Revelation 12: She was giving birth to a Child.
John’s vision shifts to new images including that of a dragon and war in heaven. It’s my guess that his original readers better understand the symbolism than we do. Interpretations are all over the map but due to the fact this book is written to be read by first century Christians I lean toward understandings of it that keep their perspective in mind. Also, there’s such a strong parallel to the story of the birth of Christ that I tend to think that John’s using that well known story to illustrate something more. Mary, the most blessed of women, gives birth to the Son of God. Immediately, Satan tries to have him killed but, being warned in a dream, his earthly father, Joseph, takes them and flees to the desert, Egypt. Throughout his ministry there’s a war for the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls. Ultimately, though, Satan’s defeated as Jesus goes to the cross, winning the ultimate victory for all who will come to him. It all fits, kind of. The question for Bible scholars is “What does it illustrate?” Most say that the woman represents the Church and that the battle represents the war waged by the enemy of our souls in an attempt to defeat the Church. If that’s right the message here is one of divine protection and ultimate victory. Even readers like me, in spite of my struggles in understanding the passage, can conclude that, whatever the exact meaning here, God will protect his people and that ultimately, in Christ, victory is ours. I know I don’t get everything that’s going on here, but that’s a pretty good place to start.
Take Away: We don’t have to understand everything to have a firm grasp on the fact of the Lord’s provision for, and protection of, us.
Revelation 11: Get up and measure God’s Temple and Altar and everyone worshiping in it.
This chapter of John’s Revelation might be considered to be the first conclusion of the book. We’re now at the sounding of the final trumpet and once it sounds Judgment Day has arrived as time comes to an end. However, John has much more to see as the description of specific events will be expanded. Before that final trumpet sounds John’s given the same task Daniel was given many years earlier. He’s to measure the “Temple and Altar and everyone worshiping” there. One understanding of this that works for me is that this is a measurement of God’s Church in preparation for judgment. Everything’s about to wrap up and the time Jesus referred to as a dividing of sheep and goats is about to begin. Now John’s given the task of seeing how the Church, represented by the Temple and Altar in the vision, measures up. As John prepares to go to work he’s told to ignore those in the outside court. They may be hanging around the Temple and appear to belong. However, they aren’t part of the worshiping body. I’m not claiming to have figured things out here but there’s a lot of truth in that interpretation. At some point the Church will be measured and people will give an account of themselves to the Judge of the world. Just hanging around the fringes won’t cut it. Those who are faithful, serving the Lord, worshiping him in both good days and bad, though, have nothing to fear even in the fearful days described in this passage.
Take Away: Oh I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.
A mystery within a mystery
Revelation 10: Don’t write a word.
The final three of the seven trumpets are called the “woe-trumpets.” Following the sounding of the sixth trumpet and the woe ushered in by it, there’s an interlude before the final trumpet sounds. Mysterious things happen. A mighty angel calls out and is answered by Seven Thunders. John dutifully starts to write it all down but is told, as the prophet Daniel was told centuries earlier, to seal up what he’s just heard. To this day any effort to understand this scene is more a guess than anything else. Simply put, no one has a clue as to what’s happening here. For an event in a book called “Revelation” it feels quite strange to have John commanded to silence. However, not knowing or understanding something leaves us in familiar territory. Frankly, what I do know of spiritual matters might fill a thimble. What I don’t know would fill an ocean. That doesn’t mean that I rejoice in my ignorance. I want to know all that’s knowable and understand all that’s understandable. This mysterious passage reminds me that not only am I not expected to fully understand everything that there are some things I’m not allowed to understand even in part. In some cases, I explore the best I can, grasp as I’m able and then move on, trusting God with all the mysteries that are beyond my grasp. In the specific case of this passage, I read it, scratch my head a bit, and move on; filing this mystery with a million others that I must leave in the capable hands of the Almighty.
Take Away: We don’t understand many of the things of God, but we can know him. That’s enough.
A good time to turn to God
Revelation 9: There wasn’t a sign of a change of heart.
The final three trumpets are called by some “woe-trumpets” because each one ushers in a period of suffering on earth. John is seeing future events, the end of time. He sees spiritual beings through his limited point of view so his descriptions are of strange, terrifying beings. The “locusts” are beings freed from the Abyss. They sweep across the earth like a huge plague of locusts, inflicting pain on a third of humanity. Angels that have been chained are set free to lead a destroying army that kills another third of humanity. Rather than fearfully turning to God those who survive continue as before: focused on material possessions, promiscuous lifestyles, and worshiping evil rather than God. Even as time draws to a violent end and the judgment of God is obvious they persist in their self-indulgent, God-ignoring ways. It hardly seems possible that it could be this way. Still, I’ve seen just a hint of it. I’ve seen people who’ve rejected the goodness of God and then, in the face of the hardship of life responded by hardening their hearts. In their case, their personal “woe-trumpet” didn’t result in their facing the spiritual facts of life. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. First of all, God’s love; his mercy and grace: these things should cause us to turn to him in sweet surrender. Second, when hardship does come, it doesn’t have to drive us away from God. Instead, it can cause us to run to him even as a hurt child runs to his or her Father for protection and comfort. It’s not smart to wait for such a time before turning to God, but if one hasn’t done it yet, days of trials and hardship, pain and suffering, are good days to turn to the one who offers us hope even as our world crumbles around us.
Take Away: When life is especially hard it is, as is always true, a good time to turn to the Lord.
When’s the best time to pray?
Revelation 8: Smoke billowed up from the incense-laced prayers of the holy ones.
The seventh seal marks, not the end, but the beginning of a series of judgments about the fall on the earth. Things are about to get bad, with huge events coming to earth, each announced by the blast of a trumpet. The sober nature of these events is underscored as a foreboding silence falls in heaven. Before that first trumpet blast John sees an angel carrying a gold censer. The scene in heaven is one of worship at the Temple and the angel with the censor is in the role of priest. The offering, made with incense, is the prayers of God’s people. Even as the judgment of God is about to be poured out on the earth, the prayers of his people are heard. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this passage and Bible scholars are pressed to the limit to explain all the symbolism. I don’t claim to have any deep insight into the meaning here. However, I do note that before bad things ever start happening that God’s people are praying and that he’s listening to their prayers. While I doubt that the purpose of this passage is to encourage prayer I do see here an example of the importance of it. Of course we should pray when “something like a huge mountain…is flung into the sea” of our lives. However, it’s a good idea to already do some praying before such earth shaking events (literally in this case) start happening. God’s people need to pray before, during, and after unwelcome life events.
Take Away: Prayer matters.
Victory in Jesus
Revelation 7: Who are these dressed in white robes, and where did they come from?
As the worship scene in heaven unfolds John sees more and more worshipers. First, there are 144,000 people from the family trees of Israel. Then, he sees thousands and thousands from “all nations and tribes.” The number is too vast to count and they all begin singing praise to God and to the Lamb. John is transfixed by the scene but his focus is interrupted when one of the Elders asks him a question. He asks John who they are, this white robed, too-vast-to-be-counted throng of worshipers. John doesn’t know, but the Elder answers his own question. These are those who have come through the great tribulation. This huge multitude isn’t made up of everyone in heaven, just of those who faithfully serve Christ right at the end, as earth’s history is being wrapped up. A couple of things come to mind at this point. First, heaven won’t be a lonely place. In spite of “many called, few chosen” the “few” comprise a huge number. Second, as bad as the time of tribulation might be, by God’s power his people can overcome, not just surviving, barely limping in, but thriving in numbers too great to count, coming through clean and rejoicing. This is a testimony, not to human perseverance, but to God’s power at work in the lives of his people.
Take Away: By the grace of the Lord, by his power in our lives…by the Lord, we can hold fast in our faith and receive a glorious entrance into the place he’s prepared for us.
The blood of the martyrs
Revelation 6: I saw the souls of those killed because they had held firm in their witness to the Word of God.
The seals unveil future events, although readers though the centuries have been all over the place in their understanding of just what it is John is seeing. Perhaps the broad view is the best one. History is marching to a climax and as that climax draws near the world’s going to experience powerful and disturbing events. As the fifth seal is removed we see those martyred for their faithfulness to the Lord. In John’s day people are already suffering for their faith. John, himself, in fact, is exiled from the church. However, things are going to get worse. Many will die on the floor of the Coliseum in Rome. History, in fact, will see many faithful Christians die as martyrs. Sad to say, it continues to this day. John hears their voices as they cry out for justice. They’re told that the day of justice is coming. As I think about these who’ve followed Jesus even into death I feel small and insignificant. I confess that I’m hardly worthy to share the name “Christian” with them. I don’t want to forget that my heritage of faith has been a costly one. I don’t want to forget those who, even as I write these words, are paying a dear price for standing firm in their faith. At the same time, the promise of this passage speaks to my heart today. These have already been given “white robes” – honored in heaven. The day will come when the books will be balanced and justice will prevail. It doesn’t take my feeling any sense of vengeance at all for me to say, if God is just, then he’ll “avenge their murders.”
Take Away: The justice of the Lord demands that things be set right, and that day is, indeed, coming.
Lamb, Lion, King
Revelation 5: Look – the Lion from Tribe Judah, the Root of David’s Tree, has conquered.
The One who sits on the Throne has a small, sealed scroll full of mysteries to be revealed. However, not just anyone is qualified to open it. In fact, no one can be found and it appears to John as though his “revelation” isn’t going to happen. Then, he sees a Lamb that appears both weak and strong at the same time; bearing marks of death but with traits of unequaled wisdom and strength. John hears one of the Elders call this Lamb “the Lion from Tribe Judah.” We know about Judah. That’s the royal family tree of Israel. King David was of that family; so is Jesus. The One John sees looks like a slain Lamb that’s very much alive and powerful. This Lamb is also a Lion – a conqueror. He takes the scroll but at that moment no one’s thinking of the scroll. All heaven bursts forth in praise for the Lamb-Lion. It’s a thrilling moment as “thousand after thousand after thousand” of heavenly beings break forth in a song of praise. That group gets the first verse, then for the next one, all creation joins in. What a scene! There’s more to read, more to be revealed, and more to consider. For the moment though, as happens in this scene of worship I think I’ll just stop and join them in worshiping this Lamb-Lion-King.
Take Away: Worship of Jesus is at the heart of all Creation.
What an invitation!
Revelation 4: Ascend and enter.
Having received messages for seven churches John looks upward to see an opening door providing an entrance into Heaven. He hears a voice, issuing to him a command and a word of permission. He’s been invited into Heaven and is immediately filled with a sense of deep worship as he finds himself gazing on the very Throne of God. Everything’s overwhelming and, as he tells us about it, human language fails him. There’s worship going on and we’re left with the feeling that this is business as usual at the Throne. Heavenly beings sing “Holy, holy, holy” and those with crowns of righteousness cast those crowns at the feet of the One seated on the Throne. What’s business as usual in Heaven is all too rare on this side of that door. I’ve had some wonderful moments of blessing, some too precious for me to write about. They haven’t come nearly often enough but when they have come I’ve tasted just enough to long for more. Still, I’ve received an invitation to that place. I don’t know when it is that I’ll hear “Ascend and enter” but I do know that that command and word of permission will come someday. I’m sure I won’t like the process of getting there, but once I do, it’ll be worth it all.
Take Away: We’ve received that wonderful invitation to “ascend and enter” so let’s live as invited people, preparing for that day.
Not one size fits all
Revelation 3: The people I love, I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best.
The message of the Lord to each of the last three churches is far from uniform. Two of these churches are in trouble. The third is doing quite well. One of the two that is failing on the surface looks quite healthy. It’s a church that’s operating an aggressive program with lots of meetings and activities – a full calendar. The other church that’s failing believes in moderation. They feel they’re successful and have earned a respite. Sorry to say, that attitude has caused them to take a bit of a break from God too. The result is a stern warning from Jesus. The third church, though, has been through some tough times. Many have fallen away leaving a small, but dedicated group that’s been tested in painful ways. Through it all they kept the Word of the Lord with “passionate patience.” In other words, their love for the Lord has done nothing but increase even as they’ve patiently worked through some of the hardest days of their lives. The Lord’s pleased with them and promises to open doors for them and to vindicate them and to keep them safe. As I read about these three churches my takeaway today isn’t that it’s a bad thing for a church to have an aggressive program or for church and people to take a breather once in a while. I don’t come away thinking that to be small and poor is to be more spiritual. Frankly, I’ve been around a few groups that were small and poor and proud of it. What does come to mind is that there are challenges to be found in just about every situation. A busy, successful church needs to be careful not to mistake what it does for Jesus for a vital, living relationship with him. A church that has had some success needs to be careful to keep its priorities straight. To personalize this farther, I need to remember that it’s the same for individuals. The satisfied, fulfilled Christian life isn’t defined by past success or current business for the Lord. It’s all about living in a daily, connected relationship with him.
Take Away: My spiritual life isn’t defined by what I’ve done or am doing for the Lord. Rather, it’s all about my living in a current, abiding relationship with him.