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Studies in the book of Revelation: A future worth it all

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 21-22

We are on the preparation committee, not the planning committee. Three times in our passage in this study, Jesus promises us, “I am coming soon.” The first Christians took this promise to mean that he would return in their lifetimes; of course, he did not. Even they tended to be more interested in planning than in preparing. Let this final study help us to be prepared for Jesus to return, whenever he chooses to come.

But first, there are two questions from last week I’d like to address briefly. The first is the idea of “double fulfillment”—could Revelation have both a first-century application and an end-of-time interpretation and fulfillment?

Sensus plenior. Seen in Scripture; example is Hosea 11.1, “Out of Egypt did I call my son,” used by Matthew 2.15 for Jesus.

But be careful seeing double fulfillment where the Bible does not clearly say that it is so; this is speculative. And be careful not to see a second fulfillment which requires a completely different interpretation of the passage. I think Revelation intends to be understood as symbols, whether those symbols applied only to the first century or also to ours in an historical way (the locusts were not and are not army helicopters!).

The second question relates to the “book of works” (Revelation 20.13: “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books”). Did I mean that Christians will not face this judgment? Not at all.

Scripture is clear: Christians will be judged for our works as well. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3.11-15 is explicitly clear; 2 Corinthians 5.10 is clear as well: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” The referent is obviously Christians (“we”).

My point was that we will not gain heaven by it, for no one can. Our names in the “Lamb’s book of life” are what give us eternal celebration in heaven with God.

Now, to a description of that heavenly future, we close our study of Revelation with chapters. 21-22.

An outline of Revelation

I. Prologue (1.1-18)

A. Preface (1.1-3)

B. Author and recipients (1.4-5)

C. Doxology (1.6-8)

II. The first vision (1.9-3.22): the glory of Christ and letters to his churches

A. The vision of the risen Christ and commission of the book (1.9-20)

B. The letters to the seven churches (chs. 2-3)

III. The second vision (4.1-16.21): judgments on the evil powers of the world

A. The vision of God in heaven (ch. 4)

B. The vision of the Lamb who breaks the seals (ch. 5)

C. Seven seals (6.1-8.1):

1. White horse of conquest (6.2)

2. Red horse of war (6.3-4)

3. Black horse of famine (6.5-6)

4. Pale horse of death (6.7-8)

5. Altar of slain faithful (6.9-11)

6. Great earthquake of the wrath of the Lamb (6.12-17)

Interlude—the sealing of the 144,000 (ch. 7)

7. Silence in heaven for “about half an hour” (8.1)

D. Seven trumpets (8.2-11-19):

Interlude: the angel with incense, the prayers of the saints (8.2-5)

1. Hail and fire—1/3 of earth burned up (8.7)

2. Huge mountain thrown into the sea—1/3 of sea to blood, 1/3 of

its creatures killed, 1/3 of its ships destroyed (8.8-9)

3. Great star fell on 1/3 of the rivers, turning water bitter (8.10-11)

4. 1/3 of sun, moon, stars struck and turned dark (8.12)

5. First woe: Abyss opened, scorpions released to attack all without

the seal of God (9.1-12)

6. Second woe: four angels released to kill 1/3 of mankind

(9.13-21)

Interlude: the angel with the little scroll (ch. 10),

two witnesses (11.1-14)

7. Praise of God by heaven and the 24 elders (11.15-19)

E. The seven signs (12.1-14.20)

1. The woman (12.1-2)

2. The dragon (12.3-13.1)

3. The beast out of the sea (13.1-10)

4. The beast out of the earth (13.11-18)

5. The Lamb and the 144,000 (14.1-5)

6. The three angels (14.6-13)

7. The harvest of the earth (14.14-20)

F. The seven plagues (15.1-16.21)

Preparations (ch. 15)

1. First bowl: ugly and painful sores on those who had the mark of

the beast and worshiped his image (v. 2).

2. Second bowl: the sea turned to blood, and all life in it died

(v. 3).

3. Third bowl: rivers and springs of water became blood, while the

angel praised God (vs. 4-7).

4. Fourth bowl: the sun scorched people, but “they refused to

repent” (vs. 8-9).

5. Fifth bowl: poured on the throne of the beast, and the world was

plunged into darkness but refused to repent (vs. 10-11).

6. Sixth bowl: Euphrates was dried up “to prepare the way for the

kings from the East”; demons gathered the kings of the

world “for the battle on the great day of God Almighty”

(v. 14), “the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon” (v. 16).

7. Seventh bowl: the greatest earthquake in human history;

Babylon (Rome) was destroyed as God “gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath” (v. 19). 100-pound hailstones fell upon men, and “they cursed God”

(v. 21).

IV. The third vision (17.1-21.8): victory over the evil powers of the world

A. The mystery of Babylon (ch. 17)

B. The fall of Babylon (ch. 18)

C. The praise of heaven (19.1-10)

D. The victory of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19.11-21)

E. The millennium (20.1-6)

F. Satan’s final doom (20.7-10)

G. The judgment of the dead (20.11-15)

V. The fourth vision (21.1-22.21): the future blessing of the faithful

A. The new creation (21.1-8)

B. The new Jerusalem (21.9-27)

C. The river of life (22.1-6)

D. The promise of Jesus’ imminent return (22.7-21)

The new creation (21.1-8)

There are three promises here:

•Fellowship with God (21.1-8)

•Protection by God (21.9-26)

•Provisions from God (22) (Summers 212ff).

The descriptions are not architectural but spiritual. Greek vs. Hebrew, speculative vs. practical. This section does not tell us all we would like to know, but all we need to know.

We cannot understand heaven fully until we’re there, anyway: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2.9 / Isaiah 64.4).

John sees “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea” (v. 1). The sea had separated John from his fellow believers; in heaven there will be no such separations, ever.

The Holy City, the “new Jerusalem,” comes down out of heaven from God as a bride prepared to meet her husband (v. 2). The imagery of a wedding to express the intimate relationship between God and his people is found in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. For instance: “Your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name” (Isaiah 54.5); “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord” (Hosea 2.19-20).

Jesus made the same analogy: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son…” (Matthew 22.2ff). Paul uses the same comparison: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.31-32).

What is the point of this comparison? We must be ready; we are bound to him and to him alone (vs. spiritual adultery); we must have passion for Jesus, not just performance; our commitment is eternal. How’s your “marriage”?

The voice from the throne says: the dwelling of God is now with men; we will be his people, and he our God. He will wipe away every tear; there will be no more death, dying, or pain, for the old order has passed away (vs. 3-4). He is making everything new (v. 5).

It has always been God’s desire to dwell with his people. Thus he walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3.8). Cf. Leviticus 26.11-12: “I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.”

Cf. also Ezekiel 37.26-27: “I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.”

Cf. Isaiah 25.8-9: “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. IN that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

This desire of God to dwell with us and comfort us stands in clear distinction to the pagan impulses of the day. The Greeks put their temples as high as possible, and thus as close to heaven as possible. They were inaccessible to their daily lives, but they didn’t think the gods wanted daily experience with them, anyway.

God wants our Christianity to be this relevant to daily life, and he wants us to show the world that it is so. How can we make it so? I think of the executive with a Bible on his desk, another with a prayer closet in his office, another who told his employees he was praying for them. We can be legal and still spiritually effective, demonstrating the relevance of our faith for life. This is the greatest single problem lost people have with Christianity—they don’t see its relevance to their daily lives and needs. And only 7% think the church is relevant to their problems today.

The Alpha and Omega now gives from the spring of the water of life to all who thirst (v. 6). We who “overcome” will be his children (v. 7). But all who refuse God’s grace through their sin will experience the “second death” (v. 8).

The new Jerusalem (21.9-27)

The New Jerusalem is “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (v. 9). The city “shone with the glory of God” (v. 11), with twelve gates over which were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; the foundations were named for the apostles of the Lamb (vs. 12-14).

Twelve gates point to abundant entrance to the City of God. Ancient cities had only one gate, so it could be shut at night and thus protect the people inside. If a person didn’t get inside the gate before it shut, he was without protection and would probably die. These gates are on every side, and they are never locked. We are all invited to be with God through Christ. The Eastern Gate of Jerusalem is locked to this day, waiting for the Messiah to open it. He will, for us all!

The angel measures the city: 1,400 miles cubed, with walls 200 feet thick. It is made of pure gold, with foundations decorated with “every kind of precious stone” (v. 19). The twelve gates are each made of a single pearl, and the street of pure gold “like transparent glass” (v. 21).

The Holy of Holies was also a perfect cube, but only 60 feet in each direction. As God is “Trinity,” so his heaven is cubed. Pearl is the only jewel which is produced by suffering and pain. So is our gateway into heaven through the cross.

The streets of gold remind of the story: a wealthy man asked permission to bring one possession to heaven when he died; Peter granted his request. The man opened his suitcase in heaven and unpacked hundreds of gold coins. Peter said, “Why did you want to bring pavement to heaven?”

The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple; the glory of God gives the city light, and the Lamb is its lamp (vs. 22-23). There will be no night, nor will the gates ever be shut (v. 25). The glory of the nations will come to it (v. 26), but no one impure will ever set foot inside—only those “whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (v. 27).

The river of life (22.1-6)

The river, “clear as crystal” (v. 1), flows from the throne of God and the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city (vs. 1-2). On each side stands the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding fruit every month; the leaves heal the nations (v. 2).

There will be no curse; the people of God will serve him in the city, see his face, live in his light, and “reign for ever and ever” (vs. 3-5). Before heaven, God said, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33.20). Now, that all changes in heaven.

In ancient times criminals were banished from the presence of the king. Remember what happened to Haman after the Persian king condemned him: “As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face” (Esther 7.8).

And David had to say about his rebellious son Absalom, “‘He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.’ So Absalom went to his own house and did not see the face of the king” (2 Samuel14.24).

One blessing of heaven will be to see the Lord face to face, forever. This is the promise of Scripture: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13.12).

These things “must soon take place” (v. 6).

The promise of Jesus’ imminent return (22.7-21)

This is the promise/warning of Jesus: “Behold, I am coming soon!” (v. 7). He repeats it in v. 20, the last recorded words of Jesus in all of Scripture: “Yes, I am coming soon.” The angel makes the same statement: “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near” (v. 10). This statement shows that the book was intended to apply to John and his day, and by principles, to us all.

In response to these revelations, John “fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them” to him (v. 8). But the angel forbade this and said, “I am a fellow servant with you and with all your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (v. 9).

It is encouraging to know that even John the Beloved Disciple can make spiritual mistakes. In Revelation 1.17 he was right: “When I saw [Jesus], I fell at his feet as though dead.” But here he worships the messenger, not the One who is the message.

This is the true response to awe (cf. Isaiah 6, Peter in the boat).

We all have the innate desire and capacity for worship (cf. the earliest worship in human history). But we must be sure that we worship the right One. Tillich: “Our ultimate concern is best identified not by our words but by our time and money.”

And we must make certain that no one gives this reverence to us, or that we seek it. Cf. Cornelius to Peter: “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself'” (Acts 10.26).

Remember how fickle such “worship” can be. The Jerusalem crowds shouted Hosanna on Sunday, and “Crucify” on Friday. Remember what happened to Paul in Lystra: the crowds worshipped him and Barnabas as Zeus and Hermes and wanted to offer sacrifices to them; but then some Jewish opponents “won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead” (Ac 14.19). I love what comes next: “But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city” (v. 20).

Make certain you worship the right One, and that your life leads others to him and not to yourself. Remember Jesus’ words: “Let your light so shine that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5.16).

God will reward everyone “according to what he has done” (v. 12). Those who “wash their robes” are blessed, and have the right to the tree of life. Outside stands everyone who commits intentional and habitual sin (vs. 14-15).

Now we come to the invitation. These words have come from Jesus through his angel (v. 16). The Spirit and the bride say to us, “Come!” All who hear should say, “Come!” to this promise: “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (v. 17).

And to the warning. Anyone who adds to the words of this book will have added to him the plagues described therein; anyone who takes away from this book will have taken from him his share in the tree of life and the holy city (vs. 18-19). This warning relates specifically to Revelation, not by intention to the rest of Scripture.

However, we should treat all of the Bible as the word of God: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3.16-17).

And remember Deueronomy 4.2: “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”

The conclusion: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.'” And John agrees: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” And the Revelation closes with the prayer, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (v. 21).

“Come, Lord Jesus” in the Aramaic is “Marana tha.” This was an expression used by the early church to celebrate the fact that Jesus is coming back, and it may be today!

God’s reward for our faithfulness will exceed everything it costs us. We will spend eternity enjoying his presence together. This hope makes present faithfulness worthwhile.