Topical Scripture: Revelation 22:1-7, 20-21
This week a friend sent me some words to live by:
If you have a lot of tension and you get a headache, do what it says on the aspirin bottle: “Take two aspirin” and “Keep away from children.”
“When I die, I want to die like my grandfather, who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.”
This was not encouraging: Oscar Wilde says, “Bigamy is having one wife or husband too many. Monogamy is the same.”
I am not helped. I have problems which need God’s word and will and hope. So do you. So does this nation we celebrate today. It was reported this week that $2 billion in fraud has been committed in the aftermath of Katrina. Meanwhile, six people have died in flooding along the East Coast. It’s been determined that drug and alcohol addictions afflict 20 million Americans and cost our country $524 billion last year. The Surgeon General released a report this week which documents 49,000 premature deaths last year from second-hand cigarette smoke. We sing “America the Beautiful,” not “America the Perfect.” If we love America, we should want to help Americans.
How do we do that? What could happen today which would make a difference in our community and country in the months to come? What could we decide this morning which could cause America to be different and better when we celebrate our nation’s birthday next year?
The first Christians had something we don’t. They didn’t have our buildings and programs and finances. But they had something we can recapture today. Something we must recapture today, if we are to help America find God’s help and hope. And if we are to find them for ourselves as well.
Know how you will spend eternity
Our text begins with a glorious vision of eternity with God in his heaven. Here we find the “water of life” flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb down the center of the street of heaven. Right down Main Street in glory. No matter how thirsty we are today for his word and will and hope, we will be able to drink from them forever.
On each side of this river will stand the “tree of life,” bearing fruit each month, its leaves for the healing of the nations. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were barred from the tree of life lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen, sinful condition (Genesis 3:22-24). But in heaven, “no longer will there be any curse” (v. 3).
As we eat from the tree and drink from the river, we will see the face of God and his name will be on our foreheads (v. 4).
God had warned Moses, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus. 33:20).
But in heaven we will be so close to God that we will be able to see his face. His “name” will be on our foreheads, claiming us as his children and people forever. No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been, if Jesus is your Savior you will have God’s name and be in God’s family for all of eternity.
We will be so close to God that he will be our light (v. 5a). We will reign with him in glory for ever and ever (v. 5b). And all of this is “trustworthy and true.” You have the word of the Creator of the universe on it.
Know that eternity begins today
So, when will all of this happen for us? You may not thirst and hunger physically, but you do emotionally and spiritually. So do we all. Mother Teresa said that loneliness is the epidemic of our time. You’re burdened and worried this morning as you try to love your wife or husband and raise your kids and make your way in this fallen and confusing world. Or you’re plagued with guilt you cannot release or fear you cannot conquer. Or you may feel far from your Father today for some other reason. It’s good news that one day this fallen world will be gone forever. It’s good news that one day we’ll reign over all that is. But when?
The next verse tells us: “The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place” (v. 6). Then Jesus agrees: “Behold, I am coming soon!” (v. 7).
Earlier in the book he had promised, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (3:11). The Revelation ends, “Yes, I am coming soon” (22:20).
Paul told the Corinthians that “the time is short…For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 31). He told the Romans, “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). The writer of Hebrews warned, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). James said, “Be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near” (James 5:8). Peter warned, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7).
The word translated “soon” in Revelation 22:7 is taku; it means “immediately, without hesitation, as soon as possible.”
We find it in Acts 17:15, where Paul gave instructions to Silas and Timothy “to join him as soon as possible.” James used taku to say “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Jesus said to “settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court” (Matthew 5:25). On Easter Sunday the angel told the women, “go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead'” (Matthew 28:7). There’s a sense of emergency and urgency in the word.
When will he return?
So we know that Jesus told us that he is coming “soon.” But why did he say it that way? If he promised to return “immediately,” why didn’t he?
One option is that Jesus was wrong. He expected to return immediately, but his Father had other plans. From Albert Schweitzer to today, there have been those who took this view. He meant “I am coming back immediately,” but he didn’t, so he must have been wrong. But if he was wrong on the timing of his return, maybe he was wrong about the reality of his return. If he was wrong about the time when eternity would begin, maybe he was wrong about the nature of that eternity.
A second option is that Jesus simply meant that we should be ready for eternity to begin today. We could die today, or he could come back tomorrow. But he didn’t say it that way. He didn’t say, “Behold, you could die tomorrow and I’m going to come back at some point in the future.” He said he was coming “soon.”
A third option is that God measures time differently than we do.
We know that a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day (2 Peter 3:8). He’s not bound to our watches and clocks. He can say “I am coming soon” and mean it, even if it’s not for 3,000 years, because it’s all “soon” to him.
But he didn’t say that. He didn’t say, “Behold, I am coming when I choose to come. You don’t know when it is, so you’d better be ready now.” He said, “I am coming soon.”
All these options are predicated on the belief that Jesus was thinking chronologically, that “soon” meant “immediately” as we measure time. But it occurred to me this week that this is not how the Hebrew mind would have interpreted the Scripture.
The Greeks thought in linear, chronological fashion. To them, “soon” would mean “immediately” in time. But the Greek word taku can also mean “next” in order. For instance, Jesus said, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me” (Mark 9:39). “Next” here is taku. It means “next” as the next step, the next thing to do. The reference is not to time but to activity, not the “next second of time” but the “next step in the strategy.”
That’s how the Jews thought–in practical, present tense, non-speculative ways. And the practical fact is that Jesus’ return is the next step in his strategy for the redemption of humanity. It’s what comes after this.
Why hasn’t he already? Because “the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But make no mistake: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (v. 10).
The last step in his strategy for our world is to return to it. This will happen “next.” And “next” could be today. The imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ is as much a fact as his First Coming. And we have only today to be ready.
What does this conversation say to American Christians as we celebrate our nation’s birthday? The imminent return of Jesus means this: if we love America, we must waste no time in helping Americans love Jesus. There is no time to waste–none at all.
There’s no time to waste in seeking the salvation of those we care for. If my friend were suffering an asthma attack and unable to breathe, nothing would matter as much as getting him to the doctor before he dies. We cannot wait another day to pray for the lost people we know and ask God how we can best help them follow Jesus. If he were to return tomorrow, what would need to change about your witness today?
There’s no time to waste in seeking the reformation of this country we love. If Jesus were to return today, what would he think of our nation? Of our immorality, our materialistic greed, our self-sufficiency? What are you going to do to help America look more like God’s Kingdom? Are you going to run for office? Are you going to get involved in the political process? Are you going to lead your office or school to live by God’s word and will? Are you going to pray for our leaders and nation to follow God? If Jesus were to return tomorrow, what would need to change about your country today?
There’s no time to waste in being God’s people today. So long as the divorce rate is the same inside the church as outside, and immorality is as prevalent in our lives as theirs, why would they want what we have? Only when they see that God is real in us will they want that God in them. Only when we are like Jesus will they want Jesus. If he were to return tomorrow, what would need to change about your soul today?
So the practical question is this: if you knew eternity would begin tomorrow, what would you change today? Is there someone you need to forgive? Someone who needs to forgive you? A sin to confess? An act of service to give? A commitment to fulfill? Doing those things is the best way to live now. Imagine how much happier you’ll be when that relationship is healed, that sin is forgiven and forgotten, that act of sacrifice has been used by God for his glory and your good. Being ready for eternity is the best way to live today. Helping America follow Jesus is the best way to love America. And we have only today to do that.
The first Christians lived with just such urgency. They knew that Jesus would return “next,” and that he might come back tomorrow. So they made sure they were ready today. They shared their faith at any public cost. They lived holy lives at any personal cost. And they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and became the most powerful spiritual movement in human history. Not with buildings and programs. With lives sold out to Jesus Christ, lived with urgency and passion, ready every day to meet Jesus. That’s the best way to step into eternity, and the best way to live on earth.
Martin Luther translated the entire Bible into German and led the Protestant Reformation to change Christian history. His secret? He was convinced that Jesus would return in his lifetime, and wanted to be ready.
G. Campbell Morgan was perhaps the greatest, most prolific expositor of his generation. His secret? He said, “Every morning when I awaken I remind myself that I must be ready to meet God today.”
Jonathan Edwards was the greatest theologian America has ever produced, and the preacher of the First Great Awakening. His secret? The first life resolution he made: “Resolved: we should live every day ready to meet Jesus. Further resolved: even if others will not do so, I will.” I join Edwards in that resolution.
Will you join us?