Chapters 10-11 - Reality Check - Revelation 10

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 10th February 2008.

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I want to begin this evening by telling you about Blandina. Blandina was a Christian who lived in what we now know as France in the second century AD. It was the year 177 in Lyons and as the church in Lyons grew, persecution against the Christians also began to grow. Christians were shut out of businesses and houses. They endured all kinds of shame and personal injuries. Mobs formed to beat, stone and rob them. When believers were arrested and examined by the city authorities, they boldly confessed their allegiance to Christ. On August 1st 177 there was a grand festival to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. Getting gladiators to fight in the amphitheatre was expensive, so what better to save funds and dispose of prisoners, than to torture a few Christians for the amusement of the crowd. The Christians had been kept in cells no bigger than a modern dishwasher, and they had been savagely treated including being forced to lie or sit on a hot iron plate, which was like a large BBQ. Blandina was one of the those Christians. She too was burnt by the iron, she was suspended on a pole in the middle of the arena for wild beasts to claw at her, and finally, because she didn’t die that way, she was put in a net and handed to a bull to play with. She never once denied her faith. In fact, she died actually praying for her persecutors.

Now we might think that such stories are rarities in the Christian church. But just a small knowledge of church history will show you that again and again in every generation, such persecution of Christians occurs. Even today it still goes on. If you read papers like Evangelicals Now, or follow the work of Open Doors, you’ll know that hundreds of thousands of Christians today are facing serious persecution. Whether it be in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and many other places around the globe. And it even happens in the so called tolerant West. A friend of mind when she became a Christian at the age of fifteen, was effectively hounded out of her family because her dad was so outraged at the thought of his daughter becoming a Christian. Other friends of mine have suffered at work or college, thankfully not in ways like Blandina, but it is persecution. And I guess that some of us here will have had similar experiences. For the simple truth is this: Suffering is the norm for the Christian. And whilst we here in Britain are going through a temporary lull in outright opposition to the faith, yet the truth is we are abnormal. Because suffering for the faith is normal Christianity. Christians will be persecuted here again soon, if it’s not beginning to happen already. And the fact of persecution is really the truth at the heart of Revelation 10-11.

Now so far in our studies in Revelation we have seen three recurring truths. John was writing to various churches in Turkey who were struggling with persecution and compromise and false teaching, and he writes to them to show them what is really going on in the world. Revelation is if you like a drawing back of the curtain on reality. And he’s show us that God is sovereign, utterly in control; that Jesus has the victory- the great battle in Revelation is not Armageddon in the future, but Calvary in the past. And God’s people are safe. We saw that last time especially as chapters 6-9 showed us the sorts of things that happen in the world before Jesus comes back. The last days, the days between Jesus’ first and second coming will be times of judgement, signs to urge people to repent. And right in the midst of that chaos, we saw something very reassuring. In chapter 7, we saw God’s people safe and secure. Whatever happens to them in this world, God’s people are spiritually secure, sealed by God with his mark of ownership.

But now we get a different picture. Because we are between trumpets 6-7. And the question John raises for us in this interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets, is what happens to God’s people during the last times, before Jesus returns. What are they up to? And chapters 10-11 answer that question. And it’s very straightforward. The people of God proclaim the gospel but they suffer for it.

But before we launch in, there is another lesson we need to understand about how to handle this great book. We’ve seen one already, which is that Revelation is not a chronological timetable of events. The events John describes are not set out so we think they happen one after the after. Rather, as we’ve seen, it’s like watching a football match on TV with different camera angles and action replays. But another lesson we need to appreciate is that Revelation is written in a type of literature which demands sensitivity when we interpret it. It’s called Apocalyptic literature. It was very popular in John’s day, and it used lots of different symbols to help convey truth about God. No-one thought you should interpret it literally. Rather, you understood that the letter was written using symbolic language. But why did John do this? Why didn’t he just tell us what he saw? Well imagine for a moment that we are missionaries in Papua New Guinea. And we want to help the people living in the jungle by bringing them electricity. They have never seen or heard of electricity. How will you explain it to them? You cannot use terms like wires, or light bulbs, or generators, because they haven’t got a clue about those things, and they aren’t even in their vocabulary. How would you do it? Well you’d have to use their language to convey what they have not yet experienced. You’d have to talk about pumping a spirit through vines and you put the end of the vine into your hut, and at the end you attach a little sun so it gives you light. Or something like that. It’s in language they understand but it’s symbolic. They don’t literally think the sun will be in their hut, but you’re explaining truth in symbolic ways so they understand. Now how do you explain heavenly reality to people who have not seen it? Well that’s John’s problem. He’s seen things you and I have not. But he needs to explain them to us. So he chooses language we can understand, taken mostly from the OT as we’ll see today, but uses it to describe things we have not yet seen or experienced ourselves, heavenly realties. So as we come to these chapters, we are not meant to be thinking that John is using words in a literal sense. If we do that we fail to appreciate the type of literature John is writing. It would be like reading a political cartoon literally. We’d think that the USA is a literal golden eagle, or Wales is a literal leek. Obviously that wouldn’t be right. Rather we understand the type of literature and read it accordingly. And many of the mistakes in reading Revelation spring from a failure to appreciate the type of literature it is. So what is he saying? Well he’s wanting to encourage us as God’s people and to show us what we are to do and expect in the last times, during the times of the seals and the trumpets. And we learn four things:

So first then John shows us the confidence we have. And this is really his point in chapter 10. And his point is very simple- God’s plans will be accomplished, because God is totally sovereign. He is in control. Now John begins by telling us about a mighty angel in verses 1-3. He’s described in spectacular fashion, with massive fiery legs as he stands on the sea and the land. And he’s got a voice like a lion. This is clearly a very powerful angel. But he is only a spokesman- he speaks for God because in verse 1 he comes down out of heaven. And what does he say? Well he first speaks of something hidden, in verse 4. He speaks seven thunders, and John is about to write down the content of these seven thunders, when he is told not to. For all the debate as to what this is, no-one knows. And that’s the point. We have enough for what we need to know about the present and the future, and that is all we are getting. Clearly God could have told us more, but in his sovereignty he decides what his people need to know. There are some things we are just not meant to know. And that is part of the Christian life. "The secret things belong to God, said Moses, but the things revealed belong to us and our children for ever, that we may follow the words of this law."

Far more important is what the angel says in verses 6-7, and he shows us something revealed: "There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets." We’ll discover a bit later on that the seventh trumpet is a picture of the end of human history. And the angel is saying that when that happens, then God’s plan will be accomplished. The mystery in the NT is simply the gospel plan, that people come to know God through Jesus Christ. And the angel is saying that there is no way that plan can be thwarted. God’s plans for salvation and judgement will accomplished. Despite what we might think to the contrary, despite evidence of huge persecution against the church, and the seeming chaos that the world is in which we saw last time, yet God is totally in control. His plans will be accomplished. And there is no more delay in the sense that everything has been done that needs to be done to put that final piece of the jigsaw in place. We’re just waiting for the final trumpet, the final whistle on human history.

But in the meantime, John is given something to proclaim in verses 9-11. The angel holds a little scroll in his hand. Now this is a different scroll from the one we met in chapter 5. There we found that that scroll was all of God’s plan for history in judgement and salvation. And that plan was put into effect through Jesus. Here the scroll is little, and probably refers to the contents of chapter 11. John is told to take the scroll and eat it, just as the OT prophet Ezekiel did hundreds of years before. The eating of the scroll means that John takes in the message. And it’s both sweet and bitter to the taste. It’s sweet, because the gospel John proclaims is sweet to those who want to respond. Chapter 11 is sweet because it’s good news for God’s people. But it’s also bitter, because there are tough times ahead for the people of God. Times of great suffering.

Now what is remarkable as we take a step back from this chapter is that it shows us again and again how God is in control. Even the actions of the angel himself as he stands over land and sea show God’s complete control. It’s significant that one of the devil’s allies who we’ll see next time, the first beast, comes from the sea. Here we’re told that one of God’s angels stands over the sea. God hasn’t lost the plot. He is in charge. And most wonderfully of all, there is absolutely no way his plan can be thwarted. Now over and again in Revelation, this truth is emphasised. In fact, there is not another book in the NT that emphasises the sovereignty of God so clearly. Other books teach it clearly, but Revelation lives and breathes it. And how vital that is for a suffering church to know. The very first thing you’re tempted to think when life goes wrong is whether God has abdicated the throne of the universe. But he hasn’t. It may look as if Satan’s hoards are winning in certain parts of the world, places like Sudan, or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Might we add to that list secular and materialist Western Europe, where the gospel is sidelined and church decline is increasing, where in France there are more registered mediums than pastors. Has God lost his grip on the throne of heaven? Not at all. "The mystery of God will be accomplished."

Now actually we will hear this truth in virtually every sermon for the rest of the series, but its something we need to grasp firmly, otherwise we will fall. We need this truth, not just to see the big picture in the world, to see that God is in charge over the whole church in the world, but also that he is in charge over our lives. That everything that happens to us he knows about and ultimately is in charge over. Whether good or ill, God knows. The illness, the accident, the frustrations over jobs, the problems with children, the promotion, the struggles in relationships, the joys and delights too. He knows it all. And he is in charge. Do you honestly believe that this week nothing will happen to you and me that is beyond God’s control, whether good or ill? Because if he’s not in control, then we really are sunk. No, he rules. I wonder if we genuinely believed that, how differently you and I would enter this week. With confidence that God will use whatever we face for his good and perfect plans. We need to learn to trust him. Because John tells us chapter by chapter that God is on his throne and that he is sovereign. And that is the confidence we have.

But secondly we see the task we perform, and we see this in chapter 11 vv 1-6. Because in the days between Jesus’ first and second comings, the church has a job to do. And that is to proclaim the gospel. Now chapter 11 in particular is a chapter where we need to remember the lesson about the type of literature that Revelation is. Because John is using a lot of OT and NT symbolism here to get his point across. We are not meant to understand this chapter literally, but rather to grasp the rich symbolism John is using. Now it becomes clear, if we understand the symbolism correctly that the Temple refers to the people of God, the two witnesses represent the church witnessing to the gospel and being persecuted, and the city of Jerusalem stands for the fallen world in which the martyrs witness. Now in verse 1, John is told to measure the Temple of God: "I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, "Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months." Now in the NT the Temple is a way of referring to the people of God for instance in Ephesians 2 and 1 Corinthians 6. And John himself will use that language of God’s people in Revelation 21-22. In fact there we’ll see that John interchanges his pictures of God’s people- they are a bride, a city and a Temple all in one! So here in chapter 11, John is speaking of the people of God. And John is told to measure this Temple, or count the people. Measuring symbolism comes from the prophecy of Ezekiel where Ezekiel is told to measure out the Temple of God. It’s a picture of God’s protection. God measures off and numbers his people so he knows exactly who his people are. It’s a different way of talking about the seal of the Lamb back in chapter 7, or of saying that there are 144,000. This is the people of God and God knows who are his. Nothing can happen to them without his prior permission. But why in verse 2 is the outer court excluded from the measuring? Well when the Temple was still in existence, the outer court was part of the Temple structure. So what John is seeing is that part of the Temple is left exposed to the Gentiles. It’s John’s way of saying that part of the people of God will be exposed to trampling, suffering. Part of the city, the people of God will suffer.

And this will happen, verse 2, for 42 months. Now this figure 42 months is the same as 1260 days or 3 ½ years or a time, times and half a time, all of which we’ll see this week and next. It all refers to the same period of time, as the next verses show us. John will use the numbers interchangeably to mean the same thing. And it comes from Daniel 7-12. There Daniel prophesied that there would be a period of suffering for the people of God which would last a time, times and half a time. And it became clear that Daniel was referring to the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV who was an evil foreign king who reigned in Jerusalem for 3 ½ years before being overthrown. It was the grimmest time in Israel’s history. Antiochus desecrated the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar. So this period of time, called by Daniel, a time, times and half a time became symbolic in Jewish thinking of a period of time during which there would be intense suffering but it will come to an end. Now John picks up that symbolism and applies it to the whole church age, between Jesus’ first and second comings. This 42 months, or 1260 days or three and a half years is symbolic for the last times. We’ll see that more clearly next time. But here John is saying that the people of God will suffer for the period between Jesus’ first and second coming, the last days.

But what are the people of God to do during that time? Verse 3: "And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.’ These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth." Now John changes the picture again. Now he sees two witnesses. They are dressed in sackcloth which is the prophetic dress of repentance. They are preaching repentance. Now the details are a little alien to us, but John is using imagery from the prophet Zechariah to speak of the people of God witnessing in the last times. You’ll remember perhaps from chapter 1 that the church is described as a lampstand! So John is speaking again about the people of God. These two prophets are symbolic for the church preaching in the last times. And verses 5-6 is imagery from the stories of Moses and Elijah to show the effect of their preaching. We’re not meant to think of Moses and Elijah literally being raised from the dead to preach. Rather they represent God’s people proclaiming the gospel. And when the church preaches the gospel then the preaching brings both blessing and judgement. That’s what the church does in the gospel age, but it will also mean being trampled for that time as well. The church will be persecuted. People will not like the message, and they will take it out on the messengers.

Now whilst the details may be a little tricky, I hope you can see the main point. That is that the church is to proclaim the gospel to a world which desperately needs to hear, but which doesn’t want to hear. That is our task. Any church worthy of the name will be outward looking. Any Christian following Christ will want to shine as a light for him in a dark world, whether it’s at work, or in the home or at the gym or on the football pitch. The people of God witness to the gospel of God. But we must be prepared for flak. It will be costly. So we mustn’t be surprised when our message is received badly, or it brings about antagonism. It is nothing new. Ever since the time of Jesus and his disciples, those who courageously stand for Christ will be persecuted.

Let me tell you about one girl who understood this. In the late seventeenth century in southern France, a girl named Marie Durant was brought before the authorities, charged with the crime of effectively believing the gospel. She was fourteen years old, bright, full of life and attractive. All she was asked to do was to renounce the faith. Simple. She refused and so was imprisoned with thirty other believers in a tower by the sea. For thirty eight years they refused to give in. Instead of the word "I renounce", which was all they were asked to say, she scratched the word "Resistez", resist, in the window frame of the tower. It's still there to this day, a living testimony to their willingness to stick with Christ in tough times. The question for you and me is whether we too will stand where our spiritual forefathers stood. Because the task of the church is to proclaim the gospel in spite of opposition.

And that brings us on to see the suffering we face in verses 7-14. Because we might think that it’s bad enough to go through tough times as a Christian, but actually John speaks in verses 7-14 of a much worse time to come. Now again, the details are tricky at first, but the main point becomes clear. Let’s read from verse 7: "Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days men from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth." So in verse 7, the two witnesses are killed by the Beast from the Abyss. The beast will we will see next week represents Satan and does his work. So here is a massive Satanic attack on the church, such that it renders the church’s witness silent. It seems as if the people of God are finally defeated. So verse 8, John tells us his language is figurative, as the bodies of the witness lie in Sodom or Egypt, which were both symbols of evil and opposition to God’s people. And notice as well, it’s where the Lord was crucified. So John is saying that Jerusalem is also symbolic for mankind opposed to God and his people. John is talking about this fallen world. It’s not a particular city. It’s rather this fallen world. And the world rises up and attacks the church and the church seems defeated. And the world gloats over its demise.

So what is happening here? Well John is speaking of the very end of time. The 42 months are over, because the witnesses, the church, have finished witnessing. The time for gospel preaching is over. The time for salvation has gone. This is very end of the last days just before the Lord returns. The church will face a massive Satanic attack and it will appear all but defeated. John will come back to this theme a number of times in his letter. And other parts of the NT speak of this great period of particular suffering for the church. But no sooner has it started, but it is all over. So let’s read from verse 11: "But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, "Come up here." And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven." The simple truth is that God saves his church. He will act in justice to rescue his people and bring judgement on his enemies. He will raise up his people and bring his wrath on those who oppose him. And whilst people cry out and give glory to God, verse 13, it’s not the worshipful joy of the saved, it’s rather the pained begrudging acknowledgement of the unrepentant.

Now again, looking at history, it appears that sometimes the church is in this position. During the seventeenth century in France, when Marie Durant was alive, it appeared then that the gospel witness had all but been snuffed out. In China during the days of communism, we might have thought that the lampstand had been quenched. But the light has always shone. But there will come a day when at least for a short period, it will appear Satan has won. But it’s not for long, and it’s a false victory.

Because that brings us finally to the victory we hope for, and we see this in verses 15-19. Notice what happens in verse 15: "The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’" The last trumpet has now been blown, and God’s wrath is going to come on his enemies. This a foretaste of the end of time, when God’s people will be rewarded and God’s enemies destroyed. So have a look at verses 17-18: "We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great- and for destroying those who destroy the earth." God reigns fully and finally and his reign is seen now by all. And it means that his people are rewarded for their faithfulness. All that uncertainty about the survival of the church has been laid to rest for good. Because in Jesus we have the victory. And it’s assured.

Some years ago, scientists discovered some lupin seeds in a cave in the Antarctic. Not very interesting you might think. But they were frozen, and they had been like for 10,000 years. The scientists then defrosted them and put them in the right conditions, and those seeds produced the most beautiful flowers, 10,000 later than they were supposed to. You see sometimes it appears that everything is lost. And there are times in life when we might think things are lost for us, and God’s church. The gospel is opposed, the church is weak, our Christian lives feel hard and overwhelmed by sin. But take a look at what God will do one day. However weak and sinful you feel, remember that in Jesus you have the victory. However small God’s people seem to be, he will give us the victory. We cannot lose. Satan is defeated. Yes, he will have a small token moment of apparent glory. But it’s nothing. Never think God’s church has been snuffed out. Never think the flower cannot blossom. Because God specialises in bringing hope out of despair, of bringing victory out of defeat, of bringing life from death. And that is true both in our individual lives and our life as God’s people as a whole. So take heart from these chapters this evening. We can have great confidence because God is in charge. We must press on proclaiming the gospel because that is our task. Yes, we must be prepared for suffering for that is our lot. But we can look ahead with hope, for the victory is ours. What did Jesus say? "I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."

4) The victory we hope for (11 vv 15-19)

3) The suffering we face (11 vv 7-14)

2) The Task we perform (11 vv 1-6)

1) The confidence we have (10 vv 1-11)

2) The task we perform (11 vv 1-6)

3) The suffering we face (11 vv 7-14)

4) The victory we hope for (11 vv 15-19)

1) The confidence we have (10 vv 1-11)

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