The End? All things new

The renewal of all things: this is the message of Revelation 21, our 25th study in the encouraging book.  A recording of this study will be made available on the Shofar Youtube channel.

What do you deeply desire for the future, your future? What is your ultimate hope?  If every problem is fixed, every desire is met, once all things are restored again, what will your reality be like?  How confident are you that this will happen?

This hope for God’s renewal of all things is the focus of John’s vision Revelation 21. His only invitation to the reader is to “behold”, to picture the beauty of God’s renewed creation.

A physical future.  We are often tempted to think of life after this as only spiritual, eternally living a disembodied existence.  We imagine floating on the clouds, enjoying the bliss of an unending spa while singing praises with the angels.  We think that when Jesus returns, we will once and for all be rid of our sensual bodies and the earth, as though this material world is the root of the problem.

The idea that matter is inherently corrupted or “lesser than spiritual” comes from Greek philosophy.  Yet the  Bible teaches that God is the creator of our material world and that everything he made “was good”.  Mankind he made with body and soul, breathing His very spirit into them, and affirmed them as “very good”.  Then came the fall and the corruption of sin.  Still, we are called to “glorify God in our bodies”, even in the most mundane things like “eating or drinking” (1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31).  God is the one who gives us these material things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).  Our material world is not inherently the problem – the corruption of sin is, and that affects both our earthly and heavenly realms.

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The first thing John notices of God’s great renewal is the continuity of our lives as we know it – that our eternal existence will be both physical and spiritual, lived out in “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1; compare Isaiah 65:17-25). God’s promise is the renewal of both our physical existence and spiritual existence.  So Paul’s cry for deliverance “from this [wretched] body of death?” (Romans 7:24-25) is not answered by being eternally free of a body.  No, “when we see [Christ], we’ll be like him” – having the same resurrected body as he has.  We don’t know much, just that our resurrected bodies will be “imperishable”, “glorious” and “powerful” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).  Eternally free of corruption and at peace – as it was in the Garden.

Free of fear and flaw.  The next thing John notices of this renewed creation is that “the sea was no more” (21:1).  In this apocalyptic genre, John is not trying to say that the new earth will be one big continent without oceans. (Do I hear the surfers and divers sighing relief?)  As mentioned in a previous post, the sea in ancient literature represents everything mysterious and dangerous, all the hidden forces of evil.  In stating that the “sea was no more” John sees a world where there is no more evil, and therefore no need to fear.  It speaks of a life without terror, loss, and lack.  John clarifies this by writing “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (21:4)  O, what peace awaits us!

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A glorious city.  The Bible records the story of mankind beginning in a garden but ending in a city.  Yet God’s renewal does not take mankind back to rural living, but “to the holy city, the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven” (21:2).  This new creation will be familiar to us, yet gloriously beautiful.

New_Creation2For most of us, cities are synonymous with hard work and the struggle to survive within a culture of greed and competition, leaving its inhabitants anxious, depressed and lonely.  Cities are breeding places for violence, corruption, addiction, and perversion that drain the souls of men.  But cities also boast the best of humanity – filled with beauty in the diversity of its architecture, music, arts, and feasting as well as creative collaboration that bring pleasure and progress.   Even fallen people displays something of God’s intended purpose for humanity, the crown of His creation.

The city was always God’s plan. Man’s mandate to work, to “keep and cultivate the earth” (Genesis 2:7), implies serving one another with our unique passions and abilities, building culture together.  In the renewed creation, we will continue to work, to plant, to produce, to develop and trade (Revelation 5:10; 21:24-26; Isaiah 65:17, 21).  Yet in the new heaven and new earth, we will be free of selfish ambition and fear.  Now imagine our combined collaboration in a world driven by brotherly love.  This is the city John sees.

God’s dwelling place.  The city John sees is God’s city, the New Jerusalem, where he dwells (21:2). But unlike the earthly Jerusalem, this city does not close its gate for protection, nor does it need the sun or moon to light it up, because God is “the wall of fire all around her, and the glory in her midst” (22:23, 25; Zechariah 2:5).  It has no temple, “for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are it’s temple” (21:22).

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To accentuate this point, John records an angel measuring the city (21:15; an allusion to Ezekiel 48). The clutter of measurements and details invite us to seek out the message. (Remember, apocalyptic genre does not allow us to take the measures as literal!) John hints at the point of the numbers in verse 3 “Behold! The tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…” (21:3; compare Leviticus 26:11). Like Moses who was called up to a high mountain to see the heavenly Tabernacle, John is taken up to a high mountain and sees this tabernacle-city “descending out of heaven from God” (21:10). But there is a twist. John records the dimensions of the city as being cube-like, “it’s length, breadth, and it’s height are equal” (21:16). The Most Holy Place in the Temple was a cube.  Within this temple/tabernacle metaphor, we are called to see this city as the Most Holy Place, the room where the ark of the covenant stood, separated from the Holy Place by a heavy curtain (Hebrews 9:3). 

John is shown that this tabernacle-city is unique in that it allowed unequalled access to all its citizens to the presence of God.  No need for an outer court that catered for the gentiles/ outsiders because there are no “gentiles” and no defiled after Christ’s judgment (21:8, 27).  There is no need for the altar or washing basin because the Lamb of Heaven was slain for our sins once for all (Hebrews 10:1).  There is no need for the middle court called the Holy Place because the veil was torn at Jesus’ death, making way for everyone to God forever (Hebrews 10:19-20).  In short, when Christ returns, there is no need for ritual to meet with God: the blood of the Lamb has brought us near and reconciled us with God (Ephesians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 5:18).  We will enjoy what Psalmists dreamt of: to dwell with God in his House forever (Psalm 84:1-4).   

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Firm foundations.  The gates of this city are named after the twelve tribes of Israel (21:12; compare Ezekiel 38) and the foundations named after the twelve apostles of Christ (21:14).  These foundations are decorated with precious stones – the exact stones on the High Priest’s breastplate (21:19-20; Exodus 28:17-20).  The twelve gates are twelve colossal pearls. This alludes to Christ’s parable that the kingdom is like the pearl of great price, calling the one who wishes to enter to forsake all else and pursue this treasure only (Matthew 13:45-46).

Together, these images reveal to us that this new creation is not an afterthought or Plan B, but God’s redemptive plan in the making from the very beginning.  From the choosing of Abraham and his decedents Isaac, Jacob (Israel) and his twelve sons, through to Jesus and his twelve apostles, God was redeeming and renewing his creation. The saints through the ages were waiting for this city where they would feel at home (Hebrews 11:13).  Israel and the NT church are heralds of God’s gospel of redemption and renewal, and all who repent and return to Him are recorded in the “Lamb’s Book of Life” (21:27) – this city register of this New Jerusalem.

A Living city. Make no mistake – John vision of “the New Jerusalem” is not dead angelic architecture, but living people.  John sees an image of “the Bride, the Lamb’s wife”, the church of God (21:2.9-10).  We are God’s temple “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20; compare 1 Corinthians 3:10-16). This glorious image John sees is the beauty of us, God’s renewed people.

Not of this world.  It must be noted that the vision of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21 is structured to invite comparison to Babylon the Great in chapter 17, and the contrast is striking.  Chapter 17 opens with “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters.” (17:1) John sees Babylon the Great, “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” (17:5)  It is a vision of the kingdoms of this world, secular culture filled with perversions and greed and deceit. Her enticing beauty is only skin-deep: “gilded with gold and precious stone and pearls.” (17:4) but she is inherently gruesome and violent (17:6). 

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The twelves stones as foundations (21:19-20)

In contrast, John is invited “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (21:9)  It is a vision of God’s Kingdom.  John sees the church, the New Jerusalem, the Holy City in whom there is “nothing impure…shameful or deceitful” (21:7).  Its beauty is genuine, goodness its essential nature, as “the wall was made of jasper [clear as a diamond], and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass… foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.. each gate was made of a single pearl.” (21:18-21)

The end of Babylon is utter destruction for her deception, perversion and violence.  The end of the church is eternal security and delight in God’s presence and peace.  To a tired and suffering church, these images are very encouraging indeed.

Bringing it Home.

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This glorious chapter is a window of hope, through which I can see God’s “renewal of all things” (Matthew 18:19).  That indeed there will be a day when there will be no more fears and no more tears because of painful labours, lack or loss. All these will pass away as God “makes all things new” (21:5).

Revelation 21 also calls us to look in the mirror and recognize that much of what see in ourselves and the world will remain.  God comes to purify, to redeem, to renew – not to destroy everything he had created.  All evil, sin and death will be burnt as with fire so that all that is good will remain (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  It calls me to discern what is of God in this world, and what is not of God so that I may not miss His prompting or be mislead by the evil one. In particular, it invites me to see the Church, the Bride of Christ in a new light.

This vision from Christ is also a door that asks me to participate with God in his work of redemption of mankind and renewal in my city.  Firstly it calls me to flee from all things “that defile, or cause an abomination, or lies” (21:27). Secondly, it urges me to invite my neighbours to enter through those pearly gates to delight in God’s eternal goodness along with me.  And thirdly, it prompts me to witness the coming Kingdom by my efforts to bring renewal in the city or community where I live, praying “let Your Kingdom come!” (Matthew 6:10)

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

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The End? Reasons to rejoice

The contrasting conclusions in this 19th chapter of Revelation bring much hope to suffering believers.  A recording of this 23rd study in our series through Revelation will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

As Christians we want to believe that God will (and should) protect us from hardships.  Even though our news feeds are filled with the reality of hardships today and our Bibles are stories of suffering saints, we are often stunned at the sting of suffering.  The early believers were warned by Peter to “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice…” (1 Peter 4:13; compare Romans 5:3-5).  What contrast!  Yet this verse is such a good summary of the message Revelation conveyed to its first readers/hearers.

What is there to rejoice in when you suffer?  Paul wrote that believers should “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).   Along with patience and prayer, rejoicing in hope carry believers through times of trouble (compare Hebrews 12:1-3)

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God’s promise to Abraham – a picture of hope.

Images of hope.  Hope is the confidence that things will end well, an image that depicts a desired outcome. It is more than a target – these images move us deeply as they invite us to envision the promise as fulfilled reality.  These images of hope give a reason to go on – the assurance that my endurance will be rewarded.  To Abraham it was the stars above and sand in his toes that symbolized his offspring.  To Joseph it was the dreams of his reign that kept him faithful to God through enslavement and imprisonment.  

Revelation 19 paints these three pictures of hope meant to spur on the suffering saints: Babylon’s destruction; the marriage of the Lamb; and victory over the Beast and his False Prophet.  Seeing these images will stir the same joyful hope in us today.

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Babylon’s destruction (9:1-8). Chapter 18 depicts the fall of Babylon, representing the destruction of each and every worldly system that sets itself up against God and His rightful reign. The saints are called to “rejoice” over her destruction (18:20); chapter 19 opens with this rejoicing.

John’s hears four “hallelujah” cries, with four reasons to rejoice over the end of this evil empire.  The first shout celebrates God’s justice that had been served against Babylon’s cruelty and injustice (19:1-3). The saints were redeemed from oppression and their enemy had been destroyed.

The second shout John hears celebrate Babylon’s destruction as final and eternal – perversion had been destroyed once for all (19:3-4).  Creation had been fully rid of lust, greed and pride, to never seduce the world again.

The third set of shouts celebrate the end of evil’s reign on earth; God’s reign had come, having triumphed over his enemies (19:6).  Righteousness, peace and joy will govern the earth forever (Romans 14:7)!

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Happily ever after (19:7-8). The shouts of joy culminate in the festive sounds of the wedding feast of the Lamb: Christ has returned to marry his Bride, to be united with his people forever!  The heavens rejoice because the “Bride had made herself ready… clothed herself with fine linen, bright and pure — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (19:8).  The “fiery trials” of Babylon had “finished its work” in the church, presenting it “perfect, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4; compare Malachi 3:3-4). 

What John hears are these shouts of joy over Babylon’s destruction and the Bridegroom’s return.  When John turns to look, he sees Christ (compare 1:12-16), described like the valiant and victorious royal bridegroom in Psalm 45.

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The Bridegroom (19:11-16).  John proceeds to describe the Bridegroom.  He sees Christ as the conquering King, a victorious one riding on a white horse, leading his army into conquest. This Bridegroom is called the Word of God – the embodiment of the scroll of God’s redemptive plan for creation – the Faithful and True witness of God’s kingdom. His clothes are stained by his own blood, making him alone worthy to champion God’s quest to redeem and reconcile all things to God.  With the words of his mouth he judges the wicked nations (refer 14:13-23).  He is indeed the Sovereign ruler, the “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” (19:16)

The victory over the Beast (19:17-21).  Next John describes the conquest of this valiant Bridegroom against his enemies. Although the Beast with all the kingdoms on earth and their armies gather to make war against Christ and his armies, there is no contest.  The Beast and False Prophet were captured and thrown into an eternal fire, while the earthlings died from the sword of Christ mouth.  The shift in the scene creates great contrast as the readers hear of the bridal feast, but the only meal described is the one that the birds are invited to: to feast on the corpses of those who serve the Beast and bear his mark. (This is an allusion to Ezekiel 39:17-20, God’s victory foretold against the nation of Gog. Revelation 20 continues to draw on Ezekiel 38-39).

With this, the battle on earth is completed: the Beast (oppressive regimes), the False Prophet (deceptive ideologies) and Babylon (seductiveness of worldliness) is conquered by Christ.  Now only their master, the Dragon (Satan himself) must be slain by Christ our Champion.  This is what Chapter 20 describes.

Bringing it home.

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This text is firstly a mirror of our world, of sin’s corruption in mankind that results in the atrocities that fill our news-feeds daily.   We are terrorized by the incessant greed and seductive perversion in our culture (Babylon).  We are oppressed by the corruption of power in every sinful government/ governing system, leading to injustice and abuse of the weak (the Beast).  We are bombarded with the deceptive ideologies that exalts mankind and disregards God as creator and rightful ruler of the world (The False Prophet).  Because of sin in society, mankind suffers greatly – especially the righteous who resist the seduction in culture and refuse to submit to ungodly ideologies and its enforcers.  We crave peace and joy in a fallen world that can never deliver it.

The aim of this picturesque chapter is to cause the reader to rejoice in hope – to look through the window of this text and feel joy welling up as we look towards a world free from sin, seduction and subjection.  Can you picture society without sensual seductions and its vile perversions?  Can you imagine life free from competitiveness, violence and oppression?  Can you imagine a world without deception and division?  A world of shalomn – peace in heart and mind, and in society.  This hope is the expectation of Christ’s rule in justice, peace and joy that the believer can look forward to.

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This text is also a door for us, an invitation to receive joyful encouragement from God by holding these promises before us.  It urges us to envision the promised victory of Christ over all earthly forces that tempt us, intimidate us, and deceive us.  Imagine a world filled with peace, joy and justice.  A world free from suffering, separation, and seduction.  Drink it in, and let “the joy of the Lord be your strength” to endure! (Nehemiah 8:10)

 

The End? The end of Evil

This 22nd post in our series through Revelation studies the message of chapter 18. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

We make use of metaphors in our daily conversations to bring across rich ideas.  We refer to “Wall Street” collectively as the market economy system.  “Hollywood” is synonymous for the movie industry.  “Newspapers” rarely refer to printed media, but rather journalism as a whole.  The “Cayman Islands” are synonymous with tax haven.   In the same way we use words like “The East” or “The West” or “9-11” to bring across collective ideas, and with it the powerful sentiments.

Revelation is full of metaphors which are meant to move its readers emotively.  We read about Christ being the Alpha and Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, etc.  Judgments are depicted as seals, trumpets and bowls.  The Church is called golden lamp stands, the 144’000, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc.  In contrast, Rome is depicted as the Beast, the Great Harlot, Babylon, etc.  Just as the 144’000 refer to God’s saints through the ages (7:4-8) so too Babylon refers to more than Rome.  It refers to the all who “want to make a name for themselves” (Babel, Genesis 11:4), any and all empires or ideologies that resist God and his reign.

Revelation 18 paints the scene of the destruction of Babylon, with a funeral scene. In it the Author alludes to the judgments of the pagan cities Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), ancient Babylon (Is 13:19-21) and Edom (Is 34:11-17).  John’s vision reveals three reasons for the destruction of Babylon – a warning to all.

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Al Samara, Iraq.

Self-glorification (18:7-8). “Because she glorified herself” God poured out on her the seals and trumpets and bowls.  Six times in this chapter Babylon is called “great” (18:2, 10, 16, 18, 19, 21); like ancient Babel, this city has succeeded to make a name for herself (Genesis 11:4).  Her boasting alludes to the arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar who said “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30).  That very moment God brought the proud king down.  Indeed, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).

The self-glorification and destruction of Babylon is in stark contrast to the thankful humility and exaltation of the New Jerusalem who “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23)  Indeed, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

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Emperor Crassus, the richest man in his time (www.nationalgeographic.com)

Power, prosperity and perversion (18:3).  The Caesars of Rome promised peace and prosperity to all who submit to their rule through the Pax Romana.  The life they offered was one of sensuality, wealth and security through its military might.  To the first recipients of Revelation, “Babylon” pointed to Rome.  In this chapter we see three groups of people mourning its destruction: “Kings” representing the pursuit of power, “merchants” representing the pursuit of prosperity, “ship masters and sailors” representing the pursuit of immoral pleasures (18:9,11,17).  The Author shows that Babylon is destroyed because it seduces and ensnares people with the lure of power, wealth and immoral living. 

The bulk of the chapter is directed at Babylon’s failed promise of prosperity, its lure of “luxury” (repeated three times 18:3,7,9).  Riches are said to be “deceitful” (Matthew 13:22) because it promises joy and peace – fullness of life – but Jesus warns that life does not consist in the accumulation of wealth and possessions (Luke 12:15).  The same can be said about Babylon’s lies promising power and sensuality: it’s offers of security and pleasure is a mere mirage to the thirsty, forever visible on the horizon but failing to satisfy.  These John writes elsewhere “are of the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:16-17).  

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Injustice and violence (18:11-13, 24). Verses 11 to 13 list 31 trade goods into ancient Rome – the most comprehensive list of its kind preserved for us.  This thoroughness invites us to question the intent of such an extensive trade catalog in our text; it begs a closer look.  The harsh reality of Babylonian culture highlighted in this text is revealed by the long list of luxury trade items, such as gold, ivory, perfume, etc. ending abruptly with “slaves and human lives.”  Yes, Babylon also views human lives as tradable commodities and consumable resources.  This empire renown for its “luxury” (18:3,7,9) shamelessly gains its wealth through slavery and oppression. A second list comprising city noises affirms this atrocity: the pleasant sounds of music and rejoicing, milling and production, etc. are contrasted with the scenes (or screams?) of martyred saints (18:22-24).  

Rome, like every “great” empire before and after it, was known for its opulent splendor at the expense of human lives.  Babylon seeks pleasure and prosperity at any cost – even human lives and the cruel execution of whoever disagrees with the injustice of the regime.

For these reasons God is judging and will ultimately destroy Babylon.  How should the Church respond? There are two calls to the Church in this section.

Come out!  (18:4) The first call is to “Come out!” a warning to not partake in the sins of Babylon, and thereby escape its judgments.  This call to separate find its root in Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), Israel’s distancing from the sinners during the Korah rebellion (Numbers 16:20-35), and the destruction of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:6).  This phrase is repeated by Paul to abstain from Rome’s sexual immorality (2 Corinthians 6:17),  but here in this chapter the focus is on moral business and financial practices.   In particular it calls to abstain from the unjust practices which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.  It warns of God’s impending judgment on those who enjoy luxuries while oppressing the poor.  This is indeed good news to the oppressed!

Rejoice! (18:20) The church is called to joyfully celebrate God’s victory over this vile, oppressive city.  And his judgment was given… for you against her.”  No longer will there be the reign of injustice which leads to oppression of the weak and poor, nor the persecution of the saints.  God’s judgment has ended the reign of evil on earth.

Bringing it home

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A golf course next to an informal settlement: inequality in our day.

We can see our world in Babylon’s description above: the pursuit of greatness, driven by greed and lusts, with the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor to gain greater wealth and power. Therefore this promise of the fall of Babylon brings joyful relief, but also calls for sober assessment of our attitudes and actions towards power, pleasure and prosperity.

The call to come out is a call not to isolation from the world, but separation from its evil practices (John 17:15-18).  This urges us to evaluate how we value self and others. Do we truly see every person as precious, bearing the image of God?  It challenges us to not only measure our social justice in how much we give, but also how we earn our money (and what we buy into when we shop). This separation (or sanctification) requires a work of transformation in our minds and hearts through diligent study of God’s Word and prayer (Revelation 12:1-2; John 17:16-17).  

We must also soberly acknowledge that although God’s faithful ones will escape the Final Judgment of Babylon, we may (continue to) experience the judgments over Babylon (depicted in the seals and trumpets and bowls).  This requires joyful endurance while we wait for God to make all things new.  Come Lord Jesus!

 

The End? The struggle is real

In 21st post in our study of Revelation we look at the Fall of Babylon (chapter 17). A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

We are easily tempted to heroify the struggle for faith in the early church and downplay our own challenges to remain faithful to Christ.  In doing so we diminish our battles and remain ignorant of the dangerous evil forces waging war against us (Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5).    The spiritual forces opposing us within our own culture is real, and could be life-threatening to our faith. (Do you have friends or family who have drifted away from Jesus?)  Therefore we should not be ignorant of the schemes of Satan (2 Corinthians 2:11).  Revelation 17 unveils the satanic forces within the 1st century Roman culture, Christ’s judgment on it, and how to overcome it.  A careful look at their struggle within their own seductive culture will unmask our struggle within our culture – so this message becomes personal. 

This chapter unveils three seductive lies which is potentially lethal to faith in God, as well as three truth to overcome Satan’s scheme in these lies.

Absolute autonomy.  John sees Babylon, the Great Harlot, riding on the Beast, superior over many nations and people groups on many waters (nations and people groups) (17:1,3,5,15).  All the rulers on earth are said to be seduced and subjected to her (17:2, 18). She is the one responsible for the death of God’s saints through the ages as well as witnesses of Jesus, as she resists their message of the reign of God in Christ (17:6).

beast_Rev17In John’s day this clearly pointed to Rome, the ancient city surrounded by seven mountains from which the empire was ruled (17:9; 18).  But Rome was not the first city to be named Babylon: the Old Testament prophets also referred to Nineveh, Tyre, and Greece as “Babylon”.  Rome was not the last city to be known by this name (17:9-10).  The city is named after Babel (Genesis 11:4), the first city who revolted against God’s rule. Babylon has become synonymous throughout the Scriptures with humanity’s claim for self-rule, self-sufficiency and self-seeking.  This is an extension from mankind’s original sin in Garden – succumbing to the temptation to decide what is good and right so that I may satisfy my needs all by myself.  As such, Babylon represents all of mankind who choose to live in sin, to live apart from God and his rule.

Why then name Babylon the “Mother of all harlots” (17:5)?  Scripturally, spiritual idolatry is likened to sexual immorality in that every single man and woman is created by God: “from him and through him and for him are all things” (Romans 11:36; refer Hosea; Ezekiel 16; Isaiah 3).  Each person belongs to God, as a husband or wife belongs to his/her spouse.  Therefore, denying him and living as though we do not belong to another to live for our own pleasures is the spiritual equivalent of sexual infidelity in a marriage. And this is the seductive heresy of Babylon: “I belong to no-one; I will decide what is right and wrong and give answer to no-one. I am my own master!”

Do you see this lie at work in our culture, in the undertones of films, music, advertisements and career pursuits? Do you hear this voice in your head when you are tempted to deny God and serve yourself – like everyone else in society?

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Luxurious living. John is mesmerized, almost hypnotized by the image of the seductive Babylon – in spite her brutality (17:6-7).  She is displayed in great power (over the nations, mastering the beast (17:2-3, 15), arrayed in opulence and glamour (17:3-4), and oozing sexual seduction (17:2).  She is the epitome of John’s description of sin: the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the pride of life” (1 John 2:16)  

The picture John sees is the promise of fulfillment of all our desires.  The is that of hedonism, calling to us: “Look at me: I can fulfill all your desires!” All she asks is to stop resisting, to give in and enjoy her.  She will give you life!   Can you hear her call in our sensual, self-seeking culture?  Do you believe her?

It’s beautiful to see here how God is not rebuking believers for their sensual desires here.  Rather, he makes the readers aware that resisting sensual temptations in this self-gratifying culture amounts to waging spiritual war.  We are taking our thoughts captive, breaking down strongholds, battling principalities and powers (2 Corinthians 10:1-5; Ephesians 6:12).  Christ helps believers to see the true nature of the this Beauty and her Beast: Her beauty is skin-deep; she is vulgar, blood-thirsty and downright evil (17:3).  The message to believers is clear: resist her and live, or succumb to her temptation and die (compare with the seductress of Proverbs 5:3-6 and 7:6-27). 

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The futile fight. The angel explains the mystery of this Great Prostitute riding on the back of the Beast with seven heads and ten horns.  It refers in John’s day to the city of Rome (7 mountains).  The angels reveals the heads to also mean 5 kings past, one reigning now, another to come, and the Beast himself being an 8th.  This is confusing.

A number of interpretations are offered by commentators.  A first interpretation explains Babylon is likened to five great empires in OT Scripture, being Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, Persia, Greece, now Rome in this Text, and perhaps another powerful nation in after John’s writing (or all the secular nations combined).  A second interpretation tries to identify a number of powerful Roman emperors who this list of 5/1/1 might refer to.  Both these interpretations leads to creative speculation – who is included and who is excluded in this list?  And what does this mean to the reader?

A third interpretation comes by reminder that Revelation is an apocalyptic genre – and therefore all numbers are symbolic!  The seven rulers refer to all the rulers of Babylon throughout the ages – past, present and future.  The beast is also a ruler in his own right.  The ten horns represent the totality of  power and authority of human rule apart from God.  As such it illustrates the Great Harlot’s control over every kingdom.  Together the Harlot and the Beast is portrayed as an unstoppable force.  Together they have ruled through the ages and will always rule.  It leaves the reader feeling powerless, that resistance is futile.

Do you believe this lie that the fight is futile?  Have you given up on resisting the world, of obeying the call of Christ to “deny yourself, pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23-24)?

Great encouragement. We are often tempted to see our struggles as insignificant in comparison with those persecuted for their faith daily.  These believers get lashed and locked up for their prayers – while we struggle to maintain our times of devotion.  But God does not take our struggle lightly, as we see in this chapter.  He shows us the severity of our struggle, those sinister forces that wears us through distraction, doubt and deception, shutting us down in shame.  Christ faced the same temptations in the dessert as John witnessed here (Luke 4:1-11), and overcame them, so that he might have compassion on us and extend grace to overcome with him (Hebrews 2:17-18).

Great exhortation. Revelation 17 not only reveals Harlot and her deadly deceptions, but also the truth by which believers might overcome her seduction.

Truth 1. To a people who are tempted to believe that we may choose to live as we want, John records the victory of the Lamb who “is King of kings, Lord of lords” (17:14).  Against the lie of independence and autonomy we see the Lamb as sovereign over all earthly and spiritual domains.  He is the sovereign Lord: Master, Owner, and Commander of all.  And those who overcome with Him see themselves as “called” by Him, “chosen” by Him “and faithful” to Him (17:14).  We overcome the lie of autonomy by recognizing His Lordship over us.

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Truth 2. Secondly, to people pressured to believe that they may (or must) pursue the fulfillment of all their desires in this world, Christ reveals that the offers of satisfaction in this world are all empty promises.  Even the Beast will turn on the Harlot to destroy her (17:15-17).  The way this fallen world tries to fulfill our desires leaves us unsatisfied, often with shame, regret, and even disgust.  Life is not in found in the abundance of things stored up” (Luke 12:15), nor in “gratifying the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This fallen world cannot satisfy all desires. Our desires were shaped for paradise and can only be satisfied in Christ’s renewal of all things.

Truth 3. The third truth Christ gives the church to overcome the overwhelming sense of futility, is that indeed, the Lamb and his Army does overcome Babylon and her Beast (17:14-16). Revelation contrasts the destruction the city Babylon, the city filled with immorality and idolatry and all things abominable with the with the glorious unveiling of Jerusalem, the city of the holy, the pure, the faithful (chapters 19-22).  It contrasts the destruction of Great Harlot with the great wedding feast and celebration of the Bride of Christ.  Indeed, the Way of the Lamb – of self-denial and trust in God – leads to victory and eternal life (compare Jesus’s “I am meek and lowly of heart” Matthew 11:29).

Bringing this home

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Indeed we are at war in our peaceful, prosperous Western society. “Many cry ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace'” (Jeremiah 6:14; Ezekiel 13:10).  God knows this and gracefully unveiled our cultural battle as seductive lies, luring us away from Christ, to destruction. But He also reveals the victory of those who see themselves as called and chosen, remaining faithful to him (17:14).

This unveiling of deadly deceptions in our culture calls me to recognize where I have come to believe these lies, and repent of my sense of autonomy, giving in to sensuality and succumbing to worldly living.  Turn to God, because is rich in mercy, and his grace is sufficient for today!

The End? Be Watchful!

This 7th post in our reflective study through Revelation hones in on the letter to Sardis (3:1-6).  A video recording is available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel. See the link in the image below.

Revelation, a prophetic letter was written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre, was written to seven churches during the harsh reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92) to comfort and challenge them in their struggle against the evil they endured.  As is typical with this symbolic genre, Revelation draws much from the Old Testament canon to reveal what is at play in their day.  In noting these symbolic references and the historical context, we get a clear understanding of the intended message to the first readers, which in turn breaks open the word of encouragement and exhortation to us in our day.

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This is the case with our reading of Christ’s message to the church in Sardis today.  Sardis (present-day Sartmustafa in western Turkey) was once an impenetrable mountain fortress, a wealthy agricultural and wool-trading city characterized by arrogance associated with religious adherence and learning.  Temple ruins and statues to the gods of Dionysus (Roman name Bacchus), Artemis, and Cybele remain as witness to the culture of the day.

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These images above depict the Siege of Babylon and the Siege of Sardis – two “impenetrable cities” conquered by Cyrus the Great. The ruins of Sardis are on the top of the cliffs (right top and bottom).

During his Persian conquest, Cyrus the Great lie siege to both the impenetrable cities of Sardis (547 BC) and Babylon (539 BC).  The night of the Fall of Babylon is described in the Bible by the prophet Daniel.  The arrogance of emperor Belshazzar and this great city lead to its fall when, besieged by the Persian army, they continued feasting, trusting in its secure walls.  That night the Lord wrote in blood on the palace walls “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN…—God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end… you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up… your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:24-28).  Ironically, this siege is known as the Bloodless Battle: Cyrus the Great simply diverted the Euphrates river which flowed through the city and marched his army into the capital.  Babylon woke up to a conquered city.

The historical Lydian capital Sardis fell in the same way: while the citizens kept their feast, trusting in their ancient, secure walls, a Persian scout noticed how a lookout’s helmet fell and how he retrieved it through a gap in the wall.  That night Cyrus led his army through that gap, surprising the guards who were enjoying the feasting inside.  And this arrogant security sets the background and tone to Christ’s letter to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6).

The revelation of Christ (3:1a). Christ reveals himself as the One among them “who has the seven spirits of God” – a reference to Isaiah’s promised King endued by God’s Spirit, who will judge the earth and bring about his eternal, peaceful reign (Isaiah 11, esp. verse 2).  He is also the One “who has the seven stars”, preserving and directing the affairs of his church.  What great comfort to be held securely by this Great King!

Commendation (3:1b). There is no commendation for this congregation, apart from the fact that Christ knows the activities of this community.    The context suggests that this church gained “a reputation” as pious in the city and/ or neighbouring churches by their religious devotion visible in works.

Condemnation and exhortation (3:1c-3).  Christ has two charges against this church, both on their works.  Firstly, “you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.   Although there is much activity, there is no proof of life-giving witness.  Secondly, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God”: your works have been “weighed and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27) – it lacks substance.  These works are paraded by this church as evidence of Christ’s life and kingdom, but these are merely pretences, void of the life-giving impact it should have on the city.

Christ exhorts the church to “wake up!” and “put on strength” (Compare Isaiah 52:1).  It is a call to arms, alerting the members of this church to be on the lookout for immanent, “unexpected” danger “like a thief” in the night.  By telling this church they have been weighed and found wanting, and by calling them to be watchful, Christ is drawing their attention to his charge against Belshazzar’s Babylon, warning that there is an enemy outside the city walls, ready to destroy this church.

But in this letter – unlike the other six in Revelation 2 and 3, there are no enemies mentioned. No Jews or trade guilds, no Nicolatians, no Roman proconsul or Jezebel. We know surprisingly little of this church.  Yet what we read is enough to wake up the reader: we know that they were spiritually dead, despite much religious activity.  By alluding to the fall of Babel (a stinging reminder that Sardis fell the same way), Christ charges them that their pride prevents them to recognize how truly vulnerable they are.

Evidently, the accusation against ancient Edom, that mountain kingdom, could be said of the church in Sardis: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 1:3).  Indeed, “pride come before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)     

Warning and Exhortation (3:3-4).  If there is no enemy in this letter, who should they be on the lookout for?  Christ warns the church that he is poised and ready to scale the walls of this seemingly secure city and bring judgment on this proud church.  Because it is void of life-giving witness, Christ will come to bring punishment on it.

This is a grim warning, but there is hope – a chance to “remember” what they had, to “obey” Christ’s commands and “repent” from their religious callousness.  This letter is a gift of grace – the opportunity to turn and avoid imminent destruction.

Perhaps the phrase some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their (white) clothes with evil” give us some insight into the decay of this congregation.  The phrase here points to the strong Sadrian cult of Cybele whose “pious” worshipers wore white ceremonial attire.  Yet these worshipers would participate in the most vulgar immoral acts during their worship rituals, soiling their clothes.  This reveals that the Sardian church fell into acedia – a state of spiritual apathy or carelessness that unravels into immorality.

Although they upheld their religious habits, they were dead spiritually.  Therefore their listless hearts gradually degraded into the sexual promiscuity of their city.  This left the church callous towards God, and their witness was void of the life and kingdom of Christ, resembling their hypocritical, religious community.

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Acedia depicted by Pieter Bruegel, the elder.

Promise (3:4-5).  This grace-filled letter holds two promises.  First, those who have stayed pure can be sure that they are “worthy”” to be received by Christ in his Kingdom, “walking with him in white.”  Second, those who overcome this spiritual apathy leading to carefree sinning will also be clothed in white with Christ. Their name will never be blotted from Christ’s book of life – another hint to the cult of Cybel whose worshipers were recorded in her “book of life”.  To those who repent, Christ declares complete forgiveness and shameless association: I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

Bringing it home.

This sobering message to Sardis calls us to be aware that sin in all its forms is seductive and deceptive – that we should always “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”  (1 Peter 5:8)

Pride can give a false sense of security, leading us to fall into acedia.  Acedia leads to dead religion at first, allowing our consciousnesses to be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), causing us to live a double life of hypocrisy – like the cult of Cybele and some in the church of Sardis.

How living is your public and private habits in Christ?  Search your heart.  Remember what you had a first, return to Christ, our Life, and his supremacy as Lord of your life.

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

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