In the first 14 verses of this chapter we are given a vision of the Lord’s two witnesses who emerge triumphant after a life of faithful witness even as they suffer a brief and apparent defeat.
After John has the vision of the great angel straddling the whole earth with the bittersweet gospel in his hand, he is next told to measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there (v.1) This measuring is similar to that which the prophet Ezekiel was commissioned to do (Eze 40-42), but with a significant difference. In the New Testament we find that the temple of God actually becomes the people of God.
John is next told to exclude the outer court from his measurements because it has been given to the Gentiles, and they will trample on the holy city for 42 months (v.2). During this period, the Gentiles trample the holy city – that is, the people of God are persecuted. When John receives the vision, Jerusalem had already been destroyed.
John’s vision does not concern the temple in Jerusalem made of stone (which was destroyed in AD 70). Rather, his focus is on the temple made of living stones, the people of God from every race, tribe, and tongue, who are becoming the dwelling place for the Lord by his Spirit. One commentator says, the measuring commanded here is an indication to us of the ordered perfection of all God purposes and performs, as the Creator and Restorer of the universe. Its measuring may be taken to mean that God is in control of all that happens to his servants, they are well known in number and name to God.
This brings us to one of the most debated details in the whole of Revelation. What are we to make of this 42-month period of time? It occurs several times in Revelation as 1260 days and time and times and a half time. The background to this numeric symbol is found in Daniel 7:25; 9:24-27; and 12:7. The most popular interpretations of this period have been these:
the second half of the seven-year great Tribulation in which the antichrist rules
a conventional symbol for a limited period of unrestrained wickedness
the whole inter-advent period
We must look to the following verses for a more complete understanding of the meaning of this part of the vision. In vv.3-14 we meet the two witnesses who are raised up and empowered by God for fruitful and effective ministry during this whole persecution-filled 42-month period. They are identified by means of Old Testament imagery. Perhaps we are to be reminded of Moses and Elijah, who appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mar 9:4). These witnesses have the power to shut up the sky so that it does not rain during the time they are prophesying. They also have the power to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want (v.6).
Perhaps the two-ness is not a limited number but rather a symbol of the trustworthiness of their witness (Joh 8:17; Deu 19:15; Luk 1:10; Act 1:8). Certainly the two olive trees and the two lampstands should remind us of the spirit-filled Church called and empowered to preach the gospel in light of all kinds of opposition and persecution, including that of martyrdom (Psa 52:8; Zec 4; Rom 11). For in the Old Testament, the olive tree was often used as a symbol of Israel, and as we have seen, the lampstand signifies the Church.
As the two witnesses continue their effective ministry among the nations, John records a fatal attack from the beast that comes from the abyss (v.7), but only after they have finished their testimony. Satan’s attack does not and cannot alter that which our Father has purposed. The gospel is running through the nations. There will be men and women from every people group populating Heaven. The kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever!
The attack of the beast on the witnesses leads to their death and a brief three-and-a-half day period of gloating, celebrating and gift-giving among the peoples of the great city, here referred to as Sodom and Egypt, which stand for hardened idolatry and rebellion. In the following chapters of Revelation, Rome (Babylon) is identified as the world in rebellion against God and his people (2Co 4:7-9; Jer 5:11,14; Joh 15:18-21).
What seemed to be the death of the witnesses of the Church actually gives rise to her resurrection and glory. But after the three-and-a-half days, a breath of life from God enters them, and they stand on their feet, and terror strikes those who see them (v.11). Should we not think of this three-and-a-half-day apparent triumph for the beast as a reflection of the three days that Jesus spent in apparent defeat after his crucifixion? The beast’s victory is hollow. God’s enemies are startled, humbled, and overwhelmed when he vindicates his servants. How much more so will be the case at the second coming of Jesus when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father?
Perspectives and Relevance
Let us now try to imagine how this vision of the two witnesses would have affected the hearts of John’s original audience. Of what practical and timely importance would this image have been to persecuted Christians in the first century if the 42 months was a reference to something that would happen only thousands of years after their deaths? On the other hand, if the three-and-a-half year period is indeed a reference to the whole interadvent period, the whole age between the two comings of Christ, then we can see great relevance and encouragement not only for Christians of the first century but also for Christians of every century.
As the people of God were known, numbered, loved and protected against all ultimate harm and loss, we are not to develop a bomb-shelter mentality in the face of great opposition and persecution. Our calling never has been to retreat into little Christian ghettos, cocoons, communes, or communities of self-protection and survival. For John’s readers in Asia Minor, there is great encouragement. They are not to fear Rome’s worst assaults. Even though there will be times and places in which it seems that the Church has been silenced and defeated – if not destroyed – the demise is only brief. The blood of the martyr has always proven to be the seed of the Church. Our God is the God of resurrection! Even if the enemies of God have a seasonal laugh at the temporary demise of the witnesses of the gospel, he who sits at the throne on Heaven laughs eternally and most loudly (Psa 2).
What about the Church of every age? What hope, comfort, and courage do we derive from this vision? Our calling is not to waste time trying to run from credit cards with ‘666’ on them. We are not to speculate on who the antichrist is. We are by proclamation and by presence to preach and demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ among the nations until Jesus comes back. We the Church are the two witnesses, empowered by God himself. He is the Lord of both miracle and persecution, of both gospel advancement and apparent gospel setbacks. Our calling is not to be successful but to be faithful. This is our Father’s world. None will ultimately thwart his plans. No, we are not to be naïve about life in Sodom and Egypt. God gives us insight about the real world so that we can serve him with confidence and hope as we seek to demonstrate the radical implications of the gospel in our own context of Babylon.
A Common Mission
We are all missionaries. As such, we are to go into every nation of the world and into every sphere of life. A part of our repentance is going to require that we recognize and discard some of our non-biblical thoughts and paradigms about what it means to be a witness and to be involved in ministry.
First of all, let us repent of our pragmatism. The driving question of ministry is not what works. God alone is the one who faithfully applies the saving benefits of Jesus Christ to the lost. It is up to the Lord of the harvest how this mystery is played out. Our calling is merely to declare his glory among the nations. He alone can raise the dead, and he does.
On the other hand, we must be careful not to label some missionary or pastor or gifted layperson a superstar in the Kingdom in terms of great observable fruit. As Paul told the Corinthians, “…What do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if in fact it was a gift, why do you boast as if it weren’t?” (1Co 4:7). God gives talents and gifts, calling and fruit as he sees fit. One plants, another waters, another harvests, but it is God who gives the increase.
Next, we need to repent of separating the ministry of the Word and the ministry of good deeds. God’s grace needs to be communicated by both proclamation and by presence. I think we tend to do a far better job of preaching at people than coming alongside them as conduits of the mercy of our God. Unfortunately also, we tend to think that unless a full-blown presentation of the gospel has been given that we have failed in our calling as witnesses. May God enable us to beautify the truth of the gospel as we manifest the grace of the gospel, even as single rays of the Lord’s light.
Third, we need to be careful not to limit the concept of ministry to what we commonly refer to as spiritual activities. For instance, why is a summer mission trip taken by a business person considered ministry but his or her vocation – what he or she does for many more months of the year – simply referred to as a job? Let us understand that every sphere of life is to reflect the glory and grace of God. All enterprises are not to be graded, distinguished, or valued in terms of the evangelistic opportunities they afford.
For His Glory
God is honoured when we do all things to his glory. This is the essence of what it means to bear witness to his name. As image-bearers of God, we should want to reflect both his genius as Creator and his mercy as Redeemer. If we preach, let us do so with precision and with passion. Do not distort the gospel and do not dishonour the Lord by not preparing your sermon and your heart. And if you are a plumber, then plumb to the glory of God. Putting a little fish sign or a cross on one of the pipes you install will not make the job you performed “Christian”. Indeed, if you did a poor job, please do not put any such sign on your work. God is more honoured by a non-Christian doing a good job than when we, his people, do slipshod or half-hearted work.
One of the first heresies that invaded and affected the first century church was Gnosticism, a Greek worldview that distinguishes all of reality between spirit and matter. The realm of spirit is to be prized while the realm of the material, the created work, is to be denigrated if not despised. Such an unbiblical worldview has led Christians to almost totally disregard the revelation of God as the sovereign Creator and eternal sustainer of all things. We have compartmentalized life into categories that cannot be justified by the Scriptures. The net effect is that the gospel, and Christians, are removed from the public square and from primary contexts in our culture. Christian faith is marginalized and trivialized. What is worse, God is robbed of the glory due his name.
Until Jesus returns, we are to move courageously and expectantly into the world and into the culture where our Lord has placed us. For a day is coming when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In light of this hope, let us live well and love well in every sphere of life, all to the glory of God.
Go back and read A Sense of Life-Direction – The Big Picture.
We are greeted in the first verses of this chapter with a wondrous vision of the New Jerusalem; it is the place that Christ has been preparing for his own ever since he returned there after his resurrection.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
It is that city “which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10).
Setting our Sights on the Promise
John 14:1-6 (NKJV)
“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Every believer has the promised hope of living forever in Heaven and sojourning in the New Jerusalem. Since we have been raised to a new life with Christ, we should set our sights on the realities of heaven and let heaven fill our thoughts (Col 3:1-2).
C. S. Lewis wrote: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001). We Christians yearn for a better place and a better future, nearer to Jesus than we on Earth can ever be. This is that other world that Lewis talks about, and it is eternity in Heaven, the New Jerusalem.
Lewis’s greatest contributions to the argument on desire are found in his works “Mere Christianity” and “The Weight of Glory”. This desire, Lewis argues, resides in each individual and is common to all human experience. It is the want for what he would closely associate with Heaven, or how the believer will experience God in Heaven. In expounding on his major premise, Lewis claims, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.” That is to say that all natural desires correspond to a true satisfaction that can be attained. In the conclusion of his argument, Lewis identifies the satisfaction for this desire as the eternal world, or life with God – the New Jerusalem. In essence, Lewis claims that for the Christian, Heaven is the “natural” or “proper” reward for discipleship. It is Heaven, Lewis argues, that will satisfy the immortal longings given from the Creator. Much of Lewis’s writings entertain notions of what Heaven will entail, but a greater majority of his work focuses on the desire itself.
The words from Colossians encourage us to “set our sights on the realities of heaven and let heaven fill our thoughts”. We should do this, says the apostle Paul. In so arguing, we can’t help but think that this is a difficult Christian practice, for Paul alludes to the struggle he has himself in Romans:
Romans 7:18-19 (ESV)
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
Before detailing what the city is like, John hears a great voice which tells him what we will be like.
Revelation 11:3 (KJV)
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
God will once again walk and talk with his people directly, intimately, like he walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It will be a continuous relationship and not a periodic dialogue as when God dwelt in the physical tabernacle constructed by the Israelites. It will be a close relationship and no longer simply receiving revelation of his plans through an intermediary priest. It will be even better still than when Emmanuel, “God with us,” tabernacled among us (John 1:14) in the days of his flesh.
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Yet we have the promise of life forevermore in the New Jerusalem! God will wipe our tears and there will be no more sorrow or crying. This is possible only because the Lord Jesus Christ was made the curse for us (Gal 3:13). He “in agony…sweat as it were great drops of blood” as he “carried our sorrows”, then was painfully “wounded for our transgressions” and “buried for our iniquities”. He “poured out his soul unto death” (Luk 22:24; Isa 53:4-5,12). As the physical aspects of the curse had already been purged (2Pe 3:10), so also will all its spiritual aspects, and “there shall be no more curse” (Rev 22:3).
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” …
that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord … the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.
With God’s announcement of the restitution of all things, we know that everything will be renewed, refreshed – as new as the Creation! There will be a new Heaven, a new Earth, and a new Jerusalem; a new name and a new song (Rev 2:17; 3:12; 5:9; 21:1). We imagine that John was so awed by what he had seen that God has to remind him in the second part of verse 5 that it is all real, and that he is to write it all down.
Faithful and True
We read of the faithful and true witness in Revelation 3:14, and the faithful and true rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:11. The faithful and true in Revelation 21:5-6 is God, the beginning and the end, the Creator and Consummator (Col 1:16,20) in the Person of Jesus Christ.
In talking of the great people of faith, the author of Hebrews wrote:
Hebrews 11:13-16 NIV
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
The faithful, those who persevere and have overcome, shall inherit all these new things and live in this better country, the New Jerusalem. The city is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband and John details the abundant beauty of this “bride” in verses 11 to 27, when he is taken to a great mountain, from where he has a better vantage point and can take in the magnificence and splendor of this city that is beyond compare.
What’s in Store in the New Jerusalem
John describes the city as having a square-shaped base, measuring around 12 stadia in man’s measurements (v.17) – 2200 kilometers – and being 2250 to 2400 kilometers in length and width. The height of the city was also the same, making it cube-shaped. Calculating, the city will be larger than the subcontinent of India with an area of at least 1,960,000 up to 2,250,000 square kilometers. Note the astounding height of the cube, which if constructed on this earth would extend far beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and into space. If it were a building with 12-foot stories, it would be 600,000 stories high! The walls were also measured by an angel and shown to John to be 144 cubits – 65 meters – thick.
The description of the glorious holy city is too detailed to admit anything but literal interpretation, though there have been many efforts to spiritualize the verses containing it. There is every reason to believe that John is writing exactly what he saw, and that God means exactly what he says (Rev 22:18-19). The holy city is a literal city on the literal new earth. Assuming that the size of the mansions (Joh 14:2) that Jesus promised prepare for us are each 100 meters in height, length and width, then there will be 10,648 trillion such rooms in the city. This is more than enough for the 107 billion people who have ever lived on earth, per the 2011 estimate by Carl Haub of the nonprofit Population reference Bureau. Henry Morris estimates in the Defender’s Bible, however, that 20 billion redeemed will enter Heaven.
As good as the preparation and presentation of the New Jerusalem are, as wonderful as our communion with God will be, Jesus’s revelation to John offers us even more insight into the kingdom of God to come.
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city 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. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
We will no longer go to church or prepare ourselves to worship God. Our very existence, our being, is worship and communion with God! The entire Kingdom will be the Church, and the glory we will experience will be greater than the most powerful inspirational gatherings that we have ever participated in or witnessed.
God says that we will no longer depend on nature, or any creation of God, for what we need. God himself is our source of life! God’s glory will be all the light that we need, our way lit not by a creation of God but by God himself! Like much of John’s apocalyptic vision, this aspect of the New Jerusalem is really beyond description or imagination. However, to wrestle with this truth is to catch a tiny glimpse of the wondrous existence that awaits us. No wonder John pronounces a blessing to those who read the Revelation (Rev1:3)!
Today we worry about wars, natural disasters, and criminal violence, but in Heaven there is no danger and no evil. There is no more need for gated and guarded communities, or alarm systems and CCTV. There will be no police, courts, lawyers, soldiers or prisons. The “walls” of our society will have come down, and we will be able to commune not only with God but with all his people. Our relationships will be based on complete liberty and trust, never wondering about their motives or being misunderstood. It will be natural and rewarding to love others without hesitation or limits.
The final great victory is that we will no longer struggle with sin and temptation. Because there is no evil in the New Jerusalem, all we can recall of our present fears, grudges, addictions, and other forms of bondage that we on earth plead with God for years to deliver us from will be gone. The past has been forgiven those who humbly repent and seek God’s face, but in the New Jerusalem it will all have been vanquished eternally! Our transition from pain and suffering into rest (Heb 4) is often the focus of our concept of Heaven (Rev 21:4). But the everlasting presence of the eternal Father and Lamb is much more than this! May his glory ever draw our gaze heavenward!
Go back and read Revelation 4: The Beginning of the End of the Age.
God has all kinds of sons and daughters, through redemption and adoption in Christ, who love him equally, but also love him differently. The body of Christ is the real rainbow coalition. Because of this, we Christians don’t tend to handle our rich diversity very well at all. No scandal of contemporary Church is more pronounced than the multiplicity of denominations, which defines the Christian topography.
As our Lord has prayed for our unity, mutual esteem, and love, we have majored on the theological minor, ecclesiastical turf protection. Painfully, and oddly enough, our disunity is nowhere more clearly pronounced than when the topic of worship emerges for discussion and planning among Christians. That which is meant to be an expression of Spirit-wrought humility and other-centered adoration of God becomes a battleground for proud combatants to vie for the right to define the liturgy and control the elements of the worship service. More often than not, this is usually only determined by a person’s aesthetic sensibilities and preferences, not theology. What an ugly circumstance and utter contradiction of the nature and purpose of the worship of God.
The book of Revelation confronts these sins and invites us to something far more glorious. In chapter 5, we are still in the great throne room. As we look at this section, it becomes obvious that John is given much more than a vision of the sovereignty of God with his glimpse into the control center of the universe. He is given a vision of the glorious worship of Heaven. John sees and hears that for which we have been made, that which will be our sumptuous feast throughout eternity, the perfected worship of our Triune God.
From this point on, we will see that the worship of the Lamb and the One upon the throne is the defining reality of the people of God. It distinguishes us from those who worship the Beast (Ch. 13), demons, and idols. It is the love song of the Bride for the Bridegroom. It is the means by which we are to wage war against Satan in the world, not against one another in the Body of Christ. It is the eschatalogical cry of the beloved of the Lord who worship now as a foretaste of how we will worship then.
Worship is presented as a way of life, and not just that which is celebrated one day a week in a special room called the worship center. The whole of God’s creation is the worship center and God himself is the center of all worship. Several hymns and doxologies are intentionally and strategically placed throughout Revelation. We can believe that Revelation is to the New Testament what the book of Psalms is to the Old Testament. Here is our worship manual and hymnal, and it is as instructive as it is encouraging.
As God is worshiped as Creator in chapter 4, so he is worshiped as Redeemer in chapter 5. Our focus moves from the One upon the throne to the One who hung on the Cross. The vision continues with John’s gaze riveted on a scroll in God’s right hand, “with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” (5:1). This “book of destiny” is in the firm grasp of the One upon the throne. The decrees of God are comprehensive and extensive, as the double-sided writing indicates. History is the unfolding of God’s predetermined plan for all things. Chance and fate do not reign, God does.
John is further drawn into the drama of this worship as he hears and sees “a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?'” (5:2). That is, who could possibly be qualified “to perform the supreme service of bringing history to its foreordained consummation”? But none could be found worthy of the task among the angels, or even the redeemed of the Lord. John weeps tears of pain as he confronts the unworthiness of the whole people of God to even look inside the scroll, much less open it.
An elder, representing redeemed mankind, responds, “Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5). As the Lion, Jesus is the true King who is paramount over all. His human lineage is traced through Judah (Heb 7:14; 2Sa 7:13, 16; Isa 9:6; Luk 1:32; Gen 49:9). But he who came after King David is also before him (Isa 11:1, 10; John 8:57; Mic 5:2; Rev 22:16). In the birth of Jesus the “Shoot of Jesse” is also revealed as the “Root of Jesse”. He alone is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.
John looks for a Lion and instead sees a Lamb. What a glorious paradox. This Lamb – “looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne” (5:6) – becomes the central figure. Even in heaven, we will be eternally reminded of the fact that is is only by the virtue of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement that we are there. He is the Messianic King because he has been faithful to his calling as the Lamb of God.
There is no ordinary Lamb, but one with seven horns and seven eyes. The seven horns do not need to be painted into the image of a Lamb. Instead, they are intended to make us think of the fullness of Jesus’ power, as horns are a symbol of strength in Scripture (Deu 33:17; Psa 18:2; 1Ki 22:11). This Lamb is the omnipotent Son of God! His seven eyes symbolize both his omniscience and the pervasiveness of his Spirit’s work throughout creation.
In one of the most dramatic and glorious events in all of history, Jesus, as the Lamb, comes and takes the scroll from the Father’s right hand. Immediately, worship breaks as the four living creatures and 24 elders fall down before the Lamb (5:8). This tender picture reminds us that our supplications and our prayers actually matter to God. The worship and prayer of the “church militant” connect us with the “church triumphant” like nothing else (Exo 31:1-8; Deu 33:10; Psa 14:2; Luk 1:10).
Try to imagine experiencing what John was next privileged to witness as the Lamb takes the scroll from our Father’s hand. The elders begin singing a “new song”. This song of redemption is new in the sense that it is fresh and special. It is a song that will never grow old because the wonder and joy of this salvation will never pall. The threefold worth of the Lamb to open the scroll is proclaimed as he is praised.
You were slain (5:9) – Jesus’ sacrificial death is the zenith and purest expression of his costly and unconditional love for sinners
You purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (5:9) – Jesus did not merely make redemption possible, he has actually secured the salvation of many from every people group
You have made the to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (5:10) – through Jesus our lives have meaning, not just in eternity but also in Baguio, Asia, throughout the world and throughout history
What is the only appropriate response to such a glorious vision? John “looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise'” (5:11-12). What a dynamic and dramatic scene. When is the last time you participated in a worship service and approached this kind of inviting reality?
But this celebration of God’s mercy and might grows even grander. “Then I heard every creature in Heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!’ The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped (5:13-14). Everyone and everything gives God and the Lamb their worthy due. Has a more awesome worship gathering ever been described?
What effect do you think this vision would have had on the seven churches? The persecuted are deeply encouraged to endure all things on behalf of him who bore all things for their redemption. The cold-hearted are invited to be renewed in their affections for him whose love is their own rebuke. Jewish Christians are secured in this new covenant faith as they are reassured that Jesus is, indeed, God’s Messiah, the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The fearful are given strength, confidence and hope as they see who really controls history and their destiny. The outnumbered Christians on the Roman world are made aware that they are far from being a minority – they are part of an uncountable community. Those deceived by false teaching are confronted with worship that is in “truth” and, therefore, pure. The whole church is called to affirm afresh with confidence, passion and joy, that Jesus, not the emperor, is Dominus et Deus, Lord and God.
What about us? How are we to be affected by the vision of heavenly worship given in this chapter? For those who claim great interest, passionate concern, and/or personal responsibility for the worship of God in our day, this portion of Scripture is critical and compelling. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the perfected worship of Heaven should be the paradigm from which we work as we seek to faithfully adore, praise and honor the One who alone is worthy of everything that we have and are? How should our understanding and experience of worship in our church families be shaped by what we see of the worship of God in eternity?
As we give careful attention to the details of john’s description in Revelation 4 and 5, certain continuums of worship emerge which are instructive and helpful. They guide us as we seek to mature as a community of God’s people who accept the worship of God as our most glorious, important and eternal of all callings. For as long as the discussion about worship centers on what we like or dislike, we have missed the heart of worship. Perhaps we have unwittingly done a better job of worshiping worship than worshiping God. As Christians we are to accept what the Reformers called the regulative principle, the belief that the Bible alone has the authority to regulate all things for the people of God, including what we do in worship. The questions we should be wrestling with are:
What does God desire in his worship?
What is acceptable worship according to the Bible?
How can we more faithfully represent, honor and serve God in his worship?
That we worship our Triune Lord is great, appropriate and awesome. We should! But that is neither the point not the goal of true worship. All that should ultimately matter to us is his glory and honor.
Let us look at some of the principles of worship continuums:
Spirit (Holy Spirit) – versus – Truth (Doctrine)
Many Christians tend to set up an unbiblical dichotomy based on the difference between what they call dead worship and alive worship. Dead worship is usually stereotyped as being too cerebral, liturgical, theological, weighty, musically out of touch, and boring. Alive worship is described in terms of being Spirit-led, emotionally real and affective, musically relevant, and powerful. It is assumed by many that theology and passion are mutually exclusive in worship. But in the visions and worship given in the book of Revelation, we find rich theology leading to impassioned doxology: sound doctrine effecting spiritual delight; a clearer vision of God segueing into a deeper experience of his glory and grace.
This same John who recorded Jesus’ revelation of heavenly worship also recorded some of the most important teaching that our Lord gave on the topic of worship. In chapter 4 of John’s gospel, Jesus had an encounter with a Samaritan woman in which he made known to her that:
Joh_4:23 “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
It is important for us to hear that, first of all, our Father is seeking worshippers. It should humble us to realize that our God actually longs for and delights in the worship of his people.
Second, however, notice that not just any kind of worship will do. True worship (as opposed to unacceptable worship) must be in spirit and in truth. Neither dead orthodoxy (truth without spirit) nor live heterodoxy (spirit without truth) is acceptable to God. God’s worship must be grounded in his truth and enlivened by his Spirit. This balanced continuum must be celebrated in every liturgical setting in the Christian church, no matter our ecclesiastical heritage, whether Baptist, Charismatic, nondenominational, Episcopal, or whatever.
Transcendence (God’s holiness) – versus – Immanence (God’s nearness)
God’s holy otherness is celebrated in John’s visions just as his Abba, Father’s, heart is fully enjoyed. We hear the same “holy, holy, holy” ringing out in the worship of heaven as Isaiah experienced his magnificent vision (Isa 6). God is “high and lifted up”. His glory still fills the temple. John also describes God coming off his exalted throne and wiping every tear out of the eyes of the people of God (Rev 21). What a glorious mixture of images, of reverence and intimacy. We tend, however, to negate one of these aspects of God’s Being in preference to the other, but we are not to treat the attributes of God like ice cream where we can pick our flavors of choice.
Such an attitude is what the Bible calls idolatry, the remaking of God after our own image or liking. We dare not trivialize the worship of God by reducing it to some kind of syrupy sentimental familiarity. And neither are we faithfully and in keeping with his own revelation when we keep God in the rafters of the sanctuary under the pretense of mystery and respect. In heaven we will fully and eternally enjoy an affectionate reverence for God. May the same become increasingly manifest in the way we worship him today.
We have learned so much about the mercy, grace and love of God. We richly enjoy God’s nearness in the Gospel. Let us look forward to entering a season of rediscovering what it means to be in awe of God’s majesty and eternal perfections, as David must have been when he wrote Psalm 145. Without such a vision, we tend to trivialize the gospel of God’s grace. May that never happen.
Heart (Inner expression) – versus – Art (Outward expression)
As you look very carefully at the worship of heaven you will realize that it includes many elements that are spatial, visual, auditory, musical, and participatory, just to name a few. There represent the art of heavenly worship and should be seen as the creative expression of the heart of worship.
God bids us surrender of our creative energies, gifts and artistic sensibilities to the most noble and rand of all realities, the worship of God. No, we are not called to worship art nor artists for this is nothing more than idolatry. (Tragically the church has proven itself quite capable of this and many other idolatries in our worship services.) But neither are we to congratulate ourselves for giving artless expressions to the richness of our theology and experience of the living God. Too often, we settle for a “hymn sandwich” in our worship services – a big fat slice of meaty sermon between an opening and closing hymn. Surely God’s worship is to be more creative and participatory than this. There is more of a defense for artless worship than there is for heartless worship. Surely we are not to offer to the Lord that which cost us nothing.
Liturgy – versus – Life
Lastly, we should be profoundly stirred by the implications of God being worshipped in Revelation 4 as Creator before he is worshipped in Revelation 5 as Redeemer. The whole of life is to be seen as the worship center for the people of God. His praise is to be demonstrated and celebrated in all life, in all this world, and in every sphere of his creation. Indeed we are to plan, pray and work hard at cultivating faithful worship in our weekly celebrations in terms of the liturgy, the word, prayers, communion and music. But we must not reduce worship to mean only that which occurs in the sanctuary once a week.
Such reductionism has been destructive to the way God’s people tend to think of the nature of worship. All of life for Christians is to be loved as an act of worship. The chief end of man is to “glorify God and to enjoy him forever”. We do this best when we seek to worship him in every sphere of life – work, play, family, friendship, everywhere and all the time.
William Temple, founder and president of Temple university, offered this helpful definition of worship that captures a consuming understanding of what worship is about:
Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness, the nourishment of mind with his truth, the purifying of imagination by his beauty: the opening of the heart to his love, the surrender of will to his purpose – and all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable, and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.
As it is in heaven, may it be incremently and demonstrably so here!
Go back and read Revelation 3: The Beloved Church – Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea.
A Real Experience
Let us step back in time a moment and read of another prophet who was called by God at a critical moment in Israel’s history. Samuel 3:1 related to us how the word of the Lord was “precious in those days” and there had been no “open vision” from God. God had not given any direct revelation to His people as He had done in former times. But now, three times Samuel is called from God and he, not recognizing the voice of God, runs to Eli, who himself only understands at the third call what is going on. In a vision the Lord himself comes to Samuel and reveals things that “will make the ears of those who hear tingle.” Samuel was called by God to tell what was going to happen in the years ahead, some things soon and swift, other events away in the future. Eli heard and accepted to words of Samuel and the punishment that he and his sons would receive for their wrong behavior (v. 18) and so did Israel listen to God’s word through Samuel.
The revelation to John, the apostle who outlived all of his colleagues, was given in a manner that was far more impressive and grandiose than the visions given to Samuel. Yet, just as Samuel passed on and proclaimed the words from God to man, so does the apostle John reveal God’s plans for his world to us. Samuel talked with God, who appeared to him on many occasions, but John reports to us what he actually saw and heard as he was transported in time and space to be an actual eyewitness of what would happen in the future. It is significant that the words “I heard” are used exactly 28 times – 7 X 4 – and the words “I saw” 49 times – 7 X 7. John is reporting as a direct witness of these things to come. He tells us they will occur as he wrote them, because he was there and saw and heard them happen.
The pervasive use of the number seven in the book of Revelation is noteworthy. The word “seven” occurs more often in Revelation than in all the rest of the New Testament put together. The number seven is the number that indicates fullness or completion, the reason being that God’s creation of the universe was completed on the seventh day in that first week. Ever since creation, man has kept time in terms of seven-day weeks, commemorating God’s completed work. In the book of Revelation, the “seal of seven” is subtly reminding us that God’s work of the redemption and restoration of his creation is likewise about to be completed. See below the chart of sevens in the book of Revelation:
||1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6
||1:12, 20; 2:1; 4:5
||1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1
||5:1; 5:5; 6:1
||8:2, 6; 15:1, 6, 7; 15:8; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9
|7 Thousand people
||12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 9
||15:1, 6, 8; 21:9
||15:7; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9
|Last 7 visions
Now, in chapter 4, after a concise and fitting review of the seven churches, and recognizing much of what was taught in chapters 1-3, and considering what we see going on around us in present day churches, we join John as he begins his journey into the future. John here sees, hears and learns of the “things that must be hereafter”(v 1b). John is not watching the scenes unfold before him but is taken there in spirit and his senses are fully in tune with all that is happening around him. Just as in chapter 1:10 the voice he hears is like the sound of a trumpet and it invites John to come up and see the future. One day, like John, we too will be caught up into Heaven to be with the Lord forever and see and hear (1 Thess 4:16-17)! What a day of rejoicing that will be! It will be immediate, “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15:52).
The Heavenly Throne Room
John was transported – or raptured – both in space and time to the throne of God at the end of the age, and what he saw he was commanded to “bear record of” (1:2). He finds himself in front of a throne being set in the nearby atmospheric heaven – Οὐρανός (ouranos), the sky, the eternal abode of God. This throne quite possibly is the “judgment seat” of Christ, transported from the far off third heaven (2 Cor 12:2) where God presently dwells and where Paul was taken to “paradise”. On the throne is the triune God who prepares himself for the judgment of the earth, “dwelling in the light which no men can approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16). But the light emanating from the throne becomes visible to John in a complete rainbow around it. The color emerald (green) dominates, and the colors carnelian (red) and jasper (violet) are at either end of the spectrum. The rainbow is mentioned only four times in the Bible, each time referring to God’s mercy in a time of judgment (Gen 9; Ezek 1; Rev 4 and Rev 10). The rainbow is a reminder for us that in the midst of an ungodly world ripe for judgment, there is a remnant of believers, and that the “God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10) will “in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2).
Around the throne are arranged twenty-four seats, or “thrones”, on which are seated twenty-four elders. These elders are real men who are on two occasions quoted as speaking to John (5:5; 7:13). They are redeemed men, for they are wearing white robes (3:5). They also wear the victor’s crown – στέφανος, stephanos, as in the wreath given to winners of the Olympic games – and not the diadem – διάδημα – crown of a ruler or king. Paul wrote about this stephanos in 1 Cor 9:24-27 as being the crown that will be awarded to believers who overcome the flesh and conquer sin to live godly lives. Since the word “elder” always implies relative chronological age as well as official position, it seems possible that these men are the elders of the human race (Adam to Pharez). But their appearance gives them away. They have thrones, so they are also rulers. They are seated, so their work is done. They are dressed in white, so they have been made righteous. They are wearing the stephanos, so they are overcomers. They are elders, a title associated more with Christianity than Judaism. This strongly indicates that these elders are representatives of the Church. Also, in 6:2, the first horseman of the apocalypse is wearing the same stephanos, which is in keeping with the mission of Christ to cleanse the world, i.e., he will be victorious! Each judgment of the seven seals is sent firth by Christ, and the first rider is Christ, just as at the end of his judgments of the earth (19:11).
Verse 5 now describes some more of the things around the throne. When God revealed himself to man (e.g. Exo 19:16), thunder and voices and lightning were often part of it. When God spoke to Israel and gave them the Law through Moses, he did so in the same awe-inspiring manner. If the Law were not adhered to, judgment would follow. Also here, at the time when God proclaims his final judgment, it is again accompanied by thunder and lightning.
John sees seven lamps burning before the throne. They are identified as the seven Spirits of God (c.f. 1:4; 3:1). The seven Spirits are not seven angels, but are the Holy Spirit, joining with the Father and Christ in giving the message. Seven is here to be understood as seven-fold, as shown in the book of Isaiah 11:2 where the Spirit of the Lord is identified as “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The Holy Spirit is made visible to John here, just as when he descended upon Jesus as a dove after his baptism (Mat 3:16), and as cloven tongues of fire upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
The sea of glass like unto crystal round about the throne has been explained by scholars in many different ways. The fact is that John does not give an explanation and leaves it to his readers to draw conclusions from similar scenes in the Bible. It may be compared to the sea of bras in the Old Testament tabernacle, the sea of cast metal (1 Ki 7:23-27), the laver or wash stand (Exo 30:18-21), or the molten sea in the temple (2 Chr 4:2-6), a similar receptacle holding water for the cleansing of the priests and for other ceremonial rites. We know that the tabernacle and temple were built to exact specifications because they are reflections or symbols if you will, as are the feasts and all their details (Heb 9:22-23). Since crystal is solid, the sea mentioned around the throne may indicate that the elders, just as all believers who were raptured with Christ into the presence of God, need no longer purify themselves with water or ceremonies, but have access to the throne of God directly.
In any case John is not too concerned with this glass sea, perhaps because he understands the reference, and moves on to describe in detail the four beasts that are around the throne and in the midst of the throne (4:6-8). The beasts – θηρίον, therion – are not ugly or repulsive animal-like creatures, but handsomely crafted living creatures – ζῷον, zoon. The emphasis here is on the quality of life and the attributes that relate to it. So, what are these creatures? There is a lion, a calf(or ox), a living creature (zoon) with the face of a man, and a flying eagle. Each creature has six wings and is full of eyes and energy. Much effort has been made to reconcile these four creatures with imagery and descriptions from other texts in the Bible. These living creatures are identical to the cherubim described by Ezekiel (Eze 1:5-25; 10:1-22) and the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa 6:1-7). They are the highest in God’s hierarchy of angelic beings and are always associated with Gods immediate presence. In fact, the four living creatures are representative of the attributes or qualities of God, similar to how the Holy Spirit is represented by seven lamps. The fact that the creatures are full of eyes is taken as signifying the omniscience and omnipresence of God who sees all and knows all. The different aspects of divine majesty may be considered as follows. The lion is a symbol of the king of wild animals, and so represents majesty and omnipotence. The calf, the most important of domestic animals, represents patience and continuous labor. The eagle, greatest among the birds, is symbolic of sovereignty and supremacy. Man is the greatest of God’s creatures, and represents intelligence and rational power. These are all undeniable attributes of God.
There are also further representations that we can see from the creation in Genesis 1:25-26. The lion represents the beast of the earth. The calf represents the cattle. The eagle represents the fowl of the air. Note here that there is no living creature representing the fish of the sea or creeping things. In the new earth there will be no more sea (21:1). As for the creeping things, the most striking examples we have now are the serpent and the scorpion (Deu 8:15; Rev 9:10, 19), which are always depicted in the Bible as enemies of mankind.
The fact that the creatures have six wings each (c.f. Isa 6:2-3) gives rise to the consideration that the creatures are angels (as depicted in so many apocalyptic books). Both here and in Isaiah the living creatures bring praise and ascribe holiness to the Lord of hosts. The ministry of the creatures is designed to emphasize the holiness of God and his eternity:
Rev 4:8 … day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!
The amazing scene before John’s eyes now moves to a new activity. The glorious resurrection and rapture of the saints has been consummated, their sins have been purged and their rewards given, and their elders have assumed the thrones prepared for them. The four living creatures now change their perpetual refrain of holiness to the Lord and sing a new song ascribing glory and honor and holiness to him, and thanking him.
Rev 4:11 Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
But what would these creatures thank him for? Certainly not for their redemption, for they were never lost as we were. It is thanksgiving for their creation and preservation throughout all the ages. Note that the last three references to thanksgiving in the Bible all apply to this throne room in heaven. The first (4:9) focuses on God’s creation; the second (7:12) references God’s work of salvation; and the third (11:17) anticipates the great work of consummation. The elders are participants in each, glorifying and praising and thanking God with all that they are. On the occasion that the elders join, the four living creatures cast their stephanos before the throne of God declaring that he is worthy of glory and honor and power because all things have been created by him and for his pleasure. This should lead us to reflect and think, are we joining in that heavenly chorus?
As the elders join they come down from their thrones and prostrate themselves before God. The crowns given to them as their reward for overcoming and remaining faithful, now unseemly, are returned to God in thanksgiving for his faithfulness to them. Nothing that they have or are was accomplished without God’s willing and enabling pleasure – i.e. θέλημα, his will. All came from God and consequently they return their crowns, their gifts, to him in humble thanksgiving. They know that had it not been for his goodness and his grace that brought salvation, they – and we! – could not have victory over sin and death. Let us remember here that it is God’s pleasure that we be with him, and he made sacrifice to redeem us from the just punishment for our wickedness so that we could be, forever. The creature honors his Maker and accepts that man is subject to his Creator.
The world today does not give such honor to the Lord God. Though men benefit from his goodness and live in a universe of his creation, they tend to neglect the worship of God. One of the important goals of the book of Revelation is to trace divine history toward the goal of universal recognition of God.
Php 2:9-11 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
But perhaps such powerful praise seems to be too costly. When Isaiah heard the four living creatures praising God in the temple, the doorposts and the thresholds shook. When Christ is praised, things begin to happen, especially in the temple of our lives and the temple we think of as his church. In fact, we are told that God inhabits the praises of his people (Psa 22:3). The twenty-four elders who were seated around the King of Kings left their thrones and fell down before him, laying their crowns at his feet. These crowns represented not only their positions but all the praise and achievements and glory and honor and rewards that they had received for serving God. All throughout the Bible we are encouraged to get a crown that will last forever (1 Cor 9:25), to finish the race that we might have the crown stored up for all those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8); to persevere in order to receive the crown (Jam 1:12); to hold on to what we have so that no one can take our crown (Rev 3:11).
1Pe 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
These crowns must be important and of extraordinary value in eternity. Are they related to Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17? We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives from the day that we accepted Christ as our Savior until the day that we see him face to face. The Lord will hold a torch to the pile of rubble that represents our achievements and reveal upon what foundation we have built our lives. Have we studied God’s word, lived in obedience to God’s will, been a blessing to others, proclaimed the gospel, made the world a better place for at least some? If we did, that pile of rubble will burn away and what is left over will be precious stones, gold and silver – a precious offering to God, laid at his feet.
Genuine praise is costly – it costs us our lives laid down in worship and laid down in work for the Lord our King. But what cost is this really when we have a view of eternity in the presence of the Most Holy One? How can this be reckoned as an expense, a sacrifice, when the alternative is in reality death?
Genuine praise is the overflow of a life lived in the light of the vision of his glory. Fix your eyes on the Lord who is enthroned at the center of the universe, encircled by a court in heaven, enveloped in a crescendo of praise, and who may at any moment enter time and space to claim you as his own!
The Significance Of Numbers In Scripture
The Messiah in the 7 Biblical Feasts
In the book of Revelation, the writer John (not to be forgotten as a retired fisherman) tells us of a visionary experience in the place called Heaven. He has been invited to see what was going on.
Why was John selected to be a guest for this overwhelming experience? I believe it had something to do with the fact that he was to be a historian of the future. As part of his apostolic task, he was mandated to write about an immense view of time. He was to warn us of the sinister conspiracies of evil. He was to write of judgments and blessings, suffering and crowning, defeats and victories among the nations. And most importantly, he was to affirm for us that Christ our Savior would someday return and assert kingly control over all elements of creation, whether they resisted or not. It was designed to generate hope, stamina of the spirit, and confidence in God: things real-world faith badly needs.
Many today and indeed throughout history have scoffed at the vision. But how could John be brazen enough to convey this enormous vision of history to paper if he was not convinced that it was an authentic theme originated in the heart of the God of history? How could he form a view of the real world of the heavenlies unless he was sure? He couldn’t! And thus his sense of certainty about these things was formed through an invitation to Heavenly worship where he might see how the saints on the heavenly parade ground gave homage to the Eternal Sovereign.
John was not the first to meet God in this way. Abraham’s encounters with God were at altars of sacrifice he had built. He was never the same again. Moses begged God for a view of his glory on the mountain top and finally got a glimpse of it. It kept him going when most of us, without such a vision, would have resigned immediately from running the Hebrew wilderness tour. Isaiah saw the glory of God in a temple while Paul saw it on the road to Damascus. The list goes on with people who, in varying ways, met God and as a result developed a real world faith that serves as a model for us all.
But John’s vision is the most detailed and the most useful of all because he describes what amounts to a heavenly worship service with a liturgy that is easy to follow and quite instructive. He helps us understand two things. First, something about how great God is and how he wants to be seen. Second, how people who care about God respond to him. That is useful information for someone who wants to walk connected to God in a real world sense.
Specifically, what he seems to have witnessed was something like a heavenly hymn-sing. The content of the songs he records is significant because it appears to form an outline for the themes one might want to keep in mind in the forging of real world faith on a daily basis. For example, the order of the songs seems to be like this.
First, a song about the Attributes of God; who he is.
Second, a song about the Mighty Acts of God; things he has done.
Third, a song about the Accepting Work of God; the particular way in which he has connected with broken people via the cross.
Finally, a song of Ascription; thanksgiving and praise about the worth of God, if indeed one could dare to think of computing it.
Is this theology? Of course! Is it practical? Does it really make a difference in the real world whether or not these things are known and appreciated? Scan the list of people you’ve met this week, whether powerful and rich or lowly and poor, or just surviving life, or sickly and dying. Can it make a difference to them? Most definitely!
We can use these words – Attributes, Acts, Acceptance, Ascription – to form an outline for personal meditation both in quiet moments and in hassled moments throughout the day.
When we see the signs on magnificent buildings in the metropolis that speak of globally famous company names, we may be tempted to reorient the base of our faith to something visible and immediate. But then we must remember the great attributes of God and pray, Microsoft and Samsung have great names, but you, O Lord, have a name above all names, a name echoed continuously in the heavens. Microsoft and Samsung will one day be a footnote in history, but the name of God will live forever. We would think that those in the corporate world would profit from keeping the attributes of God in mind when they are tempted to think they are running the world.
At a lunchtime meeting someone may point out a powerful mover and shaker. This guy makes things happen; he is a king-maker. We may be tempted to an interior adulation that is absurd. Then we must remember the mighty acts of God and pray, You, O Lord, have done the truly great things that cannot be defeated or reversed. This guy may orchestrate a leveraged buyout that will earn the investors millions, but you have orchestrated the creation of Heaven and Earth with nothing but a word, and the whole thing keeps going simply because you will it.
We might one day be invited to give a talk at what is considered a significant function and begin to be aware of something growing within, something that makes us feel important and valuable. But this is dangerous and an illusory feeling, and may suddenly remember a time in our lives when very few saw much value in us – except God! And he as Creator and Redeemer loved us and valued us as much in our totally broken moments as he might on another day when we seem to be all together. That invitation does not add one iota of value to a life that God has not put there first by accepting us. We would hope that some of those who perceive themselves powerless because they are aging, broken, or very sick, would understand that they are as valuable to the Lord as anyone who might hold the attention of the world.
There are days when we have difficulty sleeping at night. Perhaps we went to bed thinking about so many things and our minds will not turn off and open the way to rest until we concentrate on ascriptions, praises to God. We can turn to ponder the worth of God, and our worries melt away. We pray, You, O God, are the sum total of everything; it is all yours. It comes from you and returns to you. While I seek to sleep, you never stop watching over creation. Of what conceivable use is my own worry or my fear? I am your child. Then things within us can settle down, and before long, the Spirit of the Lord gives us rest.
These meditations are John’s gifts. The size of things, the importance of things, the value of things, the majesty of things – these are outstanding elements to real world faith. John seems to have learned them at a heavenly worship service as he heard the angels and the saints sing.
The first thing John heard was the opening hymn of the heavenly family, which focused on some of God’s attributes. They were statements about who God is.
Revelation 4:8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Attributes are those qualities about the person of God that he has chosen to reveal to us. There are probably many more attributes that he has not chosen to reveal yet. In this brief accolade sung to God by the heavenly family, at least four attributes were acknowledged:
Holy – repeated thrice, suggesting an infinitude of holiness
Lord – sovereignty over all
Almighty – the power of our God
Everlasting – he was, and is, and is to come
The Christ followers of heaven teach us a fundamental lesson as they sing of the attributes first. They tell us that one of the very first things an individual does whenever he enters into the presence of God is to celebrate the things known about him. The attributes they chose in this case stretch the inner spirit because they speak of dimensions of immensity far exceeding our human understanding.
We are challenged to ponder a God who is infinitely holy and totally untouched by the pollution of evil. We are invited to think about a God who is sovereign Lord, who is so powerful that his word alone is law for the universe. Then there is his eternal nature. The matter sends the mind spinning, for we have been taught from the beginning that everything is subject to a cycle of birth and death. But God is not! And that truth alone should cause the worshipper to kneel in awe and respect.
The Mighty Acts
Soon after the first song, the heavenly family begins a second section of worship before the Lord. Now the song centers on God’s mighty acts. What has God done?
Revelation 4:11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
This God is not a gigantic Buddha or a massive rock formation, objects of animistic worship. He has done and is doing certain things that deserve our attention and praise. The attention of the heavenly family is now focused on what God has done. He created all things, and by the constant exertion of his will, all things keep on existing. Should God change his mind about keeping things going, everything would suddenly go awry, collapse, and cease to exist. This company of worshipers that John has joined declares something that we do not think about enough:
The Lord God made everything
The Lord God owns everything
The Lord God keeps everything going
One thought from his mind, and all these things that we hold onto so tightly will disappear. Our wealth, our health, our potential – all belong to him and exist only at his pleasure. And that is what this hymn sung in the heavens is all about.
This stunning reality (not new, just not thought about enough) is sure to reorient our thinking. Next to this kind of God whose attributes and acts are stupendous, our boss, our company, our city or even country seem quite puny. This is in part why Jesus was fearless as the incarnate Savior when he stood before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was upset that Jesus paid such little respect. “…Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” the Roman asked his prisoner (John 19:10). Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above…” (John 19:11).
What was happening here? Jesus was simply operating on a practical knowledge of both the attributes and the acts of his Father. Daniel had also been fearless before an angry king, and for the same reason. They were thinking in total independence of the human system. Why? Because they knew who was really in charge, and nothing was going to happen that was not in accord with the purposes of the Father. Pilate’s cross may have been in the immediate future of Jesus, but only because it was permitted in the sovereign design of a great God. Jesus stands like a rock and we see as Pilate becomes the one in actual bondage. Daniel stands tall, in the lion’s den, and we get to watch his confident adversaries end up the fools.
The Theme of Acceptance
A third event in the worship of the heavenly company is about to begin. John writes that he saw a sealed scroll and he wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll. But John wept only because he had not seen a principal figure in the drama that appeared to be happening off to one side. It was a lamb that although alive had the marks of being freshly slaughtered. The images grew more complex, and it became apparent that this was the Lamb of God (also called the Lion of the tribe of Judah, paradoxically), whom we know to be Christ himself. And suddenly John was aware. This was the solitary One who was worthy to open the scroll. Again, the choir burst into praise, this time singing to the Lamb.
Revelation 5:9-10 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The third great theme that the choir sought to highlight has to do with acceptance through redemption and reclamation. At issue here are the Cross and what the Lamb of God accomplished as the once and for all sacrifice for the sin of all humanity. In just one sentences, they raised all sorts of remarkable truths about God’s purposes:
The act of Atonement
The multinational and multicultural character of the family of God
The call for the saints to be priests and servants of a kingdom in which to reign forever
If there is a key point here, it is Christ making all things new in the lives of broken people from every age in history; Christ doing what seems – and is in fact – impossible for anyone else to do: bring new life to the living dead.
Let us think about the cross-section of people that we might intersect with in our lives on Earth. How are they to be treated in light of the revelation of John discussed here? The answer is, as the Lamb treated them in the giving of his unblemished life for them. We must treat them all with respect, with value, with the intention in mind of serving whenever possible to let the work of the Lamb be seen in our lives. This is a reminder that we, although sinners as well, were accepted by God through the gracious act of the Lamb upon the cross. When a person is overwhelmed by guilt and confused about how things in life have turned so sour, he or she needs those who will affirm that the grace of God is available to everyone. That person has to hear it tenderly spoken in a prayer, confidently sung in a song, meaningfully declared in a sermon, faithfully applied in a life. Then hope springs anew.
Rom 3:10,22-23 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; … there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”
What is life without the act of the Lamb? Each day that a man or woman goes through the tasks of making a living, raising a family, developing friendships, a thousand and one seemingly insignificant choices are made. Who can make them all correctly? Who can go through even just one day without offending someone? Who can be sure that the inner being is not marked with substandard motives and desires that produce agendas so hidden that we are really not fully aware of what we are doing? Does anyone really think that there are only a few simple sins, that sin is so easily codified and defined? Or have we all come to gloomily realize the truth that evil permeates the human condition? Were it not for the Lamb who becomes our friend and makes it possible for us to receive the acceptance of God, we would all be doomed anew every day.
We go then into the world knowing that our acceptance by the creator is not based on achievement or human acclamation. It is based on the love of the Lamb, and we stand equal with everyone in the world who has drawn upon his gift of the cross.
We invite you all to sing to the freshly slaughtered Lamb, who is raised up as the Lion. Sing in your heart, loud and long, sing in the churches and in the streets, sing in your bed at night and in the quiet of your office, sing in the taxi and in the cafeteria. It is the Lamb who brings sanity to life and makes us brave enough to rise from one failure after another to try again. It is the Lamb who brings humility when we have done our best and won handily. Sing to the Lamb! He is at the base of our real world faith. If it is designed to gratify the Lord to whom it is directed, then sing! It is also designed to be our personal fortification, giving us a framework of reality from which to operate as we live our daily lives.
As the service of worship in Heaven draws to its conclusion, the choir sings something like a benediction.
Revelation 5:13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Many are tempted to bypass these themes about worshiping God. Many will see little or no point in worrying about what is going on in Heaven. Their concern is limited to holding up under the stress of modern life and the many tasks at hand – keeping faithful to a spouse, figuring out how to keep children away from drugs, how to be reasonably kind to the person who has to be fired (or the one firing you), what to do about the problem of money (either earned or coveted) – “real” concerns. But this decision to ignore the worship in Heaven that John witnessed renders weak the faith that a person has, and precisely at the time when we need to address those “real” concerns. These matters find their scale of size only when one has first learned what it means to understand and know God.
Corporate worship such as the one John witnessed in the heavenlies is necessary and reminds us that we are not alone. We are one people, meant to be in touch with the larger family of Christ’s followers, undivided by the gender or age or economic status or race or educational attainment that are liable to separate us during our regular days on Earth. In that worship experience, some of us are reduced to our true size while others of us are elevated to our true size – the true size that Jesus designed for us to be.
Let us examine these needs:
- Every disciple of Christ has a need for a corporate worship experience that invites him or her into the presence of a holy, holy, holy God. This is an amazing, humbling gift.
- Everyone has a need for a worship experience that expands the soul and rebukes and cleanses the guilt caused by indwelling evil.
- Everyone has a need to come to a place where he or she feels sensitively prayed for and where the Bible has been exposed in terms of its real world relevance.
- Everyone has a need to feel that the worship service belongs to him or her and is not the possession of a few professionals who entertain us with their abilities in music and oratory.
The corporate worship experience should be a springboard to the experience of personal worship. The body should have the sense that what we did with our brothers and sisters in the Christian family on the Lord’s day should be echoed in private during all other days.
And whether privately or corporately, genuine worship in the presence of God reminds us that the world of the streets is not all there is to the real world. The heavenlies were there before the streets of the earth were conceived of by men, and they will exist long after these streets are all but dust. The heavenlies, and all that is going on there, is where the real world begins. Then we must will to receive a faith that knows how to operate there. We are not being unreasonable when we then begin to insist that our worship must bring us to God, so that we can walk out onto the streets confident that we know how to live as followers of Christ ought to live, especially when the storms of life threaten to overpower and consume us.
As the heavenly gathering wound down, it seems to have wished to ascribe to God several great values: praise, honor, glory, and power. I believe that it was quite important for John to hear these words echoing in his mind. Implanted within him, they would refresh him concerning God’s grandeur as he wrote the Revelation. There was no way that he could have written what he did if he was not absolutely convinced that the God of Heaven was the Lord of history. Such an ascription of value to God needs to be implanted within us also. They serve as reminders to us over and over again as to who is in charge of the universe when we are tempted to doubt, and how we should respond to him in worship. Our God is in control and we are recipients of his love!
Go back and read Revelation 2: The Beloved Church – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira.
The Church in Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6)
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die…
Sardis was located about thirty miles south of Thyatira. In 6 BC, it was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world, marked by times of commercial and military notoriety. Three main landmarks were prominent. First was the temple of Artemis. Second was the Acropolis, which rose eight hundred feet above the north section of Sardis. Third was the Necropolis, or cemetery of a thousand hills, which consisted of burial mounds that could be seen on the skyline from a distance of seven miles.
King Croesus lived in Sardis with all his pomp and wealth. Through negligence and lack of vigilance, however, Sardis was attacked and defeated several times. An earthquake also devastated the city in AD 17, and only through the generosity of Tiberius Caesar was the city able to recover and become a successful center for the wool and dye industry. As a city it had been known for luxury and laxity and came to represent the peace of the man whose dreams are dead and whose mind is asleep; the peace of lethargy and evasion.
No other church incurs a more severe rebuke from Jesus than Sardis. Here is an example of a bride in name only. Her reputation was without reality, her creed without Christ, her religion without relationship. The church in Sardis became a perfect model of inoffensive Christianity, the first example of nominal Christianity in the New Testament. We imagine how Christ’s heart breaks when he thinks of this church, for they are his Bride in name only, and he calls them to Life, to reality.
The One “who holds the seven spirits” confronts this deadness. The Bride of Jesus is not to be a lifeless mannequin in the window of the religious marketplace or a fading image in the scrapbook of ecclesiastical memory. We are called to life in the Spirit, which is generated and sustained by Jesus himself. Is it possible for entire congregations to be in church but not in Christ? Jesus’ very sobering words seem to answer in the affirmative:
…I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
But how does a church fall into such a lamentable condition? Do you think this rebuke was addressed primarily to individual Christians who simply needed to be revived? Or is it possible that religious and social enculturation can be so strong and deceptive that large groups of professing Christians can go through the motions of religious life and neither understand the Gospel nor experience its saving power?
Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that many will come on the day of judgment assuming membership in His Kingdom based on participation in spiritual activity or even supernatural manifestations of God’s Spirit. But he will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me.” (Mat. 7:23)
Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
Jesus recognized, however, that there were some genuine Christians in Sardis – as there are in most dead churches. These are not examples of those in “the deeper life club” or some type of spiritual elite in the church. Rather, they alone are the Bride. I assumed, like many, that I was a Christian until that very morning I was converted. We dare not equate being in the pews with being in Christ. Would that God keep us from ever confusing mere enthusiasm with real life in the Spirit. Our goal should be not just to ignite religious flesh, something that can easily be done by simply “pushing the right spiritual buttons.” Rather, we should express our longing in terms of becoming a church in which the real presence of the Lord would be known, a fellowship in which men and women could have a genuine encounter with the Living God.
Let us realize the importance of continuing to preach the Gospel within the Church and to never be presumptuous about who is and who is not in Christ. In a culture like ours, there are so many individuals who come to church for years without ever coming to Christ. It should be our joy to see members of churches become members of the Body of Christ.
The Church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13)
I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Philadelphia was situated thirty-five miles southeast of Sardis. It was at the eastern end of a broad valley near the river Cogamis. The city was at the juncture of trade routes leading to Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia, earning for Philadelphia the title Gateway to the East. Her economic prowess was based on agriculture and industry. The historian Strabo called Philadelphia a city full of earthquakes. The great earthquake of AD 17 may have hit Sardis, but it nearly destroyed Philadelphia. By the time of John’s writing, however, the city had been rebuilt. It came to be known as Little Athens, a city flush with temples and teeming with religious festivals.
The church in Philadelphia needed encouragement for their hearts to be strengthened. The people there were placed in a key position to impact their own culture and the nations as well. Jesus wanted to use them for his glory. He reveals himself to the beloved of Philadelphia as the Lord of opportunity. He has the “key of David”, which controls the opening and closing of all doors. What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open (3:7). In this church we find a thrilling example of strength in weakness. This small and seemingly insignificant body of believers is called to go through a great door of opportunity into a life of substantive impact. What a paradox. But the Gospel is full of such paradoxes. The way to live is to die. The way up is down. We find ourselves by losing ourselves. As Paul wrote, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2Co. 4:7).
As we read Jesus’ words to his bride in Philadelphia, we are both encouraged and rebuked. We are encouraged that he is the One through whom and by whom all ministry is realized. Jesus calls us, gifts us, and empowers us to be involved in his eternal purposes. The great commission, for example, is not a job to get done but rather a reality in which we participate. We need to see the ministry as the overflow of hearts filled with the grace f the Gospel. Jesus uses his people to do things they cannot do in their own power. The church in Philadelphia was to see itself like Gideon’s army, a little people with a big and faithful God.
1 Corinthians 1:27-28
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are
The message also rebukes many of us in the fortress contemporary church. Believers in Philadelphia were placed in a strategic location in a pagan culture. All they had to do was walk through the door of opportunity and ministry. Their calling was not to build “Camp God” and be a community of ingrown navel-gazers merely holding on until the Rapture. Their calling – and ours! – is to be salt and light (Mat 5:13-16). We are not to merely selfishly fill up our calendars with endless fellowship opportunities with those who are also Christians. This is our Father’s world. Non-believers are not our ultimate enemy – Satan is. Why does such a strident us-versus-them dichotomy persist? We are to build bridges, not burn them so we can hide within our “pure” communities.
Ministry can get very messy, exhausting, and painful. Persecution is the predictable consequence of a commitment to witness faithfully. And the persecution that the Christians in Philadelphia experienced did not come from pagans as was usually the case but from hostile Jews. But Jesus makes an awesome promise to those whose ministry is based on following the Lord through any and every door that he opens:
Revelation 3:9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.
The bottom line is that Jesus is the friend of sinners – but are we? We can draw three conclusions from this for our church families:
We can resolve not to become a busy, program-driven church
There are some churches that keep their members so preoccupied with meetings and activities that they have precious little time to have relationships with non-Christians. We need to encourage all our members to be in a relationship with those in our culture who, like us, need the grace of God.
We can extend the welcoming heart of God through all the ministries of our church.
Non-Christians can experience love and acceptance as they begin their spiritual quests in our midst.
We can commit to outgrow our church.
By embracing and keeping a high emphasis on world evangelism, we can step up and out. In so doing, we will guard against becoming an ingrown fellowship that is stagnant and cannot produce.
The Church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
Laodicea was situated in the Lycus valley near the cities of Hierapolis and Colossae, about forty miles southeast of Philadelphia. Laodicea was considered the chief city of the southern region of Phyrgia. A very wealthy town, it was known for its banking industry and its medical school, which produced Phyrgian powder, a popular eye salve. After being severely devastated by another earthquake, this one occurring in AD 61, the city refused financial assistance from Rome, choosing instead to rebuild from her own treasury.
Ranchers in Laodicea raised a prized species of sheep whose black, glossy wool was in great demand. The city had a major weakness, however. It lacked a convenient source of clean water. The city was planned and built based on the trade routes and ignored the need for such natural resources. So here we have a picture of an immature and spoiled bride who is blind to her own faults. Jesus confronts his beloved with the spiritual self-satisfaction, complacency and indifference that the Bride displays. Jesus’ rebuke to the Laodiceans manifests the depths of his compassion and concern for his people. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”, Proverbs tells us, and this friend is Jesus.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
Laodicea is an example of a church – or a Christian – that fails to realize the power that living the good life has over us. It dilutes our wholehearted affection for Jesus, blinding us with fool’s gold. Hear the cry of the lover of our souls as he calls out to us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). This is not an evangelistic appeal to non-believers. It is Jesus’ appeal to his Bride to realize the tragedy of allowing worldly comforts to replace communion with him. He longs for the rich fellowship of the table, and every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper we should long for the day when we will eat with him at the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9).
So Who is the Bride Beautiful that Jesus Longs For?
A passionate “first love” relationship with the Lord that spills over into all other relationships
A willingness to suffer for our Bridegroom
A growing knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, and a commitment to defend the faith “once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jud 1:3)
A purity of heart and holiness of lifestyle that is driven by love for God and empowered by grace
An aliveness in Jesus that is generated by his real presence in our midst and hearts
A commitment to follow Jesus into a live of other-centered living through evangelism, missions, and cultural impact
An undivided and abiding allegiance to Jesus which treasures communion with him more than the comforts of the world or anything else