The Return of the Son - Revelation 19:11-21
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Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? Those of you who are familiar with the stories of A.A.Milne will understand what I mean. Tigger is a bouncy tiger, irrepressible, fun loving and dizzyingly optimistic. Eyore on the other hand is a forlorn, lugubrious donkey and endlessly pessimistic. He always expects the worse to happen and -it usually does! Temperamentally the two creatures are as different as chalk from cheese. There is no doubt that our temperament can affect our outlook, whether we are optimists or pessimists. The same is true of Christians. And as is often the case in the church circles long names are attached to them. The Christian Tiggers are called post-millennialists. They are quite confident that the church is going to move on from glory to glory, sweeping all before its path, claiming territory for Christ, binding Satan and bringing in the kingdom of God only to be followed by the return of Christ.
The Christian Eeyores are called pre-millennialists. They point to those verses in the Bible which speak of evil men going from bad to worse, about tares being sown among the wheat, of the great dragon pursuing God’s people to the death. ‘No’ they say, ‘the church will always be a persecuted minority, there is to be no great change until Jesus comes again- so we might as well get used to the situation.’
Who is right? Well, I would suggest that they are both right and both wrong. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘that just goes to prove that you are a Pooh- a bear of little brain’! Maybe, but I would put it to you that when you turn to the teaching of a work like the book of Revelation we get the proper balance. You see, he problem with the Christian Tigger is that he expects too much. The problem with the Christian Eeyore is that he expects too little. So on the optimistic side one of the dominant themes of Revelation is the effectiveness of the witness of God’s people to the nations with the result that many are won for Jesus Christ; you see that in Revelation 15:2 ff 2And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God 3and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: "Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. 4Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come.’ On the other hand for the pessimist, this is not to happen without struggle and the price paid is often in human blood as you see in chapter 11 and what happens to the two witnesses which symbolise Christ’s continuing witness on earth through his people: ‘When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. 8Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9For three and a half days men from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." Victory for Christians- yes, but through pain. And standing over all of these events on earth and the cosmic struggle between good and evil stands King Jesus ruling from heaven. So there is the triumph of the King in chapter 5 with Jesus the Lamb having been slain for the sins of the world, conquering sin, death and the devil. There is the reign of the King as seated on the throne of heaven by his seven fold Spirit, the Holy Spirit- Jesus maintains his presence amongst his people on earth, guiding and sustaining them. But all of this is leading to the glorious climax in the coming of the King in chapter 19. And it is only be holding on to all of three truths that Christians are enabled to keep on keeping on when the going gets tough and not least the last truth which completes the other two-that Christ is going to return.
In fact the book begins with proclaiming the return of Christ-1:7 ‘Look, he is coming with clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.’ The book ends in chapter 22 promising the return of Christ, v7 ‘Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.’ v12 ‘Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.’ v20, ‘He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen, Come Lord Jesus.’ Do you get the message? Jesus is coming soon. The promise of Christ- ‘I am coming’ is met with the prayer of the Church, ‘Amen, Come!’ Now could I ask: when was the last time you prayed for Jesus to return? A very long time ago, if at all, I would imagine. And yet it was this belief which energized the early church. This is what one writer has to say: ‘This same lively expectation of Christ’s return should mark the church of Jesus Christ today. If this expectation is no longer present there is something radically wrong. It is the unfaithful servant in Jesus’ parable who says in his heart, ‘My Lord delays his coming,’ (Luke 12:45). There may be various reasons for the loss of this sense of expectation. It may be that the church today is so caught up in material and secular concerns that interest in the Second Coming is fading into the background. It may be that Christians no longer believe in a literal return of Christ. It may be that many who do believe in a literal return have pushed the event so far into the distant future that they no longer live in anticipation of that return.’ (Anthony Hoekema). Isn’t that right?
Now it is abundantly clear that the churches to whom John is writing face the same challenges that every church in every age has to face and which the return of the Lord Jesus is seen as an antidote, namely, compromise in the face of Satanic deception on the one hand and capitulation in the face of Satanic persecution on the other. So in chapter 3 the church in Sardis has given way to immorality and material ease-the lie of Satan, and what does the risen Lord Jesus say to them? - . 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. In the same chapter the church in Philadelphia faces persecution and to them Jesus says, ‘I am coming soon-hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.’ The battle is on. The beast of chapter 13 is the political instrument of Satan who wages war against God’s people- he did it through Hitler, he did it through Stalin, he did it through Pol Pot and he is still doing it through many Islamic regimes today. And when your children are being taken away, when your church buildings are being raised to the ground, when your own life is being threatened with torture and imprisonment then the prayer, ‘Come Lord Jesus’ will readily come to your lips won’t it? But then there is the beast’s sidekick, the one who looks like a lamb but speaks like the dragon 13:11. This is false religion which ‘Christianizes’ the teachings of the world and so will talk of ‘openness and toleration’ as an excuse to rot a church from within by immorality and material comfort. In their case these churches are not offered consolation and encouragement by the truth of Christ’s return as are the persecuted churches, they are given warnings and are called to repent. But notice how it is the return of the Lord Jesus which is decisive in both cases. To those who feel that life is too hard, the message is ‘Press on and conquer for Christ has already conquered and is alive and is coming with his reward.’ But to churches like many in the West which seem to be hell bound in a basket, the message is, ‘Wake up before it’s too late.’ When will it be too late? When Christ comes again of course. And what will that be like? Well, let’s look at chapter 19:11ff to find out.
Now we are dealing here with powerful, evocative symbolism- not literal pictures. They are designed to convey truths of what has happened and what will happen in world history but using almost dreamlike (and some would say nightmare-like) imagery. So it is here. This is the third and final stage of Christ’s work of establishing the rule of God in the world of men. Stage one was his faithful witness by his sacrificial death on the cross- the Lion who is the lamb. Stage 2 follows on from this in that by his death Jesus has saved a people for himself drawn from every nation, tribe and language who are already in God’s kingdom despite suffering at the hands of a rebellious world. These people – Christians -are called to participate in witnessing to God’s rule as Christ did by proclaiming the truth of the Gospel even being willing to die for that truth. And this divides people- into those who continue to believe the lie of Satan that power and prosperity and peace is all, that it is Satan and not God who reigns, and those who believe the truth and come to know the liberating power of the new life Christ brings. So that leaves stage three which brings the whole drama to a close- the return of Christ in salvation and judgment.
Now there are three things which characterize this triumphant return of the Lord Jesus and his people that we see here.
First, the return of the Son is personal- v11-13. I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. Now what is that all about? Well, whilst the devil and the beast reign, the earth is the sphere of deceit and illusion. It happens through the media, through government policies; through the intelligentsia- people are deceived. As Geobels, Hitler’s propaganda chief said, ‘If you are to tell a lie, tell the big lie.’ The big lie is that we are naturally good, that we can manage life without recourse to God’s laws, that no one is to be blamed for anything. The result? Increased crime in our streets, unruly children in our schools, and lives destroyed by drugs and suffocated by apathy. But notice what we have here. Truth is the counter to the lie and that truth is first seen in heaven and then comes from heaven to earth. And notice that it comes in the form of a person. He rides a white horse- a symbol of purity and majesty, riding to wage war on his enemies. On his head are many crowns- so he is supreme ruler. And he is identified as ‘the Word of God’ the very term used by John at the beginning of his Gospel- the Word made flesh in history is the same Word who returns in history. What is more this is the same figure John saw at the start of his vision in chapter 1, one ‘like a son of man whose head and hair were white like wool and whose eyes were like blazing fire.’ In chapter three he is called ‘the faithful and true witness’, now he is simply called, ‘Faithful and True.’ He has not come to witness so that people be saved, that is the point of his first coming, he has come to judge. So we are talking about the bodily return of the risen and glorified saviour and ruler of the universe. And you and I will see it. Now what events do people queue in eager anticipation to see? A royal wedding? A Live Eight concert? A well known celebrity coming to town maybe? What about this: the God who made you, the God who owns you, the God who died to save you. That is an event not to be missed and it won’t be missed.
For, secondly, the return of the Son will be public-v 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron scepter." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. The armies of heaven here are the same as the ‘called, chosen faithful followers’ of 17:14 who comes with the King of King and Lord of Lords to wage war against the satanically inspired rebellious world order. It is a striking and glorious picture isn’t it? The King arrives with his people, he speaks a word of judgment and all who oppose him are struck down. He fulfils Psalm 2 and rules the world with an iron sceptre- his will now holds sway. Now what a contrast to his first coming! Then his presence was in lowliness and humiliation. Here his presence is in glory and majesty. Then he came incognito as it were, hidden in human form, sharing the world’s pain, poverty and rejection- but here he is seen as he really is coming with all the paraphernalia of deity. The crown of thorns is replaced with crowns of splendour. His voice is not the gasping cry from a cross, it is the triumphant declaration from a throne. When Christ came as a Jewish baby that too was public, happening in space- time history but most of the world took no notice. The only one who did was Herod and he wanted to kill him, as we see in chapter 12:4 ‘The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour the child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule the nations with an iron sceptre’. When Christ comes again the whole world will take notice and all the nations will be made aware as he rules with that sceptre.
Which leads on to our third point, the return of the Son is purposeful- v17ff - 17And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, "Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great." 19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. Now we may be shocked by what we have just read. We might be unnerved by what we have just read. But let us not misunderstand what we have just read. We are not being told that the slaughtered Lamb has turned slaughterer, as if on the judgement day there is an orgy of violence and mayhem. No. This is the witness turned judge. He is still the one who bled as a faithful witness to God- his royal robe is dipped in blood-his own blood shed on a cross. As the Word of God he is the Truth of God and in order to be true to the reality of God. all that promotes the lie and all who support the lie and rebellion must be banished from his presence. So there are powerbrokers of the world-those described as kings, generals and mighty men who have bullied and bribed and killed and raped their way to power are justly brought to account and destroyed-v18. Organised anti-Christ political power and organised anti-Christ religion –even those who do things in the name of Christ but which in reality deny Christ, and those who have gone along with it-bearing the mark of the beast- they too are thrown into the lake of sulphur-v20. Ultimately, of course, the supernatural being which has been at work behind it all-the devil is punished and banished too-20:10. Now are we so morally superior that we are offended by such talk of judgement? I suspect not. When Fred West who carried out the most unimaginable sadistic, brutal and perverse acts even on his own children- dark, naked evil- with multiple murders thrown in, including at least one of his daughters- when he committed suicide in prison, do you know what the outcry was? ‘He has cheated justice.’ The same was said of the serial killer Harold Shipman. He cheated justice. You see people do not want to live in a universe where justice is cheated. And God will ensure that it will not happen. Every act of barbarity, every lie, every devilish ploy will be exposed before the blazing gaze of the one who sits on that white horse and it will be a terrifying sight to behold. That is the point of this imagery friends. Judgement day is serious. The second coming of Jesus is serious and it will happen more certainly than the sun will rise tomorrow and we need to be ready.
How? Well, in two ways. First, repent of the lie. Stop buying into the lie of the beast that this world is all that matters, that your personal comfort is supreme, that life is meant to be a breeze and if it isn’t then you can blame God for it. Stop the idolatry. Christ came the first time to set us free from that. He revealed to us the way life was meant to be lived, in service to others under his Father’s rule. He went to that cross soaked in sweat, bathed in agony so that we might escape this judgement by taking the judgement for us. And if that is not love then I don’t know what is. So stop living the lie, even if you call yourself a ‘Christian’ and get serious about Jesus, about eternity, about the future. Will you do that?
Second; witness to the Truth. That is what these people in v 14 have been doing even to the point of death, but look at them now, riding with Christ, clothed in pure fine linen-not a mark on them. What does Jesus expect to find us doing when he returns-which could be at any time-‘I am coming soon’ he says? Doing exactly what he did- being a faithful and true witness to God’s Gospel. ‘I do not think in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return’ – one conscious hour. Who said that? The great 19th century Christian Anthony Ashley Cooper, better known as Lord Shaftesbury. Was he found sitting around enjoying his status, living the high life? Hardly. He pioneered legislation against exploitation of labour in factories; he sponsored low cost urban housing and free education for destitute children; he was the President of the British and Foreign Bible society for he wanted people to get the Word of God into their hands so they could be saved. And what motivated him? Certainly it was the love of Christ- but it was also the thought that one day he was to give an account to Christ-this Christ- of what he had done with all the privileges and resources had been entrusted to him. The fact is you and I only have one life to live. What are we going to do with it? What story are we going to write with our lives to be read by Jesus when he comes? So let us be warned and let us be encouraged. The risen and ascended Christ says, ‘I am coming -soon.’
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