June 11th, 2017


Won’t it be deeply satisfying to join in the great multitude of perfection and success?

Revelation 7:9-17


The whole &%$! point

Today’s passage in Revelation got me so excited in Bible study this past week that I cussed. I never cuss, and later emailed the group to apologize for my language. What got me excited was the heart of this vision of heaven and the joys that await believers in the Lord’s presence. What made me cuss was how easy it is to miss that great truth.

The book of Revelation in general, and chapter 7 in particular, tends to raise some disagreements among Christians. For example, in the church age how does God see ethnic or national Israel? Will God restore Israel as a nation? Will the temple be rebuilt? Will all Jews be saved, or at least have another chance? For some believers, the answers to these questions are critical to a faithful understanding of Scripture.

What I said to my Thursday guys was along the lines of, “If we focus on the wrong details, we miss the whole &%$! point!” I don’t want you to miss the whole &$#! point in the sermon today.

Scenery changes

To set up today’s glorious text, I need to review where we’ve been so far in our study. If we turned Revelation into a theater production, we would keep the scenic crews very busy switching back and forth between heaven and earth.

Earth (1:1-8):  John the Apostle is banished to a cave on a treeless island in the Mediterranean that serves as a penal colony. He is there because he is a leader in a movement of exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord and God. Not only he but the entire universal Christian church is suffering because of their faith in Jesus.

Heaven (1:9-20):  John sees Jesus, who walks among his suffering churches. Jesus is all-powerful, all-wise, and stands strong. Heaven knows Jesus is always there.

Earth (chs. 2-3):  Jesus knows his churches intimately – what they do well and where they need to be corrected. He always stands, knocking, waiting to be let in.

Heaven (chs. 4-5):  God is on his throne and Jesus is at his side. God holds the future in his hands, a future John symbolizes as being contained in a scroll sealed with seven seals. Only Jesus, the Lamb of God who has been killed but is now alive forever, is worthy to open that scroll.

Earth (6:1-8):  Jesus begins to open the seals, which are about what happens during the time between the first and second coming of Jesus. Four horsemen are sent from heaven to earth, bringing the quest for Power, which leads to War, which leads to Scarcity, which leads to Death.

Heaven (6:9-11):  Martyrs cry out, “How long?” They are told to wait a little longer, until their number is complete.

Earth (6:12-17):  In answer to the martyrs, a series of natural disasters such as the world has never seen causes every human to take cover and ask, “Who can stand?” That question is the key to Revelation 7.

Heaven (7:1-3):  It’s not time yet for that great upheaval of nature. God will first “seal” all his people. Four angels hold back the final judgment glimpsed in chapter 6.

Earth (7:4-8):  We get a number, but remember, in Revelation numbers are almost always symbolic. As heaven looks down on earth, everyone who is supposed to be sealed is sealed. The number 144,000 is designed to be inclusive – 122 times 103. That seems to represent the twelve tribes of Israel times the 12 apostles times the round number of 1000. Who are they? They are God’s people, all of them. How do you best symbolize those who belong to God? Who can be more God’s own than Israelites?

Heaven (7:9-17):  We are still answering the question, “Who can stand?” but now instead of seeing what earth looks like from heaven, we’re looking into heaven to see who has survived and overcome on the earth.  The answer gets me excited!

Ten reasons

John gets “Exclamation/Emoji excited.” You’d think he was Lisa Propst. Last Sunday when Linda and I settled in from two weeks’ vacation, we realized we had missed the RSVP deadline for Sarah Propst’s graduation party, which was yesterday. I texted Lisa and asked if it was too late. She answered with exclamation points and emojis – excitement surging through the iPhone. “It wouldn’t be a party without you two!!!!” If the Apostle John had written Revelation on an iPhone, he would have used exclamation points and emojis.

Remember John’s scenery. He’s writing these words in a dingy cave on a rocky island, more than likely half-naked and half-starving. Life on this earth is not treating him well, and under Domitian there’s no indication it will get better soon for him or any other believer in Jesus. Yet as he gets this grasp of heaven he can hardly stand his excitement of what awaits him in glory.

As John peers through the biosphere beyond the ozone layer into heaven itself, he erupts with wonder at ten reasons heaven will be worth the wait! I hate that most translations omit an exclamation in verse 9. The text literally reads in Greek, “After these things I looked, and Look!…” This little outcry appears many times in the New Testament when, for example, an angel appears, or a story takes an unexpected turn. It’s like shouting, “Don’t miss this!” What does John want you not to miss?

  1. Innumerable friends! “a great multitude that no one could count” (9)

Who can stand indeed? Apparently millions, maybe billions. No one can count. As with so much in Revelation, this connects back to the Old Testament. Do you remember the promise to Abraham, that his offspring would be as innumerable as the grains of sand or the stars in the sky (Genesis 22:17)? That will be fulfilled. Whether you are someone who loves the energy of a crowd or loves getting lost in a crowd, this image should fill your heart with deep anticipation. In that crowd of saints through the ages, I see Abraham and David and Jonah and Peter and Paul and St. Augustine and Martin Luther and my Dad and C.C. and Justin and Matthew. We are made to love and be loved, and we will have so many friends and loved ones to enjoy.

  1. Global family! “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (9)

This week we’re sending a mission team to Kenya. Later this month, Chris Van Allsburg heads to Ethiopia, and we’re sending a youth mission team to Puerto Rico this summer. We’re also connected to believers in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Moldova, Spain, India, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and more countries. I grew up in Pakistan, and have visited Israel and Germany and Switzerland. In this crowd I see sisters and brothers who are black and brown and red and yellow and white. They speak English and Hawaiian and Romanian and Spanish and Arabic and Chinese and Urdu. No nation or tribe is unrepresented. How breathtaking it will be to stand in that global family!

  1. Final success! “wearing white robes…and holding palm branches” (9)

It’s not just that the crowd is innumerable and diverse. They are all wearing white robes, a symbol of purity, and holding palm branches, a symbol of victory. We struggle in this life with sin and death – our own and that of others. It often seems like we lose more than we win in our spiritual battles. That will not always be! We also become anywhere from disappointed to agitated with the sins of other believers that they can’t see. We look around and notice hypocrisy. We become discouraged at the spiritual battles other believers can’t win. Won’t it be astounding to stand in that great crowd and see only success, only purity, only perfection?

  1. Startling rescue! “salvation belongs to our God…and to the Lamb” (10)

This crowd shrieks their praise with a loud cry. The verb translated “cried out” in the NIV is an onomatopoeic term for the raven’s cry:  krazo! And what causes such a shriek of thundering voices? It’s salvation! God’s rescue that comes to us through the Lamb. This image for Jesus is so powerful from the book of Genesis (Isaac:  “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”) through Moses’ law (the Passover lamb), the Gospels (John the Baptist: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”), and 31 times in Revelation. The Lamb who has been killed but lives forever is the one who has provided salvation. When you think you need to be rescued, your image of a Savior is not a Lamb, unless you know Jesus. This is startling, that God would rescue the world with a sacrifice.

  1. Deep worship! “they fell down on their faces before the throne” (11-12)

Verses 11-12 provide the Bible’s image of a “concert in the round.” In addition to the innumerable multitude, God’s throne is ringed by four archangels, then the 24 elders (Israel and the church), then all of heaven’s angels. In this world, we see so many people living as if God doesn’t matter, doesn’t even exist. Heaven prostrates in worship of him as worthy of all praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength. He’s all that matters. The angelic anthem opens and closes with another exclamation:  Amen! It’s not a quiet murmur but a booming roar in a unison declaration.

  1. Ultimate Purpose! “these came out of the great tribulation” (13-14)

One of the elders asks John, “Who are these people in white robes?” John answers, “You know.” He’s told, “They have come out of the great tribulation.” This is the only use of the phrase “the great tribulation” not only in Revelation but the whole Bible. If you divert at this point into an argument of whether this is the seven-year period at the end of the age when the Antichrist is in charge or whether it’s just a description of life on earth between the comings when Power, War, Famine, and Death ride free, you miss the whole &%$! point. Whenever we suffer in this life – pain, grief, heartache, we need to remember there is no one in this innumerable, global crowd saying, “Why me?” There are no more questions, no more doubts, no more struggles. All of life has meaning when we discover our ultimate purpose in his presence.

  1. Satisfying work! “they serve him day and night” (15)

Michelle Shuler, a member of Corinth who works at Frye Regional Medical Center as Marketing Manager, emailed me this week about our sermon text. This was the phrase that caught her attention more than any other. “As I completed my Bible study last night and reviewed it this morning something that stuck with me is verse 15 – therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple. I think about how satisfying my work is on earth. Wow! To think about working for him day and night before the throne of God is super exciting. I wonder what type of tasks he will give us.” Indeed we don’t know the details, but we know that we will be active in the Lord’s presence serving him with far more deeply satisfying work than we can ever imagine.

  1. Secure peace! “he will shelter them with his presence” (15)

We live in a world where life is fragile. That’s come home to so many of our families recently as they have experienced death of a loved one, or near-death, from cancer, electricity, surfing, motorcycles, legal and illegal drugs and alcohol, lawn mowers, guns, and more. National security dominates the headlines. We try to find more and better ways to protect ourselves. John’s readers had different threats, but they also wanted peace and security. John’s vision of heaven promises that in God’s presence we find “shelter.” The Greek in this verse is the word for “tabernacle” or “home.” The image is of God himself erecting a shelter over his people with his very own presence.

  1. Complete contentment! “never again will they hunger or thirst” (16-17a)

I’ll say more about this when we come to the end of Revelation, but the Bible describes heaven more with negative images (what won’t be there) than with positive, presumably because we can’t really grasp all heaven will be. In verse 16 we see there will be no hunger or thirst. Verse 17 adds, “no beating sun or scorching heat.” If you live near the equator, this is comfort indeed. Maybe if he were writing to Chicago he would say, “No more blizzards.” Or to Seattle, “No more rain.” Whatever it is that disappoints or discourages you, there will be none of that. Only full provision, complete contentment.

Why is there such contentment? To answer that question, John records one of the most unusual and beautiful paradoxes of the Bible. “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.” What a role reversal! Lambs are the epitome of vulnerability and need, and that is what Jesus volunteered to become in the incarnation and then in his death. And yet in his resurrection and ascension he has become the Great Shepherd and provider.

  1. Undiluted joy! “God will wipe away every tear” (17b)

The vision closes with the promise that whatever disappointment you have in this life or think you might have in the life to come – that will be gone. No regrets, no frustrations, no issues with God’s fairness, no issues with anyone else, no political frays, no mourning over lost loved ones or lost anything. Just undiluted joy in his presence.

Start now

John gives us this heavenly vision because even though it is in the future for his readers for us, he knows it matters now. Here are three responses we can make to the vision of the great multitude in Revelation 7.

First, don’t miss the &%$! point. In our worship staff meeting on Tuesday, I asked, “Do you think this text is about the intermediate state or the eternal state?” In other words, are these saints in the presence of God until the resurrection of their bodies or is this about heaven? Pastor Amy wisely answered, “What difference does it make?”

That’s another way of saying, “Don’t miss the &%$! point.” Christians (although it’s not limited to us) have a heritage of arguing about points of doctrine or ethics, fervently trying to prove that other believers are wrong about the great tribulation or the fate of Israel or the intermediate state. I suppose there’s nothing ultimately wrong with trying to get the story straight. But the larger point always has to be the bigger picture. In this case, there’s really only one key point: What follows this life will be worth the suffering. John gets emoji-excited about that. Don’t you miss it.

Second, embrace the global multitude. This starts now. God’s eternal family includes those from every race and language and nation. The truth is, he’s left it up to us to make it happen. This is the passion for missions. That passion drives our mission trips, our missions budget. I’m so excited that our Corinth Legacy campaign is nearing $100,000 in reserved funds to make a legacy grant for missions even while we pay down our debt.

My colleague Paul Cummings took some heat recently for comments he made to the press about immigration. A reporter was looking for pastors’ reactions to the controversial billboard on I-40. Only one line of Paul’s interview made the cut, and some folks near and far got upset. What I know he was trying to say is that we have to look at security and immigration through gospel eyes. We know our political system has a responsibility to keep America safe, but our gospel heart needs to frame this differently. I grew up in world where we wondered how we could ever reach people in parts of the world where missionaries cannot go and preach openly. Well, what if they come to us? What if they come from China or North Korea or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia and enroll at New York University where Matt and Sabrina Pursley can share the Gospel with them?

Third, start the worship now. Heaven is preoccupied with worship. I don’t think the point of worship on earth is practicing for heaven. There’s no way we can fully prepare for that worship, and anyway, when the time comes I know God will equip us for heaven’s worship.

The point of worship now is the same reason we worship in heaven. Worship puts everything in perspective. So even though we don’t worship well (and I’m certainly aware I don’t), worship diminishes the significance of things and tasks and relationships – both our losses and our gains. Worship displaces our idols. Whether it’s Sunday morning praise or beginning the day with God or listening to Christian music or soaking in a sunset, worship reminds us:  Who he is, is far more significant than what is happening.

You remember what worship is, don’t you? It’s worth-ship. All through Revelation, heaven keeps exclaiming the worth-ship of God and of the Lamb. We can start that right now, today, no matter what great tribulation we face. Amen.

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