Monday, February 24, 2014

What I Can Say (So Far) With Confidence About Future Things from Revelation.

As I leave the U.S. behind for a few weeks, I thought that I would pick up the theme of yesterday's sermon, and talk about what I am ready to "assert" based on what we have seen studied so far.  Preaching through Revelation cannot be done without giving thought to the future--after all, the book's opening tells us that we are hearing a message about what must "soon" come to pass--meaning at the least that it was a reflection of a future for the church not yet seen. Jesus links this "soon" of chapter 1 with his own return when he said in Rev. 3:11 and 22:7, "I am coming soon."

So, if this future is still future to us (and my reading and study of Revelation 1-8 leaves me with the firm conviction that it is), what lessons should I be confident of about that future as it relates to the people who belong to Jesus now. What can I "know" from Revelation 1 through 8?

Here are some certainties from my studies thus far.

1. The focus of Revelation is clearly centered on God, as revealed to us in the person and message of Jesus.  God is the central focus of the universe, the main "character" in his creation that is autobiographical in the story it tells.  The worship and praise of God comes to him from all the universe, even as his judgments fall on rebels. For us, the main way we understand the story and find our place is through his determination to reveal himself to us through Jesus. The Son is given the message to reveal, just as he disclosed the Father to us in the incarnation and his earthly ministry. He came as rightful Lion (of Judah) King, but is forever worshiped as the Lamb slain, whose death has purchased a people through  his redeeming work. The Father enthroned entrusts his revelation to Jesus as he gives his seven-sealed will to the Lamb.  Wrath and deliverance proceed, all the while attributed to the One who Sits on the Throne (Father) and to the Lamb (Son).

And what of the third member of the Trinity?  The Spirit is consistently portrayed in exactly the kind of symbols that match his role--fully present before the throne (the "seven" spirits--or sevenfold Spirit) in ch. 1, under the direction of Jesus in 3:1, seven torches of flame before God's throne (4:5), and seven horns and eyes of the Lamb sent into the world--fullness of power and understanding (5:6). In short, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, doing their work in power without glorifying himself. This is just as Jesus said he would do in the upper room discourse in John 13-16.

Worship is the proper response to this triune God, and creatures representing all the material creation, elders representing the highest of spiritual beings, angels, and humans all worship him--even those who refuse to repent acknowledge the truth they cannot escape. Worship of God is clearly meant to be the primary thrust of Revelation.

2. The redeemed, righteous people seen in Revelation are identified as servants of Jesus in ch. 1, the people of the churches of chs. 1-3 who are encouraged toward faithfulness, repentance, and endurance anchored in hope, those purchased by the blood of the Lamb in ch. 5, the martyrs of ch. 6's fifth seal, the 144,000 sealed from the twelve tribes of Israel in ch. 7, and the numberless multitude of every tribe and nation also in ch. 7. Their prayers are seen as offered before God's throne as incense in chs. 4 and 8, and as part of the impetus of the completion of God's judgments in chs. 6 and 8.

Other than through death in the present time, we have no indicators in Revelation up to this point as to how or when we enter God's presence--although for many death will come through martyrdom (ch. 6 confirms this). In ch.7 the multitude before the throne are specifically called "those who came out of the great tribulation," but their description as those of every tribe, language, people and nation parallels the description of those redeemed by the Lamb who are a kingdom of priests to God who will reign on earth in ch. 5.

So, thus far, I cannot say how or when all of the redeemed will arrive in God's presence in the future. There is the current way, death. In Revelation that is either life lived in faithfulness until we die (as John was doing) that will involve tribulation for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus; or it is life lived in faithful witness that provokes opposition that leads to death--martyrdom.  Either is to be preferred to abandoning one's profession in one's life and experiencing God's punishing hand--either in correction or wrath (outside observers will not be able to tell which it is--the messages to five of the seven churches in chs. 2-3 carry these warnings). I find the messages to Smyrna and Philadelphia instructive and significant if we are to consider the churches as representative of all the different churches between then and now. We will experience times of intense but measured testing (the "ten days" referenced for Smyrna in 2:10), but the hour of testing that is coming on the whole earth to test those who "dwell on the earth" (referenced to Philadelphia in 3:10) is something the church that has persevered is said to be kept from. So there is faithful witness to the point of death, even if that death is martyrdom; there is the reward of perseverance now--being "kept from" the future worldwide hour of trial; finally, there are those who "come out" of the Great Tribulation to the throne of God. We must go to passages such as John 14, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 1, 4, and 5, and 2 Thessalonians 1 (along with others and some big hints later in Revelation) to put together a better idea of these things.

If worship is the response I should have to this vision of God and the Lamb, then faithful perseverance in the truth received should be my response as I consider the message of what is in store for those who are faithful to the message of Christ.

3. The plan of God for the future includes the certainty of judgment to fall on the unrighteous, who are called "those who dwell on the earth" at various points in the sections we have studied (and the rest of Revelation). God has promised that he will avenge (remember the "vengeance is mine" line that comes up numerous times in the Bible?) his people and vindicate his name.  The martyrs don't ask, "will you..." but rather "how long?" The Lord's answer is not "I would never," but "wait a little longer." God judges sin, and he does so in answer to prayers of all the saints.  This judgment, even in the initial stages we have seen, will undermine all the "givens" that people count on and comes down with rapidly increasing intensity. Even those judged despair as they grasp the source of the judgment but fail to repent and find deliverance. The judgments pictured, though foreshadowed in history, have not yet taken place, but they will.

We'll learn more and I'll assert more, as we move through the text. But first a few weeks away for me doing some ministry in other contexts and continents!