV2011)

On our own, human beings are very vulnerable to the devil. But in Jesus, we share in the victory over the powers of evil. This is why, after Satan is thrown out of heaven, those who rejoice say this:

10And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev 12:10-11, ESV2011)

Now, obviously, that is not talking about Michael’s victory over the devil. It is talking about those who follow Jesus on earth. The authority of Christ conquers the devil. The blood of the lamb (that is, the sacrifice of Christ for us) and the word of our testimony (that is, claiming the authority and the blood of Christ in our own lives) – these are now the things that conquer Satan on earth.

This is really a several part series. Next time we will talk specifically about the spiritual war, and what it looks like, and how to practically engage the authority of Christ, the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. But for now understand this: the devil is fighting a battle that is bitter and humiliating for him, because he has already lost, and his time is short. We who are in Jesus need not fear any evil; we only need to humbly trust in Jesus.

Maybe you find yourself in a situation like that of the first Christians to read Revelation. You’ve tried to follow Jesus. You’ve been faithful, but sometimes it seems like it isn’t working out. Life is still hard, and sometimes it costs you to be true to Jesus. You look around and see others who don’t care about Jesus, and they seem to be doing great. It’s easy to be discouraged. We need to remember that there is a war going on. In war, we expect opposition. Our enemy hates us. But take heart. The Enemy is already defeated. He is just lashing out in bitterness as he is destroyed. If you have truly given yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus, there is no permanent harm the devil can do to you.

Take a few minutes to think about these things, and be alert for what the Holy Spirit may bring to your mind as you do.

 

Revelation #25. Manifesting Jesus in a Hostile World.

Rev #25

God’s people are in the business of bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus came physically, through the people of Israel. Today, the church still has the task of helping Jesus to be manifested to the world. We do this primarily as Jesus told us, by making disciples. In this we may be opposed. We may become distracted by pleasure, or wealth, or power. But if we trust the Father of our hearts, He will show us that He alone has everything we need, and no enemy can defeat him.

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Revelation #25  Revelation 12:1-6

We have come to the fourth section of the book of Revelation. Although it isn’t quite as clear as it is with the seals, bowls, and trumpets, this section is also made up of seven sub-parts: the seven significant signs. Last time, I pointed out that in the second major section (the seals), Revelation describes all of history, in broad strokes. Parts two (the seven seals), four (the seven signs; the section we are now studying), and six (the seven-part victory of Jesus) all do this same thing in one way or another. However, the main focus for the seven seals was on the earlier history, the era before the beginning of the “end times.” The main focus of part six (the seven-part victory of Jesus) is on the end of history and the new heavens and the new earth. Here in part four, the focus seems to be fairly balanced between beginning, middle, and end.

So, as we go forward we will see that this section backs up all the way to the great war in heaven between Satan and God’s angels, which, we assume, took place before the beginning of human history. We move quickly from there to the birth of Jesus, and then to the persecution of the church, and the spiritual war as it is played out on earth, ending once more with the final victory of Jesus, which, obviously, is still to come.

Before we plunge in, remember the first readers of Revelation. They were marginalized and shamed by their culture. Many of them were persecuted; many had lost property, and a few had lost their lives for Jesus. They were wondering if God remembered them; they were wondering if he really was coming back, if he really was going to make everything right.

Particularly significant for Revelation chapter 12, four of those original churches were dealing with significant spiritual warfare. Jesus told the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia that they were dealing with “synagogues of Satan (Rev. 2:9 & 3:9);” that is, people who had given themselves over completely to rebellion against God, people who had become deeply influenced by the devil himself. I’m sure it also implies that some people there were possessed/oppressed by demons, and that there was opposition to the Christians in the spiritual dimension of life. Pergamum was called the place “where Satan’s throne is (Rev. 3:13),” which probably involved the same sort of spiritual warfare. In Thyatira, people were dabbling in the occult – “the deep things of Satan (Rev. 2:24),” which, again would result in both physical and spiritual opposition to those Christians. For these folks, the devil was a very real and present enemy.

With all that in mind, let’s begin with the first sign:

1A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. 2She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony as she was about to give birth.

 Virtually all of the “early church fathers” (who lived from the mid-200s AD to about 800) saw this woman as representing the church. If we go with this idea, the crown of twelve stars represents the twelve apostles. The fact that she is “clothed with sun” is just a way of describing the righteousness that Jesus Christ has given to his people, the church. Some people think the moon under her feet represent heretics, which the church, in her purity, defeats. They are under her feet to show victory.

In modern times, it has become more popular to interpret the woman as representing the people of Israel. If this is the case, the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes. There are both problems and advantages to both interpretations. I think it is probably best to simply say that this represents, in general, the people of God throughout history, whether the faithful in ancient Israel, or those who truly follow Jesus throughout all of history since his death and resurrection.

The woman is pregnant, and about to give birth. In the first place, she gives birth to the Messiah (more about that later). In addition, if you think about it, the church is always in labor, always trying to see Jesus Christ “birthed” inside every human heart. Jesus talked about being born again:

3Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4“But how can anyone be born when he is old? ” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born? ” 5Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. 8The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8, HCSB)

So, although the main picture here is about the coming of Jesus into the world, there is an ongoing sense in which the church is continually in labor for Christ; that is to see him born in the lives of new disciples.

The text continues:

3Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and 10 horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. 4His tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. And the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she did give birth he might devour her child. (Rev 12:3-4)

 The Dragon is described in greater detail in the next sign (the war in heaven). There, he is clearly named: “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan.” In our verses here, we see that he has seven heads, and ten horns and seven crowns (diadems) on his heads. Once again, this is not a description of the physical appearance of the devil. Instead, this description symbolizes certain spiritual truths about him. Most commentators think the red color shows that the devil is murderous. In fact, Jesus said as much:

44You are of your father the Devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of liars. (John 8:44, HCSB)

In addition, the form of Satan (the dragon) shows that he is trying to be like God. That is what the devil wanted from the very beginning. He tempted Eve with that very thing:

5“In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5, HCSB)

Isaiah describes the devil in Isaiah chapter 14:12-15. One of his characteristics is that he wants to be like God; in fact, he wants to replace God with himself:

12“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ 15​But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. (Isa 14:12-15, ESV2011)

The Apostle Paul also mentions that the devil tries to impersonate God, or God’s servants:

14And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no great thing if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their destiny will be according to their works. (2Cor 11:14-15, HCSB)

So, do you remember that the Holy Spirit, in the book of Revelation, is represented by “seven spirits?” Here, the devil is trying to set himself up as God – with seven heads, to mimic the sevenfold Spirit of God. He has seven crowns on his heads. The crowns (sometimes called “diadems”) show that the devil claims to be a ruler – again, in opposition to, and imitation of, God, the ultimate ruler. This dragon also has seven horns.  A horn, in Bible times, represents strength. So ten horns means “a lot of strength.” Satan is trying to imitate the strength of God.

Many of the early church writers thought that the “fallen stars” represented heretics: those who were in the church, but through heresy, have fallen away. Many modern commentators, however, believe that when it says “his tail swept a third of the stars from the sky,” it means about a third of the angels in Heaven followed him. Those “fallen angels” who followed the dragon are the same beings that we call demons today. The following scriptures seem to suggest this interpretation:

4For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment… (2Pet 2:4, HCSB)

 6And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.  (Jude 1:6, ESV2011)

Our text for this time goes on:

5But she gave birth to a Son — a male who is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter — and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.

 I think we can safely say that the child is meant to represent Jesus. One reason we can know that is because he “is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter.” The concept of “an iron scepter” was associated with the Messiah for a long time. Psalm 2 was considered by the Jews to be in part, a prophecy about the coming Messiah. Needless to say, Christians agree. In that psalm it says that the Messiah (Jesus) will use “an iron scepter.”

8​​​​​​​Ask me, ​​​​​​and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, ​​​​​​the ends of the earth as your personal property. 9​​​​​​​You will break them with an iron scepter; ​​​​​​you will smash them like a potter’s jar!’” (Ps 2:8-9, NET)

And here in the book of Revelation, John writes this:

26The one who is victorious and keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations — 27and he will shepherd them with an iron scepter; he will shatter them like pottery — just as I have received this from My Father. (Rev 2:26-27, HCSB)

So, Jesus promises his followers that they will share in his ruling, mentioning that the iron scepter is part of what he has received from the Father. Later on in Revelation, we have yet one more picture of Jesus using an “iron scepter.”

11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God. 14The armies that were in heaven followed Him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. 15A sharp sword came from His mouth, so that He might strike the nations with it. He will shepherd them with an iron scepter. He will also trample the winepress of the fierce anger of God, the Almighty. (Rev 19:11-15, HCSB)

The point of all this is not the iron scepter itself. It is that the iron scepter in our text today means that the child represents Jesus. This is also confirmed when we see that he is caught up not only to God, but also to His Throne. The first readers of Revelation would have connected this with the promise in chapter 2:26-27, which I just mentioned above. It  would have reminded them to continue to persevere.

Finally, the text concludes like this:

6The woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, to be fed there for 1,260 days. (Rev 12:1-6, HCSB)

This part is harder to interpret. As I said before, 1,260 days means, symbolically, half of God’s perfect amount of time. Many people believe that these tribulations about which Revelation speaks will last for exactly seven years. I think the number seven is symbolic, not literal. It could be however, that this is a repetition of the idea from chapter 11, that for half of the tribulations of the end times, the church will be kept safe and protected, and the other half of the time, God will allow it to be “conquered” physically (but not spiritually). The fact that she goes to the wilderness, where she is nourished by God probably indicates that the church is dependent on God, having no other resources. This certainly would have been true for those first Christians, who had no social standing or political power.

Let’s look for some applications for us today. First, I think it is worth remembering how God sees his people. The picture we have is of a woman, shining like the sun, adorned by the stars and moon. When giving instructions to husbands, Paul writes about what Jesus has done for the church:

25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25-27, ESV2011)

Because of the work of Jesus, this is how God sees us: shining like the sun, full of splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy, without blemish. Yes, we still need to repent of the works of the flesh. Yes, we still need to walk closely with Jesus. But understand that Jesus has fully and completely cleansed us, and in God’s eyes, his people are beautiful. We may be ignored by the culture around us, or even scorned and shamed. But in the eyes of our Lord, we are shining like the sun. We can lift up our heads, no matter what other people think of us.

Second, God’s people are in the business of bringing Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus came physically, through the people of Israel. Today, the church still has the task of helping Jesus to be manifested to the world. We do this primarily as Jesus told us, by making disciples.

Third, the devil opposes such work. He waits to devour and destroy. It may seem hard to manifest Jesus to the world. It may feel like everything is falling apart, and we will fail in our task. Yet, we, the church are protected and nurtured by our God. We should not try to rely on money, status or worldly influence. Our only resource is God, and he is more than enough to defeat the devil and sustain us until it is time to be with him forever.

Listen to what the Spirit says to you today!

Revelation#24. Victory is Assured.

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Up in the heavenly throne room no one is worried; on the contrary, they are praising God. In heaven, the war is already over, already won. God has already begun to reign, the nations have been judged, God’s prophets and saints have been rewarded. The victory that is still in the future for God’s people on earth is a present reality in heaven.

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Revelation #24. Revelation 11:15-19.

The structure of the book of Revelation is fascinating. I think if we understand it better, that will help us in our overall understanding of the book. The entire book is divided into seven different sections. Each section begins with a scene in “the throne room of heaven.” Each section is comprised of seven different parts. This structure of sevens has many unique and interesting aspects. The first section and the seventh section have deliberate similarities. The second section and sixth section are also similar in some ways. The third and fifth share some common ideas. The fourth section stands in the center of the seven-fold structure. When you map it out on paper it looks a little bit like an inverted K, or an arrow pointing to the right, or a greater-than sign, like this: >. Let me show you.

1. Seven Letters, dictated from Jesus to the churches.

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

2. The 7 seals. (Which tells the story of all time from Jesus until the end, with emphasis on the early parts)

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

3. The 7 trumpets. Focus on increasing Judgments (but with an added interlude).

 Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

4. The 7 signs. (Which tells the story of all time, with balanced focus)

 Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

5. The 7 bowls. Focus on increasing Judgments (but with an added interlude).

Transition: a scene in the heavenly throne room

6. The seven part victory of Jesus. (Which tells the story of all time from Jesus until the end, with emphasis on the later parts)

 7. Seven statements spoken by Jesus to his church.

This is obviously a very brief outline, but I think it can be helpful. In fact, I encourage you to print out this outline and hold onto it. You can see that the first and the seventh sections are made up of things said by Jesus. The second section (the seven seals), I believe, tells us the story of history from the time of Jesus up until the very end, with an emphasis on the beginning and middle. I believe the sixth section does exactly the same thing, only it uses different metaphors and word pictures, and emphasizes the end. The third section (the seven trumpets) seems to be focused on the judgments that will come upon the people of the world. There is also an interlude; we have just finished that interlude, which is about the temple and the two witnesses. The fifth section also focuses on judgment, and also has an interlude. The fourth section, like this second and the sixth, tells us the story of all history up through the very end of the world; however, it uses different metaphors and word pictures than the other two, and is balanced between beginning and end.

Now, I don’t think this outline is perfect, but I think it’s worthwhile, and I believe it can be helpful for us as we continue through the book of Revelation. We can refer back to this again and again to understand what we are studying in its place within the larger picture.

In this outline above, each new section transitions with a glimpse of the worship and praise going on in what I call “the heavenly throne room.” We have come to the end of the third section (or the beginning of the fourth), and so these next few verses depict the next “throne room scene,” just prior to section four. Please read chapter 11:15-19 right now:

15The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He will reign forever and ever!

 16The 24 elders, who were seated before God on their thrones, fell facedown and worshiped God, 17saying: We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. 18The nations were angry, but Your wrath has come. The time has come for the dead to be judged and to give the reward to Your servants the prophets, to the saints, and to those who fear Your name, both small and great, and the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth.

 19God’s sanctuary in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant appeared in His sanctuary. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings of thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail. (Rev 11:15-19, HCSB)

We constantly need to remember the situation of the people who first received the book of Revelation. If we can understand what it meant to them, then we can begin to understand what it means to us. They were persecuted, marginalized, treated badly in hundreds of different ways. Some of their friends and family members had been killed for being Christian. Many of those who remained had lost property. They experienced shame in the culture in which they lived. But this return to the perspective of heaven would have brought them great comfort. Up in the heavenly throne room no one is worried; on the contrary, they are praising God. In heaven, the war is already over, already won. God has already begun to reign, the nations have been judged, God’s prophets and saints have been rewarded. The victory that is still in the future for God’s people on earth is a present reality in heaven.

This should mean a lot to us as well. In a certain “somewhere” it is already finished, the battle is already over. Here on earth, we are still in the thick of it, but the end has already happened. Our future is secure. It is no mistake that Revelation returns to the heavenly throne room five times. We need to hear this over and over again. Don’t feel bad if you need to keep hearing it. But do hear it right now: God has already won the victory. Those who are evil and unrepentant have already met their fate. God has already begun to reign. He has already secured our reward.

I want to take a little bit of time to address something else in general about the book of Revelation, because it relates both to this text, and to the text we will study next time, Revelation 12:1-6. Last summer, a Christian blogger named Gary Ray (and he was only one of several) caused quite a stir over these verses. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post that summarizes it well:

The Book of Revelation, which is full of extraordinary imagery, describes a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” who gives birth to a boy who will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” while she is threatened by a red, seven-headed dragon. The woman then grows the wings of an eagle and is swallowed up by the earth.

Ray says that image will be created in the sky on Sept. 23 [2017]. The constellation Virgo — representing the woman — will be clothed in sunlight, in a position that is over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter, which will have been inside Virgo — in her womb, in Ray’s interpretation — will move out of Virgo, as if she is giving birth.

Astronomers don’t see this as a particularly unusual event. But to Ray and others, it could be the sign that the Rapture is ready to happen: “We think it’s God signaling to us that he’s about to make his next move.”

And Ray thinks the two eclipses that are slated to travel across the United States in 2017 and 2024, together marking an X across the nation, could be the starting and ending signs bookmarking a seven-year period of awful tribulations that Revelations says waits in store for nonbelievers who are left behind on Earth when the Rapture occurs.

“That time frame is speculative, 2017 to 2024. But it makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that really point us to that,” he said.

(Link to the Washington Post article)

In connection with this, another common idea is that, according to Jewish rabbis, “blood moons” are a sign for the Jewish people, and solar eclipses are a sign for Gentiles. That is why Gary Ray said that part about the eclipses. A lot of Christians were caught up by these ideas. They were excited to think that part of the book of Revelation was actually coming true.

There are many troubling things about all this. In the first place, obviously, nothing has happened yet. But it also concerns me that many people were caught up in it. I think many of the Christians who were excited by this would never, in any other circumstance, consider consulting a horoscope to help them interpret the Bible. I think most sensible people, upon reflection, would also not expect Jewish rabbis to be teaching Christian theology. But unfortunately, when it comes to the book of Revelation people often lose their heads. I think all of this is often fueled by a desire to feel that God is actually at work, that he is really doing something. I think many of us also yearn for the return of Jesus, for the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth and the annihilation of sin and sorrow and death. So we grasp at things that seem to show us that He is really working to make all things right.

But the thing is, that is the message of the book of Revelation. The entire book is telling us that God is still at work, that he will fulfill his promise to return and make all things right. If we get nothing else from the book of Revelation, that is the main message. When we start to look to world events, and horoscopes, and the teachings of those who are not even Christians, I’m afraid it shows a lack of faith in what God has already said. There are many warnings in the Bible about seeking God in these sorts of things:

3As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different doctrine 4or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. (1Tim 1:3-4, HCSB)

 13This testimony is true. So, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith 14and may not pay attention to Jewish myths and the commands of men who reject the truth. (Titus 1:13-14, HCSB)

 6If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed. 7But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness, (1Tim 4:6-7, HCSB)

We need to learn to trust the word of God. We don’t have to look to horoscopes, or other things. Instead, we need to trust what God already said. In our text today, that is the message: the victory of God is already a present reality in heaven. It is true. We can trust it. It has already been accomplished. He has already begun to reign. The book of Revelation says it, and that should be enough for any Christian.

I’ve used this analogy before, but I think it’s a good one. I’m a WWII history buff, and I’ve done a lot of reading about the war. A huge number of countries contributed many things to the victory of the allies. People of all nationalities suffered, and played important roles in that victory. I don’t want to minimize any of that. But the decisive moment in World War 2 was December 7, 1941, when the United States stopped being neutral, and declared war on Japan. That led to a declaration of war against Nazi Germany four days later. Once the United States declared war, the outcome was settled. With all of the other countries against them, adding the United States to the mix made it impossible for either Japan or Germany to win. From the perspective of Germany and Japan, the US was too big, it had too many natural resources, it was already industrialized, and it was too far away to attack. There was simply no way they could win once the United States entered the conflict. In spite of this, Japan and Germany continued to fight for another four years. The outcome of the war was settled, but the fighting went on. I’m sure that for prisoners of war waiting in a concentration camp it didn’t feel like World War 2 was over. But it was. All they had to do was persevere, and their eventual rescue was a foregone conclusion.

This is our situation today. We are still in the battle. We still have to struggle and fight. But the outcome was settled long ago. God has already won. He has already begun to reign. All we have to do is persevere to the end: our eventual rescue and victory is a foregone conclusion.

16The 24 elders, who were seated before God on their thrones, fell facedown and worshiped God, 17saying: We thank You, Lord God, the Almighty, who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. (Rev 11:16-17, HCSB)

He has begun to reign. Let him rule in your life, also. Let his ultimate victory give you perspective on your current troubles and challenges. What you face right now is temporary. God’s victory is eternal. We know he will do it, because, in the realm of eternity, he already has done it. That means that right now we can be patient, knowing that we will be rescued from this body of flesh and this world of sin and sorrow.

Allow the Spirit to speak to you right now!

REVELATION #23. THE WITNESS OF CHURCH AND WORD

Two Witnesses

By ancient Jewish law, it required two witnesses to establish something in a court of law. When there are two witnesses, something is established as certainly true. God will not judge the world without first giving solemn witness to the truth of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The world may reject that idea, but God will make every effort before he brings the final judgment.

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Revelation 23 #  Revelation 11:1-14

We are still in the interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets. We have considered how the seven thunders discourage us from making timelines, and instead, encourage us to trust the Lord beyond what we can understand. We have seen John’s call to “eat” God’s Word, and considered what that means for us. The interlude continues:

1Then I was given a measuring reed like a rod, with these words: “Go and measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and count those who worship there. 2But exclude the courtyard outside the sanctuary. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for 42 months. (Rev 11:1-2, HCSB)

You know I am not a fan of the most popular ways of interpreting Revelation these days. I will say, however, that this text is one place where, on the surface, it appears to support that method. This text makes it seem like the believers on earth at this point are all Jews, because the outer courtyard is for Gentiles, and it is given over to be trampled, while the sanctuary, where John is told to count those who worship there, is open only to Jews. So, it seems to support the idea of all Gentile Christians being “raptured,” and the conversion of many Jews during the last days. Many people believe that this means that at some point, the Jews are going to rebuild an actual temple in Jerusalem.

However, this idea does not stand up under serious Bible scholarship. In the first place, when the word “sanctuary” (Greek: naos) is used of the Jewish temple it means the inside of the temple, or “The Holy Place,” where only priests can go, and even then, only one at a time. In fact, most priests only entered the sanctuary once in an entire lifetime. So, if this refers to the Jewish temple, and John is told to measure those who worship in the sanctuary, he would find only one person there at a time. This makes it highly unlikely that the text refers to a literal sanctuary in the literal Jewish temple. But the truth is, this word “sanctuary” is used many times to refer to the church (which includes both Jews and Gentiles), and also to individual believers:

16Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s sanctuary, God will destroy him; for God’s sanctuary is holy, and that is what you are. (1Cor 3:16-17, HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20, HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

And what agreement does God’s sanctuary have with idols? For we are the sanctuary of the living God, as God said. (2 Corinthians 6:16 HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

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. 21The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. 22You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22, HCSB)

By the time John wrote Revelation, there was no literal Jewish temple – it was destroyed in about 70 A.D.. There is no explicit prophecy in Revelation that describes the rebuilding of the temple. You have seen the verses above, and there are more like them. It is far more likely that in John’s vision, the sanctuary meant “God’s people, the church.”

In this case, what are “the outer courts?” There are several possibilities. One is just that this is  a symbolic picture showing that God’s people will be oppressed and in danger (the trampling of the outer courts), but God knows who belongs to him (John measures and counts them), and they will be kept safe until they are brought into the New Heavens and New Earth. Personally, I think that’s the best and most likely meaning here.

One nuanced version of the same idea might go as follows. Christian theology has always made a distinction between the invisible church (which is the true church; those who truly have surrendered to Jesus) and the visible church – the congregations that we can see and count with our own eyes, which contain people who are not true Christians. We can’t see the true church, because we don’t really know what is in the hearts of other people, thus the “invisible church.” The church we can see in the world contains some people who aren’t truly followers of Jesus, including some clergy, and others who claim to be leaders. So the true church is that in the sanctuary, as measured by John. The “outer courts” are those who appear to be believers, but are not. So, the external church may appear to be trampled. This might mean that many people who call themselves Christians (but are not true believers) will choose to leave the church during this time.

By the way, let’s deal with the time measurements here. The outer courts are trampled for 42 months; the two witnesses prophesy for 1,260 days; they will lie dead in the streets for 3 ½ days. 42 months is the same as 1,260 days, if you count each month as 30 days. This is also the same as 3 ½ years. Sometimes, the same period is also described as “a time, times and half a time.” Remember that seven is the number of God’s perfect work? 3 ½ is, of course, half of seven. Here in Revelation, there appears to be a kind of symmetry about this number. When it is described as “1,260 days,” it refers to a time when God’s people are kept safe (11:3, and 12:6). When it is “42 months” it describes the limited time when authority is given to the powers of evil to apparently triumph (11:2, and 13:5).

So, for half of God’s perfect timing, the outer courts are trampled. For the other half of it, the two witnesses testify, and nothing can stop them. These times are obviously not literal (not every month has 30 days), but we are meant to understand that together, these two pieces make up one “unit” of God’s perfect work and will in the world. The main point is that God has set a specific time limit on these things, and He remains in complete control of all of it.

I also want to point out that it is hard to tell exactly when these time periods will occur. We’ve already seen that Revelation seems to be not very linear, and it is not susceptible to creating timelines. I favor the idea this takes place before the final judgments begin, and it is one more chance for people to repent before it is too late.

Now, on to the two witnesses. This is one of the more puzzling places in Revelation, the Bible’s most puzzling book, and accordingly, there are many different theories about these two. Some say they are two literal people. Many think they are Elijah & Moses, since Elijah had power to call down heavenly fire, and to cause drought; while Moses had power to turn water to blood and to strike the Egyptians with many plagues. Other people think these are Elisha & Enoch (both of whom ascended to heaven supernaturally), or, Elijah & Elisha.

If taken symbolically, there are also many options: The Law & the Prophets; The New Testament & the Old; The Law & the Gospel; The Church & the Bible; The Bible & the Holy Spirit; The Gentile Church & the Jewish Church.

I’m somewhat partial to the idea of these two as representing the Church and the Bible. I think it makes a good deal of sense. Jewish law required that any testimony must be established by at least two witnesses. What are the two witnesses to the Father, Son & Holy Spirit? What proclaims to the world the truth of God and of the Lamb? I can think of two things: the Church, and the Bible. This also makes sense, since the measuring of the sanctuary seems to be about the church. However, I don’t claim to know for sure.

John also says that they are “the two olive trees and two lampstands.” Though we don’t use other books of the Bible to create a timeline, it is important to “cross reference” when we study the Bible. Cross-referencing means that we look at related verses in other books to help us understand things. John, as a student of the Old Testament, was familiar with the prophet Zechariah. These two witnesses remind me of the following passage in Zechariah:

2He asked me, “What do you see? ”

I replied, “I see a solid gold lampstand there with a bowl on its top. It has seven lamps on it and seven channels for each of the lamps on its top. 3There are also two olive trees beside it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4Then I asked the angel who was speaking with me, “What are these, my lord? ”

 5“Don’t you know what they are? ” replied the angel who was speaking with me.

I said, “No, my lord.”

 6So he answered me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of Hosts. (Zech 4:2-6, HCSB)

So the “lampstands,” and “Olive trees,” show us that these two witnesses are infused with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. We believe that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, that is, he caused human beings to write down the words of the Bible. We also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work today in individual believers, and in communities of believers. That is another reason why it makes sense to me to think of these two witnesses as the Church, and the Bible.

When we put this together it seems to flow. For a time it will seem like the church is being trampled, yet the true church will persevere, and be protected by God. And then, before that final trumpet is sounded, the church, and God’s Word (the Bible) will together provide an unfailing testimony to those who survive the great disasters of the first six trumpets. I think their special powers indicate that nothing will be able to stop them from saying what must be said, from giving the testimony that will leave all people with no excuse for rejecting God.

Once again, this is an indication of God’s mercy. In this pause before the final trumpet, God will make sure that everyone has had a chance to hear and understand. Everyone will have a chance to repent.

Notice also that the two witnesses wear sackcloth. Sackcloth symbolizes an attitude of repentance, and sorrow over sin. So the church is not rejoicing that people are being judged, and that more judgment is to come. The sackcloth shows us that God, and his people, are sad that so many will continue to reject him. In our culture today this is not a troublesome concept. I think most of us do feel great sorrow at the thought of the future that awaits those who reject God. But during the time in which the book of Revelation was written this might not have been so. Christians were violently oppressed and persecuted. It would have been easy for John’s readers to feel a kind of self-righteous satisfaction at the thought that the world would be judged and condemned. The fact that these two witnesses wear sackcloth is a warning against unrighteous anger and being happy about the fate of those who reject God.

One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that God is making all things right. Therefore, at a certain point, the testimony of the two witnesses will be complete, and it will be time for God to continue the process of making all things right. And so, John writes:

7When they finish their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, conquer them, and kill them. (Rev 11:7, HCSB)

This is the first mention of “the beast,” and it certainly doesn’t tell us much. He comes out of the abyss, that is, he comes from hell, and is a servant of Satan. It seems to me that the “beast” is either an individual, or an entity (like a government, or a military), but probably an individual. We will discuss the beast more in the coming chapters.

The fact that the peoples of the world rejoice over the death of the two witnesses is an indication that during those last days not many people will repent. The witnesses will leave them with no excuse, but very few will take the opportunity given by their testimony.

Even so, the text tells us that after they lie dead in the streets for 3 ½ days, they are raised and taken up into heaven. If I am right, and these witnesses represent the church and the Bible, then this could be a symbolic representation of what is popularly called “the rapture.” In fact, there are some who believe that it is, and thus believe that the rapture takes place after 3 1/2 years of tribulation. However, it is far from clear who these witnesses are for certain, and whether or not their resurrection represents a rapture. In addition, I still think it is unlikely that 3 ½ years is supposed to be taken literally. It may simply mean that after a certain point, the witness of the church and the Bible is removed from the world; that the church and the Bible will no longer be able to influence the people of the world. Also, we have already seen how Revelation switches forwards and backwards in time (remember the opening of the sixth seal describes what seemed to be the end of the entire world), so it is difficult at best to place these events in time. This could be happening at the very end. At any rate, there are still several places ahead of us in Revelation that portray the saints in the middle of the tribulations going on in the world.

The resurrection of the two witnesses appears to have more of an effect than their testimony alone. The miracle is accompanied by an earthquake that kills 7,000 (clearly a symbolic, rather than literal, number), and many people gave glory to  God. “Giving glory to God” isn’t necessarily the same as repentance. James writes:

You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear. (James 2:19, NET)

So, this may not mean that people truly repent and surrender their hearts to Jesus. Acknowledging that God is God is a good step, but it isn’t the same thing as trusting Him with your whole being.

This is a confusing section of the Bible. But I want us to pause and listen to how the Holy Spirit might want to use it in your heart and life today. He may want to feed your soul; he may want to confront your sin; he may want to give you hope and encouragement. Let’s look for these things.

As with several other places in Revelation, the incident about the measuring of those in the sanctuary tells us that God knows his own people, he has not forgotten them. Let’s make it personal: God knows you. He has not forgotten you. Even though you may feel like you are being trampled outwardly, he’s got you.

Perhaps another lesson for us is to think of the church in this world as both the true, “invisible” body of believers who have truly surrendered their hearts to Jesus, and also the outwardly “visible” church. The visible church contains many people who are not truly Christian. Often times, the visible church looks like a mess; it may look like it is being trampled. But the Lord knows those who are truly his, and there is more going on than we can see. Perhaps you need to remember this, if you are frustrated with your church at the moment.

Another thing we might need to hear is that there truly is enmity between the people of God and the world. We are in the world, but we are not of it. Our home is in another place, our citizenship is in the world to come. If we are wholeheartedly for Jesus, it will bring us into conflict with the world. Chapter eleven depicts this graphically. Jesus told us that this was so:

18“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. 21But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent Me. (John 15:18-21, HCSB)

This is not an excuse for us to hate the world back (remember, the witnesses wore sackcloth) but there are times when we will have to make choices that those in the world will not understand or approve of. We might be mocked, or criticized. We might even lose a job, or at least promotion opportunities. Remember, we belong to a heavenly kingdom.

It could be that your lesson is to realize that you are a part of the great witness to God’s truth in this world. Your life, the way you live, the way you treat people – this is part of the witness of God to the world. Now, that may lead you to repentance: most of us mess up in this area time and time again. But it is the power of God that witnesses through you. Surrender yourself to him to allow him to do that, and trust him to do it.

Maybe you need to hear again this message of God’s grace. In order to make all things right God must do away with sin. That necessarily involves destroying those who will not repent of their sin, but even so, God will continue to go to extreme lengths, even up until the very end, in hopes that some few more might be saved.

Take a few minutes to meditate and pray, and see if the Holy Spirit has something else to say to you right now.

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.

Revelation #20 THE JOY THAT AWAITS

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!