The End? The reign of peace

This 24th post looks into the 20th chapter of Revelation.  A recording of this study is available on Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel.

 

What is wrong with the world?  And what will make everything right again?  How you answer these questions does not only define your religion but your approach to and expectation of life itself.  This is the focal point of Revelation 20.  John describes the end of Satan, sin and death, ushering in 1000 years of peace.  This 1000 years of peace,  called the millennium (Latin for thousand), is the cause of much debate in Christian circles.  

If you are new to Christianity, the debate surrounding the millennium might seem strange.  But six times in this chapter the 1000 years are mentioned – it is central to the meaning of this chapter.  Moreover, this reign of peace is central to the message of Revelation: the destruction of Satan’s earthly forces (Babylon, the Beast and the False Prophet) in the previous chapters and here the end of Satan, sin and death, signifying the culmination of Christ’s work of redemption – making the 1000 years of peace possible.  From John’s perspective, the millennial reign of peace is central to God’s plan to redeem creation, and therefore significant for you and me. It is what the church – and all mankind – longs for.  How we make sense of this chapter will impact your view and expectation of life.

What then is meant by John’s vision of the 1000 years of peace? When is it? John’s millennium is read in three primary ways.

millennial-views

Premillennialism expects Jesus to return and end the tribulation, reign in peace for a 1000 years, and then make an end of Satan, sin and death. This is the most prominent view among Christians in the West today.

Postmillennialism expects the church by way of the Gospel to ushers in God’s peaceful reign for 1000 years, before Christ returns to judge the world.

Amillennialism reads the 1000 years symbolic, having been initiated by Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension.  From this perspective, we are now in this thousand years of peace.

All three of these views are held by very learned people who have given much thought to these views.  Sadly, in all the dust kicked up by the debates about when the millennium will or has commence(d), some beautiful truths in Revelation remain unnoticed.  Let’s walk through the chapter and ask ourselves “What did John see, and what could this have meant to him?”

angel_binding_dragon
Angel binding Dragon by Joshua Wilson.

The end of Satan (20:1-3, 7-10).  An angel descends from heaven and binds Satan in the Abyss, sealing the pit. Satan is tied up not by God, not by Christ, not by a known archangel like Micheal or Gabriel. Instead, Satan is bound by some ordinary angel who “came down from heaven.”  This reassured  John that Satan is not God’s equal and never a threat to God’s authority or purposes.  Although Satan persecuted the church on earth and gave power to the empires of the Beast, the Sovereign Lord allowed Satan to roam loose in service of his redemptive plan. Once the Devil had served his purpose, God commissioned an angel to bind him up.  At an appointed time, Satan will be released briefly again to serve God’s redemptive purpose in bringing judgment on the wicked nations.  After that, he will be thrown into the lake of fire forever, joining his servants the Beast and the False Prophet.

The thousand years (20:2-7). One thousand years” is mentioned six times in these six verses – the only place in the Bible explicitly naming the thousand years of peace.  How do we read it?  For one, we know that we cannot read this as literal ten centuries in the apocalyptic genre. This genre calls for a symbolical interpretation, just as we read the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb of God to convey a particular truth about Christ.  We also note this symbolism elsewhere in the Bible.  When we read that God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), we don’t ask “on which thousand hills do God’s cattle roam?”  When reading “with the Lord, a day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8) we don’t start calculating our age in God-years; instead, we understand that the Ever-living One is not bound by time as we are.

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In apocalyptic genre, 1000 is read as 10x10x10 – three sets of 10.  Ten is the number depicting totality or completeness, as in 10 commandments to Israel, 10 plagues over Egypt, or 10 horns and 10 crowns of the Beast (Revelation 13:1).  Therefore 10x10x10 years refers to an ideal, perfect or ultimate time.

What did the binding of Satan mean for John?  This disciple had seen Jesus demonstrate power over the Devil’s hordes and had heard him teach about binding before.  After Jesus’ baptism, empowerment and testing in the wilderness, Jesus returned to announce “the Gospel… repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mark 1:15)Christ’s preaching of God’s immanent reign was confirmed with significant signs of healing the sick and deliverance of those afflicted by demons (Matthew 4:23-26).  Being confronted by hypocritical teachers about the source of his authority, Christ explained that “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed, he may plunder his house” (Mark 3:27).   Here we see Christ referring to the binding of Satan and plundering of his house.

In another instance, after Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, Son of God, Christ turned and said to him on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.(Matthew 16:18-19).  The preaching of the Gospel of God in Christ binds Satan and allows for the plundering of his “house” – souls can be redeemed from death and Hades.

So, from John’s perspective, the church lives in a now/not now reality of peace in God’s reign.  Yes, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8).  And yes, with the preaching of the Gospel of God’s reign in Christ, “what is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven”, and Satan’s dwelling may be plundered of souls (Matthew 16:18-19; Mark 3:27).    The proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel is the way the Devil is bound, and souls are saved from his domain for the fullness of time.  In this way, the church is reigning with Christ on earth – the enforces of his reign of peace.

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The church reigning (20:4-6).  John sees the church, in particular martyrs and those who refused to worship the Beast, receiving thrones with authority to reign and judge with Christ for this “1000 years” period. These are depicted as kings and priests with Christ (refer to Revelation 4:4; 5:9-10; compare Luke 19:11-27; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3).  Only these saints are raised to reign with Christ in these “1000 years”, and are spared the second death – the lake of fire (20:14).

To John and his first readers/hearers, this vision conveyed the assurance of their standing with God, the reality of sharing in Christ’s resurrection and victory over death (Romans 6:3-5) and their authority to “reign in this life” with Christ (Romans 5:17).  Through faith in Christ, saints who were dead in our trespasses, [were] made alive together with Christ… and raised up with Him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5-6).

The great war (20:7-10).  Satan is “released from his prison” for a little while to deceive the nations again.  Alluding to Ezekiel 38-39, the author records a great battle where Gog, Magog and other nations draw up in fight against God’s people “in the last days” when “thoughts will come into [their] mind, and [they] will devise an evil scheme” (Ezekiel 38:8,10).  They will be consumed the fire of God’s judgment (20:9; compare Ezekiel 38:22; 39:6).  

It is important to note that Revelation 19-20 together allude to Ezekiel 38-39.  The battle and victory over the Dragon and his earthly puppets the Beast (ungodly governments), the False Prophet (secular ideologies), and Babylon the Great Prostitute (seductive culture) is one.  In both chapters, we see that the victory is complete and final – there are no human enemies left (19:18-19; 20:7-9).  This speaks of a singular event of judgment and victory – the same triumph and retribution that is referred to in the outpouring of the 7th seal, 7th trumpet and 7th bowl (8:1; 11:15-19; 16:17-21).

Just as these seals, trumpets and bowls do not foretell different judgments chronologically, but are somewhat different perspectives on the same disasters that plague humankind throughout history, so too the final seal, trumpet and bowl point to Christ’s final judgment on evil and renewal of all things (Matthew 16:27).  Like birth pains of a woman in labour, these disasters incrementally increase in intensity and impact, with shortened intervals, with the last “little while” being unparalleled in pain (20:3; see Matthew 24:6-8, 21-22, 24).

throne_of_judgment

The great judgment (20:11-15).  With all the dead raised to stand before God’s throne, God is said to open “books” for retribution.  The first is a record of “deeds“, another the Lamb’s “book of life” (20:12; 13:8; 17:8).  In OT literature, the “book of life” was a record of citizenship (compare Exodus 32:31-33; Psalm 69:28; Isaiah 4:3).  The Lamb’s Book of Life contains all those who have been (and are) saved through his blood, who remain faithful to him; it is a record of citizenship of the New Jerusalem (21:27; compare Hebrews 12:22-23 and Philippians 4:2-3).

At this throne judgment of God, the dead are brought to life.  Remember that John already saw the saints before God’s throne; they are already alive, having been raised from death to life by sharing in Christ’s resurrection (20:4-6).  Those in Christ are not judged by God (Romans 8:2).  The judgment, therefore, distinguishes those who want to live by their own works and those who live by faith in the completed works of Christ, the Lamb of God who was slain for our sins.  In this judgment, only those who are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life are judged by their own deeds.

At the end of this chapter, Satan, Death and Hades are all judged and thrown into the lake of fire to join the Beast and the False Prophet.  Those bound in their sin to death share in this condemnation.   Here the battle with evil is finally won.

Bringing this home.

This chapter brings much comfort, hope and sobriety to the reader.

great multitude - palm branches

Considerable comfort. The glimpse into heaven shows believers – even those struggling with sinful seduction or despair – that we are already seated with Christ in heavenly places, and reign with him forever (Ephesians 2:4-6; Romans 5:17; Revelation 5:9-10).  It reminds us that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus – that we escape the judgment seat of God (Romans 8:2).  This is all because of God’s gift of grace, bought with the blood of the Lamb.  Our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life!

Healing hope. Revelation 20 shows saints that Christ has the final victory over sin, Satan and death (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:54-57).  It reminds us that all our struggles on earth are temporal, that all this shall soon pass away when Christ returns to renew all things.

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Sombre Sobriety. This chapter brings sombre warnings and three invitations.  Firstly, there will be a time of unparalleled hardship – especially for believers – for a short while.  It will be intense, but it will be brief, and “calls for the endurance of the saints” (Revelation 14:12).  Secondly, the church is not called to a life of leisure or self-preservation, but a life of witness.  We are the light of the world, and especially in dark times, we should not hide our light (Revelation 1:12, 20; Matthew 5:14-16).  The stakes are high: eternal life and joy for all who believe the Gospel, or eternal death and torment for all who trust in themselves.  In the Gospel, the church holds power to bind the Devil and plunder his hellish house, to redeem souls from death to life (Romans 1:16-17).  This chapter calls us to think hard of the Words of Paul, “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:6) 

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26

The End? Making sense of judgment

Our 20th stop in the journey together through the book of Revelation has brought us to chapters 15 and 16.  A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

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“It’s not fair!”” Our craving for justice.

“Where is the justice?”  How do you feel when another corrupt politician escapes the law through bribery? Or when another rapist go free because of sloppy police work? Or gang members buy off another local police precinct to look the other way?

We are all born with an innate sense of right and wrong, a desire for justice.  Justice affirms there is indeed a universal right and a wrong and particular right and wrong within a community (customs and traditions).  Justice demands retribution (punishment) and reparation (restoration) to allow reconciliation (peace).  A system of justice aims to act for the weak ones in society, who are ignored by the powerful ones in their pleas for justice.   Without justice, there is no peace.

A lot of judgment. The middle section of Revelation (chapters 6-20) is devoted to God’s just judgments.  For fourteen chapters God’s wrath is being poured out as seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls in natural disasters, great wars, cosmic chaos and celestial visitations. Knowing that this is heavy reading, the Author graciously allows for interludes depicting God’s care for his people and his invitation to participate with his  work of redemption. 

These judgments are in response to the rebellious nations’ idolatry, immorality and violence (9:20-21), and in particular the suffering saint’s cries for justice (6:11; 16:7).  These three sets of judgments illustrate increasing intensity, inviting repentance, yet repeatedly we read the wicked nations “cursed God” and “did not repent”.

Before we make sense of these three sets of judgments together, let’s get an overview of  the bowls (chapter 15-16). 

Victory in the fire.  The scene opens again with a contrasting view similar to the previous chapter (chapter 14). The saints are depicted as victorious over the Beast, at peace and worshiping while the fires of God’s judgment are lighting up the world (15:2; compare 4:6; 5:10; 14:3).  They sing about God’s “righteous acts” (15:4) from the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32), the lyrics which describe the judgments being poured out not only in the seven bowls (chapter 16) but also the seven seals and seven trumpets.

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Just, holy wrath.  These bowls of judgments are portrayed as coming from the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle (15:5-8).  By referring to “the Song of Moses” (15:3; Deuteronomy 32), these judgments on the wicked and rewards for the righteous are depicted as the blessing for obedience (Deuteronomy 27-28) and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 29-32) recorded in the Law and kept in the Most Holy Place in the Dessert Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 31:24-30).    

Patient in mercy. These bowls of judgments are called “seven plagues” (15:1).  As God demonstrated his patience towards Pharaoh and Egypt, allowing 10 times to repent before every plague, we also see God’s rich mercy allowing for the nations to turn from the rebellion in repentance to him.  But the nations did not repent from their wickedness and cursed God (16:9, 11, 20).

Plagues (again?)  The judgments poured out over the earth allude to the plagues against Egypt through which God delivered the Hebrews from slavery and oppression (15:1; refer Exodus 4-12).  Here the seven bowl judgments are directed at the kingdom of the Beast, his city Babylon, and those who bear his mark (16:2, 10-11, 19).  The first five bowls of judgment result in painful sores, death of the sea creatures, rivers becoming like blood, the sun scorching people, and anguishing darkness (16:2-11).

The sixth bowl dries up the Euphrates river, making a way for the “kings of the East” to invade the land, resulting in a battle at Armageddon (16:12-16).  As we commented on sixth trumpet blasts, this 6th bowl judgment hints to the immanent threat of the Parthian army, who were advancing East of the Roman Empire at the time of John’s writing – an immediate threat to the seven cities to whom this Revelation was directed.

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The pouring out of the seventh bowl results in hailstorms and a massive earthquake “like never before”, sinking islands, flattening mountains and destroying the cities of the nations – in particular Babylon (16:17-20).  Still the nations cursed God and refused to repent – as Pharaoh did.

Sound familiar? There are great parallels between the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls, especially the last two sets of judgments (see table below).  All of these contain allusions to the fulfillment God’s promises in the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) to which Jesus also alluded in his end times teachings (Matthew 24).  Deuteronomy 32:22-25 (famine, plague, pestilence, wild animals and the sword) is the substance of the first four seals, and 32:41-41-43 is the substance of the last two seals. With a slight change in order, the seven trumpets and seven bowls follow a similar pattern, alluding to God’s plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-11).  The first five come by means of natural disasters, the last two by warfare.

Seven Seals

(Revelation 6)

Seven Trumpets

(Revelation 8-9)

Seven Bowls

(Revelation 16)

1.      Conquest

2.      War (civil)

3.      Famine (& injustice)

4.      Death by war, famine, plagues, wild animals (earth)

5.      Persecution

6.      Cosmic collapse.

7.      Silence.

1.      Earth stricken

2.      Sea stricken

3.      Rivers stricken

4.      Sky stricken

5.      Torment (darkness)

6.      Warfare & Conquest

7.      Final judgment.

 

1.      Earth stricken

2.      Sea stricken

3.      Rivers stricken

4.      Sky stricken

5.      Torment (darkness)

6.      Warfare & Conquest

7.      Final judgment.

 

As mentioned before, these judgments increase in intensity: the seals affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3 of the earth, and the bowls all the earth (compare 6:8; 8:7-10; 16:2-10).  But they are similar in nature, seemingly repetitive.

How then do we read and respond to these sets of judgments?

We must remind ourselves that apocalyptic genre does not allow us to read these images as literal, once-off events.  Just as we don’t see Christ literally having seven eyes and seven horns (chapter 5), so we don’t expect talent-sized balls of hail (about 40kg! 16:20) or all the sea turning into blood at once (16:3).  Also, apocalyptic genre does not allow us to take these judgments as occurring chronologically in 21 consequential acts of judgment.  John did not write what happened next, but what he saw next.  Note the great similarity in both pattern and content.  The 7th seal, 7th trumpet and 7th bowl each indicate the Last Judgment or Final victory of the Lamb.  Why then three sets of seven judgments?

  1. Three perspectives on God’s judgments are highlighted in these three sets of judgments.    The seals are Christ’s perspective on these judgments, reminding us that only One is worthy to unfold God’s redemptive purposes through his cross.  The trumpets are the rebellious nations’ or Beast’s perspective on these judgments, alerting us to God’s victorious advance over the pagan kingdoms.  The bowls are the Church’s perspective on these judgments, depicting the judgments as God’s response to response to the prayers of the saints (8:5).   Thus we are always to see God’s judgments as God’s Christ’s redemption of creation, as God’s discipline on pagan kingdoms, and as God’s answers to the cries of the saints for justice.
  2. Just and Mercy.  As noted above, these judgments proceed from God’s holy place where his law is kept (15:5-8).  The judgments emanate from his holy and just nature; if God does not judge wickedness, he would not be just and mankind would forever be subject to abusive leadership with no one to save us.  These judgments  on wicked nations are just, i.e. deserved (9:20-21; 16:5-7).  Yet there is a way out!  Each of these judgments call people to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and repent of their rebellion.  These judgments are increasingly severe, urging repentance as it points to a final Day of Judgment. Indeed, “today is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
  3. Overwhelming urgency. These apocalyptic scenes are meant to overwhelm us of the sudden and severe judgments of God’s wrath poured out on the wicked.  It is meant to invoke the fear of God in the reader.  These scenes aim to call the reader to sober assessment of God’s impending Day of Judgment when Christ’s will come “as a thief in the night” (16:15).
  4. Encouragement and exhortation.  These overwhelming images of God’s judgments are meant to encourage the church that Christ is at work, delivering the world from evil, exhorting them to remain faithful to him and not submit to the intimidation of the Beast and seduction of Babylon.

Bringing it Home

fallen_world

In reading these judgments in Revelation, I am invited to look through God’s eyes at the  natural disasters and wars in our fallen world.  These are Christ’s redemptive works, calling the nations to repent of their claims to self-governance and self-sufficiency; warnings of God’s kingdom advancing in the world, and answers to the prayers of the saints for Christ’s return to reign.

I’m also called to look in the mirror and see my own sin deserving of judgment, and celebrate the mercy God offers me in the cross of His son.

Parted Seas

I’m both encouraged and exhorted as I look ahead to Christ’s renewal of all things, seeing that he is already at work making all things new in these redemptive acts.

Lastly, I’m called to look at the clock and recognize the urgency in these vivid images pointing to God’s Day of Judgment.  People get ready, Jesus is coming soon!

 

 

 

The End? The Reason to Endure

In this 19th study of revelation we look at need for salvation and the reality judgment and Hell in chapter 14.  A recording of this will be uploaded at the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

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“What’s the point of all this hardship? Why push through the pain?  Others have given up, and they seem to be having an easier life! What can be worth this much effort?”  Whether it’s a marathon, long-term studies, a grueling project or start-up initiative – somewhere along the road you will ask that question in agonizing pain.  So too in your journey of faith.

The answer to this question is what Revelation 14 offers to struggling church.  The scenes instills courage in the hearts of believers tempted to give in or give up, but it does not shy away from the sober reality of what is at stake.  The chapter is divided in three logical sections, revealing the role models, the reason and the reward for endurance.

The role models for endurance (14:1-5).  Chapter 14 opens in stark contrast to chapter 13’s end.  Moving from the Beasts and those who receive the mark, John’s attention falls on the Lamb and his army of 144’000 who bears the mark of His Father on their foreheads.  In our post on the 144’000 from chapter 7 we concluded that this group represents the fullness of people saved by Christ’s blood, who remain loyal to him.

From the contrasting groups John hears contrasting sounds (14:2-3): God’s voice roars from heaven “like many waters” accompanied by “load thunders” (repeated in 8:5; 11:19; 16:18; refer 4:5) alluding to God’s justice and judgment from his Law (Exodus 19:16). This originates from his judgment on the and his worshiper (14:8ff).  John also hears the sound of joyful, tranquil music by harpists.  These comes from the believers singing before the throne the song of the redeemed (compare 4:3 with 5:8-10) – a song that only those who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb can faithfully sing.

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Here comes the brides!

The redeemed are described as those “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins… who follow the Lamb wherever he goes”. (14:4).  This phrase is not a reference to physical celibacy, but spiritual fidelity, as it contrasts God’s faithful people to those seduced into “fornication” with “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” (14:8; 17:6).  Here, drawing from the Old Testament prophets (notably Hosea), John describes idolatry as the Church’s spiritual unfaithfulness to God symbolically with a married person’s immorality and sexual unfaithfulness towards his or her spouse.  Paul uses this imagery when he laments the Corinthians’ backsliding: I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that… your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:11).  But the ones before the throne are a bride “without blemish” (4:5; compare Ephesians 5:27).

The reason for endurance (14:6-12). The next section in this chapter outlines the basic theology on judgment, revealed by three angelic messengers.  Angel one proclaims the “eternal gospel: Fear God and give him glory.”  God is the creator of all the earth, that he is sovereign over all the nations, and that he will judge all people, everywhere – and that hour is soon (14:6-7).  Angel two announces the destruction of “Babylon” because she lead people everywhere into idolatry and immorality (14:8; compare Isaiah 21, Jeremiah 51).  In chapter 18-19 the author returns to this theme, wherein Babylon is described as the the city infested by demons and inhabited by the defiled (18:2).  Angel three decrees God’s wrath on the beast and all who bears his mark: eternal judgment in “fire and sulfur” (14:9-11) – an allusion to Hell.

Hell_vision
Vision of Hell by John Culatto.

Our generation is not comfortable with the idea of judgment in general, and hell in particular.  I don’t like speaking about hell either – but Jesus, our Saviour, spoke more about Hell than he did about Heaven.  His urgency to save people from the reality of eternal judgment drove him from heaven to earth, from comfort to the cross.  Because, in his words, Hell is an eternal torment (Luke 16:23) of anguish and regret (Matt. 13:42) in unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48).  From this “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30) there is no escape (Luke 16:19–31).  Hell is not a place where he banishes people to, but rather the default destination that he came to save us from.  This same urgent cry to count the cost and remain faithful is what we hear throughout Revelation, and in particular in this chapter. 

This section concludes with the exhortation “for the endurance of the saints, [to] keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (14:12; compare 13:10 and Matthew 24:13).  In other words, this is the reason to patiently bear the shame and suffering on earth, because the alternative is to serve the beast and bear his mark, which mean you will share in judgment.  Suffering tempts believers to deny Christ to escape the wrath of the Beast, to enjoy peace on earth.   But the angels warn that it is better to suffer the wrath of the Beast for brief time on earth than the wrath of the unbearable Lamb for eternity.  Remain faithful to to Christ, because – “those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

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The reward for endurance (14:13-20).  John describes then hears the voice declaring that “those who are dead in the Lord… may rest from their labors” (14:13) but sees a terrible judgment by “the Son of Man” likened to the harvest and trampling  of grapes in the wine press (14:14-20; compare Isaiah 63:1-6).  This terrible judgment of the nations happens when the “grapes are ripe” so that their crushing leave the land flowing with blood (14:15, 20; compare Isaiah 34:1-3).

In this image of judgment, with blood flowing on the land, there is a powerful allusion to the crucifixion of Christ – an act of God’s mercy and justice.  In this grape-pressing image of judgment John alludes to Christ being taken “outside the city” (14:20; compare John 19:16-17 and Hebrews 13:12), “crushed by God” (Isaiah 53:5), and his “blood flowed” for the remission of sins of all the world (compare Matthew 21:37-39).  The invitation for the reader is that in the crucifixion of Christ, and his blood which flowed on our behalf, we may escape the wrath of God (1:5; compare Ephesians 2:13).

Herein Jesus reveals that the reward for endurance is to enter the rest (or peace) of God by faith is atonement (14:13; compare Hebrews 4:1-13), to be freed from the presence of sin, suffering and Satan forever – rather than suffer from the wrath of God along with Satan and his hosts of evil.

Bringing it Home

This call to endure was written to church in Asia oppressed daily by the Beast which was Rome and temped by the seductive culture called Babylon, nearly 2000 ago.  However we can identify with their inclination to give up on our faith and fidelity as we are bombarded daily by suffering and seduction.

Walk on. This chapter calls me to look at my suffering in light of the eternal Fires. I’m urged to consider the cost of denying Christ and default into a life of compromise for comfort’s sake. And this spurs me on to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus” and that “great cloud of witnesses” who surrounds his throne (Hebrews 12:1-2).  I’m encouraged to “to be found in Him… hold onto what is true…press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:9-16).  My salvation from Hell makes the endurance worth it!  

Cross_massesWitness. This sober look at the Final Judgment calls me to consider how I look at my family, my neighbours, my world.  If Christ was moved from comfort to the cross to save the lost – like me – how much am I moved to share this “eternal Gospel” (14:6) so that others may be saved from the wrath of God?

Worship.  This look at the Final Judgment also moves me to sing the song of the redeemed – to remember the his blood and relish in his mercy towards me.  Amazing grace indeed!

The End? Release of the Four Horsemen

This 12th reflection in our journey through Revelation displays the vibrant apocalyptic genre of this prophetic letter.  A recording of this post is available on Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel, as part of the Revelation Series. Follow the link below.

The middle section of Revelation we now enter (chapters 6-16) contains three sets of seven judgments each:

Scroll_Seven_Seals

  • the opening of the seven seals (chapters 6-8a),
    • interluded with a roll call of the Lamb’s Army (chapter 7)
  • the blowing of the seven trumpets (chapters 8b-11),
    • interluded with a description of the Lamb’s temple and two witnesses (chapter 10)
    • and the seven signs of warning (section 12-14)
  • the pouring out of the seven bowls (chapters 15-16).

These judgments that proceed from the throne room of God, as the Lamb opens his scroll, are acts of God’s redemption of creation, “reconciling all things to himself… by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20)

How do you read it?

There are various interpretations of Revelation, and especially of this middle section.

interpretations_revelationThese judgments are generally interpreted in four ways: Preterists see all fulfilled before either the 1st or the 4th century.  Historicists believe these are being performed throughout history.  Idealists do not read Revelation literally, but see all as symbolic of the struggle between good and evil.  Futurists await the chronological fulfilment of these events (Ch 4-22), which they believe will result in a crisis period leading up to Christ’s second coming.

I believe that these three sets are not limited to events of the past or events in the future, but are indicative of crisis that occurs in every generation.  I believe these three sets of seven are not to be read as a chronological prediction, but rather as three different perspectives on the many crises the world and the church face throughout history (from there the many repetitions in these chapters).  Remember, this prophecy was written as encouragement and exhortation to seven real congregations who experienced much of these crises in their own time.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

seven_seals

In keeping with the nature of the apocalyptic genre, all three sets of judgments draw richly from Old Testament literature.  The opening of the seven seals starts with the unleashing of the Four Horsemen of Zechariah (1:7-14; 6:1-7) who would unleash “four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast!” (Ezekiel 14:21; compare Deuteronomy 32:23-25).

It is important to note that these acts of judgment proceed from the decrees of the scroll, as the Lamb unrolls God’s redemptive plans for the creation, bringing all other kingdoms in subjection to his reign (compare Colossians 1:15-20).  The judgments are initiated by Christ; the horsemen are subservient to Christ, instrumental in his reign.

With each of the first four seals being opened, one of the four living creatures around the throne cry out “Come!” (6:1, 3, 5, 7).  As discussed in a previous post, these four living creatures represent the fullness of creation (compare 4:6b-8) – and these four judgments are directed to creation.  Their calling “come!” draw John’s attention to the impending judgments but in the scope of Revelation the cry to “come!” is a cry for Jesus’ return (1:7; 22:17, 20).  Even as these four horsemen are coming, so too, Christ is coming through the unpacking of these seals, one by one.

The first seal unleashes the first rider on “a white horse” armed with “a bow”, empowered with a victor’s “crown” and commissioned “to conquer.” (6:2) The first judgment unleashed upon the earth is of conquest – victory through subjection in warfare.  To the early readers of John’s letter this archer on a white horse would remind them of the Parthians, “the only mounted archers in the first century; white horses were their trademark” (Boring 1989:122).  These dreaded horseback archers were an immediate threat to the seven churches on the eastern border of the Roman empire.

The focus here is on the unleashing of military conquest, forceful subjection of kingdoms and people groups to a foreign ruler. Jesus’ teaching on the end times in Matthew 24 mirrors Revelation 6. “And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:6-7).  The call to the church is to not fear – the Lamb is sovereign over this and has given him this “crown”, and his victory in conquest.  All authority, all dominion belongs to the Lamb (5:11; compare Matthew 28:19-20).

The second seal’s opening unleashes “a bright red horse”, and it’s rider “was given a great sword… permitted to take peace from the earth… people will slay one another” (6:3-4).  This is war.  Where the first seal unleashes conquest (nation against nation), this second seal unleashes civil revolt (domestic warfare).  Here Jesus’ warnings that “brother would betray brother to death” has reference (Mark 13:12).   For the first readers, this was a common occurrence, as emperors were frequently murdered by their usurpers who would rise to claim the throne.  In 68-69 Rome had four emperors as a usurper would kill the ruler to take his place; Domitian, ruling during John’s writing, had 12 ex-consuls executed for treason, alongside two of his own cousins!

Again we must note that the Sovereign Christ gives this horseman “a great sword” and “permits” him to do warfare – to bring about his redemptive purposes.

With the third seal, Christ unleashes “a black horse” whose rider had a pair of measuring scales in his hand, decreeing a time of scarcity resulting in outrageously high food prices: “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius…” This decree implied poverty, hunger, starvation. Jesus warned that “there will be famines and earthquakes in various places…” (Matthew 24:7).  With the underdeveloped agricultural and trade fair of John’s day, scarcity and famine were common occurrences, as food production and transport were more vulnerable to weather, pests and raiders (refer Acts 11:27).

Note the restriction in the command “…and do not harm the oil and wine!” Wine and oil were/ are luxury items, reserved for the rich of their day, and seem to be untouched by the scarcity sent out over the earth.  This may allude to social inequality, where the poor become more miserable, and the rich become affluent – a phenomenon we read about in throughout the Bible, and of which we are painfully aware of in our day.  Or this reference may be part of the sovereign limitation by God on this judgment – as we will see progressive suffering in the visions of the seven trumpets and the seven bowls. Regardless of the meaning, note the sovereignty of Christ over food production and distribution.

With the opening of the fourth seal, death was unleashed on a pale horse (6:8) the colour of a corpse.  This rider is followed by Hades and together they unleash destruction to a fourth of the earth “with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (6:8; compare Deuteronomy 32:23-25 and Ezekiel 14:12-23).

Note again that Christ is the one who gives this permission to strike a fourth of the earth.  In the seven trumpets, there is permission to strike a third of the land, and in the Seven bowls, there is the threat of complete destruction.

Where is the church during these troubled times?

Futurists believe that the church will be spared these judgments, as we will be secretly “raptured” to heaven before these ordeals. (I will write about the popular, contemporary view of the rapture in another post).

Robed_in_White

But the opening of the fifth seal reveals the opposite (6:9-11). John’s attention is drawn to the martyrs in heaven who had been killed for their witness of Christ. These cry out “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are honoured with “white robes” and “told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” The church is still on earth, enduring the suffering of the four horsemen along with the rest of the world – in addition to the suffering implied by this seal: persecution for the sake of Christ and his Gospel.

It is helpful to look again at the parallel text of Ezekiel 14.  The chapter states that these judgments of “sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, [and death]” are brought about by the Lord to correct rebellion and idolatry.  It explicitly states that God’s righteous people shall not be removed from these troubles but will be preserved during these seasons of judgments: “even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God” (14:21).  Just like Daniel’s friends were not spared from the fire, but were preserved within the fire, the church also has the company and grace of One “like the Son of God” in their fiery trial, protecting and comforting them (refer to Daniel 3:25.)

Celestial signs

The prayers for vengeance form the martyrs (6:10) is answered in the opening of the sixth seal as the sun becomes black, the moon like blood, stars fall, the earth shakes, mountains erupt, and islands sink into the sea (6:12-14).  This is a paraphrase of Jesus’ prophesy of the last days when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25; compare Matthew 24:29; Luke 21:25-26).  John sees how this cosmic collapse brings universal panic to “everyone” – rulers to laypeople, rich to poor, warriors to the weak – causing hide away in caves in awe-filled fear of God’s coming day of judgment.

The chapter ends with the question of these awe-filled crowd: “who can stand” before God in this day of his wrath?  That question is answered in chapter seven when The Lamb’s Army roll is called.  The seventh seal is opened in 8:1, there was “silence in heaven for about half an hour”, and then the seven trumpets are blown.

Bringing it home

There are currently 69 countries at war, and 832 Militias-guerrillas and terrorist-separatist-anarchic groups involved in the civil war around the world today.  In 2019, 409 natural disasters were recorded.  In 2018 37.9 million people were living with aids in the world (www.hiv.gov). Today more than 1.934 million people have been infected with the Covid-19 virus in a short span of 4 months, causing a pandemic of fear resulting in the lock-down of nearly a third of the world, toppling economies worldwide.  These judgments on the creation and the nations are not some future events – it is the reality on every continent, in every generation.  The Lamb is right now opening the seals that unleash judgments on the world, bringing nations to the realization that mankind is limited and answerable to a Sovereign Ruler.  These temporal judgments are acts of mercy – allowing people to turn to God in repentance.

Where do this leave believers like me and you?  Do we sit back and wait for “The End?” like defeatist or pacifists?  No, our call is to witness the benevolent and just reign of God in a harsh world.  We, the church, are a taste of things to come.  We are a light in the darkness, a city of refuge in a violent world.  We are an ark where sinners may run in to escape the flood of judgment to come.

Our call to witness in both in proclamation and demonstration of what the King and his Kingdom is like.  In the words of Leslie Newbigin: the church is a sign pointing to the kingdom; a foretaste of what that kingdom will be like; and an agent that labours with Christ and the Spirit to bring about His kingdom to earth.   That is what the Lord’s Army is doing, until the day of his great and final judgment.

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

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