Surprised by Assurance: A Journey Through the Book of Revelation, Part 3
A journey through the book of Revelation assures the Lord’s people of several realities that bring hope to their lives today. In Part 1 and Part 2, we saw that the Lord’s people can be assured by divine vindication and by divine control. But when we look closely at this prophecy we also see another assurance.
3. Assured by Divine Love.
Admittedly, God’s love is probably not the first attribute that springs to mind when we think about the book of Revelation. We are more likely to think of God’s wrath, or his power, glory, or holiness. Nevertheless, God’s love for the world is seen even through this great time of judgment.
God’s Love for His People
First, we see God’s love for his own people. The opening doxology lifts praise to “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev 1:5b). Indeed, it is the very fact that the Lord offered his blood in death in order to ransom his people for the Father that exalts him as the one most worthy (Rev 5:9). But the Lord’s love for those he ransomed is also expressed in his care for his people as he leads them like a shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death, through the most horrific time of persecution and global suffering the world will ever witness, bringing them at last to endless rest.
In Revelation 7, the winds of judgment are not allowed to blow upon the earth until the 144,000 servants of God are sealed on their foreheads (Rev 7:3). Interpreters may wrestle with the actual identity of these servants and whether the seal is visible, but the meaning is of the seal is clear. God is saying that nothing will touch his beloved servants without his authority. They belong to him. He will guard them and give them strength to endure the path ahead (cf. Rev 13:10). In fact, at the end of chapter 7 we see these witnesses on the other side of death, in glory.
14They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev 7:14b–17).
This cutting ahead to the end of the story is common in Revelation and anticipates that great day on the new earth when God is dwelling in fellowship with his people as a husband lives with his beloved bride. In chapter 21 John hears a loud voice from the throne of God, saying,
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
As wonderful and climactic as this expression of divine love is, however, there is also an assurance of the Lord’s love for his church in the present. This love for the church is seen in the way that Jesus gently but firmly admonishes and comforts the seven specific churches to whom the book is addressed in chapters 2 and 3 (cf. Rev 1:10–11; 21:16). In a brief, specific address to each of these seven churches in turn, the Lord presents himself to the church, praises them for their faith and works, warns them of problems them must address, encourages their faithfulness, and offers them hope as they continue to endure.
I sometimes wonder whether some preaching on these seven letters, perhaps divorced from their literary context, has popularized an interpretation that plays down the Lord’s love for these churches. I’m talking about a kind of preaching that gives the impression that the churches who receive less commendation from the Lord are also less loved by him.
A clear example is preaching on the Lord’s message to the church at Laodicea (Rev 3:14–22). This is the church that Jesus calls “lukewarm” (3:15–16a). He says that they are neither “hot” (like the medicinal waters of nearby Hierapolis) nor “cold” (like the refreshing, mountain spring water of nearby Colossae). Spiritually, the church at Laodicea had become lukewarm, like the water their city was known for, a distasteful, insipid water they collected in their cisterns from far-off water sources. The church itself had become distasteful because their cultural affluence had led to an unawareness of their own spiritual need and complete dependence on Christ (3:17–18). So the Lord famously warns, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (3:16b literal translation).
I have heard these words, “I will spit you out of my mouth,” used by some preachers like a club to beat up their audiences with great emotional pressure, calling them to turn from their lukewarmness. One preacher even told the crowd that Jesus is actually saying, “You make me sick!” Sadly, however, this interpretation has divorced the warning of Jesus from the love of Jesus. Jesus is not beating up his church with these words. He’s not angrily reaming them out. And neither should preachers use these words to guilt people into righteous living. When we read these words, we must remember that Jesus loves his church. In fact, Jesus affirms his love to this very church when he says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline” (3:19).
It’s true that Jesus’ words are very pointed, even hurtful. But Jesus is like the father in Hebrews 12:4–11 who disciplines his son precisely because of the great love he has for his son. He doesn’t back down from sternly admonishing them. He doesn’t give them a “pass,” even though they are experiencing persecution for his sake. He knows that their greatest joy will be their faithful obedience to him as he leads them into a glorious eternal life they can scarcely imagine.
God’s Love for the World
Not only do we see divine love poured out on God’s own people in Revelation, but if we look closely, we also see that God still loves the world (cf. John 3:16), even though he must judge the world. This truth is seen in at least two ways in Revelation.
First, we see God’s love for the world by the time that God allows to pass before the final judgment comes, even though the longer God waits to judge the more his people suffer. When the souls under the heavenly altar of sacrifice cry out, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” they are “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” (Rev 6:10–11).
Why would God allow more of his people to be martyred? Why wouldn’t he rush to their aid, swiftly avenging them? We cannot possibly know all that is in the mind of God, but one of the reasons is certainly God’s mercy on those who have not yet believed, giving them time to repent, not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9). The length of our suffering in this life is actually due in part to the length of time God is willing to extend to lost sinners because of his love for them.
Second, we see God’s love for the world in Revelation by the fact that he does not hide his call to salvation from the lost but continues to place the gospel and the call to repentance before them. This is why he raises up the 144,000 believers in Revelation 7, likely representative of even more than that, who turn to Christ during this time period to continue to proclaim the gospel in the world (see also Rev 12:11, 17; 20:4). Gospel proclamation also appears to be the reason God appoints the two witnesses in Revelation 11, who seem to focus their ministry on proclamation to the Jews (Rev 11:3–8).
But the most striking call to salvation comes right before the final judgments are poured out and, with the earth reeling from unspeakable wrath, Jesus breaks through the sky to conquer his enemies. Prior to those judgments, three angels fly throughout the world, giving one final call. The first proclaims an “eternal gospel,” a call to submit to God and give him glory (Rev 14:6–7). The second warns of the fall of “Babylon” (14:8), and the third warns of severe and eternal torment for those who do not turn to God (14:9–11). God is under no obligation to offer this final call. What motivates him is the same thing that motivates the call of God today: his love for the people in the sinful world.
When we recognize this divine love for believers and for the world in the book of Revelation during this unprecedented context of terrible judgment, it adds to our confident assurance that God’s love is indeed faithful today and forever.
O love of God, our shield and stay
Through all the perils of our way!
Eternal love, in thee we rest
Forever safe, forever blest.
As discussed by Greg Stiekes on The Steve Noble Show on June 9