Posted by: stpowen | May 17, 2012

Revelation- Things that Must Shortly Take Place (Part 1)

 

Introduction and Chapter Four.

Rev 4:1. “Come up here, and I will show you things that must take place after this.”

It is my experience that to many Christians the Book of Revelation is a complete mystery.  Many pastors preach on the first three chapters, which comprise the introduction and the letters to the seven churches, but very few attempt to preach through the entire book.  This is, no doubt, partly due to its length and partly to its controversial nature.  In my opinion, this is unfortunate, because Revelation, properly understood, is a source of great comfort to the Lord’s people.  About five years ago, I preached through Revelation at a series of mid-week meetings at a Reformed church in Exeter, Devon.  Since then I have preached odd chapters to various churches as part of my itinerant ministry and have found that many people have been grateful to have the book explained.  I am therefore intending to write up my sermon notes in the hope of reaching and helping a larger audience.  I am starting at Chapter Four on the grounds that the later chapters are the ones that cause people the most confusion.  The talks were not intended to be by any means exhaustive (1) but to give an overview of the main themes and to show how the various scenes link with one another.

The Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse- ‘unveiling’) was written at a time of persecution for many Christians (2).  It was given by the Holy Spirit to comfort and arm God’s people who were going through hard times.  Times are hard today.  It is my prayer that these articles will comfort, encourage and arm you the reader for the fight of faith which must continue until our Lord returns.

Revelation is part of a genre of literature called Apocalyptic.  Portions of the books of Daniel and Ezekiel might be considered to come under that heading and there were several non-Biblical books written in that style in the period between the two Testaments and in the 1st Century A.D.  So the first readers of  Revelation would not have found it so strange a book as we do today.  The main feature of Apocalyptic literature is that it is heavily symbolic;  very little is to be taken literally.   However, it is not a puzzle; it was meant to be understood by God’s people, but it needs interpretation.  One major clue is the Old Testament.  Revelation is perhaps the most ‘Biblical’ book of the Bible.  Everything that happens has a parallel in the O.T. and therefore it is extremely helpful  to use the O’T. To gain understanding, both of Revelation and of the O.T. passage in question.

I don’t intend to spend much time critiquing the various schemes of interpretation of the book (3).  Most readers will know that there are three major schools of thought:  Premillennialism or ‘Futurism,’ Postmillennialism or ‘Preterism’ (4) and Amillennialism or ‘Realised Millennialism.’  There are Bible-believing Christians who support all three views, and it is not my intention to debunk any of them.  But obviously I have had to adopt one view in writing these articles and so I give, very briefly, my reasoning below.

Futurism takes the position that most prophecy in the Bible is yet to be fulfilled.  The most popular variety of this is Pretribulation Dispensational Premillennialism.  Under this system of interpretation, all of Revelation after Chapter 3 refers to a future time after the Church has been ‘raptured’ from the earth.  There are several possible objections to this viewpoint, but I  only ask in response, what use would it have been to the original recipients of Revelation to be told something that would have no relevance to them, or to those who followed them for thousands of years?

Preterism  teaches that most (5) Biblical prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman armies.  This view therefore requires Revelation to have been written before that date.  My objection to this is that if it were correct it would mean that, as a book of prophecy, Revelation would have been obsolete just a few years after it was written.  What help is the book to us in our struggles today if it has all already happened?   

When I first read Revelation as a very new Christian, what caused me most difficulty was that the world seemed to keep coming to an end (eg. Rev 6:12-17; 11:15-19; 14:14-20; 16:17-21; 19:11-21; 20:11-15) and then starting up again.  This puzzled me greatly until I read an excellent book called More than Conquerors by William Hendricksen (6).  Here he expounds the view called Progressive Parallelism.  This theory teaches that Revelation comprises seven accounts of the period between the Ascension of Christ until His return, each giving a somewhat different emphasis.  The usual illustration of this is to imagine a man climbing a mountain.  As he ascends, he sees the view change as  things previously hidden below the horizon become visible and he can see much further than before.   At the same time, landmarks that were obvious at ground level become less prominent and eventually invisible, yet all the time, he is looking at the same view.   When we consider Revelation in this way, every part of the book has relevance for people living in all ages.  This therefore is the understanding that I shall be following in these expositions.  It is one of the oldest explanations, and, hopefully, the simplest.  If there is someone who has read thus far who supports a different interpretation, all I can say is, please forgive me, I know no better;  but read on and maybe you will find a blessing here even if you do not agree every statement.

[Please read Revelation 4]

Rev 4:1. ‘After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven.  And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things that must take place after this.”’

‘After these things.’  This verse introduces a new section of the book, quite separate from the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3.  This new vision might have followed on immediately from the previous one or have been separated by two or three weeks; we are not told, but there is a completely different subject matter.  If there is a connection with what has gone before, it is one of contrast.  In the preceding chapters we were dealing with sinful human beings on the earth; in this chapter, we are learning of our holy God in heaven.  Instead of words addressed to the ear, the sights and sounds of paradise are described to us.

John sees an open door into the heavens, and he hears a voice, the same voice as he heard in 1:10, the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ, commanding him to enter through the door.  The voice of Christ is not literally like a trumpet, but it is a voice of command, like the trumpets that sounded at the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exod 19:16; 20:18), at the summons to the New Year Festival (Lev 23:24) and like the trumpet that will summon the dead to judgement at the end of time (1 Cor 15:52).  It is a voice that is not to be ignored.  The command is, “Come up here.”  Just as Moses was summoned by God to receive the Law (Exod 24:12), so John is summoned to receive God’s word.  Paul went up to heaven, but was not allowed to tell about it (2 Cor 12:2-4); John went up so that he might tell of what he saw; ‘things that must take place after this.’   These were things in the future for John; they need not necessarily be in the future for us.

4:2.  ‘Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven and One sat on the throne.’  John was immediately under the influence of the Spirit’s power.  Perhaps he himself remained on earth while he saw these visions spiritually; we don’t know (2 Cor 12:2).  But the first thing he sees is a throne with Someone sitting on it.  Now this is just the greatest news imaginable!  How easy it is to suppose that the world is spinning completely out of control; that the things that happen are completely random, without reason or purpose!  No, No!  There is a throne in heaven, and it is occupied by Almighty God.  Not a sparrow falls to the ground, nor a hair from our heads but He not only knows about it but has permitted it.  I remember as a young boy taking the back off an old-fashioned clockwork watch.  The workings seemed highly complicated and random.  Some cogs were moving in one direction, some in others, whilst the fly-wheel was spinning to and fro very rapidly.  It seemed like chaos.  But when I turned the watch around and looked at the face, the hands were moving forward steadily and purposefully:  ‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly [that is, not by its own will], but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom 8:20-21).  It is God’s righteous decree that sinful men and women shall not live upon a perfect earth (Gen 3:17ff); therefore creation is subject to ‘futility’ and ‘corruption.’  Yet God still has a plan for this poor fallen world, and whether we understand it or not, and however much unbelievers may scoff at the idea, He will bring it to pass in His good time.  Take a few moments to read Isaiah 40 and to praise God for His power, wisdom and justice.

In verse 3, John gives no description of God, but instead likens Him to two precious stones:  the Jasper is a white stone which stands for  God’s glory, holiness and purity.  The carnelian is a red stone which stands for His justice and judgement.  Around the throne however, is a rainbow (cf. Ezek 1:28).  Rather than being the usual rainbow colours, this one is various shades of green, like an emerald.  Green is the colour of mercy.  God’s covenant promises (gen 9:13) are ever before Him as He sits in judgement.  The various disasters that are described throughout Revelation should not cause us to think that God has forgotten His covenant of mercy (cf. Isaiah 54:7-10).

The next thing John sees (v4)  are twenty-four other, subordinate, thrones with twenty-four ‘elders’ seated upon them.  The number 24 appears nowhere else in the Bible, but there is no difficulty in interpretation.  It is twice the covenant number of twelve and stands for the twelve Patriarchs of the Old Testament and the twelve apostles of the new.  They represent God’s faithful people of all ages who will reign with Christ over His creation (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 3:21; 5:10).  They are clothed in the garments of salvation (Isaiah 61:10) which are white, symbolizing purity and the spotless righteousness of Christ.

These elders are described as wearing crowns of gold upon their heads.  The Greek word translated ‘crown’ here is Stephanos, a crown or garland of victory such as successful competitors in Greek or Roman games received.  They represent all Christians who persevere to the end (Matt 24:13) and are ‘More than conquerors through Him who loved us’  (Rom 8:37).  There is application for us here.  Many churches teach that Christians are ‘once saved, always saved.’  This is highly misleading.  The Reformers spoke of the ‘Perseverance of the Saints.’  All those who truly repent of their sins and trust in Christ for salvation will be saved, but only as they endure and persevere in this life.   The Christian life is tough, with disappointments, temptations and suffering along the way.  By God’s grace we shall persevere, but it is also necessary that we do.   In each of the letters to the churches in Chapters 2 and 3 there is a promise ‘To him who overcomes.’   These elders represent those who have overcome and who have therefore inherited the promises.  ‘To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne’ (2:21).  Let us therefore prove ourselves worthy of a crown of victory by persevering through our lives.  ‘….Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling’ – not on our own strength but in God’s-  ‘….for it is God who works in you to will and to do for His good pleasure’ (Phil 2:12-13).

4:5. ‘And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings and voices.  Seven lamps were burning before the throne, which are the seven Sprits of God.’   The lightning and thunder remind us of Exod 19:16 and speak of the presence of the living God.  The seven lamps are ‘blazing’ rather than merely burning and represent the Holy Spirit, ‘The seven-fold [ie. ‘Complete,’ ‘ perfect’] Spirit of God.’

John goes on to describe a ‘Sea of glass, like crystal’ (v6).  Unlike glass in Roman times, this glass is crystal clear, not opaque.  God sees perfectly all that goes on in the world, but He is separated from it.  In Rev 21:1, we are told that ‘There was no more sea.’  This indicates that in the new Creation, there shall be no longer a separation between God and man (21:3).  Around the throne are four ‘Living beings’ (7).  To explain these amazing creatures it will be helpful to look at Exek1:10 where these same beings draw the chariot of God.  Clearly they are angels (Heb 1:14).  Their four faces depict their qualities:  they have the courage of a lion, the strength of a young ox (8), the intelligence of man and the speed of a flying eagle.  They have six wings, like the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2-3.  They cover their faces and feet in the presence of God.  Like their counterparts in Isaiah and Ezekiel, they are ‘full of eyes’ all around and within.’  As God’s servants, they are constantly looking about them as they serve and worship Him.  The eyes ‘within’ probably means that John saw eyes on the underside of the creatures’ wings, so that they would have been inside when the wings were folded.

These angelic beings worship God without rest day or night.  Theirs is a labour of delight.  The worshippers of the beast have no rest either (14:11), but their existence is considerably less delightful!  The angels sing of the holiness of the Triune God, His power and His eternal nature.  All else in the universe is created; it had a beginning.  Only God is eternal in both directions, ‘Who was and is and is to come.’

It is an interesting point that humans are described before angelic beings.  This is because, in the New Heavens and earth, mankind will rank higher.  The Lord Jesus did not give His life for angels (Heb 2:16; 1 Cor 6:2-3).  When the living creatures worship, the 24 elders join in with them.  They cast their crowns of victory before the throne of God for it is only through Him that they have overcome (Rom 8:37).  At the first recital of Handel’s Messiah in London, it is related that during the Alleluia Chorus , King George II rose from his seat and stood with his head bowed in mute confession that it was not he but Christ who should wear the crown.  Queen Victoria used to say that she hoped that the Lord Jesus would return in her lifetime so that she could lay her crown at His feet.

Finally (v11), God is worthy to be worshipped by both men and angels because He alone is eternal and all else exists because He created it.  Do you as His creature worship Him simply for what and who He is, and lay whatever you have of your own in the dust at His feet?

Notes.

(1)  For those wanting something more detailed coming from the same Amillennial position, I recommend Revelation by Simon Kistemaker (Baker Academic.  ISBN 0-8010-2252-5).

(2)  Rev 2:10, 13.  Most commentators follow the view of the Early Church Fathers that the book was written around 95AD in the reign of the Emperor Domitian.  Preterists suppose that it dates from the time of Nero, around 65AD.

(3)  I personally don’t take issue with people who adopt differing views on eschatology to myself, so long as they believe in a physical return of Christ.  For my critique of Hyper-preterism, which denies that very thing, see https://marprelate.wordpress.com/category/eschatology/  under the heading ‘The Forgotten Doctrine.’  In giving these studies on Revelation, I have adopted the Amillennial viewpoint.  I hope those who espouse something different will be able to find some benefit if they continue to read.

(4) ‘Preterism’ comes from the Latin word praeter which has a number of meanings,  one being ‘already.’

(5) Orthodox preterists believe in a future return of Christ in glory.  Hyper-preterists believe that all N.T. prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70 and therefore that He came invisibly (contra Acts 1:11) in that year and is not coming again.

(6)  Baker Book House. ISBN 978-0-8010-5792-2.

(7) Greek zoe.  ‘Living beings’ is the best translation.   The A.V. renders the word as ‘beasts,’ which confuses these creatures with the beasts of Chapter 13 (Greek thurion).

(8) Better, I think, than ‘calf’ as with the A.V. and N.K.J.V.

 

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