A Fallen Star and a Voice from Heaven

Sometimes God’s judgment is ironically appropriate. If people persist in rebelling against him and worship idols, he may turn them over to what they worship. The result can be chaotic, but God’s people are sometimes caught up in that. Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Daniel were godly Israelites, but were caught up in the judgment of of Israel as she was exiled in Babylon (Daniel 1 and 3). Revelation 9 tells of the sounding of the fifth and sixth trumpets. Idolaters are subjected to judgment. Revelation 9 reminds you that God is still in control. It summons you to turn from idols to the living God. Continue reading

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Prayers and Plagues

Prayers and plagues” may have you expecting a prayer to end a plague. But in Revelation 8 God sends plagues on the earth in response to the prayers of his people. But first, there’s silence.

Silence! Stand in silence before the Judge. You might expect the silence of Revelation 8:1 to be a dramatic pause—but that doesn’t seem common in the world of the Old Testament or in John’s day. Look, rather, to the use of silence in the Old Testament, where it accompanies the coming of the Lord in judgment, either anticipation as the Judge arrives, or following the act of judging, being silenced by the justice and power of the righteous Judge, Zechariah 2:13; Zephaniah 1:7-10; Habakkuk 2:20. The breaking of the seventh seal by the Lamb indicates the completion of his righteous judgment, described at the end of Revelation 6. “Silence is creation’s expectant response to the Lord’s impending arrival in judgment. ‘Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord; for he is aroused from his holy habitation. (Zech. 2:13)…. This silence is the calm before the storm. For God’s enemies on earth it is a silence of dread, but for those who dwell in heaven it is the silence of eager expectation.” (Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, p. 136).

Seven seals are followed by seven trumpets. Don’t think of the woes of the seven trumpets as taking place within the breaking of the seventh seal. Rather, John’s vision takes you through another cycle, another way of viewing the growth of the kingdom of Christ and its conflict with the kingdom of this world. Like the early breaking of the seals, the early trumpets describe preliminary judgments on the earth, while at the end of the cycle you are shown the victory that comes as the Judge returns. Where do you hear seven trumpets in the Old Testament? Go to the fall of Jericho, Joshua 6. As Jericho had to fall in order for Israel to enter the promised land, so the great city of Revelation 16:19–21 will be destroyed. Angels with seven trumpets, and then with bowls of God’s wrath will remove the seemingly omnipotent persecutors of the church.

Pray! The censer forms a transition between the seals and the trumpets. Angels with trumpets, echoes of Jericho, and you might expect mention of swords, spears, and shields. But what appears is an angel with a censer, a metal dish containing incense. It reminds you of the altar of incense in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. See Exodus 30:7–10; Luke 1:8–10; Revelation 5:8; 6:9–11. The smoke of the incense arises with the prayers of God’s people. Then the angel hurls the censer on the earth. The thunder, rumblings, lightning, and earthquake (remember Exodus 19?) indicate the presence of the Lord in judgment. Revelation 8:2–5 does double duty—closing off the seven seals and introducing the sounding of the seven trumpets.

God hears your prayers. The saints under the altar are crying out, “how long?” God’s people on earth are facing suffering and are turning to the Lord in prayer. The incense rising from the censer along with the prayers of the saints assures them that God hears. He gives you the same assurance as you face the challenges of living as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven—but one still walking here on earth. There is more than assurance here. The censer challenges you to pray for God to do his work on earth and bring in his kingdom. What brings down the mighty opponents of God is the coming of the Lord himself, but his work is accomplished in part by the prayers of his people. “Indeed, prayer is one of the important military tactics used by the soldiers of Christ….” (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, p. 463). Do you have any idea how powerful your prayers are? Keep praying!

Plagues. God brings judgment on a rebellious earth. As each angel sounds his trumpet, destructive judgment of some kind falls on the earth. The destruction and suffering are terrible, but like the four horsemen loosed as the first seals were broken had been given power over a quarter of the earth, so these destructions of the first four trumpets are limited to a third of what they strike. Don’t push what is imagery too far. John doesn’t intend for you to ask how, if the sun and moon had already been darkened and the stars had fallen at the end of Revelation 6, how a third of the sun, moon, and stars, can be struck at the sounding of the fourth trumpet. Rather, that points in the direction of the trumpets portraying the same events as the breaking of the seals but from a different perspective (and there will be other such cycles yet to come in the book). Though not in identical order, and with different numbering (10 plagues, 7 trumpets) these judgments recall the plagues God sent on Egypt. The star, Wormwood, in the third trumpet, draws on imagery in Jeremiah 9:15 and elsewhere. God’s judgment is bitter. After the sounding of first four trumpets, an angel proclaims woe on the earth at the prospect of the remaining three trumpets. Just as the first plagues of Egypt had affected the whole land, until God made a distinction, and the later ones struck only the Egyptians, so the sounding of the fifth trumpet specifically will exclude those who have received the seal of the Lamb on their foreheads.

God brings deliverance to his people. Is the prospect for the church in an increasingly hostile world discouraging? (Note the cry by Peter Sanlon, a young Church of England pastor, calling God’s people to prepare for what he calls exile—increasing direct pressure from society and government authorities for God’s people to conform to the secularism and paganism of the culture.) Is your own struggle inyour Christian life something that appears too challenging? Remember the plagues on Egypt and see the soundings of the trumpets in the same light. Yes, the God of Israel went toe to toe with the false gods of Egypt (the divine Nile, the sun god, etc.) and utterly defeated them. But he was doing more than that. He told Moses at the bush that he had heard the cry of his people. He sent Moses to command Pharaoh to let Israel, his firstborn son, go. The Lord heard those prayers and responded. It is not only for your deliverance that you should be praying. It is for the triumph of the kingdom of God. In order to answer those prayers the Lord has given you a deliverer who is a prophet greater than Moses. He has given you his own Son to be the Lamb that was slain in order also to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah. “The bloodying of the sea and the death of its creatures parallel the the bloodying of the Nile in the time of Moses. The worldly powers that oppress God’s true Israel are to be shaken at the source of their confidence.” (Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, p. 145).

Some of the symbolism of Revelation may be difficult, but the underlying message is clear. The Lamb triumphs—and so do you. Keep praying, and remain faithful!

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Protected for Praise

We look for protection for our homes, our investments, and for ourselves. In Revelation 7 John shows you the ultimate form of protection—and he gives the purpose why you are protected.

You have been sealed. The seal of the living God protects you. At the end of Revelation 6 as the wrath of the Lamb falls in judgment on the wicked, the cry goes out, “Who can stand?” (Rev. 6:15–17). Just as a movie or a novel may have a flashback, showing you background, Revelation 7 begins with four angels holding back the winds that damage the earth—destruction similar to that wreaked by the four horsemen. Destruction and judgment are coming, but first the Lord protects his own. In a scene that reminds you of Ezekiel 9 (where God has a marked placed on the foreheads of the godly before judgment falls on idolaters), the Lord has his seal place on the foreheads of his people. The seal marks them as genuine, as belonging to the Lord, and thus coming under his protection. As you read the Book of Revelation, God’s people are not promised protection from suffering in this world, but they are assured that both in life and death God will not forsake them. He will not allow the temptations to sin nor the opposition of the wicked to draw them away from him. The seal is further identified in Revelation 14:1 as being Christ’s name and the name of his Father (see also Revelation 3:12). The seal marks the recipient as belonging to God, as being his servant.

You are the Israel of God. Those sealed are identified as 12,000 each from the tribes of Israel. The number seems to be a symbolic expression of fullness, 12 x 1,000 x 12. This listing of the tribes of Israel does not correspond completely with any listing in the Old Testament. Jacob (Israel) had 12 sons, but Dan is missing from this list, replaced by Manasseh. If you look at the geographic listing of the 12 tribes in the land, the place that Joseph would have had is taken by his two sons, Ephraim (not found here) and Manasseh. Levi is listed here, but was not assigned a geographic tribal area, instead the Levites were scattered among the other tribes to serve the Lord there. Revelation 14 identifies the sealed 144,000 as firstfruits, and that helps with the relationship between them and the great multitude.

You are part of an uncountable multitude. You have washed your robes in the blood of the Lamb. Although some look at the multitude as specifically Gentile, as opposed the sealed Jewish believers, it’s more likely that John is giving us two different views of the same group—the people God has redeemed. That may seem strange at first, but remember that two very different symbols, the Lion and the Lamb, both point to the same individual—the Lord Jesus Christ. The covenant people of the Old Testament are the firstfruits (Revelation 14:1-4), but even the covenant promise to Abraham was that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed, Genesis 12:1-3. They are uncountable and multinational. With the question of Revelation 6:17 echoing in your ears, “Who can stand?” the response is a huge multitude. They stand, not because of who they are or what they have done, but because they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. Those whom Christ has redeemed are under his protection and care. They can be viewed as sealed on earth, enabling them to endure. And they can be seen as the glorious host of the redeemed, joining in a victory celebration. They have come out of great tribulation. Without denying profound suffering for the church at the end of the age, God’s people are called to suffer. Revelation lifts your eyes higher than the present difficult times. “As Judah’s Lion proved to be the slain Lamb, displaying royal power through the weakness of his sacrifice, so the flock he protects sounds like a precisely numbered, exclusively Israelite army braced for battle but looks like a countless, international crowd celebrating a victory already won. The victory was won by the Lamb when he was slain to purchase this multitude from the peoples to become God’s treasured kingdom of priests (5:5, 9).” (Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, p. 133).

Praise God! When you look at what the multitude is doing, you get a glimpse of the purpose Christ has in redeeming them. Think of Psalm 3:8 and 118. Think of the triumphal entry. Serving before the throne they are a kingdom of priests. Fellowship with God, singing praise to his name, ascribing glory to him—that is the purpose for which Christ redeemed you and all of those for whom he died. That vision encourages you to endure obediently, whether in the face of persecution of simply the temptation to live your life on autopilot, as though God doesn’t really matter.

Live before the throne of God. No more: hunger, thirst, heat, or tears. The promises of Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8 come to their fulfillment, not just in Israel being brought back after the exile, but beyond that in the triumph of the Lamb on behalf of his people. The sufferings you face are present because you live in a fallen world, under the curse of sin. When the Lamb is slain and undergoes that curse for you, then, not only is the guilt of your sin removed, but eventually, the effects of sin are rolled back. Picture a father, gently brushing a tear from his daughter’s face. What a father on earth would like to do—make the hurting stop, solve the problem—but sometimes cannot do, the Almighty Father in heaven does to us, his children. The hurt and tears are real as long as we live on this earth. But there is comfort and hope!

Trust the Lamb to be your Shepherd. One of the richest pictures of care of your Lord is Psalm 23, clearly echoed in the last verse of Revelation 7. Whether David composed the Psalm while on a hillside with his sheep or on a throne reflecting on how much more complicated it was to shepherd a nation, he looked to the Lord to be his shepherd. Countless times the suffering church as sung the comfort of this Psalm. Make that connection—but not so fast that you overlook something surprising in Revelation 7:17. The Shepherd of God’s people is himself the Lamb, not just any lamb, but the Lamb that was slain. He not only shed his blood so that your robes could be washed white, but he also understands the depth of your suffering. John had heard John the Baptist point to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He had recorded Jesus’ cry at the feast in Jerusalem, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” The Lord comforts you with the assurance that he who is your Shepherd is also a Lamb, like you, his sheep. “[T]he reason for the picture here is to emphasize the identity of the Lamb with his people. He is the corporate representative of his saints. Therefore, just as he first suffered and received his reward at the resurrection, so his flock follow the same pattern in their own lives (see on 1:5, 9, 20; 2:14). He led them by the Spirit on earth and will lead them in person in the future.” (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, p. 443).

Near the end of his Gospel, John wrote that these things were written so that you might believe, and believing, have life in his name. As he records the vision Jesus showed him in Revelation, John has the same purpose. Are you trusting the Lamb who is the Shepherd?

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How Long?

John had been caught up into heaven to see “what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1). As a fellow suffer with the churches to whom he writes, he will encourage them with the true story, the grand drama, that God reveals in the scroll held in his right hand. That drama begins to unfold as the Lion-Lamb takes the scroll and begins to break its seals, one by one, as John records in Revelation 6.

Ask the right questions. Understand where you fit in the grand drama that the Lamb unfolds. The seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 have been reminded of their sufferings and warned of more trials to come. But along with that is the assurance that in Christ they overcome. John writes, not just for those seven churches, but for the church of all time, for you today as well. We may be curious about the future, but John does not write simply to satisfy curiosity. He is not writing future history in puzzle form to be deciphered by those who are smart enough. He writes to encourage the church. He uses word pictures to show the unfolding of God’s plan and to show you how you are connected with it—where you fit in the story. Continue reading

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The Triumphant Lamb

How does a baby learn to talk? By listening and responding to parents. How do we learn to communicate with God? By listening to what he says to us and speaking back in word and song. Revelation 5 is a wonderful example. And the great reason we have for praising God is the triumph of the his Son, the Lamb of God.

Sing because… Sing because God is God. The God who made you in his image speaks with you and listens when you speak. Appreciate the sovereign power of God. To a church suffering under persecution, faced with the claim that Caesar is Lord, Christ gives John (and you) a glimpse of the throne room of heaven. It is clear who sits on the throne. You need that reassurance as you face a world that is unfriendly to the gospel. Don’t get the impression that the church has suffered some massive defeat if bad laws and regulations are passed. The world around you may be in blatant rebellion against God, but he hears your cries. Creatures in the presence of God must worship. Continue reading

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