Chapters 18-20 - A Feast and a Fire - Revelation 18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In 1969, in a small coastal town in Mississippi, USA, a group of people were preparing to have a "hurricane party" in the face of a hurricane named Camille. It was foolish and dangerous in the extreme, but they were determined to enjoy themselves. Perhaps it was the pride of youth, perhaps they didn’t believe it could happen to them. But they were there to stay despite the warnings. Sometime after dark, as the wind speed picked up, Police Chief Jerry Peralta pulled up outside the posh Richelieu Apartments. Facing the beach less than 250 feet from the surf, the apartments were directly in the line of danger. A man with a drink in his hand came out to the second-floor balcony and waved. Peralta yelled up, "You all need to clear out of here as quickly as you can. The storm’s getting worse." But as another joined the man on the balcony, they just laughed at Peralta’s order to leave. "This is my land," one of them yelled back. "If you want me off, you’ll have to arrest me." Peralta didn’t arrest anyone, but he wasn’t able to persuade them to leave either. He wrote down the names of the next of kin of the twenty or so people who gathered there to party through the storm. They laughed as he took their names. They had been warned, but they had no intention of leaving. It was 10:15 p.m. when the front wall of the storm came ashore. Scientists clocked Camille’s wind speed at more than 205 miles-per-hour, the strongest on record. Raindrops hit with the force of bullets, and waves off the Gulf Coast topped almost thirty feet high. News reports later showed that the worst damage came at the very place where this party was being held, and it ended in the deaths of those twenty people having their "hurricane party" in the Richelieu Apartments. Nothing was left of that three-story structure but the foundation; the only survivor was a five-year-old boy found clinging to a mattress the following day.
Complacency can be a killer. If you foolishly ignore the warnings of impending danger, then you only have yourself to blame. And throughout the book of Revelation we have come across warning after warning. John has taught us that judgement is coming and that we need to be ready. We saw that very clearly last time as John explained the judgement to come and what we will face according to how we have treated God in this life. John has warned us that life for the Christian before Jesus returns will not be an easy ride. We suffer at the hands of various enemies of God, headed up by Satan himself. The book of Revelation is very realistic about the times in which we live. But we’ve also seen some wonderful encouragements as we gone through. We’ve seen that God is sovereign- he rules, he sits on the throne, and nothing in our lives or in the whole universe happens with his authority. We’ve seen too that Jesus has the victory. The victory over Satan has been won on the cross and any future battle at the end of time is simply the mopping up operation. And we’ve seen too that although we as God’s people are persecuted yet we are spiritually speaking absolutely secure. Nothing can take away our status as God’s people.
But in these chapters of John’s vision, we get one last glimpse of the judgement to come. One final insight into what is going to happen. Because John will make it clear for us that all God’s enemies will be finally and completely defeated. By the time we get to the end of chapter 20, there are no more enemies left. Evil itself has been destroyed and consigned to judgement for all eternity. These chapters, are if you like, the final warning. And we need to take very seriously what they say, because if we ignore their message, then like those party goers facing that hurricane, we will face very serious consequences. And like much of the book, these chapters lay before us three contrasts between two cities, two feasts and two destinies. So as we go through, we’re going to ask ourselves three questions. And these are the most important questions you and I will ever have to face in life:
So the first question to ask ourselves is which city are you a citizen of? And we find that question posed to us in chapter 18. Now in a number of places in the book of Revelation we get two cities described. One is Babylon, the other Zion. Babylon is also described as a prostitute. And Zion is also described as a beautiful bride. Two cities, two women. And both images the whore Babylon and the bride Zion, represent two different communities of people. People who oppose God and follow Satan, consciously or subconsciously, on the one hand. And the people of God on the other hand. And in chapters 17 and 18, John prophecies the destruction of this prostitute or city called Babylon. It’s a prophecy about the end sinful humanity. In chapter 17 the prostitute was killed and now in chapter 18, the camera angle shifts again. It’s the same event, but looked at from a different angle. This time it’s the city of Babylon destroyed. Two pieces of imagery, a prostitute and the city of Babylon, but describing the same thing. So what is it describing? Well Babylon was a real city, but it was destroyed in the sixth century BC. By John’s day she was a little village in what is now Iraq. But Babylon in the Bible’s imagery had come to symbolise human society in opposition to God. It’s a picture of humanity as a city, gorging herself on the riches of the world. Humanity is a like a city which trades with merchants from around the globe. She gets fat on others’ misery. She abuses those who oppose her, as is seen in the constant references in this chapter to Babylon being responsible for the death of Christians. It’s human civilisation in all its godless pomp and glory, shaking it’s fist at God and saying, "We defy you. We revel in our material possessions, our fine arts, our wealth, our immorality. We are gods, not you." That’s the attitude. And as such Babylon, or this whore as John described it in chapter 17, is everything that is opposed to God in this age. It’s people who aren’t Christians. So Babylon is Rome in John’s day, it’s Washington today, London, New York, Sydney, Beijing, Hull, or simply you and me if we are not yet Christians. We’re the citizens of this city, Babylon, if we proudly refuse to bow the knee to Jesus.
So notice a three facts about the judgement that is going to fall on Babylon, on human civilisation. First judgment is announced in verses 1-8. So in verses 1-2 an angel announces her fate- "Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great!" Although it’s spoken of in the past tense, yet this is a prophecy of the future judgement on humanity. It’s so certain, it’s spoken of in the past tense. And in the second half of verse 7 gives the reason. The city is pictured as a queen, and John comments: "In her heart she boasts: ‘I sit as queen, I am not a widow and will never mourn." That’s the human heart isn’t it? Judgement will never come. "I’m king, I’m queen, we say. God cannot do anything to me." How foolish. For God will act against all those who oppose him. So notice secondly judgement lamented in verses 9-24. These verses are a series of woes spoken by those who have got fat off Babylon. Again it’s symbolic language, but it’s picturing people lamenting the fall of the great city. But notice how they are not sad for the city, but only that they lose out because their source of income is gone. So for example in verse 11: "The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over Babylon, because no-one buys their cargoes any more." Of course, that happens whenever a civilization collapses. People lost out when the Roman Empire collapsed, or when the Iron Curtain fell. And one day, the whole of humanity in opposition will be brought to account and there will be much weeping. But notice in verses 1-5 of chapter 19 how judgement is praised. Because what is the response of the people of God to this judgement on sinful humanity, on Babylon? Verse 1: "Hallelujah. Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgements." When you see things from God’s perspective you praise God for his just judgement. And at last the cry of the people of God for justice for those persecuted is heard. God will bring justice on those who have persecuted the people of God. Never fear.
But what should the people of God do in all of this? Well the answer to that question comes in verse 4 of chapter 18: "Come out of her my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you won’t receive any of her plagues." The people of God are told to come out. So what does that mean? Well clearly it cannot mean literally remove yourselves from Babylon. If Babylon is the whole of human society living in opposition to God, then we cannot leave. We are living in Babylon. But we are citizens of a different city, Zion. We are just travellers passing through. Our true citizenship is in heaven. So we need to adopt the standards and laws of that land. We don’t belong here. So how will live now is a preparation for that new home. A few years ago I visited some friends in Kenya. And this trip needed a lot of preparation and planning. I had to take a series of pills to stop me getting malaria. I had to have some injections. I had to buy some new clothes and a sun hat. I decided it would be good to learn a bit about the culture. I learnt a few useful phrases in Swahili like ‘Hello’, ‘How much’, ‘Where’s the embassy’ and words like that. I was preparing for culture shock. I knew that the moment I stepped off the plane at Mombassa airport, things would be very different. And sure enough it was! Now it is the same for us Christians. We are to be preparing for our new destination. We are no longer citizens of this country, this world, Babylon. We are heading for heaven, Zion. And so we should be preparing for culture shock. We should be clothing ourselves with God’s clothes of righteousness, qualities that he has. We should be learning the language of heaven, so to speak, and displaying it in our everyday life, showing selfless love and concern for one another. A good question to ask yourself is how different are you or I compared to your non Christian neighbour. It’s not that we look down on people or are high and mighty, but our attitudes should be totally different- about our money, our possessions, or attitudes to our friends and family, our use of time. Are these things marked by our new citizenship, or by our old one in Babylon. We’ve changed. We’ve been granted new citizenship by God’s grace. But too often we are so comfortable in this world, we forget where we are heading. And if truth be told, when our lives are examined, our bank balances, our habits, our language and thought lives, then they are little different to our Babylonian neighbours next door. Which city are you a citizen of? Babylon, which will be destroyed? Or Zion which will endure forever. If it’s Zion, let start living God’s way now. Because if you’re a Christian that’s where you belong and that’s where you’re heading.
Our second question though is just as challenging. Which feast will you attend? And we see this in the rest of chapter 19. And here we find Jesus Christ is coming back to conquer. And his return brings about two feasts:
First there is the wedding feast of the lamb in verses 6-10. So here in verse 6 we see the people of God rejoicing in God’s victory and we’re told that now the wedding of the Lamb has come. Verse 7- his bride is ready for the wedding. And who is the bride? Well we find that out in verse 8- the bride is to wear fine linen and that stands for the righteous acts of the saints. So the bride is the saints. The bride is the people of God. And really this is what the whole of human history has been waiting for. The wedding of the lamb to his people, his bride, the church. You see in a sense now we are engaged to Christ. And engagement can be a frustrating time. You know what is coming but it’s not yours yet. But there is something to enjoy now. Certain promises have been made. You are already enjoying the relationship now. But the best is yet to come. So it is Christ and his people. We are enjoying many things now of being in Christ, and yet the best is yet to come. And one day we will be married to Christ, so to speak- we will be with him personally for ever. And that is something that happens after judgement day, when the people of God are given resurrection bodies and a new earth to live in. And verse 9, there is blessing in being invited to this wedding. Actually here, John is slightly mixing his metaphors. Because not only are we the bride, but we’re also the guests at the wedding and we need to respond to the invitation. The only people at the wedding will be Christians. So on a number of occasions, Jesus referred to himself as the bridegroom and he said we need to be ready for his coming so we can come into the wedding. So it’s another incentive for us as his people not to sleep around spiritually speaking. Don’t be like the prostitute of chapter 17. Rather save yourself spiritually for your husband to be, Christ. Keep yourself pure. You can’t imagine a bride to be going off just weeks before her wedding and having a series of flings with other men can you? How crass would that be? Well in the same way we as the people of God are engaged to Christ. So we mustn’t have flings spiritually so to speak. We mustn’t get too wrapped up with this world and so lose our first love. Rather live a godly life. Stay passionate about your future husband, Christ. Because the wedding is coming. The bridegroom is coming. Hang on in there and stay awake. Stay pure. Because the wedding will happen soon!
But there’s another feast mentioned in these verses and that is the funeral feast of the birds. Yes, the bridegroom is coming, but to those who are not his bride, to those who’ve rejected the invitation to come to the wedding, then there is something grim awaiting them. Verses 11-16 describe the coming of Jesus, the bridegroom. He comes on a white horse, symbolising victory, and notice his titles, all of which point to who he is and what is about to do. He’s faithful and true in verse 11. In verse 13 he is called the Word of God. Jesus is the final revelation. And as such he is Lord of lords and King of kings in verse 16. No-one else but him rules. His robed is dipped in blood signifying not so much the cross here but judgement. And his sword strikes down the nations. He treads the winepress of God’s judgement. Chapter 14 showed us that winepress. Now we find out it’s Jesus who will tread out the blood of the people. It’s his judgement. He has come to judge by his word. It all amounts to an astonishing picture of Jesus doesn’t it? Not quite the picture we often think we see in the gospels. This is the victorious Lord riding in at the head of an army to bring victory and judgement, to bring all the purposes of God to fulfilment. It changes our understanding of the ministry of Jesus a little doesn’t it. This Jesus has utter sovereignty over the nations and his judgement is just and absolute. And one day he will return in absolute triumph over his enemies.
So it’s no surprise when we read what happens in verses 17-21. Verse 17: "And 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, so 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.’" So here the birds of the air are about to gorge themselves on the corpses of God’s enemies. But in verse 19, it looks as if the victory of Jesus is threatened. The kings of the earth and their armies, headed by the beast gather together to make war against the Lord Jesus and his people. Now we’ve here before haven’t we? Do you remember last time we saw that this battle was described in chapters 16, 17 and it will be described in chapter 20 again. And when you examine the language side by side, it seems clear that this is same battle being described. The Greek text speaks of "the" war in each case. It’s the point at the end of time when the enemies of God led by Satan will come against God and his people in one final last battle, however that will actually happen. I suspect the battle imagery is symbolic. But it will be one last go at the church, a very brief period when God’s people seem to be totally defeated. This is Armageddon again. It’s an action reply and this time there is a player cam on the beast, verse 20. There he is all togged up in his armour, and no sooner has he drawn his sword than he is defeated. Captured and thrown into the lake of fire along with the false prophet. And all the others were killed. Total defeat for Satan. Total victory for the Lord Jesus Christ.
So here’s our second question. Which feast would you like to go to? The wedding feast of the Lamb, where you are the guest of honour. Or the funeral feast of the birds, where you are on the menu. Team up with Satan and you will surely die. Team up with the Lamb and you’re on the winning side. And if you are a not Christian, then please think long and hard about what John is saying. This is no scary myth. It’s reality, the warning of Jesus himself. And surely if as a Christian, you truly believe that this is the certain future awaiting you, then it will radically affect the way you live. Because not only are you a citizen of a different country, but you’re heading for a different feast. A feast with the Lord Jesus, your groom. So we need stay pure and stay ready for his coming. Which feast will you attend?
And that brings us to our third question. Which destiny are you heading for in chapter 20. And chapter 20 confronts us with probably the most hotly disputed passage in Revelation, the passage in verses 1-6 describing what has been called the millennium, or the thousand years. This is a thousand year reign of Jesus with his people. Now it may well be that you have never heard of the millennium, or if you have then you think it’s the song by Robbie Williams. And in many ways that is not surprising. Here in Britain amongst many believers, the millennium is not really an issue at all. For others though it’s a huge issue because it ties in with their view of what will happen at the end of time when the Lord Jesus returns. And what often saddens me about debates such as this, is that there is very little grace and humility between Christians who have different points of view. As I’ll explain in a moment, godly, Biblically well read Christians differ on this topic, but that surely is no cause for falling out or being ungracious. So as we come to this passage, if we disagree over the interpretation, let’s do so as brother and sister in Christ, humbly and graciously. And certainly, since this is clearly not a major salvation issue, then there are much more important things to worry about. Also, if you get a touch lost in some of the details of this section, then please remember this little story. It concerns how a group of theology professors were once having a late night meeting in their theological college, talking as such people often do about weighty and important matters. And the elderly caretaker was sitting reading outside the room, waiting for them to finish so he could lock up. And when the professors came out, one of them noticed the elderly caretaker reading the book of Revelation. And the professor was impressed that the old man was reading such an apparently complicated book. So he said to the caretaker in a slightly patronising tone: "Do you understand what you’re reading?" "Oh, yes, said the caretaker. It’s actually very simple, you know. Because you see, I’ve read to the end, and I’ve discovered we win!" And if you get a little lost in the details, just remember: We win! And quite frankly that’s the most important truth of all. In Jesus we have the victory.
But what is it then that these verses are saying? Just what is this millennium and when will it happen? Well there are basically three views. I’ll outline the first two very briefly and then show you what view I think makes sense not just of the passage but of the whole of Revelation and the rest of the Bible’s teaching on the end. Since we don’t have bags of time, this is necessarily brief, so please don’t be offended if I don’t go into all the details of your particular view. One view is called post-millennialism. This view believes that Jesus’ return will happen after there has been a thousand years of great advance of the gospel. Many will be saved and the world will be a much much better place. Jesus will return after, or post, the millennium to judge and to bring about the new creation. Personally I find that hard to believe since the NT is not very optimistic at all about the state of affairs before the Lord returns. Contrary to things getting better and better, things seem to get worse and worse before the Lord returns. Another view is called premillennialism. This view believes that Jesus will return and then he will reign with his people on the earth for a thousand years, whether literally for that time or symbolically for a long period of time, people differ. Jesus comes back before, pre, the millennium. After that period Jesus comes back another time to destroy finally Satan and then the end comes. I think there are basically two big problems with this view. One is that in this view, Jesus reigns for a thousand years with his people on the earth before he has created a new heaven and a new earth. Some Christians receive amazing resurrection bodies and they continue to live on the earth whilst there are some non Christians who live on the earth too. To my mind that is extremely difficult to see, and there is no passage in the NT that backs up a reign of Jesus on the earth for a thousand years. Some will suggest some passages, but it is by no means clear at all. Surely if such an important event in the history of the world were true then Jesus or Paul would have spoken of it. But another problem is that it requires that Jesus comes twice. First before the millennium and then second after the millennium. Whereas in the NT there we are only told of one coming at the end of time.
To my mind the view that makes most sense, whilst I admit it’s not without problems, is to see this millennium as a symbolic period of time. It’s a view known as amillennialism, when the "a" means "not" or "no". So much of Revelation and especially the numbers, as we’ve seen, are symbolic. And unless we have very good reason, it seems best to see the thousand years as symbolic too. But symbolic of what? Well symbolic of the whole time period between Jesus’ first and second coming. The NT speaks only of one coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead. And the time between his comings is the period of the millennium. So what happens during that time. Well notice for a start that Satan is bound. Verse 1: "And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time." So during this period Satan is bound, but in what sense is he bound. Surely all we have seen in Revelation is that Satan in the last times before Jesus returns is no way bound? He’s rampaging around the world persecuting the church. But notice that he is bound in a particular way. He’s kept, verse 3, from deceiving the nations. Satan has no power any more to deceive the nations. You see chapter 12 made it clear that Satan was a defeated foe. The coming of Christ and his death and resurrection destroyed the works of the evil one. In fact in the gospels, Jesus talks about binding Satan, the same word that is used here, through his work on the cross. So because of the cross and resurrection, the nations are being saved. More and more people, non Jews, are being saved through Jesus. And there is nothing that Satan can do about it. He’s bound. He cannot hinder the progress of the gospel in this present age.
And what happens to Christians in this present age. Well in verses 4-6 we discover that they reign. Verse 4, they come to life and reign for this thousand years. In other words, we Christians are seated in the heavenly realms, as Paul explains in Ephesians and Colossians, and we reign. We’re alive spiritually, we’ve been raised to life. So whatever happens in this world is ultimately irrelevant. Nothing can harm us. You might think your Christian life is a battle and it is sometimes isn’t it? But take encouragement from Revelation 20. You reign with Christ.
But at the end of the thousand years, Satan is released from his prison but he’s doomed. In verses 7-10, we discover another battle. But it’s the same battle described in chapters 16, 17 and 19 when the forces of evil try and defeat the church. This time John includes these symbolic characters Gog and Magog, symbolic in Ezekiel 39 for the ends of the earth. Bizarrely just outside of Cambridge where I am from, there are two hills with a golf course on them, called Gog and Magog. And whenever I think of this final battle, I have a bizarre image of it taking place on a golf course outside Cambridge! But as soon as the battle is begun, verse 9, it’s all over. And Satan is thrown into the lake of fire! It’s a hopeless cause. Jesus comes back at the end of this symbolic thousand years and he destroys the devil and his armies in one blow.
And so finally verses 11-15 speak of Jesus’ judgement. Everyone is now before the King of kings. And the books are opened. Everyone is judged, but if your name is in the book of life, then you are spared the lake of fire. And we’re told in chapter 13 that the book belongs to the Lamb that was slain. The way we are spared hell is because someone else endured it for us. The blood of Christ purifies us from all sin. So on the very day of judgement it will be the cross saves.
You see when we lay aside all the details two things become clear. Jesus is coming back. And judgement is going to happen. And the question is, which way are you heading? Where is your destiny? If you don’t trust Christ, then it grieves me to tell you that your fate is with Satan in the lake of fire. Please trust Christ before it is too late. And if you do, then your name is in the book of life. Never forget that. You are reigning now with Christ and will do so with him forever. So wherever we stand tonight, let us not forget the warnings. Jesus is coming back. He will be victorious. May each one of us get ready for his coming, and stay ready for his coming.
3) Which destiny are you heading for? (20 vv 1-15)
b) The funeral feast of the birds (Vv 11-21)-
a) The wedding feast of the Lamb (Vv 6-10)-
2) Which feast will you attend? (19 vv 6-21)
1) Which city are you a citizen of? (18 v 1- 19 v 5)
2) Which feast will you attend? (19 vv 6-21)
3) Which destiny are you heading for? (20 vv 1-15)
1) Which city are you a citizen of? (18 v 1- 19 v 5)
9TH MARCH 2008
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