Tuesday, December 31, 2019
With the business of Christmas behind us and the anticipation of a new year in front of us, I could not help but be reminded of the fact that the people of God exist in between two different experiences. Those who have a saving relationship with Jesus are no longer what they once were, but they are not yet what they will be. We live in the anticipation of a glorious and very real heaven and yet here we are stuck in this fallen world, at least for the present. In this tension, I’m afraid that our anticipation for what is coming is not as eager as it should be. The concerns, pressures, and distractions that abound around us can dwarf our appreciation for what has been promised by God in the end. This can leave many of God’s people uninspired, disinterested, or even indifferent to the things of the Lord and the lives he has placed around us. Though some would have you think that believers can be too heavenly minded that they are no earthly good, I’m increasingly of the same opinion that C.S. Lewis shares in Mere Christianity. He writes ”If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” Thankfully, God does not leave us without a remedy for a disproportionate preoccupation with things down below. In fact, he has provided a compelling preview of what is to come so that we might be both personally inspired and useful to those around us in the gospel mission. Much of this preview is recorded in the Book of Revelation and today I’d like to take just one passage and provide us with two lists of reminders that I believe God wants us to embrace so that we might begin this upcoming year, and every year thereafter, with the end in mind. It is my prayer that by enlarging our appreciation for what is to come we can be of better use in the hands of God here and now.
1. REMINDER #1: What The People of God Can Expect in the End-21:1-4
a. Freedom from Chaos-21:1
The first thing that the people of God can expect in the end is what John sees in verse 1—“then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). This vision is a sight for sore eyes given that the existing earth and heavens (here probably a reference to the skies above) have fallen under the curse of sin, leaving all people suffering under evil’s oppressive regime of difficulty, disease, disillusionment, deception, destruction, and death (all the Ds 😊). John’s forecast of a new heaven and new earth in Revelation builds off an earlier prophecy found in Isaiah 65. There the prophet looks forward to a time in which the broken world of sin and decay would be replaced with a new one. Paul picks up this same theme in Romans 8:21 when he says, “creation itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In both Isaiah, Romans, and here in Revelation 21, an attitude of joy and newness abound as this fresh domain (the new heaven and the new earth) allow for the alleviation of all chaos.
In order for this chaos-free environment to exist, “the first heaven and the first earth” must “pass away” (i.e. go out of existence). The verb used here suggests the consummation of a process/program that yields a new state of affairs. Everything leading up to this passage in the Book of Revelation has been contributing to this new reality—the judging of the world (4-18), the victory of Christ over evil (19), the expulsion of all God’s enemies from the scene (19-20), etc. These events have succeeded in ushering "a new kind of existence in which all the negatives of the ‘first’ (Gen. 1) world will be removed, all the discolorations by sin will be gone” (Osborne, Revelation, 729-30). As mere mortals it is difficult to imagine what this might be like given that the residual effects of the fall impact nearly all aspects of our lives. The “new heaven and the new earth” is not going to be “new” in the sense of a new model of a car, the latest version of an Iphone, or the newest season of your favorite binge-worthy show, it will be a radically and fundamentally different kind of new.
Interestingly, the newness of this new heaven and new earth is described by means of what will NOT be seen upon its emergence—“and there is no longer any sea” (21:1). This statement might seem odd given that for many of us in today’s world, the sea is a source of beauty and where many of us like to vacation and enjoy the more pleasing side of God’s creation. However, “the sea” in the ancient world suffered very different connotations. In Revelation alone the sea is referred to as the origin of evil from which the beast (Antichrist) emerges (see 13:1), the sight of persecution of the saints (in 17:1-6), the place of death (20:13), and the locos of the world’s idolatrous trade activity (18:10-19)…YIKES!. These figurative connotations played upon the superstitions of many ancients who believed that the sea was where monsters dwelled and where great mystery and danger existed. It was a source of chaos. After all, many who travelled by sea didn’t make it to their destination or return home. Paul himself was shipwrecked on multiple occasions while on the Mediterranean Sea and Jesus calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee. And yet, perhaps the most compelling parallel that can be made with Revelation 21:1’s late description of the new earth and new heaven is found all the way back at the beginning in Genesis 1. There, the chaos and void of the nothingness that existed prior to the creation of the world was described as a watery deep—“the earth was formless and void and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). Seas are nearly always used in the Bible to suggest a void, chaos, danger, evil, and/or wickedness. Rivers….good; Seas….bad. The fact that there is no sea in the new heaven and the new earth means these existential threats are totally gone. What a relief God promises for his people in the end. What a difference this will be from the frustrating world around us here and now.
b. Perfect Communion with God-21:2-3
The new heavens and the new earth will afford God the opportunity to relocate in a most dramatic and fascinating way—“and I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). Because sin and brokenness has so infected the present world, God was required to reside among his people in fairly specific and limited ways. Though in the Old Testament God dwelt with his people in a temple built in Jerusalem, he was hidden behind a veil and the temple was eventually destroyed by foreign powers when God’s people proved idolatrous and unrepentant. Though in the New Testament era God is said to dwell in the hearts of his people (as our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit), this too is veiled and in some ways hidden from the outside world. However, there is coming a day when the presence of God will be conspicuous, obvious, and gloriously visible for all to see. Sin had severed the close proximity God and man shared in the garden of Eden. But when God brings about the new heaven and the new earth, He will be able to move back in with his people and enjoy perfect communion with them in both a spiritual AND physical way. Something of the excitement and joy this will bring God is witnessed in the added description “as a bride adorned for her husband.”
John continues by saying “and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people and God Himself will be among them.” All these images demonstrate the alleviation of those many barriers that at present give the people of God the perception that he is, in some ways, far-removed or distant. Though the people of God are encouraged to pray and though many know that God is omnipresent (in all places at all times), because our present world is what it is, even the mature among us can in times of weakness and difficultly feel as though God is a long-ways off. This will no longer be the case in the end. He will, again in a very literal way, be “among men” (this very phrase is repeated three times in verse 3 alone). Also, “the tabernacle” has always symbolized God’s dwelling among his people.
c. Relief from All Sorrow-21:4
With the domain set (“new heaven and new earth”) and God brought close (“among men”), the saints can also expect relief from all sorrow. This will come as God himself provides the comfort for which so many desperately long –“and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:4a). Something of the intimacy and care associated with the comfort God will provide is witnessed in the mention of “every tear” which indicates God’s great compassion for his people, even to the point of noticing what is distressing, though infinitely miniscule (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 445). The idea is that every single sorrow will be erased.
The lack of sorrow and removal of every tear is made possible because the many carcinogens that cause dismay will be gone forever—“and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (21:4b). Though many of us have heard this verse before or know from previous sermons/lessons/devotionals that this is true, consider afresh what this means as I read this again—“there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (21:4b). Death is the greatest existential threat facing us all. It motivates some to live it up while they can while for others it brings nothing but anxiety and depression. However, this is not limited to physical death. Consider also the death of trust or of a relationship or of a good opportunity. Death as a concept will be forgotten. Expiration will itself die and no longer be a motivating factor on the earth. Later this is confirmed when Revelation reveals that there is no longer any curse from sin (Rev. 22:3). As it was sin that introduced death through the curse into all the world, no such thing will exist in the new heaven and the new earth for God’s people.
This is made possible because “the first things have passed away” (21:4c). In other words, because there is no longer any chaos or threats (as witnessed in the absence of the sea), there is no longer any sin (which is why God can move in) which means there no longer any curse of sin (death) which means no longer any mourning or crying or pain. All these things that God’s people can expect in the end are housed within the bookends created by the phrase “have passed away.” In 21:1 the old earth and heavens were said to have “passed away” and here in verse 4 the “first things” are said to have passed away. Because the world as we know it will pass away, God’s people can trust that heaven for them will be free of chaos, include uninhibited communion with God, and will result in relief from all sorrow.
Some listening today would do well to expand their understanding of what is to come in the end so that your opinion of what this world has to offer now will shrink. Some hearing this today could benefit from focusing on the glory described here so that what troubles you now may pale in comparison. To be heavenly minded means to find rest in what has been promised and what is coming. It does God’s people well to remember and meditate on the awesome glory awaiting them in a new world. Jesus encouraged as much when he comforted his disciples before heading to the cross saying, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In my father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1ff). Here, in Revelation, God goes a long way in describing what this dwelling place will look and feel like in an effort to draw our attention upward and ahead in a world that seeks to limit our focus to those distractions that abound around us. Part of the agenda of this passage and the entire Book of Revelation involves inspiring God’s people in every place and in every time with the white-hot glory of what is to come. However, what does this mean for now? How does being heavenly minded translate today?
2. REMINDER #2: What the World Needs to Know in the Meantime-21:5-8
a. God is on the Move-21:5-“…And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And He said, ‘Write, for these words are faithful and true.’…”
Answers to these questions are provided in the second set of reminders which include “what the world needs to know in the meantime” found in verses 5-8. First, in light of the hope God’s people have, the world needs to remember that God is on the move—“And he who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And he said, ‘Write, for these words are faithful and true’” (21:5). Everything described in the first set of reminders of verses 1-4 is in the process of coming to pass—a process that will ultimately yield what has already been celebrated. This reminder is important for those who are prone to doubt that God could possibly use this or that to further his plan or purposes. Though the process may confound us for the time being, God’s people are those who trust that it is perfect and will result in God’s greatest good. Here, once again, Romans offers a helpful parallel—“and we know God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). According to this, for believers, nothing in your life, no experience, good or bad, is wasted by God as he sees his purpose and process fulfilled.
Don’t you know that you are in process, I’m in process, this church, my church, is in process, and this world is in process. The only thing that isn’t “in process” is the “One who sits on the throne” who is working it all out in his always glorious and yet sometimes mysterious ways. Remembering this ought to go a long way in how we view God and our fellow man. As God is not in process, he is the only one we can ultimate depend on and trust in. As all others (including ourselves) are in process, we as God’s people, in view of the end, ought to depend less on these personalities for our ultimate security and satisfaction. After all, none of us are finished yet (no one is). God has been finished from the beginning. Beginning this year and every year thereafter with the end in mind starts with remembering who sits on the throne and recognizing how much work all others still need—including you and me.
b. God is in Control-21:6a-“…And He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end…”
The idea of God’s complete sovereignty, total independence, and perfection is reiterated in the next reminder—that God is in control—“and he said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (21:6a). As only the supreme commander, highest ranking official, or most powerful in any organization, system, or group is the one who decides when something is finished, this verse suggests that God is the one who, as sovereign Lord of the universe, decides when things are complete (not you, not me, nor your circumstances, etc.). It is only over when he says it is over and even then, something far better waits for God’s people. “It is done” (gegonen) is even more emphatic than what Jesus exclaimed on the cross—“it is finished” (tetelesqai). “It is finished” suggested that God’s program of redemption was complete—essentially and spiritually—when Jesus gave his life for sinners and provided a way to God. “It is done” here suggests that what was essentially and spiritually true then is now experientially the case—visible, total, perfected. God is able to determine this because he is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (21:6a). As God has always existed, even prior to Genesis, and will forever exist beyond the terminus of measured history, the buck ultimately stops with him. He is Lord over the beginning and the end and God’s people would do well to live their lives with that reminder ever before them.
This is important given that it is so easy in our world to live as though something or someone else is the beginning and end of all things. Be it a president, the majority in a specific house of congress, a particular judge on the supreme court piece of legislation; or a spouse, child, or other family member/friend; or a job, opportunity, house, status, etc., none of these things are the beginning and end and therefore they should be look upon or treated as such. I see so many believers get all hot and bothered/overwhelmed by so little in the grand scheme of things. Friends, the beginning and end for God’s people cannot be voted out of office, die, be lost, burn down, or lose
sway. God’s people are to live and think in terms of the next thousand years and beyond, not merely the next election cycle, school year, season, or decade. After all, our God will remain when all this that you see around you is gone. Remember that today as you begin this next year.
c. God Offers an Invitation-21:6b-“…I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost…”
Because God is the ultimate sovereign he alone can provide what others promise but fail to give. In the next reminder God offers an invitation and says, “I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost” (21:6b). This is a personal invitation to those who are far from God to come to him for what only he can offer—salvation. The image here is of a desperate soul wandering in a wilderness, parched, exhausted, in need of refreshment and nourishment. To these who are in need, God offers access to the spring of the water of life, free of charge. This is a powerful symbol of what Jesus Christ offers.
To a thirsty and embarrassed woman approaching a well Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:13-14). Later in John 7:38 Jesus would say, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” These passages reveal that not only does Jesus provide much-needed life-giving nourishment to the tired and famished soul, he supplies those who come to him with an ongoing reservoir to draw from throughout their lives. This he offers as the water of life. The heavenly minded believer ought to live his or her life as one who has been refreshed and is being perpetually refreshed by this living water—drawing regularly from the spring that is Christ for their spiritual nourishment.
d. God has made a Promise-21:7-8
Finally, God’s people need to be reminded to live here and now in light of the promise God has made. In verses 7-8 a two-fold promise is given that ought to motivate God’s people to be on mission with urgency as they await the blessed hope of what they can expect in the end. To be sure, one cannot be about this mission well unless they first remember what has already been mentioned: that God is on the move, that he is in control, and the he has extended an invitation. This invitation comes with a promise: “He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son” (21:7). Of all the themes associated with God’s people in the Book of Revelation “overcomer” is the most striking and nearly the most prevalent. Overcome what? Overcome this world (the present broken world) in and through the victory that Christ has brought in his death and resurrection and will one day bring in the end when he annihilates all God’s enemies and sin and death. The verb nikaw mean to win a victory and is the inspiration behind the brand name Nike. God shares here that those who are found in Christ will receive a victory and all the blessings appertaining thereunto—the greatest being a close relationship with God—“and I will be his God and he will be My son.”
However, for those left in their sins, those who do not take freely from the water of life that God offers, separation from God awaits. The text goes on to say, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (21:8). This series of iniquities ought not be understood as an exhaustive list of sins, but a sample compendium of those kinds of things that separate us from God in our lostness. Friends, the fate of the hell described here for those who are left in their sin is just as real as the fate of heaven described earlier for believers. It is up to those who are heavenly minded to live like there is something more than this world and share the opportunity God has made available for those around us to take of the living water that is Christ without cost in order to experience it. After all, if the heavenly-minded aren’t about this mission, who will be? Beginning with the end in mind means being on mission to share the end with those who are still far from God.
I don’t know where your mind is at today, but of this I’m certain, there are those in attendance who are believers who would do well to remember that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). “in this (we can) greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary (we) are distressed by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). In case you forgot dear brother or sister in Christ, what is waiting for you in the end is freedom from all this chaos around you, perfect, uninhibited communion with your God, and relief from all sorrow. Meditate on this and realize that even the most acute distress you may go through is but a particle in the vapor of your life that is here and then gone compared to what we will experienced in eternity with the Lord. The church and this world needs more heavenly-minded believers who live with the realization that God is on the move, the confidence that comes from knowing that God is in control, the energy that comes from having accepted the invitation of the water of life, and the urgency of sharing the hope of Jesus with those who are still far from him. Let’s be a people who aim at Heaven this year and every year thereafter, and in so doing let us be used effectively of God in this world because we are so impressed by what is coming in the next.
Monday, December 9, 2019
In this series, “heaven reaches down,” we are exploring God’s habit of breaking through our broken and fallen world to provide blessing and salvation as we anticipate an especially compelling episode of this that we celebrate each and every Christmas. Though God has reached down in multiple ways throughout history, none surpass the way he entered our world that first Christmas morning when Jesus was born of Mary. In fact, many episodes of God’s activity in the Old Testament foreshadow or predict what would take place in Bethlehem a little over 2000 years ago. While last week’s passage hinted at the Christ child through subtle imagery (the seed of the woman and the coverings of animal skin), today’s passage—Isaiah 9:2-7—comes right out with a direct and obvious prediction of the coming Messiah that would arrive in the person of Jesus Christ. This week we are going to learn that not only does heaven reach down in Christ to clean up humanity’s mess, heaven reaches down to provide much-needed peace.
However, before we read this passage and discuss its principles, let us remind ourselves of what was taking place in the lives of God’s people when Isaiah wrote this incredible book. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during a precarious time in Israel’s history. The people of God in and around the prophet Isaiah had grown corrupt and idolatrous, so much so that God appoints Isaiah to share with his people the promise of coming judgment if they do not repent of their ways. In Isaiah 1-2, Isaiah describes this judgement for Israel’s rebellion, idolatry, and injustice as a purifying fire and looks forward to a time when there will be a New Jerusalem. He is later commissioned for the ministry in a dramatic scene in Isaiah 6 and then, in chapters 7-12 confronts the wicked king Ahaz with an announcement of his downfall to Assyria. In this declaration, Isaiah’s message is two-fold. First, God would allow Assyria to take over his people because of their unrepentant sin. However, second, Isaiah announces that God would also keep his promises to David and Abraham which looked forward to a new king to perfectly rule God’s people, freedom from oppression, and a channel of blessing for the entire world. We pick up the story in Isaiah 9:2-7 where God promises to reach down from heaven with this new king and a perfect rule he will bring. In this weighty passage we are going to explore five prophecies that celebrate the coming Prince of Peace.
I. DARKNESS ILLUMINATED-9:2
Shades of the central message of Isaiah (equal parts judgment and hope) are witnessed in this passage that opens with “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (9:2). This short phrase highlights the ones who will receive the special revelation that is coming and the character of the revelation to be given. First, those to whom this revelation belongs include “the ones who walk in darkness” (9:2a). This refers to the state of Israel in Isaiah’s context—”the northern kingdom of Israel had been carried into captivity (722 B.C.), and the kingdom of Judah was in the middle of idolatry and evil and under threat of the same” (Allen Ross). In other words, Isaiah predicts that those in both spatial and moral darkness would receive a special revelation from God.
Such a prediction highlights the grace of God for his people. Though many might be tempted to hold back communication from those who perpetually disappoint, God meets Israel’s failure with a message (and a positive one at that!). Why? Because these are God’s people and they have received unconditional promises from the Lord involving land, descendants, and forever blessing (see Genesis 12 and 15).
To his undeserving children God predicts that they will see “a great light” (9:2b). Light is a familiar and important symbol. Light reveals (Gen. 1), illuminates the proper path (Psalm 119:11), exposes darkness (Psalm 18:28), and serves as a figurative image for the revelation of God (John 8:12). In fact, this last use of the symbol of light is what is most appropriate to consider in this prophecy inasmuch as it is, in many ways, a prediction of the coming Christ who is, according to Hebrews 1:3, is called radiance of the glory of God. The idea here, given the rest of the story, is that those living in separation and spiritual darkness will receive the revelation of God in a way never-before-seen—in the coming Messiah.
In keeping with familiar Hebrew parallel structure, the prophet reiterates his thought by saying the same kind of thing, but in a different way—“Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (9:2c). Often there is a connection drawn between the prosperity of God’s people (practically and spiritually) and their land. The Promised Land was to be the terminus of the Jews from which they would be used to bless the world. However, as a consequence of their disobedience, they were thrown into exile and displaced from the land. Now they were in a spiritually impoverished domain—“dark land.” However, these same sojourners would soon have the light of God shine on them, principally in the person of Jesus Christ—the coming Messiah.
II. NATIONAL BLESSING-9:3
In addition to revelation (found eventually and most completely in Christ), the prophet predicts national blessing for the people of God. He frames this blessing both practically and psychologically. First he says, “you shall multiply the nation” (9:3a). A nation’s prosperity was often measured in its numbers. Whether or not this prediction envisions a spike in population is secondary to the idea of practical and observable blessing upon God’s people. The multiplication of the nation comes only after the light shines, indicating that God’s blessing is inextricably tied to his revelation.
Positive response to God’s revelation doesn’t just lead to existential blessing; it also brings forth psychological health—“you shall increase their gladness, they will be glad in Your presence” (9:3b). The gladdest people in the world ought to be God’s people who respond well to God’s message. This is what Isaiah promises here. (Is that true in your circle or is that the case for the people in this church who know the revelation of God today? Something to consider 😊).
Certainly the Israelite’s situation (characterized by division and coming exile) stifled their morale. However, Isaiah predicts a time in which their spirit would be restored and their joy made great following a special revelation of God in a coming Messiah.
The prophet illustrates both the practical and psychological blessing foretold with the following illustration—“As with the gladness of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil” (9:3c). In the principally agrarian context in which this was originally written people counted their season or year’s success based on the yield of their crop. If the harvest was abundant and able to be spread around, it was an occasion of rejoicing. The prophet foretells such a blessing (both practically and spiritually) for the people of God.
III. EXISTENTIAL RELIEF-9:4-5
The third prediction the prophet makes includes existential relief (revelation, blessing, and relief). Isaiah says, “for You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders” (9:4a). This figurative language is used both to highlight near and future relief from oppression. “breaking the yoke” and “the staff on their shoulders” envisions a people under the control of a dominating figure. Nearest to Isaiah’s original context, this probably referred to Assyria and other oppressors both of the southern kingdoms and of the ten northern tribes. However, further on into the future, this predicts a time in which the coming Messiah will break the chains of all tyranny including the subjugation brought about by the Antichrist.
Prophecies in the Scriptures often have a dual fulfillment (both near to the original context and down the line into the future). For instance, many of the predictions concerning the kingdom of God saw a partial fulfillment at the death and resurrection of Christ (in which the kingdom of God was said to be “at hand” or “has come”). However, the kingdom of God is still something that is yet to be realized in many respects (see Revelation 20-22). Isaiah 9:4 operates in much the same way. The prophet promises relief from a present threat and a greater future threat.
The prophet compares relief from these threats to a familiar and inspiring Old Testament story—“the rod of their oppressor as at the battle of Midian” (9:4b). This refers to the incredible victory God handed to his people in Judges 7:1-24. There, God took the Israelite forces from 22,000 to 10,000 to then just 300. Thereafter, he divided this small band of brothers into three microscopic units, outfitted them with trumpets and empty pitchers and torches. With this small troop and their peculiar tools God caused a cacophony so overwhelming that the much larger forces of the Midianites and Amalekites ended up taking up arms against each other and fleeing from the scene. It was a supernatural victory that involved a few winning over many.
The same will be true in the end. On that day, one (a coming Christ) will overwhelm many and win supernatural victory over a host of forces led by Satan himself. In fact, the battle won’t even be fair.
So total will the victory prophesied be that “....every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning fuel for the fire” (9:5). In other words, all warlike accoutrements will be destroyed as they will no longer be required in the new era of peace.
Of all the tragic conflicts that have plagued our planet throughout history, WWI, because of its global scope, mass casualties, and many geopolitical and economic implications was referred to as “the war to end all wars.” Many must have believed that there was no way any nation would ever allow conflict to ever rise to a similar degree ever again. Little did they know that an even worse horror awaited them just a few years later in WWII. When men fight, the peace that is achieved is temporary. However, this passage reveals that when the coming Messiah wages war, he deals with his foes completely—so completely that there is no threat ever to follow.
Malachi 4:1-“’For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every soldier will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.’”
IV. PRINCE OF PEACE-9:6
The coming revelation, blessing, and relief is sourced in a single figure. He is introduced as the fourth prophecy of this exciting passage—“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us” (9:6a). Though one might find it odd to consider such great victory and blessing from a small child, this child is unique—he is the promised child of God, the “seed of the woman” sent to crush the head of the serpent” (Gen. 3:15), and the coming King that will rule a forever kingdom (see 2 Sam. 7:13). Stately and powerful though he will prove to be, he will come as a small baby—humble and lowly. Also, this child is given first and foremost to his people (the Jews). Notice the repetition of “to us” in the first part of verse 6. This indicates, even at this early juncture, that salvation is both from the Jews and for the Jew first (John 4:22; Rom. 1:16). This child and all that comes with him is also “given” out of the grace of mercy of God to a people that, in many ways did not deserve him (indeed to a world that does not deserve him).
“And the government will rest on his shoulders” (9:6b). Eventually, he will exercise all authority on the earth. Here again is an example of a near and far fulfillment. Though, to be sure, Jesus had all authority in his first coming, this authority was veiled and/or inconspicuous. Later, the full expression of his might will be revealed in his second coming. While God’s people have throughout history been ruled under the yolk of authoritarians and tyrants, one day God will remove this yolk, take on the raiment of power, and rule his followers perfectly.
“And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6c). These four descriptive phrases reveal something of the character of the coming Messiah. “Wonderful” (‘exceptional’ or ‘distinguished’) “Counselor” speaks of ability to teach God’s ways and instruct in the ways of righteousness. Though many ignored God’s commands and protocols throughout history, the people of God will be anxious to hear what he advises in this future fulfillment as he is the most distinguished mentor.
Not only that, but this child will prove to be the mighty God—not merely a prophet, miracle worker, or preacher. The Messiah would be God incarnate. He is also called “eternal Father.” This is curious as it seems to confuse the members of the Trinity (I thought we were talking about Jesus but now he is called the “eternal Father?”). Several things worth mentioning might help us to understand what this title might mean. First, the Messiah, being the 2nd person of the Trinity, is in His essence, God. Therefore, He has all the attributes of God including eternality. Since God is One (even though He exists in three Persons), the Messiah is God. Second, the title “Everlasting Father” is an idiom used to describe the Messiah’s relationship to time, not His relationship to the other Members of the Trinity. He is said, in other words, to be everlasting, just as God. Third, perhaps Isaiah had in mind the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16.
2 Samuel 7:16-“Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever”
In this passage, the “foreverness” of the kingdom of God is prophesied as coming through David’s line. The Messiah, a descendant of David, will fulfill this promise for which the nation had
been waiting. Therefore, in these ways, “eternal Father” is not so awkward a title for this coming Messiah.
Finally, he is called the Prince of Peace. Though many before him would promise peace without delivering it, He will actually bring everlasting peace to the earth. Together, these four titles prophecy an exceptionally marvelous coming Messiah who will one day rule over the world and his people.
V. ETERNAL RULE-9:7
This rule is highlighted in the fifth prediction—eternal rule. Isaiah concludes this passage by saying “there will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace” (9:7a). Kings come and go, regimes rise and fall, presidents serve their terms in office, but the Messiah will come to reign forever in perfect peace.
: This he will do “on the Throne of David and over his kingdom…” (9:7b). Again, as mentioned before, Isaiah is predicting the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant—a forever literal kingdom of God established through someone from the line of its premiere monarch.
Christ will rule this kingdom “to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore” (9:7c). Everything about this prediction is the antithesis of what the people of God were experiencing at the time this was written. In their world, the nation was divided and fallen (or falling). Different rulers were coming and going and the moral framework of the majority was anything but righteous. Peace? Yeah right! However, this is the hope that the prophet Isaiah spells out for his people—a secure kingdom at perfect peace, led by the great Messiah, forever. It was everything they would need and the sign that this would eventually be fulfilled would come at the birth of a small child in Bethlehem that first Christmas morning when heaven would reach down in a special way to provide the promise of peace.
That same Prince of peace promised to the people of God in the Old Testament is alive today. He was willing to come to this earth as a baby boy not just to provide hope for the Jews but hope for all men and women. Just as his birth signals a hope for the nation of Israel, it also spells hope for you and for me. Perhaps like the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah you are out of sorts, divided, in darkness. Look around, our context is not unlike the context of Isaiah’s day in which moral decay has let to social and geopolitical unrest. Peace seems a long way off. Add to this that God’s people are called sojourners, refugees, and aliens in this world in both the Old and the New Testament and not only is the world a restless place, but, in many ways, it is a villain of God and the people who stand with him.
What/who is going to get you through that kind of environment? The answer is the Prince of Peace. Because of what we know he is bringing for his people in the end, we can endure the restlessness of whatever we face today. Are you listening to the wonderful Counselor who wants to lead you in the ways of righteousness? Do you trust that there is a mighty God who is stronger than your greatest problems? Have you fallen into the embrace of the loving and eternal Father? Are you living with the expectation of perfect peace one day in eternity with the Lord? For unto us is born the Prince who gives all of this and more as gifts to those who after witnessing his light, turn from the darkness and place their faith in Him. This Christmas, before you receive any other gift, be sure you’ve already opened those that Christ offers to you in his grace. Peace may seem a long way off, but it is available because heaven reached down in Jesus to bring it to you and to me.
Monday, December 2, 2019
Today as we begin our new Christmas series, I want to take us back—all the way back to before creation itself! Prior to the creation of the world, God was totally self-sufficient, lacking in nothing, as a Father who loved his Son in the Spirit. Though he did not need to and though it didn’t make up for any lack or shortcoming on his part, God decided to share that love of the Son in the Spirit with a world populated with all kinds of creatures—the greatest of these being human beings made in the image of God. These could reciprocate the love of God back to him and glorify his name in all the earth. To this end, he carefully creates a perfect world and everything in it out of nothing, fashions humanity and breathes life into him, and situates the man and the woman in the paradise of the garden. In an effort to transcend what was good and create an opportunity for what was great, God instills within mankind free will and the ability to choose him over themselves and all others (for what is true love if there are no other options to forsake?). This choice comes by means of a single rule God places in paradise: do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What God provides in this rule is lasting life and freedom to enjoy all that God created without ever knowing or experiencing evil—what an offer! If the positive reinforcement this promise entailed wasn’t enough to convince Adam and Eve to choose God’s way over their own, God also establishes a punishment (negative reinforcement) that would be assigned to them if they ever disobeyed his simple command. Anyone who eats of this forbidden tree would surely die. Surely the choice was simple in light of so great a blessing attached to obedience and so awful a fate ascribed to disobedience.
However, shortly after this is established, Eve is tempted by a serpent who misconstrues God’s Word and succumbs to her unfounded desires for what she believes she is missing out on and eats the forbidden fruit. What is worse, Adam is right there watching this all go down, says/does nothing to stop it, and then accepts the fruit from his wife and eats it himself. What a mess! Things unravel in their perfect world quickly as they crudely hide their shame with fig leaves and try to hide from God. We pick up the story in Genesis 3:8ff,
“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.’ And He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’”
Chaos has been introduced in the world, paradise is lost, mankind has created a big mess and now this mess has infected the once perfect relationship between Adam and his wife and between them and their God.
And much like our ancestral parents, we do the very same thing repeatedly. God reveals to us his will and way to live—providing us with the best means of navigating this fallen world and persevering in the present—and when tempted to do otherwise we fail to obey the Lord, trusting in our own judgment over his. As a result, we find ourselves in all kinds of messes—relational, physical, psychological, emotional, financial, geopolitical, etc.
However, the good news of Christmas and the inspiration behind this series, is that God doesn’t leave us alone in our mess—the messes into which we bring ourselves. The hope that this season celebrates reveals that our God is a God who reaches down from heaven to fix what has been broken, mend what is in shambles, and reconcile what has been lost—including you and me! Praise the Lord! This is true for us today just as it was true in the lives of our first parents all those years ago.
For Adam and Eve, heaven reaches down through divine discipline. Now, as a parent, I always try to consider how I’m disciplining my children, making sure that the punishment fits the crime. So, this begs a question, “What consequences possibly fit the spoiling of Paradise by disobeying God’s one and only command?” This we will find out as we look at two DIVINE RESPONSES to the fall from Genesis 3:14-21. In these responses we will come to learn that the hope we celebrate every Christmas was in God’s mind even as he reached down to deal with humanity’s first mess.
RESPONSE #1: Consequential Curses-3:14-19
Following the blame game we’ve read through already, God intervenes to deal with the problem in verse 14. First God decides to address the serpent saying “Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life,…”(3:14). Though originally the serpent held distinction as one of God’s most impressive creatures, now he was consigned to crawling on his belly. Also, though the serpent was craftier (arum) than all other animals, now he would be the “most cursed” (arur). Because he tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, he would now be eating dust. These punishments are related to the snake’s subsequent life of humiliation and subjugation in the natural world. The proudest animal became the lowliest of creatures. “Eating dust” conveys as much as the term is used both in the Scriptures and even to this day to mock a loser. Not only that, but eating dust anticipates mankind’s end as well. The serpent’s figurative diet –dust—will be a constant reminder of his crime against humanity that returns to dust upon death.
The second component of God’s pronouncement against the snake speaks outline his new struggle—“and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (3:15a). In other words, from this point on, humanity will struggle against evil and evil against humanity. “Enmity,” in fact, possesses the connotative intensity of hostility witnessed in warfare and the level of animosity that results in murder (see Ezek. 25:15; 35:5; Num. 25:1).
Though at first this struggle will be witnessed between these two individual parties, “between you and the woman,” the conflict will not die with them. Instead, the snake and the woman represent the many that will come after them. In other words, Eve and her adversary are the progenitors of a lifelong struggle that will persist for some time and continue to be experienced “between your seed and her seed.”
However, the third component of the serpent’s curse is the most compelling—“He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (3:15b). Here, the plural concept of “seed” returns to singular representatives. Though “bruise” is used here, “crush” and “strike” are perfectly appropriate translations of the word as it is used respectively. Here, the location of the blow is telling. First, “He” will “crush you on the head.” This indicates a death blow dealt one day to the serpent and all that he represents. Second the serpent will “strike his heel”—indicating, by comparison, a recoverable injury.
For centuries this verse has been referred to as the proteuangelion –“the first good news” as it is the first ever foreshadowing of Jesus’ total and complete victory over sin. Jesus, who is described as “born of a woman” in Gal. 4:4 and is identified as the “seed” in Gal. 3:16, is the “He” of this verse who will one day crush the serpent’s head once and for all—putting an end to all evil. The connection between the prediction of Genesis 3 and Jesus is solidified by the peculiar use of “seed” in the phrase “seed of the woman.” Typically “seed” is associated with a man’s contribution to the conception of a child and their subsequent progeny. Therefore, “seed of the woman” hints at the idea of the virgin birth—i.e. that a man would be born of a woman without the traditional means of conception. This is the miracle of the virgin birth that we revere each and every Christmas when God reached down in a most miraculous way in the birth of his Son. After Jesus was born, and lived for 30 or so years he was struck down temporarily at His crucifixion (this is what the text call “you will bruise him on the heal). However, Jesus rose fro the grave three days later dealing the blow to Satan’s head (the death blow) foreshadowing the end of his reign of sin and destruction on the earth.
What amazing news given even the midst of a curse! As God reaches down from heaven to discipline the responsible parties that created this mess in Genesis, he promises ultimate victory over sin and death!
Ultimately, the serpent’s curse involves humiliation, struggle, and total defeat. His curse, however, is mankind’s ultimate blessing!
However, discipline is not withheld from mankind for the time being. God’s holiness demands that He deal with sin. This is why God turns next to the woman and says, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children…” (3:16a). Notice, no reason is given here for the curse the woman receives. This is due to the woman’s culpability through deception, in contrast with the willful rebellion of the serpent and man (Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 248). In other words, Eve was tricked into sin, the serpent and the man willfully and knowingly gave themselves to sin.
The first element involved in her punishment is painful labor that she must endure in the bearing of children. However, Eve, upon hearing this could take heart in at least two things. First, Eve would have found some comfort in knowing that she would live to bear children one day. Also, it would be through her offspring that final victory over sin would be achieved. Therefore, the greatest joy—victory over sin and the bearing of children—would come for Eve, but, would be experienced in pain. Painful childbirth signals hope and the promise of life but also serves as a perpetual reminder of sin and the woman’s part in it.
The second element involved in Eve’s punishment concerns her relationship with her husband—“yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16b). To interpret this verse rightly one must understand Genesis 4:7b in which “desire” and “rule” are found again in tandem: “Its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Here, “sin” is compared to an animal that when stirred up will assault Cain; it “desires” to overcome Cain, but the challenge God puts to Cain is to exercise “rule” or “mastery” over that unruly desire. Using this clearer passage to shine light on 3:16, one might understand the “desire” of the woman as an attempt to control or “rule” over her husband. This, she will fail to achieve because God has ordained that the man exercise the leadership role in the home—“and He will rule over you” (better is “but he will rule over you.”).
The meaning of “rule” depends on the context in which it is found. In some places it speaks of governance while in others it refers to exercising jurisdiction. In still others “rule” means to have dominion. However, ancient Israel provided safeguards for protecting women from unscrupulous men and the New Testament takes many steps in the same direction. Therefore, it is not consistent biblically nor is it intended here for “rule” to mean “dominate.” Instead, “rule” speaks of man’s leadership within the marriage. Man will remain the leader though the woman will seek to supplant that leadership.
Ultimately, the woman is cursed with pain in childbirth and strife within the leadership dynamics of the home. However, in spite of her sin, woman is given the opportunity to have offspring—from which will come her ultimate salvation in the birth of Christ—and a husband who will lead and take care of her.
Finally, Adam gets his due. He is cursed last, in part, because he is ultimately responsible for what happened both to himself and to his wife. His failure to speak up and lead in the moment of temptation, followed by his willful disobedience, render him especially guilty-“’Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying “You shall not eat from it”’…” (3:17a). This is God’s way of telling Adam “you knew better and still chose to listen to your wife’s voice instead of my own.”
Man’s curse is especially fitting as he is from the ground and will now have to deal with that same ground on a whole new level—“Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field,…” (3:17b-18). In other words, the ground will be his enemy instead of his servant. No longer would it be a pleasure to farm the land—it would be a pain. A day’s work has now become a daily grind as thorns and thistles emerge, representing obstacles that stand in mankind’s way of getting his work accomplished. “Adam’s sin has spoiled his environment and it suffers along with him since both are dust” (Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 252).
“By the sweat of your face you will eat bread” (3:19a). Though Adam’s curse is a cause for concern and dread, that he lives to see work and eat bread is a blessing in and of itself. Just as Eve is allowed the joy of having children and the hope that comes with offspring, Adam is allowed to see achievement as a result of his labor. Both deserved sudden death, but so far these curses reveal that death is a process.
This is further explained in the second part of verse 19 which says, “till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In other words, the process of death will inevitably lead to mankind returning to the ground from whence it came. God’s greatest creation will end his earthly existence as the humblest of elements—dust. The same humble substance that was used to bring glory will now serve as a reminder of mankind’s humiliation due to sin.
Ultimately, Adam is cursed with toilsome labor. However, in spite of his sin, Adam is given an opportunity to take care of himself and his family for as long as he lives.
RESPONSE #2 Merciful Blessings-3:20-21
Following God’s curses on this couple and the serpent are two blessings that give the reader hope for Adam and Eve and for the entire human race. First Adam names his wife “Eve” which means “living,” because, as he says, “she was the mother of all the living.” In naming her, Adam steps up to lead his wife—something he had failed to do earlier while in the garden—and looks forward to all that God has promised: offspring, accomplishments, and ultimate victory.
Here, the blessing is simple—post-sin life. In spite of their sin, Adam and Eve are able to continue living and move on from their tragic experience wiser than before. This is a powerful testimony of God’s undeserved goodness and grace for these two and their family.
However, God doesn’t stop there. He continues by taking an unprecedented step in verse 21—“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them…”. Here, God acts on behalf of this guilty and embarrassed couple to cover their guilt and shame. Their new clothes accomplish at least two things. First it confirms that they have sinned against God and they can no longer walk before deity in innocence. Second, these clothes make Adam’s and Eve’s life bearable as they cover their embarrassment.
The clothes made also communicates something else—God’s willingness to cover sin by means of sacrifice. There, in the garden, an innocent animal was slain. Blood was spilled in an effort to bring about peace in the lives of the guilty and render their sins covered. This, no doubt, is the beginning of a type that would be witnessed again in sacrifices for sin found in the Old Testament and most completely in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that takes away the sins of the world—the seed of the woman who would come to crush the head of the serpent in the end.
What an amazing site to behold. In the face of egregious sin, the loving grace of a perfect father who desires peace and life for his kids is expressed. He is even willing to do something unprecedented—killing an animal—to provide this! What a blessing! In the midst of the mess mankind brought on itself, heaven reaches down with discipline and hope.
This is something that we can see working out in our lives today. In spite of our sin and the messes that we bring upon ourselves or that the world brings upon us, our God is a God who has made it his habit to reach down from heaven to fix it. This is what he did when he sent his son that first Christmas morning to live in the midst of our mess and then eventually become the mess on our behalf so that we might be saved from the mess that leads to death. While cleaning up the mess in the garden involved the sacrifice of an animal to provide covering clothes for Adam and Eve, for our problem of sin God intervenes by sacrificing his one and only innocent Son on the cross. As a result of this sacrifice, not only are our sins and subsequent shame covered, they are done away with, allowing us who were messy with sin to enter a relationship with God.
Are you living in the mess of your sin today? Is your life a mess in need of mending? Notice, Adam and Eve were not able to fix their problem in Genesis 3. The only thing they could do is try to hide from the inevitable and then blame one another when they were discovered. Their sin required God to step in to fix. The same is true in your life. You and I are woefully incapable of cleaning up the mess we are in because of our sin. Perhaps today you need to call upon the only One who can clean up the mess. Heaven has reached down in the person of Christ. Perhaps this Christmas is when you grab his outstretch hand so that he can pull you out of your mess of sin and death.
Monday, November 25, 2019
While many of us, myself included, are looking forward to learning more about the glories of heaven and the eternal state described in Revelation 21-22, there is an important discussion that must first be entertained about an entirely different domain—hell. Would it surprise you to hear that Jesus spoke more of hell that he did of heaven in his ministry? The reality of hell and the judgment that precludes it is something the Bible itself emphasizes time and time again. However, for a whole host of reasons (it is negative, unpopular, uncomfortable, not seeker-sensitive, perceived as harsh, etc.), many neglect passages such as the one that we are going to take a look at today in Revelation 20:11-15. However, I believe that one must be a student of all scripture that has been inspired by God and that the measure of attention one should give to certain passages is not dependent on how cozy it may make one feel. In fact, one might say that a robust doctrine of hell is important to the Christian life. For instance, it creates a better appreciation for heaven, and it stimulates greater urgency in our mission share the message of the gospel to those who are still at risk of being sent there. Therefore, with great reverence for the full counsel of God’s Word, let’s make three observations of the final judgment that is described in Revelation 20:11-15 and come to appreciate both holiness and grace of God.
1. The Judge-20:11
While many debate when the battle of Revelation 19 will take place or where to stick the millennial kingdom of 20:1-6 or exactly what transpires in the final insurrection of 20:7-10, all are agreed that what is portrayed in 20:11-15 will occur at the end of history. This is the final line of demarcation that separates what exists now and the new heavens and the new earth described in Revelation 21-22. This pivotal passage and the vision that it contains is introduced with a familiar literary convention and a new observation—“Then I saw a great white throne” (20:11a). This is reminiscent of John’s first prophetic vision in 4:2 when John passed through the open door of heaven, was taken up in the Sprit and beheld “a throne” and “someone sitting on it.” In the beginning of Revelation (chapters 4-5), God’s unmatched majesty was celebrated as this One on the throne was worshipped for having created the universe. Here, the throne is described in more vivid detail than before--“great white”—and celebrates its occupant’s authority to judge the world. The size suggests the great task of final judgment and the white color demonstrates the purity and holiness of God that makes Him the only fitting judge (Wilson, ZIBBC, 362). After all, white has been used throughout the book to demonstrate purity and holiness in various contexts: Christ has white hair (1:14), sits on a white cloud (14:14), and returns on a white horse (19:11). Also, celestial beings wear white (4:4) and the victorious saints adorn white robes (3:4, 4; 6:11; 7:9, 13). The “whiteness” of this “great” throne encapsulates all of these themes/associations (Osborne, Revelation, 720). It is a victorious throne of holiness from which God will judge that which has been defeated because of its impurity.
This throne is similar to what is found in Daniel 7:9-10.
Daniel 7:9-10-“ I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; his vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him; thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; the court sat, and the books were opened.”
This passage runs parallel to what will take place in Revelation 20:11-15. “All rise for the Judge who is seated on his great white throne!”
So awesome is the presence of the Judge seated on the throne that John describes the courtroom scene as follows: “Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them,…” (20:11b). As the gavel calls the court to order the present earth and the heavens pass away, paving the way for a new heavens and new earth in their place. Isaiah 51:6 predicts this when it says, “The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment.” 2 Peter 3:7 echoes this when it shares “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…and the heavens will disappear with a roar.” In many ways, this is what creation has been pining for since it fell due to mankind’s sin (see Romans 8:18-22). Everything that shows the symptoms of decay and the stain of sin vanishes as this court hearing begins—everything, that is, except the sinner who stands before the Judge who is seated on his great white bench. In stark contrast to the fantastic displays of complex phenomena, here, in this somber moment, the scene is simple: you have the great white throne and the line of defendants awaiting their trial.
2. The Hearing-20:12a
After the Judge takes his seat and declares the court is now in session, the hearing can begin. The defendants in the hearing are introduced in the beginning of verse 12—“and I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne” (20:12a). There are two general views about what happens here. First, some believe that given the dead in Christ were raised earlier to life (following the first resurrection) and ruling with Christ in the millennial period, given that in 20:4 a “judgment” of the redeemed seems to have already been rendered, given the parallels between this and verses 13-15, and given that the Bible does not make a habit of referring to the saved as “dead” (except in reference to sin or the “old man”), the “dead” mentioned here are probably all who have ever died who are not among the people of God. In this dramatic courtroom scene, these are raised to life only to stand trial before the great white throne. Notice that regardless of what they may or may not have accomplished in their earthly lives, their sin and this judgment thereof acts as a great equalizer. All, the “great and small,” stand convicted in their sin before God.
Others hold that that verse 12 is a separate judgment from verse 13. In verse 12 God judges the dead in Christ (awarding them with the eternal state of heaven) and in verse 13 the lost are condemned to eternity separated from God. Those that hold this view note the different in tone that is struck between verse 12 and verse 13, and that those in verse 12 are “standing” just as the victorious saints were shown “standing before the throne” in 7:9. Both interpretations are possible.
The trial described here is described as follows: “and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged,…” (20:12b). This reveals that written records of the acts of each individual form the basis of this judgment (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 431). This is what the first set of “books” contain—a register of human activity and words. The scriptures make many references to such books.
Psalm 56:8-“You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle.
Are they not in Your book?”
Are they not in Your book?”
Isaiah 65:6-“Behold, it is written before Me, I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will even repay into their bosom,”
I will even repay into their bosom,”
Daniel 7:10-“The court sat, and the books were opened.”
Matt. 12:37-“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
The other book mentioned in this verse is separate from this record of deeds and receives more of the focus in this passage. This is the Book of Life which records the names of those included among the people of God—“a divine register for every loyal believer (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 432).
Isaiah 4:3-“It will come about that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem.”
Psalm 69:28-“May they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous.”
Luke 10:20-“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”
So much hinges “from the things that were written in the books, according to their deeds,” (20:12c). Daniel prophesied in Daniel 12:1 that “everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered.” If you believe that verse 12 involves those who are dead in Christ, then those who stand trial here find that their names are present in this book and will be delivered from the prospect of being separated from God forever. For these, their works recorded in the first set of books coincide and run complimentary to their name being in the Book of Life—(as saving faith works well and good deeds evidence real relationship with Christ). The deliverance promised to the righteous is everlasting life. This was already mentioned in Jesus’ comments to the church at Sardis. Those saints were promised that their names would not be erased from the Book of Life in Revelation 3:5.
For believers, the final judgment will look less like a courtroom scene ending with a charge of guilty and more like a graduation celebration where everyone gets to walk the stage to receive their diploma, having accumulated differing honors along the way toward the same goal.
However, if you hold that this passage describes a single judgment of the lost, the absence of their names in the book of life betrays the litany of wicked deeds found in the other books. Their works condemn them and no deliverance from their fate will be granted. Regardless of which view you hold, those standing trial here are who are NOT found in the book of life, are judged—i.e. condemned to punishment.
For these, judgment will look like being convicted on multiple counts in court only to be immediately rushed to the sentencing hearing.
Among these are those described as having been given up in verse 13—“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds” (20:13). Though it would appear as though different domains are being referenced with “sea,” “death,” and “hades,” these three are all speaking of the same place—the realm of evil where souls without Christ are held until this occasion of final judgment. The “giving up” described in verse 13 is the second resurrection that is followed by the second death. The deeds of these, as mentioned before, indict the lost on multiple counts, rendering them unfit to enter the new heavens and the new earth. Again, verse 13 is either a retelling of verse 12 in different language or the first description of the judgment of those without Christ. Either way, the lost are condemned and the saved are rewarded following this pivotal eschatological hearing.
3. The Sentences-20:14-15
Once the guilty verdict for the unsaved is reached after the account of their lives is read from the books, the sentences can be read aloud. First, death and hades get what has been coming to them, “then death and hades were thrown into the lake of fire. To what does “death and hades” refer? It is most likely that this is a reference to what Paul called the last enemy to be destroyed in 1 Corinthians 15:26.
1 Corinthians 15:26-“the last enemy to be destroyed is death”
After all, the Antichrist, false prophet, and Satan have already been relegated to the lake of fire. The only thing standing in the way of eternal life with God is death itself. Death will be done away with in this moment, forever banished from the presence of God and his people.
Along with death, “anyone’s name [that] was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (20:15). This is the second death mentioned in Revelation 20:6 when it says, “blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.” This is also the second death that Jesus says will not hurt the faithful in the church of Smyrna: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (Revelation 2:11).
This second death in the lake of fire is not annihilation—i.e. where the souls of these just cease to exist. It is the conscious separation from God along with its punishment. This is portrayed in Matthew 25.
Matthew 25:41, 46-“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;… These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Joining the beast, false prophet, and Satan in misery, these will spend eternity in dreadful existence.
Why is hell eternal? Is it fair of God to punish for eternity those sinners who sinned temporally? Ultimately, the answer to these questions is found in a better appreciation of the crime unrepentant sinners commit. J. Warner Wallace writes, “The crime that earns [people] in the place in Hell is rejection of the true, living, eternal God. The rejection of God’s forgiveness is not finite. People who reject Jesus have rejected Him completely. They have rejected Him as an ultimate, final mortal decision. God has the right (and obligation) to judge them with an appropriate punishment. To argue that God’s punishment does not fit [the] crime is to underestimate [the] crime.” This punishment of hell can also be understood as more than appropriate given that eternal life in heaven has been offered by God to sinners in the person and work of Jesus. Not only has the offer for forgiveness of all sin been made to the world and all the blessings therewith, evidence has been made available for the reality of Jesus’ identity and his many claims (1 Cor. 15), and the gospel message has been proclaimed throughout the world (Matt. 28:19-20; Act 1:8). Not only that, but evidence of God in creation is available for all to see (Rom. 1) that can be used of God in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to convict people of their sin and lead them to the special revelation of Christ (Jn. 15:26; 16:8). In other words, as real as hell is, so too is God’s gracious means of avoiding it in Christ. Praise the Lord!
How will this coming day of final judgment be for you? Might it be comparable to a graduation of sorts in which your good works will testify to the fact that you have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and you name is written in the book of life? Or, at present, would it look more like a trial in which you are accurately convicted of many multiple crimes, the greatest being the rejection of God, denial of Christ, and ignoring the Holy Spirit? Those who graduate will be ushered into a new heaven and a new earth—glorious, perfect, and full of life. Those who are convicted in God’s court will be banished from such for all eternity, forever separated from him and his blessings. Thankfully, God has made a way for people to trade a death sentence for a promise of life. It is found in Jesus Christ. He alone turns the woeful dropout into a decorated graduate, the dead in sin to alive in him, the hopeless to the hopeful. The final judgment is coming. What will be your verdict?