(A sermon based on Revelation 8:6-11:19 for Sunday, August 9, 2009)
What is the point of holding on? How do we hold on? How important is it that we maintain our witness in the midst of an unbelieving world? Where do we find the strength and encouragement to maintain that witness? Those are some of the questions addressed by today’s passage.
It is important that we remember some of the principles for interpreting the book of Revelation that I have mentioned in earlier sermons.
For one thing, Revelation creates a symbolic world. Therefore, we must accept the fact that we have symbols in the book or, put differently, we have pictures in the book. The symbols or pictures should not be taken literally. They do communicate real truth, but they themselves are not literal.
For another thing, Revelation is a pastoral book. The way I have put this before is to say that we should look for what is helpful. John intended his book to be of help to his readers in their present situation of trial and suffering. He intended his book to help his readers endure to the end. John had no way of knowing that his book would become Scripture; he did not set out to write Scripture. He set out to write a helpful book. Because it is Scripture, it is designed also to be helpful to us and to every generation of Christians.
Those things having been said, let’s look at some of the meaning of this very long section of the book.
The opening by the Lamb of the seventh seal on the scroll led into the blowing of seven trumpets by seven angels. The blowing of those trumpets leads to plagues on the unbelieving inhabitants of the earth. The meaning of the trumpets is pretty much the same as the meaning of the seals, only now the focus is on the punishment of the wicked.
It is very, very important to note that most of the contents of the plagues brought on by the blowing of the seven trumpets is based on the plagues wrought by God against Egypt during the time of the Exodus. Basically, John is saying that just like Israel of old was liberated from an oppressive empire by God’s judgment activity through plagues, so will the church be liberated from an oppressive world by God’s judgment. The judgment described here in symbolic language means to underscore that the judgment of God against the unbelieving world has been taking place ever since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Symbols are employed to communicate that God is carrying out his judgment against the evil and oppressive nations and peoples that oppose God’s people. Symbols are also used to communicate that the judgment is a partial one (especially the continual use of “one-third”) until the final judgment comes.
Note, though, that even after they are afflicted and tormented for their sins of idolatry and for their persecution of God’s people, the wicked still don’t repent but instead continue their idolatrous behavior (9:20-21). You see, there will always be those who are opposed to God, who would rather live their way than God’s way, and who hate those who do serve God. Don’t be surprised by it; that is the way it will always be. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ precipitated a judgment against the wicked that continues to this day, but for some, like for Pharaoh during the Exodus, the plagues just stiffen resistance to the Lord.
Before the seventh trumpet is blown and we are given a glimpse of a picture of the end, many words of encouragement are shared by John. He sees an angel coming down from heaven with a little scroll. When the angel shouts, seven thunders sound. John is about to write down the contents of the thunders, but he is commanded not to do so. Why that command comes is unclear, but it probably indicates that human beings, even inspired ones, are not privy to all of the plans and purposes of God. He is in control, and he lets us know what he wants us to know. Then, John is assured that when the time is right God will bring everything to its appropriate conclusion (10:5-7). Finally, John is told to eat the little scroll and to experience its sweetness in his mouth but its bitterness in his stomach. The prophet Ezekiel had a very similar experience (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3), and it signifies the acceptance of a call to proclaim God’s word. That word is sweet because it is good news but it is bitter because it brings about judgment.
Then, John is told to “prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10:11). In effect, what we have here is a recommissioning of John as a messenger of the Lord. He is to continue to speak and to share no matter what the difficulty. I believe that John’s experience here is meant to encourage all believers. We are to accept God’s commission and encouragement to continue to proclaim his message no matter what the cost, because God is going to work his purposes out.
That is basically the meaning of chapter 11 as well. The measuring of the temple in vv. 1-2 signifies in symbolic language the same thing that the sealing of the 144,000did in chapter 7: God’s people are kept safe and secure from ultimate spiritual harm. The temple here is no literal temple in Jerusalem or anyplace else. The temple rather represents the people of God. That the temple is measured but the outer court is not because “it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months” means that Christians are kept ultimately safe even though they are threatened by persecution.
“Forty-two months,” which is the same as three and a half years or 1,260 days, is symbolic and not literal. It has Old Testament antecedents. It is used in Daniel to signify a period of persecution. It is the amount of time that the famine prophesied by Elijah lasted. It is the number of stations in the wilderness wanderings; it could signify the amount of time that the Hebrews spent in the wilderness (in years rather than months). Its New Testament background may be found in it being the approximate length of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It signifies a limited time of tribulation, no doubt to be identified as the entire church age from the time of Christ until the end. Our ministry is to be like that of Christ.
That is the same amount of time that the “two witnesses” of John’s vision are to prophesy. The two witnesses are not two literal people. They are based on literal people, probably Moses, through whom the earth was stricken with plagues, and Elijah, through whom the rain was stopped. But the two witnesses represent the church. That is made clear by the fact that they are called “lampstands.” Why are only two lampstands indicated here rather than the seven of chapters 2-3? Perhaps it is because only two of the churches in the letters of chapters 2-3 were seen as offering truly adequate witness. The church’s witness will always be incomplete and imperfect, but it will always be effective, at least as God judges effectiveness.
John’s picture of the murder and resurrection of the witnesses is a very important part of the vision, for it is very honest and realistic but at the same time very encouraging. The “beast,” Satan and his forces, are seen to kill the witnesses. It would appear that the church has been defeated. But, as was the case with Christ, who was killed by forces of Satan and thus was seemingly defeated, the witnesses, representing the church, are raised to new life. And one day we will be raised, literally. In this case, though, the meaning is like that in the vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37. The church will be vindicated and given new life so as to show that evil cannot finally triumph over the church because Satan cannot finally triumph over God.
The meaning of this part of the vision for us today is the same as it was for the churches of John’s day and the same as it has been for every generation of Christians. We are to be faithful. We are to take up the calling given to us by God. We are to proclaim his message with word and deed no matter what the cost to us. We are to expect opposition, even life-threatening, serious opposition. We are to understand that there will be times when it appears that we are losing or that we have lost, but that is when God is really working, for that is how he worked through his Son Jesus. We are to keep on working, keep on serving, and keep on speaking, no matter what. We do so because we are ultimately safe in his arms.
Then the seventh trumpet is sounded, and we are given a glimpse of the end. One day Christ will return and God’s victory will be complete. Then the presence of God will be fully and completely known by his people. What a day that will be! For now, our calling is to persevere and to endure and to work ‘til Jesus comes. Are you relying on the encouragement and inspiration of God? Are you being faithful?