What is the purpose of life? - Revelation 4
You know there is a certain skill in being able to ask just the right question at the right time. But it is an even greater skill to be able to give the right answer in the right way. The great German Reformer Martin Luther was preaching in the open air one day and was being heckled by a man in the crowd: ‘ What was God doing before he made the world?’ , he yelled. To which Luther replied quick as a flash, ‘Busy making a hell for people who ask stupid questions like that’!
Well, here is a question many people today would consider stupid but which they can’t help but ask and the question is this: ‘What is the purpose of life?’ The Jewish writer Abraham Heschel wrote: ‘ It is not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?’
Well, how would you answer that question? I said that for many today it would be considered a stupid question, a non- question. For if the atheist is right, that there is no God and we are products of blind chance then the question is meaningless. Tea which has accidentally been spilt on the floor has no meaning, its just there making a mess. So human beings which have accidentally been spilt into the universe have no meaning either they are a cosmic mess. We can’t ask why we are here, we just are. And yet the question keeps coming back to haunt us doesn’t it?
You see, only created things can have purpose. A log of wood lying around the churchyard has no purpose, but this lectern made out of wood does have a purpose. It was designed and made by someone with a specific purpose in mind- viz to hold a preacher’s notes and so it gains its significance from that. Of course it can be used for other things like carrying drinks, but it wouldn’t do a very good job, because the drinks would keep sliding off , and such a use would in fact be an abuse. Well, it is like that with human beings. The Bible tells us that we are made for a purpose but that we have turned away from that purpose and so end up abusing our lives. And just who it is that has made us and what we are made for and how such abuse is to be overcome is given for us in those two magnificent readings from the book of Revelation chapters 4 and 5.
Just look at 4:1 ‘After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, 'Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.' John is given a glimpse into heaven, the unseen spiritual reality which determine all other realities and he is told that something is about to take place, indeed something must take place.
You see, the book of Revelation is not so much a looking into the future but a looking into the present. It is a matter of understanding the present properly so that we might know what the future holds-what must take place. Revelation 4 - 8 show us what is happening right now as we meet. The problem is you can’t see what is happening because it is hidden from you and it is only as it is revealed can you see what is going on in the greater heavenly reality which shapes the present earthly reality which we can see. What do we see? Well, we see the politicians, the educationalists, the world’s movers and shakers and we think, these are the men and women who shape our lives and make history; these are the great ones. Well, the Book of Revelation lifts the veil for us, that is what the word means, so as to enable us to see things as they really are , who it really is who makes history , who shapes all events which happen in this world- and that is God.
Now what John sees is not something you can draw or film. That is not how this kind of literature works. It is an amalgam of evocative symbols, pictures, metaphors which are constantly on the move. When I was a little boy one of the things I was fascinated by was a kaleidoscope. I would spend hours looking down this tube and twisting it so that the patterns and colours changed to form a whole range of different combinations- that might explain why my emotional development was stunted. That is how the book of Revelation operates- you look through the door into heaven and see something which is breathtaking and then suddenly with a turn of the kaleidoscope the scene changes and it is transformed into something else. And key to understanding all of this is that symbols are used which have meaning, numbers and colours in particular. Now every culture has symbolic numbers and colours. So in our white Anglo -Saxon culture the number 13 is considered to be unlucky. So when you go to hotel and enter the lift it passes floors 10.11.12 and then you come to 14. So all the people living on the 14th floor feel safe because it is number 14 while we know that it actually is the 13th floor and so they really are in trouble. In a Chinese culture you will see cars with number plates with 888 written on them why? Because it is the number of prosperity, you will not find many Chinese people driving around in cars marked 444- if you do it will be a hearse because that is the number of death. So in the book of Revelation there are number symbols- 7 is the number of completion, wholeness, perfection. And there are colour symbols too. This summer we will be having lots of weddings here and you can be sure that most of the brides will be wearing white symbolising purity. You will not find many Chinese brides wearing white. Why? Because in that culture white is the symbol of death. So what happens when the Chinese bride turns up in white? She is at the wrong service, she has come to a funeral. But in the Book of Revelation white is the symbol of conquest, victory.
With that in mind what does John see when heaven is opened to him? He sees that at the centre of the universe , undergirding all reality from which everything springs, seen and unseen, is God- v 2 .' At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.’- like the rings around the planet Venus. WThat picture is designed to convey to us an overwhelming sense of entrancing beauty. We are meant to be captivated by the thought that the most mesmerising, heart stopping , mind engrossing scene in the entire universe is God seated upon his throne. His attractiveness is infinitely more attractive than any other attraction we could ever conceive. And around this throne there is a ring of 24 other thrones upon which are seated elders, possibly angelic beings representing the totality of God’s people, clothed in white, so they are victorious, and wearing crowns so they are ruling. And from God’s throne comes flashes of lightening and deafening peals of thunder, so this is not a throne you approach lightly for it would mark your death. And before this throne are seven lamps blazing, perfect illumination and seven spirits so nothing is hidden from him. And he is the One who rules over all the created order for around the throne are four creatures- a lion symbolising strength, an ox the great domestic animal, man- intelligence, and an eagle- swiftness. Whatever creature on earth which is considered noble, awe inspiring, worthy of respect, it is God who sovereignly rules over them, so that nothing lies outside the orbit of his kingly rule. Now that is the God before whom we are gathered this morning.
And what do you do when you come face to face with this God, when you realise who it is who occupies the throne which lies at the heart of the universe? V9 ‘Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 'You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.'
Now we are very close to answering the question: What is the purpose in life? For these creatures show us what it is, because they are doing it. They are giving ‘glory and honour and thanks to him who sits upon the throne’. They are ‘worshipping him who lives for ever.’ And why are they doing this? ‘ for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.’ If an Oak tree could speak do you know what it would say? ‘ I praise you O God for making me big and strong with branches wide and sturdy in which birds can gather and be protected and fed.’ If a waterfall could sing do you know what the song would be? It would be the roaring song of Revelation 4: 11, ‘ You are worthy of glory and honour and power for you created me to be a source of life and to be a perpetual tumbling , moving monument to your wisdom and creativity. For you have made me thus.’ What is the chief purpose of man? The Westminster catechism expresses it perfectly, ‘ To glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.’ That is why we were made. Instead of clinging to our little crowns and strutting around the planet pathetically shouting ‘ I am god, I am god’, we are meant to relinquish those crowns at the foot of our Maker and proclaim ‘He is God, He is God’. We glorify him by being the people he designed us to be: being a loving husband for him, a submissive wife for Him, an obedient son or daughter for him. As we play our music, dig our garden, visit that sick person in hospital we do it for him and so we act out the God given image in which we are made. And notice this is not a cold duty, it is a positive delight. This scene in heaven doesn’t strike you as dull does it? These creatures are freely bowing before the throne in adoration, they do so under no external compulsion, if there is any compulsion at all they are compelled inwardly, it arises naturally if you like from the very depths of their being-they must praise him, they cant help it. When you see a beautiful girl, no one forces you to go ‘Wow’ isn’t she lovely? When you stand before a crimson sunset, you just have to say, ‘Isn’t that beautiful!' It is the proper response. And when your heart leaps up in love for someone, I take it that you actually enjoy the sensation? Well, that is precisely what we were made for with God. He is to be our supreme joy, our consummate delight. We are meant to be captivated by him, enchanted by him. And as we find our supreme satisfaction in him then he is most supremely glorified in us. Archbishop William Temple once defined worship in these terms, just listen to this: ‘ Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose - and all of this is gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.’ That is precisely what we have here isn’t it? God centred worship involving the whole of our being and the whole of our lives. And that is what we were made for, this is the purpose of life-to know God, to glorify God and to enjoy God for ever. And if that is not true of you-then you are seriously missing out on what you are on this earth for. And that is the greatest tragedy of all and sadly that is where most of our fellow human being are. So what can be done about it-what has been done?
This how the abuse is overcome, for this is what is to take place after this-: 5:1 ‘Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?' But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.’ What does John see and why does it lead to the most desperate crying? Well, he sees something in God’s right hand, the right hand of God always denoting rule and authority. It is a legal document which has writing on both sides, when normally there would be writing only on one side-so this means that it is complete, nothing can be added to it for there is no room for any addition. And what it is, as we see from chapters 6 and 8 is God’s plans and purposes of judgement and salvation in this world. But the problem is that it is sealed with 7 seals and unless the seals are opened then God’s will, shall not be enacted on earth as it is in heaven. So the desperate call goes out from one end of the universe to the other: Is there anyone who is so pure and holy,that they are in a position to approach God so as to open the scroll and so put into effect God’s will?And then there is a long silence- for no one could be found.And John simply breaks down and weeps and weeps. And the reason he is reduced to uncontrollable weeping ,is the reason why so many people today are weeping. For if God is not able to do what is right,to bring about the triumph of good over evil,then life is meaningless and devoid of all hope.History has no meaning,it is going nowhere.What is more individuals have no meaning, their lives count for nothing if they are not judged and their lives given value.
But then comes the consoling news that there is One, the Lion of Judah, a descendant of David who is worthy -v 5 and so John lifts his tear filled eyes to look for the lion but instead sees- a lamb , in fact a dead lamb which had been butchered but is now alive. And this lamb is standing at the centre of the throne. And he is standing because he is adopting the position of a priest-King who stands interceding for his people. And God has chosen to rule the world through this lamb , that is why he is given the scroll to open. And so this lamb, who has seven horns, symbols of perfect power and strength, with seven eyes, all seeing, he is the omnipotent and omniscient one, he fulfills God’s original plan to rule the world through a man, a descendent of David, the God-man Jesus.
And whereas in chapter 4 the old song of creation is sung giving God glory and honour because he has made us , in v 9 of chapter 5 a new song is sung to Jesus the lamb who receives glory and honour because he has redeemed us- 'You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’
Not only are we created by God and for God we are redeemed by God and for him, so instead of being self -centred we can be God- centred. The sin which separates us from the one for whom we were made has been dealt with, Jesus the Lamb was sacrificed on our behalf in our place washing away our guilt by his blood so that we can know God and enjoy him rather than not know him and be the object of his anger. And so there is an opening up of a new aspect of the what our purpose in life is, what we are redeemed for- v10 ‘You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.’ Now do you see what for Christians the purpose of our lives is now ? We are a kingdom and priests- that is, we are Jesus representatives on earth and as we carry out our kingly-priestly duty in proclaiming the Gospel to the world , then God’s saving reign is extended and God is glorified as more and more people come to know him. You see, God will be God. He will execute his judgement on a world which will not acknowledge him- that is what chapters 6-8 are about, Jesus this little lamb opens the seals of terrible judgement- the wrath of the lamb- in order to get a mad world- hell bent on self- destruction- to see sense, that when you say goodbye to God and his standards then you will get famine, wars, terrorism, societal breakdown and this is God shouting at us through the megaphone of pain. He will reign. But there is also the call of the Gospel going out, calling upon men and women ,boys and girls to repent and turn to the one for whom they were made and in whom alone will they find eternal life and meaning- Jesus. And our purpose is to be caught up in this, whether we are living in England, America, China, or Malaysia, it doesn’t matter. These king-priests are from every tribe, language and nation. We are all called to do this. To know God and to glorify him means telling others about him-that is our worship.
It all boils down to perspective doesn’t it? The question ‘What is the purpose of life?’ can only be answered when we know where we have come from- God, what has gone wrong- sin, what God has done to put things right- sending his Son Jesus to die on a cross - and what is going to come- a future of either eternal bliss or eternal torment depending upon whether we surrendered our lives to him. Let me end by reading to you a poem which came from a vision based upon this book of Revelation. (Piper p380).
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