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.