Surprised by Assurance: A Journey Through the Book of Revelation, Part 1
Back in March 2020, on the very Sunday that churches in our area were asked to suspend in-person services due to COVID-19 restrictions, I began preaching a sermon series on the book of Revelation. People generally respond with surprise when I tell them that because they think of Revelation as a particularly complicated book to understand.
Also, in their experience, the prophecy in Revelation has been used merely as a way to map out a particular view of the chronology of the end times, as if the Lord had simply wanted to give the church an inspired crystal ball to know the future. They may also be thinking about the hasty, all-too-specific interpretations that some have historically forced upon the book, for example, the colorful list of men whom believers in their generation have declared to be the antichrist.
Full confession, before my preaching series I was probably thinking of Revelation in much the same way. In fact, preaching through the whole book of Revelation did not even occur to me when I started.
My journey began with the typical idea of a sermon series on the Lord’s messages to the seven churches from Revelation 1–3, just to get my church through the unnerving, surreal time of a global pandemic. Besides, people everywhere were wondering if the Lord was about to return anyway, so it seemed appropriate. (It doesn’t take much for spoiled Westerners like us to think that the apocalypse is upon us!)
Yet even though I had preached on the messages to the seven churches years earlier, working through Revelation 1–3 in a culture of fear that we were all going to contract a deadly virus, or that our nation’s economy was going to collapse, or that the extreme social unrest of that summer would spread to everyone’s neighborhood, made the hope and assurance of the Lord’s message to his church come home to us in a profound way that neither I nor my congregation was expecting. So, my preaching of the opening chapters of Revelation developed into two more series of sermons, and after that I turned to chapter 4 and kept going, driven by the ministry that the prophecy was having in my life and in the life of our church.
I haven’t ignored the sensational details of the book, such as the timing of events or the typical question marks that some of the prophecies and symbolisms raise—the 144,000 sealed from the 12 tribes, the identity of the two witnesses, the beast with ten horns and seven heads, the mark and number of the beast, etc. However, the emphasis of the series has been the significance of these textual elements, regardless of how they actually play out in time.
This focus has allowed the message of Revelation to come alive. No longer is this book merely the fascination of prophecy conferences and classroom lectures and heated discussions. It has become for me, and I trust for my congregation, one of the premier portions of God’s inspired word offering us assurance for our time. For though the book of Revelation is about the future, the Lord intends it to strengthen the faith of his people today.
In our journey through the book of Revelation, the Lord has assured our congregation with at least four overarching truths that help form the theme of the whole book, giving us hope and confidence to face whatever happens as the future unfolds.
1. Assured by Divine Vindication.
I sometimes hear people say that the message of Revelation is that the Lord wins in the end, or even more generically, that good finally conquers evil. But the central message of the book of Revelation is more profound than that. The coming of the Lord to rule over the earth and to bring his people into everlasting fellowship with him on the new earth is not simply a matter of one side being stronger than the other and emerging the victor. The Lord’s victory is the vindication of everything God has said and everything that his people believe.
To be “vindicated” means that you are shown to be in the right, that your hope and faith were in the right place all along. We love stories of vindication. We watch with great satisfaction the underdog team that everyone says will lose, yet they learn to trust their coach and in the end they win a national championship. We are on the edge of our seats while the fugitive seeks to prove his innocence, hunted by a corrupt police force or government agency for a crime he did not commit. And it is so gratifying when at last the truth is revealed and the real criminals are punished!
But vindication is also the great story that is unfolding for those who embrace the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Believers live in a corrupted world where evil is called good and good is called evil (Isa 5:20), where the majority of people do not trust Christ and may even follow another god, and many are even hostile to Christians and seek to destroy them. Believers are told in such a world that their God does not exist, that their Christ was just a man, that they are simply using their religion as an escape from the painful realities of life. They are also viewed as trouble-makers who rebel against cultural norms, who refuse to bow to the accepted objects of worship the rest of society follows.
If we as genuine believers in Christ are beginning to feel this tension more keenly here in the U.S. these days, we can only imagine what it must have been like to live in the Roman empire during the intense level of persecution upon those earlier believers who refused to worship the emperor as a god, who were driven out of towns, some of them hunted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
To those persecuted believers, faithfully clinging to their faith in Christ, believing and proclaiming the truth of what God has promised, the book of Revelation was delivered. Jesus Christ himself appeared to John who was exiled for his faith on the island of Patmos, and instructed him to write what he would be shown and send it to seven hurting churches (Rev 1:9–11). Jesus desired to bolster the faith of his weary people by assuring them that he is indeed coming for them to transition them to endless glory and to judge those who refuse to believe, especially those who hate them and persecute them. He wanted to disclose to them the way that human history would come to a crescendo by the sovereign hand of God who was indeed orchestrating all events, leading to the great day when the truth would be unmistakably revealed, when all that God has declared and all who have believed it will be vindicated, triumphantly shown to be in the right.
Vindication Throughout Revelation
Promises of vindication abound throughout the entire book. “Behold, he is coming in the clouds,” John writes, “and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Rev 1:7).
Vindication of the Lamb
One of the most striking images of vindication in the whole book is Jesus himself, appearing as a Lamb as if it had been slain (Rev 5:6), bearing the marks of sacrifice, but now most highly exalted in great glory, having been vindicated in the resurrection and ascension. The Lamb is now the only one worthy to open the seals on the scroll because his death “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9–10).
The Lamb is also the one judging the world, not only in victory, but also in great vindication. As judgment is raining down upon the earth, the unrighteous, from the least of them to the greatest of them, call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the fact of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:15–17).
Vindication of Those Who Follow the Lamb
But alongside this theme of the Lamb’s vindication, we find time after time that those who follow the Lamb are also vindicated through him. The church in Smyrna Jesus encourages, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10). And to the church at Philadelphia he declares, “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (Rev 3:9).
As the situation for believers on earth intensifies during the time period represented by the events in Revelation, John writes in chapter 6,
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
This cry for vindication is not answered immediately, because there must be time that passes first, time for God to bring his plan to completion, time for other believers to also suffer and long for vindication. But the cries of God’s people in Revelation are, in part, the very thing that moves the hand of God to judge the world (Rev 8:3–5).
In fact, when God judges the wicked government known in the prophecy as “Babylon,” a hideously immoral influence that is “drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6), he judges Babylon not only for their sins against him, but also on behalf of his own people. In the long, poetic account of Babylon’s fall, a voice from heaven cries out, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her” (Rev 18:20).
Furthermore, throughout the book, John describes scenes of once persecuted believers, who were hunted and killed by the beast (antichrist), who are now with the Lord, sheltered in his presence, with no more hunger or thirst or pain or sorrow, ever (Rev 7:14–17; 14:1–5). And in the climax of the Lord’s return to reign over the earth (Rev 19:11–20:6), “those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received the mark on their foreheads or their hands … came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev 20:4). And, of course, in the aftermath of this kingdom, Satan and all of the unrighteous dead are finally judged and cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:7–15), while the righteous are united with God and the Lamb and his people from all generations on a blissful new earth forever (Rev 20–21).
That’s vindication! And for any of the Lord’s people whose faith begins to thin, who wonder especially during times of pressure and persecution whether their trust is well-founded, this book is given to bring assurance of divine vindication, that faith in what God has promised will surely be realized, that they are in the right, that their hope is not in vain.
Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious;
See the Man of sorrows now!
From the fight returned victorious,
Every knee to Him shall bow.
(Thomas Kelly, 1809)
As discussed by Greg Stiekes on The Steve Noble Show on June 2