9-3-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 4
(A note - due to "operator error" on my part, the recording of this sermon didn't begin at the beginning, but actually about 1 minutes in. I have indicated below where the recording begins. My apologies for the miscue.)
So we concluded chapter 18 last week with the pronouncement of the fall of Babylon, John’s code name for the Roman Empire. John’s late first century vision eventually came to fruition nearly 300 years later, when Rome fell in the year 410 - nearly 400 years after Jesus’ earthly life ended. For perspective, that’s about the same time interval as between now and when Pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
But in contrast to the songs of lament over the fall of Babylon that conclude chapter 18, chapter 19 begins in heaven, with voices of a great multitude singing “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” and the twenty four elders and the four earthly creatures all falling down in worship to God as well.
And in the midst of this great scene of worshipful celebration, a voice cries out calling all to worship God. And then the voice of the multitude, described again, as earlier, like the sound of many waters or of a waterfall, cries out “Hallelujah!” and declares the marriage of the Lamb, Jesus, has at last come. And who is his bride?
Metzger writes, “The concept of the relationship between God and his people as a marriage goes far back into the Old Testament. Again and again prophets spoke of Israel as the chosen bride of God (Isa. 54:1-8; Ezek. 16:7; Hos. 2:19). In the New Testament the church is represented as the bride of Christ; he loved the church so much that he gave himself up in her behalf (Eph. 5:25).”
And then John is commanded to write down what is the fourth of seven beatitudes, or blessings found in the book.
“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” The approach of the marriage supper means the climax of the drama is drawing to a close, or more colloquially, “the fat lady is about to sing!” In this case, Satan is about to be defeated…for good.
(Recording begins here)
But first John receives, in rapid succession, seven - count ‘em, seven more visions, each beginning with the words, “I saw.” First, comes a white horse, symbolic of victory, its rider called “Faithful and True,” has piercing eyes and on his head are many crowns. And Metzger clarifies this image for us, saying “To be crowned with more than one crown may seem a strange picture, but in John’s time it was not uncommon for a monarch to wear more than one crown in order to show that he was king of more than one country,” as was the case with the Roman emperor.
The rider, the victorious Christ, “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13), a description taken from Isaiah 63, where the conqueror’s garments are stained with the blood of his enemies. John reshapes that familiar image to portray Christ, who triumphed over sin and death in the shedding of his own blood. And with him are heaven’s armies, bearing no weapons but wearing white linen.
And like the vision of the heavenly Christ in chapter 1, from his mouth “comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” No army or armaments are needed other that Christ’s word.
This is followed by a revolting scene of vultures eating the bodies of those who have fallen in battle, the enemies of the church, familiar language and images John takes from Ezekiel 38-39.
And as Metzger repeatedly reminds us, “all of this is symbolism at its highest. No one imagines that such statements are literal. Never shall we see the ‘white horse,’ or the sword projecting form the mouth of the conqueror, or the birds gorged with the flesh of fallen warriors. The descriptions are not descriptions of real occurrences, but of symbols of real occurrences.”
John’s message, conveyed through symbolism and apocalyptic imagery is that evil will be overthrown - Christ will prevail.
Now the story moves to the final conflict between good and evil. “The beast and the kings of the earth with all their armies” comes face to face with Christ and his followers. John has been building toward this critical moment from the start. We might expect gory descriptions of this battle to end all battles, similar to “Saving Private Ryan” or “Nightmare on Elm Street,” but instead, John says nothing, evidence that he intends to describe, not an earthly military engagement, but a spiritual struggle. He portrays only the result - the overwhelming defeat of the enemies of Christ and his church. The beast and the false prophet, symbols of the Emperor and the religious cult around him, are captured and are - in the figurative language of apocalyptic literature - “thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” And again, we note, the battle is won without any help from the faithful, but with only the power of Jesus’ word. In this way, Revelation differs from other ancient non-biblical apocalyptic literature, where great detail is provided about how “the battle between good and evil” plays out in the writings and beliefs of other cultures.
As we move into chapter 20, John sees another vision: an angel descending from heaven, “holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.”
And it says, “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan,” and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more; until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must let him out for a little while.”
And John writes that during this period the souls of the martyrs who would not worship the beast/emperor - said to be buried under the altar in heaven in chapter 6 - come back to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. John doesn’t say if that thousand year reign takes place on earth or in heaven, but he does distinguish the martyrs from all others, saying that none of the rest of the dead come to life during this thousand years, or millennium, of blessedness and peace.
After the thousand years are up, Satan is released for a little while. Why? Who knows, it doesn’t say. Seems like if they had him locked up they could have kept him locked up, but who are we to judge, right? And failing his parole, Satan again deceives the nations, and brings in two mysterious figures, Gog and Magog, to do his bidding. Now, Gog and Magog are references to the book of Ezekiel, where that prophet refers to “Gog, of the land of Magog…” (Ezek. 38), invades from the north against the people of that time living peacefully in the land. Here, John takes the name of a man and a land, and presents them as world powers opposed to God. They besiege the beloved city, which we understand is Jerusalem, but before they could bring harm, fire from heaven consumes them. At the same time, the devil’s questionable parole is revoked and he, too, is thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur for eternity with the beast and the false prophet, the unholy trinity together once again.
“Satan's rule is now completely and absolutely finished,” Metzger assures us, “and his world-age is ended forever.”
And so with the devil now destroyed forever, let’s take a time out to consider what is, and what is not found in the book of Revelation. This thousand year period, a millennium, when Satan is locked away, is the source of a fairly recent idea called Millennialism, along with other terms like dispensationalism, and pre, mid, and post tribulationism. All of which are terms associated with what is called “rapture theology.”
Surprising to many, rapture theology has only been around for the past couple hundred years and is found predominantly in America. In fact, the world's leading biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, refers to it as an “American obsession” and notes that few Christians in the U.K. hold any sort of belief in it. The same can be said for trained biblical scholars of the book of Revelation, with the exception of a couple at Dallas Theological Seminary. Now I’m not referring to pastors, TV evangelists, Bible teachers, theologians, or even scholars whose expertise is in other biblical books. That qualification is important. I’m referring to academically trained New Testament scholars who have immersed themselves in the Book of Revelation, published peer-reviewed journal articles on the book or written commentaries on the book from reputable publishers. Few, if any, reputable, published, peer-reviewed Revelation scholars support the idea of rapture theology.
Rapture theology originated in 1830 Scotland where a fifteen year old girl, Margaret MacDonald, claimed to see a vision of a “two-stage return of Jesus.”
John Nelson Darby, British evangelist and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, took MacDonald's vision and created an entire belief system based off of it in which Jesus returns not once (as Christians have always believed) but twice! Darby and others sympathetic to his views went back to the Bible to search for clues, signs, and verses which would justify thinking of worldly history in terms of “dispensations,” divinely appointed orders or ages, which included a seven-year period of tribulation, but not before the church could escape from it.
Through various “mission trips” to the U.S. in the late 19th century, the notion of a “rapture” was appealing to American Christians who were going through the atrocities of the Civil War which, by all measure, must have looked like Armageddon: nation rising up against nation, brother against brother, son against father, etc. With more than half a million dead, who wouldn't find a “let's get out of here” theology attractive? This mindset was exacerbated fifty years later with World War I and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, Scofield being a Darby disciple, which was handed out to soldiers in the trenches. Two other events corresponded to the promotion of the “rapture” in America: the conversion of Dwight L. Moody to this rapture-based eschatological system (he later founded Moody Bible Institute and a major radio program which would become important in the promotion of rapture theology), and the establishment of a dispensationalism training center, Dallas Theological Seminary (and you get why their scholars are the exception I mentioned above).
Now Christians have always affirmed the second coming of Christ, but only in the Darby-Scofield-Moody dispensationalism system developed were there three comings. This was a brand new take on the end, and while Christians throughout the centuries have always wondered whether their days were the last days (including Paul), with some interpreting contemporary events in such a way, the establishment of a system and a timetable was entirely new, as was the idea that Jesus would save the Church from the last days.
But the thing is, neither Jesus nor Paul taught or believed in anything like a rapture. In fact, most scholars say that the idea of a rapture isn’t even biblical - that those passages that are used to support such an idea are being misused, taken out of context. There’s a term used in biblical study, exegesis. When we research scripture and interpret it within its context, we do exegesis. But when we seek to read something into scripture, or do what is called proof-texting - trying to use scripture to prove a point you want to make, that’s not exegesis, that’s called eisegesis. Those scholars of Revelation that I referenced earlier, suggest that the only way to find rapture theology in Revelation, in Paul’s letters, or Jesus’ teachings, is to read it into those passages.
For example, 1 Thessalonians 4, probably the most popular of all so-called rapture texts, talks about being caught up to meet Christ "in the clouds" at his return. But the meaning of this is not as simple as it first appears, primarily because after two millennia we find ourselves in a vastly different cultural context from Paul. Paul is casting a vision of Christ's return wrapped in political overturns. You see, in Paul's day when a king would return back to his country after victory in war, he would be met at the city gates by his people or ambassadors, trumpets would sound, and the king would be welcomed by his people to rule and reign as the victor over threatening powers. Paul uses this same language, same image, to symbolize Christ's return: when Jesus returns it’s because he has finally and fully defeated evil, suffering, and death itself and is establishing his Kingdom here on earth. Contrary to rapture oriented interpretations, 1 Thess. 4 doesn't say that in Christ's return we will all fly away from this earth. Instead, it testifies that Christ returns to this earth and we — those alive and those already passed on — will welcome his Kingdom as God's people, God's citizens, and God's ambassadors. When Paul refers to some being “caught up” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) he's not referring to a rapture that comes before a time of tribulation in the modern world: He’s giving his audience hope in the midst of persecution and death and reminding them of the hope that all Christians share, that Christ will come again (just not again and then again!). And he doesn’t say that once they meet Jesus in the clouds that they go anywhere but back to earth.
In fact, the words translated as “in the clouds” or “in the air,” scholars point out, in Greek literally translates as “the lower, denser atmosphere, not the higher, ethereal atmosphere.” Paul doesn’t mean heaven here.
Another passage commonly used to support rapture theology is 1 Corinthians 15:52. The fact that this verse is used to suggest to a pre-Second Coming coming is odd, given that Paul spends the entire chapter talking about the final "resurrection" of the dead. As in the passage above, the "trumpet" is used to symbolize Christ's victory over death and, again just as the passage above suggests, he’s not talking not about being "raised" out of this earth but being raised in our physically transformed bodies to this earth. The resurrection of the saints is a central orthodox belief of Christianity and has been since Jesus himself became the "first fruits." Christ's return will inaugurate the resurrection of believers and the transformation (not the transportation) of both our bodies and this world.This will happen, of course, in the "twinkling of an eye" (meaning, we will not know when it will happen), but this verse and its surrounding context has nothing at all to do with a rapture in which Christians will fly away prior to a worldwide tribulation.
And lastly for our purposes, Matthew 24:40-42.
When Jesus speaks of “one being taken” and another being left in this passage, he’s not referencing how Christians all across the world will escape from a period of trial; rather, he is referring to the Genesis flood story (vv 37-40) that he talks about three verses earlier, and, as that context makes clear, being “taken away” is not good. Jesus compares those taken to the ones who were swept away by the flood; it is the one who is “taken away” that faces judgment in this teaching. In other words, you don’t want to be taken, you want to be left behind, regardless of what Tim LaHaye’s collection of rapture-fiction books, emphasis on “fiction,” suggests.
What is clear, I hope, are two things: First, context is vital; our reading of Scripture must be informed by wider cultural understandings. Every writer — whether it's the Gospel writers, Paul, Augustine, Wesley, or Bonhoeffer — writes within a context and as responsible Bible readers we must must commit to understanding that context.
Secondly, out of the number of other texts used to support a rapture theology, and there are more than the “big three” that I just talked about, most of these can be — and should be — understood in other ways. The Second Coming is often confused with the rapture and many of the verses utilized as "rapture verses" are really "Second Coming" verses. They only support a rapture based eschatology if they’re extracted from their context and placed into an already existing rapture ideology or hermeneutic.
Put another way, if you’re looking to support rapture theology, you can find verses to do that…if you take them out of context.
The problem with rapture theology, which affects how many Christians think about the problems of this world is this: it embraces escapism as a solution.
Rapture theology teaches us to think and hope for an escape from this world, not the endurance to persevere in it. In this view, Jesus loves the church too much to let it go through the intense suffering and judgment the world will face (similar to the popular notion that suffering doesn't happen to godly people).
But that’s neither the message of Christ or Scripture. Sometimes bad things do happen to good people and Scripture doesn't promise us a way to avoid it, it promises us a way to get through it.
The message of Revelation, then, is extremely important and how we interpret the last days is reflected in how we handle life and its troubles, both in the current global world and for all of history. Christians speak in a unified voice, “Come, Lord come,” not because we expect to escape and leave the trouble behind, along with the people in it, but because we seek redemption of all of reality and the ultimate death of death itself. God doesn’t call us out of the world but, rather, calls us into it with all its messiness, troubles, and dirt and asks us to be part of God’s work of redemption. Jesus did not, though he certainly could have, escape from the cross - he endured it. Likewise, the message of hope in Revelation is not that we won't face our cross — many of us will — but that God stands with us and gives us the strength to endure. Rapture theology is not biblical, it’s not redemption, it’s escapism and the belief that God won't let us endure tribulation.
Revelation, however, calls us to the opposite: it encourages us to remain faithful even when it feels like the end of the world. Jesus didn’t pray that God’s will be done in Heaven, away from the earth, but rather that it be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
So returning to what IS in Revelation, John sees what’s called the Final Judgment, where all the dead are brought before the judgment seat of God and books are opened. And Metzger suggests that the “one book can be called the Book of Merit, for it contains a record and remembrance of all the deeds of each one who stands before the throne of God. Another book is the book of life, which belongs to the Lamb. This one,” Metzger offers, “can be called the book of Mercy. Here the work of Christ who died to save his people from their sin, is put on the credit side of the ledger.” And he concludes regarding this brief scene, “The account in these few verses, in spite of their brevity, is one of the most impressive descriptions of the Last Judgment ever written. John’s vision presents these truths better than any reason argument could ever do. The opening of the books [an image found in other cultural end time sagas] suggest that our earthly lives are important and meaningful, and are taken into account at the end. But the consultation of the book of life shows that our eternal destiny is determined [not by what we did or didn’t do, but] by God’s decision, by God’s grace, by God’s amazing goodness.” And the final judgment then clears the way for the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth, from which sin and death are banished forever more.
Chapters 21 and 22 provide a magnificent climax.
John describes the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and reminds us of Isaiah’s promise that God would create a new heaven and a new earth which would abide forever, and that in this new city, God “will dwell with them as their God; they will be [God’s] people, and God will be with them; [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Likewise, John says, “there will be no sea.” What does he mean by that statement? Well, Jews regarded the sea as a symbol of separation and turbulence, of chaos. Throughout the Bible it symbolizes restless insubordination, and in Revelation it’s the source of the system that embodies hostility toward God’s people - it’s from the sea that the dragon and one of the beasts emerge. There is no place for this in the new creation.
And then, for only the second time in Revelation (1:8), God speaks. Seated on the throne God declares, “See, I am making all things new.” Because God speaks so rarely in Revelation, it’s important to look closely at God’s words. “See, I am making all things new” is in present tense, suggesting that God is continually making things new, in all times. It isn’t past tense; God didn’t say, “I have made all things new” as if it were a done deal or one time event. God also doesn’t say “I have made ALL NEW THINGS.” That is, it is the existing things that are made new, they aren’t destroyed, they are transformed, redeemed. God declared creation “good” and “very good” in Genesis, and here God takes creation and redeems, renews, even resurrects it in the new Jerusalem. And then God declares, “It is done!” and offers a spring of living water to those who thirst and repeats the earlier condemnation of those who were enemies of Christ’s church.
John then reveals more details of the vision of the new Jerusalem. And though it’s intended to be symbolic, it’s nevertheless pictured very precisely. The city measures, we’re told, fifteen hundred miles in length, in breadth, and in height. That is, it’s described as a cube.
“But how can a city be a cube?” Metzger asks.
“The description,” he says, “is architecturally preposterous and must not be take with flat-footed literalism. In ancient times the cube was held to be the most perfect of all geometric forms. By this symbolism, therefore, John want us to understand that the heavenly Jerusalem is absolutely splendid, with a harmony and symmetry of perfect proportions. Furthermore, [John] says, the street of the city is pure gold. In ancient times, of course, streets were not paved. In the wet season streets were mud; in dry times they were dust. What a contrast to that is the new Jerusalem, where the redeemed walk on streets of gold!”
The new city has twelve gates, as the old one did, each made from a single pearl - extravagant symbolism to reveal the created glories of God in all of nature. And while normally the gates of ancient cities were closed during the night for security purposes, the gates of this city are never to be closed, they are always open, because “there will be no night there,” John tells us.
Likewise, John writes, “I saw no temple in the city.” And Metzger offers, “There is no temple or sanctuary in the holy city, for, in one respect, the city itself is all sanctuary. Its dimensions, being in the form of a cube, are like the Holy of Holies in the Mosaic tabernacle of old. The presence of God is no longer in a reserved place, entered only by the high priest, and only once a year; God is now accessible to all.”
And like the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, the garden here at the end also contains the tree of life, the word translated as the singular “tree,” actually is a plural, or collective word, suggesting “trees.”
And besides bearing twelve kinds of fruit to be eaten, notice the symbolic twelve here, they also have leaves that “are for the healing of the nations.”
And Metzger points out another link to the account in Genesis, when John says in 22:3 that “Nothing accursed will be found there any more.” “After Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the tree of knowledge, they were banished from Eden by the Mercy of God, [get that, banished ‘by the mercy of God,’] lest they eat also of the tree of life and become immortal in their sin. Now that redemption has been accomplished, it’s safe to eat from the tree of life. Paradise lost is now paradise regained.”
And Metzger reminds us, “There is an old saying that in heaven everyone’s cup of joy will be full, but some cups will be larger than others.”
That is, the degree to which we shall be able to see, to know, to be near God will depend in part on the perfecting of our spiritual vision here and now.
That is why the Bible exhorts Christians to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” As we make progress in the Christian life, as we grow in our faith and our discipleship, through study, prayer, service, generosity, and worship, we gain greater capacity to know and understand God. As Paul said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
So, as we conclude our study, I hope that you’ve taken from this first of all, that Revelation, read in the context in which it was written, as a pastoral letter, as early Christian prophecy, and as apocalyptic literature, is a book, not to engender fear, but to inspire hope.
Second, I hope it guides you to read Revelation
in a very different way from those who read it as a road map for our future or as a countdown to the end. Read in context, Revelation challenges us to examine the situations of the seven churches addressed by John so that we can discover what practices within the churches were objectionable, how they did or didn’t live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and how they could have lived more fully in line with God’s purposes, seeking justice and wholeness for all people. This, then, gives us a basis from which to discern what questions and challenges John would pose to our church, living in the midst of our contemporary social, political, economic, and global orders. Understanding how John brought the resources of Scripture, prayer, and worship to bear on the situations of his congregations gives us direction for our own process of discernment and our task of proclamation.
Ultimately, this enables us to better see our world as God sees it, and to know how to respond to its challenges and entanglements in a way that reflects our primary allegiance, not to empire but to Christ, who came among us in order to redeem us, and who taught us to pray for God’s will to be done here, on earth, as it is in heaven. Revelation, in the end, is a book whose message is hope. When all the frightening images are cast aside, when all the symbolic beasts and battles are understood in their context, the bottom line message of Revelation is that regardless of the hell that this life might send our way, God is with us, God will have the last word, and God’s love will win. Amen? Amen.