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.

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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? The Beast and his Mark

The Beast and his mark is the focus of this study as our 18th stop in our journey through Revelation brings us to the 13th chapter and its infamous images. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

Political satires like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or even cartoonists like Zapiro, comment in their own generation on the need for renewal of human  society and government in particular.  Using creative and often comical images it portrays the politics and people of its day to show the flaws in ideology and society at large. Apocalyptic literature like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation had this same purpose and pattern in its call for reform of God’s people and government in its day.

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Four beasts described in Daniel 7.

Revelation 13 opens with John standing on the sand by the sea where he saw Christ standing as Sovereign over land as sea (10:2).  In this way he reminds the readers that whatever happens in the land or sea is within Christ’s control.

The First Beast: Political Power. Then he sees a beast like a lion, leopard and bear combined rising our of the sea having seven heads, ten horns and  crowns (like the Great Red Dragon in the previous chapter who gives him strength) – having a blasphemous name on his head (13:1-2). This image is an allusion to Daniel 7 – a reference to the four successive empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Beast in Revelation 13, looking like a combination of these four beasts, hints to the Roman Empire in its day, but also represents every other human government that opposes Christ.

 

The Beast is an image of anti-Christ government.  Although the word anti-Christ does not appear in Revelation, John writes about it in his epistles.  “The world is passing away… it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (2:17-18)   Fifty years earlier Paul also write about anti-Christ government already at work in the world (2 Thesalonians 2:7, 8-10).  Examples of these range from Pharaoh to Alexander the Great, Nero to Domitian, from Ganges Khan to Napoleon, Stalin to Hitler, Mao to Castro, Mugabe to Kim Jong Un.  The pages of history is filled the blood from the oppressive regimes of the Beast.

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What do we learn about this Beast of human government?  It is said to have full strength and great authority given to him.  It speaks blasphemies (13:1,5), implying it defames God and exalts itself to god-like status.  It gets its power from Satan himself (13:2).  It’s rule is characterised by intimidation, conquest and carnivorous violence (13:2, 10).  It has the power to revive itself after defeat (13:3).  Christ permits this beast to yield his authority for “42 months” during which it will wage war against the Lord’s servants (13:8) –  implying the redemptive period from Christ’s resurrection to his return (as discussed in a previous post).

The way this beast wages war against the church is through intimidation, leading to suffering and death (as the church in Smyrna, 2:8-14) or seduction, leading to cultural compromise (as in Laodicea, 3:14-22).

The Second Beast: Seductive Ideology. A second beast coming out of the land is introduced, likened to the Lamb in that it looks like a lamb but roars like a dragon (compare 13:11 with 5:5-6).  Here the relationship between the first Beast and the second Beast alludes to the relationship between Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb in that he yields the authority of the first Beast and causes all to worship him (13:12).  This second beast performs great signs and deceives many, telling people to worship the Beast and condemning all who do not worship the Beast (13:13-15; compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9). 

In the same way that Christ propagates submission to the rule of God, this beast subverts nations and people groups to submit to oppressive human government.  This beast represents false teachings wrapped up in counter-Christian ideologies embedded in human culture. Adherence to the Imperial cult empowered the reign of the emperor during the writing of Revelation.  This is evident today in the way that Marxist ideology empowers Communist governments, Islamic ideologies empower middle-eastern governments, Hindu cast-ideologies empower eastern governments, or secular humanist ideologies empower governments in the Liberal Europe.  The power of human government is strengthened to the degree that the population believe and buy into the philosophy it propagates.  The Beast from the Earth breeds allegiance to the Beast from the Sea.

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Altar at Pergamun, believed to be “Satan’s Throne” preserved in Berlin Museum.

In his epistle John therefore urged the churches to “test every spirit” because “the spirit of the antichrist… is now already at work in the world” (1 John 4:1-3).  The spirit of the antichrist seduces and intimidates people into submission of the anti-christian government. This is most clearly seen in how the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders, swayed all of Jerusalem to hand Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans, shouting “We have no king but the emperor!” (John 19:15)

The warnings to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 show the seductive power of ideology to enslave even believers to earthly powers.  For instance, Pergamun, Rome’s Asian capital “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13) boasted a temple dedicated for Imperial worship.  Here the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolatians served the Sate Religion by swaying believers to participate in perverse pagan feasts and adherence to abusive power structure (2:1-17). (This is described in a precious post). In both Smyrna and Philadelphia we see how the teachings in the compromised Jewish synagogues serve the State, being called “the Synagogue of Satan” (2:9 and 3:9). 

The Mark of the Beast. This second beast enforces allegiance to the Beast by impressing the Mark of the Beast on their forehead or hand – “no one may buy or sell” without this mark (13:16-17).  The Mark is “the number of man: 666” (13:18). This verse is the cause of much conspiracy today, ironically taking figurative the “number of the Beast” but literal the application to the right hand or forehead.

 

Applying the guiding principles for apocalyptic genre, i.e. its 1st Century context, allusions to the Old Testament, and the highly symbolic use of images and numbers,  the “mark of the beast” is quickly demystified.  Firstly, we know that Imperial worship demanded that buying and selling in the markets were regulated and permitted once homage is paid to Emperor Domitian at the time John wrote Revelation.  The worshiper would receive a mark on his arm to show that honour was paid, permitting trade.

Secondly, worshipers of Yahweh was daily reminded by the Shema-prayer to be devoted to God with their head, hearts and hands:

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Orthodox Jews make us of “Teffilin” as embodiment of Deuteronomy 6:4-8.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. ” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)

Jews have used this prayer with physical reminders through the centuries. Devout Orthodox Jews even today use “tefillin”, small boxes containing parts of the Torah on the foreheads and hands as symbolic reminder to have God’s Law in their head, heart and hands.  These “marks” or “symbols” speak of a life of allegiance to God.

Thirdly, the number six is the symbol for man in apocalyptic genre (created on the sixth day), also representing imperfection, failure, and sin in general – just short of 7, the sign for God, perfection, holiness.  A repetition of three indicates fullness, completeness or mass, as seen in repetitions such as “Holy! Holy! Holy!”  Grouped together, the number “666” speaks of the fullness of all man can do or accomplish, the power of mankind combined – being wholly lacking, insufficient and flawed in nature.  In the words of William Hendriksen “[666] demonstrates failure upon failure upon failure” (More than Conquerors, Commentary on Revelation, Baker Books: 1967).

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The meaning of the Mark.  Drawing conclusion from our findings above we find that in his revelation Jesus likened the allegiance people paid to Domitian witnessed by the mark on their arms, to worship and trust in him and his government – being inherently flawed and wholly insufficient to bring peace to earth.  This is in contrast to those who live devoted to God, aligning their attitudes, affections and actions to the Law of God

To us today, as to every other generation, the mark of the Beast speaks of trust in human government, opposing God’s reign.  It warns that compromise in fear of persecution amounts to betrayal of Christ and submission to the Beast and the Dragon.

Note the next verse (14:1) speaks of the Lamb’s Army of 144’000 – marked by the Father’s name on their forehead.  Neither the mark of the Beast of the mark of the Father is physical.  It speaks to the person’s devotion and trust in man’s government of God’s reign – with the actions that back it up.  The Lamb and his army is the focus of the next post.

 

Bringing it home

Revelation 13 continues to unveil what are the forces at work in the world today.  The image of the two beasts, one of Political Power and the other of Seductive Ideology, are said to hold sway over all the nations, except those faithful to the Lamb.  These beasts control the minds and actions of all peoples in the world – even as it did in the time of Daniel’s writing and John’s writing.

As Christians we ought to witness the Reign of God to our world – which at times will bring us at odds with the government of the day.

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Resistance to these beasts may result in economic poverty, social exclusion and violent persecution.  We see this today in where more than 2.6 million Christians are highly persecuted by both state and culture; that is 1 in every 8 believers (Open Doors).  But we also see the power of these beasts in the numeric decline and spiritual apathy of the church in the prosperous West.  The Beast of the Sea wages war in intimidation, while the Beast of the Earth in ideological deception. Both enslave the earth and pose a threat to the witness of the church.

How do we conquer these to beasts?  Read the Word to know God’s kingdom from teh world’s kingdom.  Recognize the beast at work in government and culture – do not be ignorant, because he is prowling around! (1 Peter 1:7-8). Render appropriately: to earthly government prayer and tax and appropriate obedience; to God complete devotion and obedience. Reveal the Gospel by walking in the way of the Lamb – in humility and meekness.

 

The End? The Lamb’s Army

This post, the 13th in our series through Revelation, is devoted to chapter 7 – the marking and listing of the Lamb’s army. A recording of this will be available on Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel as part of the Revelation Series.

Chapter 6 depicts Christ unfolding the scroll containing God’s redemptive plan for creation. This brought about terrible judgments so that eventually everyone on earth hid and cried out “Who can stand before the wrath of Him Who sits on the throne and the Lamb?” (6:17).  And chapter 7 answers this question.

Hold the wind! (7:1-3) Suddenly four angels were seen to hold back the four winds over the earth (7:1). Holding back the wind implies withholding the destructive forces released over creation by the first six seals (6:1-17; compare Ezekiel 5:12).  The reason for the pause in destruction until “we sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (7:3).  This protection from wrath by a seal from God alludes to Exodus 12:21-27 (destruction of Egypt, preservation of Israel) and Ezekiel  9:3-8 (destruction of Israel, preservation of the righteous).  

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Gideon’s army defeats the Midianites (Judges 6-7). (Source: Moody Press, Free Bible Images)

The 144’000 (7:4-8).  These servants of God are identified as John hears a roll call of Israel’s fighting men, like in Numbers 1 before the conquest of Canaan.  The 144’000 are said to be 12’000 from every tribe in Israel. Remember that in the apoplectic language of Revelation, images and numbers are not read literal, but should be read to signify something that comforted and challenged the first readers in their struggle against evil during their tribulation (1:9-11).

This number of 144’000 faithful Israelite have been used – and is still being used – by many cults worldwide who claim their veracity and special election.  But 144’000 is clearly a symbolic number (like the 7 horns en 7 eyes of the Lamb in chapter 5).  144’000 is made up of 12x12x1000.  Twelve in this literary genre points to God’s covenant people: the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Church.  1000 is a number meaning innumerable, all or fullness.  So, John hears “mark God’s people with his seal!” and is told Israel’s faithful, fighting ones are numbered.

In keeping with the apocalyptic genre, Israel here should also not be viewed from the genetic line or national citizenship, but rather symbolical for God’s covenant people. Jesus said that “salvation is from the Jews”, not just for the Jews (John 4:22). Paul defined “a true Jew (as) one inwardly” (Romans 2:29), having a “circumcised” or transformed heart faithful to God.  This tribal list here in Revelation 7 is a picture of “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:15-16).

But this list of Israel’s tribes is unlike any other found in Jewish scriptures (compare for instance Genesis 35:23-26; 49:1-28; Numbers 1:1-46; and Deuteronomy 33:6-25) – and that is the point of this part of the vision.  The discrepancies in this list highlight the truth Jesus wants to show John.

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  • Judah is mentioned first, not Israels’s (Jacob’s) firstborn Ruben. That is because Jesus is from the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5).
  • Dan is omitted.  Dan is notorious in Israel because of its idolatry, leading the Northern tribes away from God (Judges 18).
  • Manasseh is included.  Menasseh is a half-breed grandson of Jacob, born to Joseph by his Egyptian wife.
  • Gad, Asher, Naphtali are moved up. These were usually mentioned last in Israel’s tribes because these are Jacob’s “bastard” sons, born not from his wives Rachel and Leah, but from his concubines.  They too were half-breeds, illegitimate in the eyes of their brothers.

What then do we make of this special Christian list of  Israel’s tribe?  We have a list of God’s covenant people that is distinct in that Christ is honoured as firstborn over Israel, who welcomes half-breeds and misfits, but rejects idolaters. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone.  Dennis E. Johnson comments on this list:

“this genealogy symbolizes the reign of Jesus, the incorporation of outcasts, and the exclusion of idolaters from the covenant community that God shields from his terrible wrath.”

John hears the roll call of 144’000 covenant people championed by Christ.  But what John sees next is something completely different.

great multitude - palm branches

The innumerable crowd in white (7:9-17).  John’s vision transforms into a vast sea of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” in worship.  What the census of 144’000 fighting men of Israel suggested above, this vision affirms.  This is a vision of the Lamb’s army who heralds him with singing and palm branches as the inaugurated, homecoming King.  

The elder tells John that: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  In other words – the ones who endured the troubling times on earth, have trusted in Christ’s vicarious death for their sins, having been washed as white as snow (refer to Isaiah 1:18).  These elect ones to worship God by declaring “Salvation belongs to our God…and to the Lamb!” – God alone can save us from his wrath (7:10; compare Psalms 37:39; 62:7 etc).  These saints will enjoy peace and bliss in the Lamb’s presence before the throne for eternity (7:15-17).

What is this seal of God (7:3)?  As mentioned above, Ezekiel saw a vision where the Lord commanded an angel to mark (seal) his faithful ones “who groan over the idolatry in Jerusalem” with a seal on the forehead, to protect them from God’s wrath against unfaithful Israel (Ezekiel 9:3-8).  This seal also alludes to the marking of the blood on the doorposts that protected God’s people from the wrath poured out over Egypt (Exodus 12:21-27).

In the New Testament, we read that the Holy Spirit dwelling within the believer is God’s “seal and guarantee of salvation” (2 Corinthians 1:22; also Ephesians 1:13 -14).  We also note that this apocalyptic army of God are blood-washed, like the houses in Egypt escaping the wrath of God (7:9).

Who can stand before the wrath of God? (7:9)  This description of sealed ones is an answer to the cry “who can stand before the wrath of the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb?” (6:17) The answer: those who have been sealed by the Spirit, washed in his blood – the Lamb’s army (7:3, 9).  These not only “stand before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9), but they are found joyfully worshipping him.

Protected from wrath, not trouble (7:3,14).  It must be noted that these sealed ones are protected from God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment (as seen above), but it does not shield them from trouble.  Note that these blood-washed ones are “coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14); they are not spared the difficulties that other people endure on earth.  In fact, as we have seen in our discussion on the previous chapter these believers endure religious persecution in addition to all other difficulties.

But why does the seal of God not prevent tribulations?  Jesus promised “In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world(John 16:32-33).  As Christ overcome the tribulations and temptations of this world in his suffering, so these seven churches ought to overcome the tribulations and the temptations to opt for a comfortable life by compromise and disobedience to Christ.  Paul encouraged the church in Rome during Nero’s persecution “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37).  The church’s victory is not from suffering, but to overcome the temptations in spite of suffering.  As we read in chapter 5, our victory is in the way of the Lamb.

Bringing it home

white-throne-judgment

As discussed in the previous post, the judgments of Christ are visible all around us in warfare, disasters, epidemics, poverty and violent persecution.  These troubles are meant to wake up the world (and the church) to the reality that God is sovereign and he will judge the world – who can escape his wrath?  Revelation 7 beautiful depicts the ones that are sealed from God’s wrath on that Day of Judgment.

The church, “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:15-16) are those who worship Jesus as supreme, who recognize their insufficiency and renounce every form of idolatry.  They are the ones who are washed in the Lamb’s blood of the cross and sealed with the indwelling Holy Spirit, trusting Christ alone for their salvation before God’s seat of judgment.

Although this seal of God does not protect us from troubles on this earth, these tribulations and temptations in itself are daily reminders of Christ’s final judgment and the establishment of his kingdom – a realm where

“We shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
    the sun shall not strike us,
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be our shepherd,
    and he will guide us to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Revelation 7:16-17 (pronouns personalised)

 

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