The End? The new beginning

With this last chapter of Revelation, John focuses again on Jesus and his centrality to all of God’s creation and redemption. A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville YouTube channel.

The Bible begins and ends with the description of a paradise-garden in which there is a tree of life and a life-giving river. In this last chapter of John’s Apocalypse, John shows how God’s restoration and renewal of all things are brought to completion. In this final vision of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1), we see the Gospel of God beautifully painted.

Jesus is life (22:1-5).  Continuing with the scene of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), John describes the River of Life flowing from the throne room of God and the Lamb.  The picture of the life-giving river alludes to Eden (Genesis 2:7-10) and Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:1-12).  This River of Life flows in the middle of the street of this Holy City.   On its banks is the Tree of Life, bearing fruit all-year long, with “it’s leaves for the healing of nations” (22:2; Ezekiel 47:7,12).

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After Adam and Eve rebelled and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God removed them from the Garden “lest [they] stretch out [their] hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” in their fallen state (Genesis 3:22-24).  But access to the Tree of Life is a sign that there is no more sin, no more darkness, “for the Lord God will be their light” (22:5) and those who dwell therein will forever reign.  This garden-image is a compelling picture of Christ’s full redemption and restoration of mankind, where mankind will live in communion with God, to share in his life, and reign over his creation with goodness (Genesis 1:26-27).  Here life is as it always should have been.

The symbolism is beautiful and meant to be both hopeful and instructive to the readers. Christ is the source of all light and life (John 1:4-5; 11:25; 14:6).  The Life-giving River “which make glad the city of our God” (Psalm 36:8; 46:4) depicts the nature and work of the Holy Spirit – the “Spirit of Life” (Romans 8:2, 11) who satisfy believers to “never thirst again” (John 4:13; Isaiah 55:1), even to overflow with “rivers of living water” (John 7:38-39).  The street in the Holy City is “the Highway of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8), “the Way” of life Jesus taught of and made possible by his blood (Acts 24:14,22, cf Hebrews 10:19-20).  The Tree of Life is the church, God’s redeemed creation, who in turn is God’s redemptive gift to the world.  It is the tree that grows from the Gospel seed (Matthew 13:31-32), who is planted next to the River of Life and therefore “yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3; Jeremiah 17:7-8).  Through the reigning of the Lamb and the nourishing of his Spirit, the church now and forever reign (Revelation 5:9-10; Romans 5:17).  

Put together, the church is those renewed and sustained by the Spirit of God, who walks in the Way of Holiness as they submit to the reign of God and the Lamb.  By drawing from the water of the Spirit, the church bear fruit that gives life and healing to the nations, displacing evil.  This is as much a picture of the church today as it points to Christ’s coming kingdom.    

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Jesus is the judge (22:12).  Four times in this chapter, John records the words that Jesus’ return is “soon”, and hears Christ’s admonition to “hear the words of this prophesy and keep it.” (22:7)  The angelic warning about the end on the river-bank pictures a strong allusion to Daniel 12.  But in contrast to Daniel who was told to “seal up” and “shut up” the prophecy “until the last days”, John is now instructed to “not seal up the prophecy, for the time us near” – implying the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment is near (22:10; Daniel 12:4, 9).  Alluding to Daniel’s vision (22:10; Daniel 12:10) the angel says:

“Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, 

[let] the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

This does not imply that the time of grace is over.  John writes that doing proceeds from being.  In keeping with the rest of the prophecy to the seven churches, John urges believers that, if indeed they have been redeemed and sanctified by the Blood of the Lamb (5:9-10), then act in accordance with your standing.  Since you are holy, do righteous deeds!  Do not live in the filthy ways of Babylon, because Jesus is coming soon as the judge, “to repay each one for what he has done” (22:12; Isaiah 40:10).

 

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Jesus is the goal (22:13).  What will be the standard of the judgment?  Christ Himself!  In addition to being the Ever-living One (Alpha and Omega), the Sovereign One (First and Last in rank), Christ is also “the Beginning and the End” (Greek telos) of all things – the origin and the purpose (or goal) of all creation.  The goal of all mankind is “to conform to the image of His Son”, to resemble or reflect the image and reign of God (Romans 8:29, Genesis 1:26-27).  The problem is that all have sinned and fall short of His glory  – that none resemble his nature and ways (Romans 3:23).  When Christ’s comes to “repay each one for what he has done” (22:12), there will be “no one righteous”, none can stand on his own works (Romans 3:10). With the disciples, we cry “Who then can be saved” in that Day (Matthew 19:25)?

Jesus is the only hope (22:14). As he did in the recording of his gospel, John displays “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” as the only hope for the sinful world before a Holy Judge. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (22:14).  How have the redeemed washed their robes to gain entry into God’s New Creation?

“These with white robes… are the ones who… have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)  These are saved from the wrath of God not by their own efforts, but by grace through faith in God’s mercy (Ephesians 2:8-9).   These are the ones who trust not in their own ability or righteousness, but recognize their own shortcoming and trust in God’s Lamb who was slain as the propitiation for their sins (substitutionary sacrifice, 1 John 2:2). Indeed, the just shall live by faith forever (Romans 1:17)!

One big message.  From beginning to end the book of Revelation shows cohesiveness in form and message intended to encourage and exhort the church in its struggle against evil.  The nature of Revelation is that of an apostolic letter (1:4, 11; 22:16, 21) from John to seven congregations, containing a prophecy from the Lord to his church (1:3; 22:7) in apocalyptic genre unveiling what is at work behind the suffering of the world and how it will end (1:1, 10; 21:6, 10). Its central confession is that Jesus Christ is sovereign over both his church and the world and that he is already at work to destroy evil on earth until he rids the world of all evil influence, even sin, death and Satan.  Christ is among his church, and through the presence, prayers and patient endurance the saints participate in Christ’s conquest over evil, until he returns. It calls the church to remain faithful to its Lord, promising rewards in the share of His reign.

Bringing it home

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This chapter reveals the Gospel of Christ in beautiful images.  The renewed Garden City of God shows a world without evil, sustained by the life-giving presence of God.  But also warns of the imminent judgment of Christ to a fallen world, because sinners cannot enter God’s renewed creation.  Then it displays the amazing grace of God, who would slay the Heavenly Lamb to cleanse sinners through his blood, to reconcile a broken world to himself in love.

This gospel depiction reminds us of God’s amazing love and his unwavering justice.  It calls me to consider my conduct in light of my being: have I repented of my sin to accept God’s is grace and submit to His Lordship?  Then by the blood, I have been made holy and should act righteously. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

Moreover, this chapter displays the corporate reality of the nature and mission of the church in a beautiful way. We the church, redeemed and renewed by Christ, already share in His Life-Giving Spirit and walk in His Way. We bear the fruit and the leaves for the healing of the nations.  The church is the living witness of God’s coming kingdom.  It calls me to consider my personal and communal witness: in which way can the world taste and see that the Lord is good?  In which direction does my life (private or shared) bring healing to the nations?  May the love, grace and justice of Christ be known in your life.

“Come, Lord Jesus!” 

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

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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? 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.

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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?”

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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).

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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? 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? 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!